Thursday, August 19, 2010

Agency is always a human-nonhuman collective

In Akeel Bilgrami’s contribution to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, “enchantment” refers to the historical belief that God or his divine expression is accessible to the everyday world of “matter and nature and human community and perception.”

In the wake of Schiller’s critique of Kantian morality as too disembodied (echoed in Foucault’s work on ethical ascesis), I understand ethics as requiring both  principled beliefs (and duties) and also a set of  moods, sensibilities, and bodily comportments hospitable to carrying them out.  My contention is that the intensity of the compound mood of enchantment (wonder/disturbance) could serve as one impetus to ethical action, insofar as it contributes the energy or motive force needed to render human bodies capable of jumping the gap between mere conviction that a course of action is good and the actual doing of the deed.  What Spinoza called the “joyful” affects are needed to energize a body called upon—by habit, sympathy, or reason—to love, forgive, treat with compassion or minimized harm to (an ontologically diverse range of) others.    In short, I think that, under the right circumstances, the mood of enchantment, which entails the experience of the outside as making a call, can be an important part of ethics.
Bilgrami, too, is interested in the ethical implications of enchantment. He begins with the intriguing claim that the call from outside serves as the very condition of possibility of human will and therefore agency: to desire to have or to do something is to experience that thing or activity as “desirable rather than as desired,” as, in other words, a response to an external call.   What is more, the very experience of ourselves as moral subjects depends upon this experience of a world of outside objects: “in the very moment and act of perceiving values without, we also perceive ourselves within, as subjects rather than as objects.  The experience of value without and agency within are not two different and independent experiences.” In short, “it is only because the world itself contains desirabilities (or values) that we perceive that our agency really gets triggered or activated.  The very possibility of agency therefore assumes an evaluatively enchanted world.”
Based as it is upon an assertion of the constitutive interdependence of the notions of subject and object, this argument makes good sense.  But it also reveals the extent to which Bilgrami and I have different views of human agency—what composes it, how it is activated and sustained.  I think that human agency is best conceived as the effect of a perspicuous configuration of human and nonhuman forces.  When humans act, they do not exercise exclusively human powers, but express and inflect the powers of a variety of “foreign” bodies internal to them, including bacteria in the human gut, heavy metals absorbed into flesh, words and sounds from human and nonhuman cultures, etc.  There is a difference between these nonhuman actants and a human (compound) individual, but neither considered alone has real agency.  The locus of agency is always a human-nonhuman collective.

Even though Aristotle is driven towards concretion in both (a) asking the question “What is being” in terms of “What is primary being”, and (b) in offering an exhaustive categorial determination of all things in the world, he seems to fall short of the step that would yield fuller concretion. In fact, it is implausible to hold that any claims to the concretion of being can bypass or underestimate the ‘who’ of the question of being.

The question of meaning of Being cannot be isolated from the one who interrogates. In the act of asking the question: ‘What is being?’ Aristotle seems to gloss over the fact that Being is an issue for the one who asks that question. To lay it out in another way, in merely keeping to the ontical-categorial framework, Aristotle devalues the ontological priority of the question.

It is to address this skew that Heidegger’s Dasein steps into the picture. In asking the question of meaning of Being, rather than simply ‘What is Being’, Heidegger creates the need for Dasein itself and retrieves the quest for being. Dasein is that ‘being which is concerned in its being about its being’ (Heidegger: Being and Time). Da is a German word referring to place, though it also has a temporal aspect to it – ‘there/here, at this time’. Sein, on the other hand means ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’. This renders Dasein a meaning of ‘existing-there-or-here-then’. The essence of Dasein lies in its existence and not in its substance.

In his ontological framework laid out in Categories, with great emphasis, Aristotle attempts to distinguish substance from subject and yet his subject appears most substance-like, without any subjectivity. Aristotle’s main complaint against his predecessors is the absence of logical clarity of terms in their systems, but he himself doesn’t clarify what he means by a ‘subject’ and how it is to be properly distinguished from a substance, even in situations which appear to demand an explicit articulation. It is interesting that Aristotle uses multiple instances of ‘a man’ to illustrate his discussion of being in Categories, Physics and Metaphysics. But he uses it as a mere substantive ‘man’ and not as a subjective ‘man’. A particular entity like a man, the locus of primary being for Aristotle could satisfactorily be replaced by a particular table or a clay pot and is therefore dramatically different from the Dasein of Heidegger. This is because even though Dasein can be conceived of as merely ontical like a clay pot, the fact that it has the possibility to be concerned with whether its being is merely ontical (or not) is an issue for it, is certainly ontological in character.

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