Thoughts on the Ethics of Micro and Macro Subjectivity
crossposted at Orbis Mediologicus
One difficulty of the Kantian inspired approach to subjectivity is precisely the attempt to hypostatize subjectivity as an all-or-nothing sort of affair. In this sense, Kantianism is simply one more inheritor of the impasses of all forms of binary thinking. But nowhere does this issue rear its head than with questions of subjectivity, that is, the question of who or what gets to qualify as a subject. Who deserves dignity? As Derrida’s writings on Kant and animals makes clear, animals are simply not eligible for transcendental subjectivity. And this is a very convenient position. It allows us to treat animals as completely other, simply not up to par, up to the dignity deserving our care. It is why we can eat animals and not flinch. It is why we can kill flies and feel no remorse. And as Giorgio Agamben has shown us, it is precisely the attempt to demarcate some of us as ‘bare life’ – living humans yet not fully human – that allows for things such as genocide, slavery, and the dehumanization whereby, say, those without citizenship papers are treated as completely other. Sans-papiers of all sorts are simply ‘non-persons’ to a liberal state which uses the citizen as the elementary unit of its compositions – the discourse of human rights, while certainly better, has its own aporias. And as we have seen with the so-called ‘war on terror,’ Islam’s supposed sanctioning of violence via the notion of Jihad, proof of its ‘inhumanity’, eliminates its followers from the protection of the rule of law. Then again, the same argument could be used by the other side to deny protections to the denizens of capitalism.
That said, if subjectivity is de-linked from the human, what qualifies one to the rights, dignities, and prerogatives that go with such a term? Slavoj Zizek has argued that capitalism is a sort of super-subject, and few would deny that collectivities act like subjects – exhibit freedoms, seem to think, act, have affects, react, etc. And as contemporary cognitive neuroscience clearly shows, the brain is little other than a large, collective subject – what we call mind, thinking, and affect are in fact emergent processes, after-effects of massive co-regulation within a hyper-complex collectivity of relatively limited agents called ‘neurons.’ What’s more, neurons are anything but binary, both in their individual functioning and their mode of linkage to one another. And we have long known – before the Manichean Cold-War fascination with computers as binary machines, and hopefully after as we enter the internet age – that the mind and thought are network phenomenon, hardly on/off affairs.
If capital is a macro subject, and the brain so as well, then why might there not be micro-subjects? In fact, many of the aspects often attributed to subjectivity are found on the quantum level by entities whose existence, like that of consciousness, is only truly percievable in its effects. Quantum ‘particles’ exist in worlds that are virtual until actualized, and they seem to ‘feel’ out alternative possibilities until they ‘select’ the best. There is much to be said for the argument, ‘metaphysical’ though it might be, that perhaps our mental abilities, and those of macro-subjects like capital, are simply fractal offspring of quantum forms of subjectivity. In all the above cases, perhaps matter is simply the mediation whereby such forms of matter take form, with mind and matter copresent, if in differing forms, diversities, and intensities at a variety of locations and levels in this, our mulifarious mediasphere.
Deleuze and Guattari have argued in numerous texts that one way to displace the seeming necessity of a concept is to outflank it from both ‘above’ and ‘below’ the ‘level’ of its seeming hegemonic inevitability, and it seems to me that subjectivity is one thing that needs displacement in such a formation. But while many philosophers have long argued for a more ‘fractal’ approach to subjectivity and thought – the name of Leibniz comes to mind here – today we have the resources of science to bring to bear on such issues. Unfortunately, science and philosophy have been sundered in contemporary culture by differing institutional cultures, inheritance of the legacies of the Cold War. Such defense mechanisms need to be jetisoned if there is to be any chance of coming to deal with what the macro-subject of capital, a networked subjectivity cancerously run-amok, has in store for us.
All of which leads me to feel that it remains a major mistake to argue that subjectivity is solely the realm of humans, or even of ‘rational’ actors. For rational often seems defined circularly, as simply that which human brains ‘do.’ But if we expand the definition of subjectivity, and give dignity not to the imagined ‘kernel’ which hides behind such a term, but rather, some of its predicates – such as affectivity, ability to deliberate on counterfactual alternatives to sensory immediacy, etc. – then we necessarily need to extend our considerations to micro and macro-subjects.
I am not arguing here necessarily for vegetarianism, or that we should not kill flies. But if subjectivity is not an all-or-nothing sort of affair, then all becomes shades of grey. Killing animals for food then becomes slightly a form of canibalism, and slightly more so than killing plants, and much more so than robbing nutritious molecules of their structure for our own purposes. Rather than seeing these as easy, cut and dry decisions, we need to see then as what they are – ethical ones. Ones which bring our subjectivity to bear. Likewise, being responsible for what the super-organisms around us, such as capitalism, does, is just as much a part of the ethics of what it means to be a subjective human. And while I am not suggesting here that we need to be nice to rocks, lest they feel pain, I do feel that the ability to feel pain is something to consider when thinking about who and what we harm. Many micro-subjects seem to feel pain, and many macro-subjects can cause pain to be felt by mid-level and micro-subjects. But pain even has its limits. Sustainability is also something we need to think of. Ethics requires we balance all of these factors, and there are no easy outs, no guarantees, no simple Kantian lines in the sand upon which we can rely.
Perhaps rocks feel ‘proto-pain’, and perhaps we need to eat animals. Perhaps being partially dehumanized by capital is better than the alternatives. But perhaps there are also better ways to go about these things, or other sorts of practices we can engage in which are more respective of pain, and more sustainable. To argue that these issues do not deserve the dignity of our thought, deliberation, affective engagement, and subjective care is, however, to deny much of what it might mean to be a relatively subjectified human.
Taking a Spinozist position, we might say that the purpose of life is for life to live itself most complexly and most sustainably. On the basis of this ethics of life alone, we would be loathe to deny ourselves the honesty of the fact that we exist partially on the backs of the life, energy, and sustenance that supports us. Rather than deny this fact, it behooves us to at least realize this sacrifice, be grateful, and do what we can to allow life to live at maximum complexity and sustainablility in, through, and beyond us. Perhaps we are not fully ends unto ourselves. And if so, perhaps the reduction of pain (affective anti-life) and anti-sustainability (suicidal tendences) are the ways in which we prove ourselves to be the subjects we always hoped we were.
Of course, altruism does not exist in nature. But it slowly emerges as the animal kingdom develops, as one of the best strategies for long term survival of the multitude in its maximum diversity. Love not only feels good for humans preprogrammed to find it so, and fighting capitalism’s excesses isn’t simply affectively pleasing for those of us with progressive political bents. Rather, love is one of the hightest possible manifestations of the drive for life. From an evolutionary perspective, love is simply good policy. But it is staring into the abyss. To see yourself in the eyes of the animal and of capital is perhaps no easy task, for it means seeing ourselves in a mirror that distorts us. It is perhaps the most difficut of gazes – to see ourselves routed through the circuit of alterity. It is also perhaps where ethics calls to us. I know for one that I am hardly up to the task, but luckily, none of us are. But I’d like to say that I at least attempt, haltingly, stutteringly, to hear the call.
But are we up to loving life, at its micro, median, and macro levels? If so, perhaps a first step might involve an ethicdal engagement with both the macro and micro-subjective aspects of the world around us, not via some sort of abstract moral code, but via the much more complex relation which indicates the subjective engagement with ethics. And even if ethics are ultimately decided unconsciously, and in some sense, our ethics chooses us, we as rational beings can make the Spinozist choice of working to at least understand why this might be, and via understanding, to increase our abilities to manage our place in the world, and perhaps cause just a little less pain both now and in the future. Or at least, that’s the hope.
Nature is brutal, let us harbor no illusions. But subjectivity perhaps is not. And if subjectivity is what emerges slowly when quantum virtuality takes the plunge into the abyss of matter, perhaps we are slowly learning to do it justice, to allow dignity to all potentials and their desire to be actualized. Only the future will tell.