The problems of under-determination, and the “conscience” as coward-maker

Rarely does any essay actually seem to hit at three issues in my life: the breaking anyway from philsophical mentors, the teaching of ethics, my ambivilance towards writing poetry, and lastly my writing a truly autobiographical (as opposed to semi- or pseudo-autobiographical) poetry cycle.  I was sleep-deprived and listening to Adam Philip’s pleasantly and calm reading of his LRB essay, “Against Self-Criticism” as I walking to the 7-11 to get my morning coffee before work.   I am my own task-masker, and in many ways the harshest. I remember when I was in my late teens, reading Li Young Lee’s “The Winged Sing” about his father who interpreted “Judge not lest you be judged” as “I must judge myself harshly to earn my right to judge others” and sympathizing with that strong reading.

So when Philip’s starts here:

Lacan said that there was surely something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself – because actually, of course, people hate themselves. Or you could say that, given the way people treat one another, perhaps they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves: that is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard. ‘After all,’ Lacan writes, ‘the people who followed Christ were not so brilliant.’ Lacan is here implicitly comparing Christ with Freud, many of whose followers in Lacan’s view had betrayed Freud’s vision by reading him in the wrong way. Lacan could be understood to be saying that, from a Freudian point of view, Christ’s story about love was a cover story, a repression of and a self-cure for ambivalence. In Freud’s vision we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate we love, wherever we love we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us. And who frustrates us more than ourselves?

That not only comes up in my head: one poet’s memory of another poet’s religious immigrant father from a religion that was not the same between any of those remembering entirely.   Yet it is this tendency that has made me much more doubting of my own tendency to judge, to reduce, to under-determine.   I was thinking about my frustrations with “call out culture” and “priviledge” theory is related to this: as I have said over and over again, it is not that systemic racism or sexism or whatever-ish underlying them was unreal.  It was that they were not “personal” in the sense and reducing it to primarily focusing on privilege, micro-aggressions, and identity affirmation took a pedagogical tool created by W.E.B. DuBois for understanding the social and not tangible effects of primitive accumulation, social exclusion, and segregated cultural development within the same social sphere, and created a way to describe it.  But that teaching tool gets reduced down to a theory explaining racism as “power plus privilege” and also reduces the complexity and heirarchy of groups other oppressed and exploited groups: it becomes a way under-interpreting which Freud and Philips seem to warn serve as a limit to ones liberatory desires as much as a way of oppression.


This, in fact, came up in another article worth reading that showed up in my social media feed yesterday: “A Note on Call Culture“:

What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out. This is why “calling in” has been proposed as an alternative to calling out: calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself.

In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing. For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being, as if there is no difference between a community member or friend and a random stranger walking down the street (who is of course also someone’s friend). Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.

At first, Adam Philip’s essay, which its Fruedian and literary interludes and focus on the self, seems unrelated to Asam Ahmed’s practical and deeply felt worry about politics, but it isn’t.  Like the construct of the super-ego, the performative nature of the “call out” and the “privilege check” functions as a shaming limit, and often, like shame, works only superficially while increasing alienation for all involved.  It also functions on a fundamental tendency to reduce complexity down to simple identity claims which one can banish by performing the right curse.  Yet, like the super-ego, this comes from real lived experience and real fears which we can’t simply hand-wave away ourselves.   In short, if “inter-sectionality” is be more rooted in the material lives (the real experiences both in the subjective AND objective sense) then this tendency to be performative and under-determining is limiting to such “Social Justice” motives own desires and its own self-conception–it also hides where its real limits are.

Asam Ahmed hits this on the head here:

But when people are reduced to their identities of privilege (as white, cisgender, male, etc.) and mocked as such, it means we’re treating each other as if our individual social locations stand in for the total systems those parts of our identities represent

By conflating individuals in this manner with their position in the social system–one may be getting a type of frustrated revenge on how that is done to repressed and oppressed peoples, but one is also conflating and convoluting the individual and the systemic.  The “personal is political” becomes merely the “political as personal” and thus an honest and complete understanding of limits and oppression are stopped in the act of a revenge: “Individuals become synonymous with systems of oppression, and this can turn systemic analysis into moral judgment.”  This moralizing tendency, however, is an limit of conscience: instead of getting what one seems to desire, one merely limits oneself and others to performative roles in which shaming substitutes for liberation, but the 23 times more likely a black kid gets shot by cop than a white kid (regardless of the race of the cop) remains on the march of omnious, infutriating statistics which we can do little about.  In the end, this call out becomes an attempt of subliminating that rage which also reinforces it.

The tedency to under-determine, to take the easy answer, and reduce things to denounciable positions is both understandable but also a symptom of frustration leading to a kind of limiting–not just of the privileged, but of the call-out-er his or herself.


We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people.

What would an ethics of desire look like?  In my mind, this is sort of like virtue ethics, but a virtue ethics that is profoundly removed from its Aquinas Christianizing reading or even Aristotle’s teleology of reason.  It is a virtue ethics of self-flourishing in which the valorized traits are themselves a manifestation of positive of values which are willed–Individually-willed or socially-willed, or some complex dialectic between the two. It was also be a virtue morality that would neither pretend that such virtues were a-political nor would it substitute moralizing for the political as the realm of traits valorized between the two are often vastly different.

It seems to me that a ethics of desire would be a complex interplay hedonism and resilience. A system that acknowledged that desires were conflicting, and that legitimate desires would still frustrate each other. In other words, it would be a pluralistic approach the interacting with the world that acknowledged that there are often real and legitimate reasons–both moral and political–for human conflict.

This is not a world without  a conscience, but one where the conscience is contrained by ones desire.   To paraphrase Philips’s says in an answer to an question in podcast of the essay; “the worse way to deal with the problem of conscience and super-ego is to just pretend not to have one.”

Is a desiring virtue ethics the answer? No, there is not a single answer, but a plurality of answers.   Will it fix the oppressions or expliotation of the world and of history?  No.   The idea that ethics can redeem or undo history is delusional.  We will still need various modes of analysis and various antagonist politics.


Aesthetically, Philips speaks to  a series of poems I am writing about my last ten years.  It spans the personal in ways I rarely if ever allow myself.  I have a very 19th century attitude towards personal and private which I realize is imposed but still helpful.  I wish to shield my character–my persona–from my personality and, more importantly, I wish to shield my loved ones from the implications of my persona.  That said, this limitation is an artistic limit that can lead to both a false notion of artiface and a false notion of authencity.  Even the truly autobiographical art cannot be reduced to the singular impulse within the personality of the author: the intentional fallacy is true even if the “author is not dead” to use the theoretical preoccupation of literary graduate students since the early 1970s.  It more that it wrong-headed for the author to even impose one of his or her intentions onto the work:  this sort of conceptual apparatus limits the power of the artwork itself and also limits the author’s self-understanding.  This can be seen as an artistic imposition of conscience.

Freeing myself to write about the ambivilance and self-deception, but also the honesty and love that developed out of my traveling around the world for work (a luxury that, given a different career path, I could have never done as I am not wealthy nor do I come from wealth) and the delusion of a marriage to a close friend.  This can seem therapuetic, but its not really about me.  In fact, freeing myself to write about myself in conflicted terms in a strange way makes it not about me in a way that wearing a person gives me the distance to make a poem actually about myself.

I hope to publish these poems, so I won’t share them here yet, but the cycle, Eros, Erato, Erosion, seems to come from the same questions that Philips’s is pushing us towards.  The ways in which “conscience” hides who we are and what we actually want from ourselves, and the way the tendency towards the reductive and singular answer instead of emerging and complex ones tend to justify our lies as much as do any illumination.


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