RE: Ethics and the tourist
Back on the road in Toronto – downtown still hung with wires, laced with cold red brick. After loads of time on planes, buses, trains and street cars, alone with my thoughts in the company of so many strangers, I finally came around to something for this blog. On my mind as of late? More potential upcoming travel plans. (I’ll take a parenthetical interruption here – interruptions are inevitable as I tend to think in disjointed [but relevant] rendezvous – to pitch a travel blog started in the summer by a dearly missed friend and recent University of Victoria Grad Studies grad: Traschereau Travels). Back to the problem of my travel plans (date of departure unknown).
Having been thrust into the imaginary of this thing they call “international relations” – somewhat in my undergraduate International Studies, but overwhelmingly in the world of my political science MA – I still find myself concerned about my place in “the global.” My desire to be aware of how I see and consume what I “tour” applies in Canada and abroad (and although I’d like to avoid most tours, the discursive gesture remains relevant to what I do when I see something seemingly new), but the familiarity of the local (even if my apparent knowledge is illusory – it is at least contingent) means that this concern is heightened – heightened in the time spent thinking about where I will go and what I will do, heightened by the idea of learning new languages, heightened by the habitual discourses of tourism and travel culture that embed themselves in the middle class young explorer subject position.
But is this my only possible position in all this? If this sort of entitled tourist position comes close to a description of what I might do travelling, then surely it must also describe what I do here in this colony I call home. (Thus I emphasize again the demand to face these questions – what my friends Carly and Caitlin might call the problem of touring – no matter where I am). In other words, the question of going somewhere you’ve never been before or interacting with people and things other than your sort of normal is not escapable – not even by living, working, shopping, walking or riding around the same neighbourhood indefinitely. Of course, time means change. Draw a simple map of familiar spaces over time and one encounters major changes, new people, new plants and trees, new ideas about that area, new perspectives (perhaps from hearing the accounts and claims of those who became familiar with those spaces long before you arrived). Our conditions of coexistence are contingent; we can be unsettled anywhere. Perhaps my travel question could be framed this way, as a heightened consideration of coexistence and what that means for my everyday ethical-political framework.
Louiza Odysseos claims that coexistence is generally understood to be a self-evident problem – the relation of copresence between autonomous, sovereign modern subjects – and where this conception is “rendered unstable by world politics,” it becomes a technical question of “international praxis” (See The Subject of Coexistence, University of Minnesota Press, 2007). The immediacy of the technical questions tend to obscure the aporetic question of coexistence because we assume we already understand what it means to “coexist,” or maybe we don’t think about it at all. Borrowing a turn of phrase from Jean-Luc Nancy, Odysseos argues that “IR proper” depends upon a “logic of composition,” which begins not least with a modern, individual subject:
a completed self, already fully constituted when it enters into relations with others, relations that are considered ontologically secondary to the subject itself. Its main attributes are self-sufficiency, nonrelationality, and autonomy; these become instrumental in determining coexistance as the presence of multiple units, in other words, as a composition of otherwise nonrelational subjects. (xiii)
Odysseos calls for a reexamination of these conventionally received understandings of international relations, with its anxious separation between “self” and “society,” the “I” and the “we.” I’d like to say more about this logic of composition, perhaps venturing a conversation about otherness, but for now I will just lay out a series of questions. The questions I have in mind follow two different and somewhat contradictory lines of thinking. First line of questioning: In light of a relational politics or ontology, what’s the deal with thinking relations between people? And what about between nations? Or, within or between nation-states? How are these relations made possible and what is my implication in these relations? How might one uncover, as Odyesseos suggests, the ontological premises of conventional IR theory? And how might we put these “under erasure” in moving towards an alternative – perhaps relational – politics?
The second line of questioning relates more to the personal ethics or ethos such a politics might entail: Is the “ethical self” an inherent contradiction to a relational politics (whatever that means)? Can we avoid this contradiction by engaging in practices of the self that are necessarily also practices that involve others? I recently read (although not quickly or completely due to the flashy distractions of the typical work-consume-work spectacle) several texts relevant to these questions. Of particular interest is Foucault’s 1982 lecture series, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, as well as Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox by William E. Connolly and The Bhagavad Gita. All three texts come to bear on practices which I hope, through ongoing experimentation, might aid me in learning to walk through life (must remember: walk) with a prudent respect for the breadth and depth of what I don’t know as well as an eagerness to accept and consider the wisdom of the knowledge shared with me by others. This hangs on an ephemeral balance: retaining ambition, interest and practices that change oneself while trying not to consume, capture, contain, exploit, what is different to me. And, as Connolly writes, while “it is probably impossible and surely undesirable to be human without some sort of implication in a particular identity,” there remains a crucial space in which one negotiates “how an identity is experienced and how it defines itself with respect to different identities” (9).
Connolly has a short and striking passage in his introduction about imagining what we have never seen or thought of before, thinking beyond one’s paradigmatic beliefs – that fatefully totalizing, but useful shout out to the “set of problematic indispensibilities” which shape our thinking so significantly. While often and easily seen to be “absurd” and “abnormal” in another culture or in retrospect, to consider in the time of their reign that perhaps they are dispensable is to posit an idea that one can expect to be only “hypothetical and vague.” And nevertheless, “it may be laudatory to entertain it, even if no one is now in a position to extrapolate very far beyond its bare suggestion” (4). It is still, as Rebecca Johnson reminds us, worth “imagining anew” and articulating dissent (judicial dissent in Johnson and Belleau’s work, but envisioned more broadly in my use here) and thus taking advantage of distinctively imaginative or noetic space. Johnson and Belleau attribute the concept of noetic space to Amsterdam and Bruner who say that humans are capable (and compelled by that capacity), “to project our imaginations beyond the ordinary, the expectable, the legitimate – and to involve others in our imaginings” (Cited in Johnson and Belleau, 178). So, if the limits of our understanding are not entirely determined by what we have come to see as ordinary and legitimate, what are the conditions under which we understand others?
While I am probing relations of identity with Connolly, and thinking about an ethical-political framework via my ventures into the late Foucault and philosophies of yoga, I turn to Nietzsche to get tripped up on the conditions of possibility of one’s moral or ethical framework (and also to be pushed by an anti-modern viewpoint from within Western traditions). Nietzsche, as with Connolly later, considers how things come to be considered moral or evil, good or bad. Tracing these assessments in his Genealogy of Morals:
it is of no small interest to ascertain that through those words and roots which designate “good” there frequently still shines the most important nuance by virtue of which the noble felt themselves to be men of a higher rank. (28)
Can I avoid such a sentiment? Are “ethics” inevitably tied to such a hierarchy and, if so, can they ever be useful in confronting the (colonial) superiority complex of the Nobles? I like to think that ethics and morals are not always only a mere luxury of the privileged, but they are certainly a convenient and historically operative technique of power. And can we say the same about ethics versus morals? Can we find some significance in the distinction?
Nietzsche’s high regard for the aphoristic style is so in line with the art of blogging that I am only just trying out for the first time and with my ambition to write a book of short thoughts – an effort to stay in the practice of writing, but with the pleasure of so many little moments of completion. That’s also the challenge though: write a short thought, bring out the point and wrap it up, probably identify more problems then you will have space to solve, look seriously at something “off topic,” but just for a few paragraphs, returning to turn it over again after a new insight or shift in perspective, but no obligatory slugging on and on and on in the same project (I commend those who are venturing to complete these longer projects, especially those on 4…5…6 year terms). Hopefully, those with a range of other writing obligations will choose to try out some short thoughts on this blog, directly or only tangentially related. But, anyways, that word – related – means all sorts of things. It is what one argues it is that that makes the meaning. As Connolly writes, we can use the terms of political discourse to align ourselves in terms of a wide range of political arguments, the meanings of such words are not self-evident.
I need to make myself write on this blog, because writing can be so arduous and discouraging and, if I don’t feel some push from somewhere, my book of short thoughts will never materialize. But, can you even say that a piece of writing on a blog post materializes? Maybe that is more of a becoming-virtual – that could be a future blog post. Such a topic might also suit ctheory, a source of inspiration for this electronic practice space, which I intend to use (frequently) to practice imagining stuff in and through writing and to play with some drafty short thoughts.
I haven’t dug very far into Foucault, Nietzsche or Connolly in this short post, but they are worth writing returning to in their divergent discussions of ethics and subjectivity. Connolly frames their relation to questions of ethics well, writing:
Nietzsche and Foucault do not ask ‘Why be ethical?’ or ‘What is the transcendental ground of ethics?’ But neither do these refusals disengage them from ethics. (10)
Can one can engage with ethics in a way that begins by challenging the very “ethical formations of the community in which the self has been thrown”? Can one take a critical stance towards universalizing ethical theories, but perhaps also, under these conditions, recover what Odessyos describes as a heteronomous “ethical” self? (182-183). I am not sitting here on this rocky island trying to figure out the transcendental ground of ethical touring, but that doesn’t mean I want to tour this world as though I am done with the question of ethics. I don’t know how to think aside from our radically individual modern subject position, and the ideas presented here are only “hypothetical and vague,” but it’s worth imagining anyway.