Hammers and Crowbars

Hammers and Crowbars

Methinks the Tutor has mistaken a crowbar for a hammer. Deconstruction is not morally constructive. While advertised as a magnifying glass, I will freely admit it becomes more like a funhouse mirror when employed by some. However, by ripping apart a house that was already coming apart at every nail, it opens up the possibility of a more defensible postmodern ethics. That hammer is being carefully swung by people like Zigmunt Baumann. He cautions against considering the topic (postmodernity) as a resource for its own explanation: “to describe a prevalent behavior does not mean making a moral statement: the two procedures are as different in postmodern times as they used to be in pre-postmodern” (Postmodern Ethics 3).

Once the shaky foundation is exposed, only then can we begin to examine the nature of injustice. Baumann suggests, at least as I read him, that a world built upon the ideas of “pure evil” or “pure good” simply cannot be moral. Every moral choice is filled with aporia, not certainty. Accepting this is the first step towards becoming moral. Morality cannot be dictated, or legislated—it must be negotiated. And it must confront the possibility that man is neither inherently good nor evil. Man is inherently ambivalent to moral choice. Unlike the crowbar approach of de Man and the first wave of theorists, Bauman offers a hammer:

The humankind-wide moral unity is thinkable, if at all, not as the end-product of globalizing the domain of political powers with ethical pretensions, but as the utopian horizon of deconstructing the “without us the deluge” claims of nation-states, nations-in-search-of-the-state, traditional communities, and communities-in-search-of-a-tradition, tribes and neo-tribes, as well as their appointed spokesmen and prophets; as the remote (and, so be it, utopian) prospect of the emancipation of the autonomous moral self and vindication of its moral responsibility; as a prospect of the self facing up, without being tempted to escape, to the inherent and incurable ambivalence in which that responsibility casts it and which is already its fate, still waiting to be recast into its destiny. (15)

Some theorists and philosophers have argued that morality is an obsolete concept (both modern and postmodern). Some haven’t. The satiric reduction that places them all as a hammer with no anvil, ignores that though postmodernism is filled with tools of dubious utility, some of these tools may shore up a sagging moral foundation by ripping away the dead wood.

6 thoughts on “Hammers and Crowbars”

  1. Interesting post. AKMA also uses postmodern theory as an anti-dogma. A valid enough goal. If you look at the turgid snatch of abstract prose you quote – to what does it bear witness?
    The differing and deferral of questions of justice — I am afraid I do see that as an evasion, not in your case, but in that of de Man.
    For most academics it is just foreplay — the endless deferral as a pleasure in itself. Nothing much at stake. No stand to be taken. No premature conclusions. All that is simply dangerous. Your civil liberties are at risk today. How long do you want to monkey around with your crowbar, finding chinks and cracks? When called to act out of decency, the endless defferal becomes the best of excuses. In de Man I am afraid I do think that his prose is wracked with the guilt it cannot completely evade. As we learn in our time to truckle his evasions may be of considerable use.
    In the prose you cite, I see the gesture of the open palms — not only the enlightenment gesture of assumed objectivity, of being above the fray, in a position to judge, at the Archimedean point, but also a shrug.

  2. In order to claim to identify the anti-christ, one need not identify one’s self as messiah.
    Isn’t understanding the complexity of the moral self an important first step to constructing a morality that is not based in quicksand?
    Where you read deferral, I read pragmatism. I read it as an emphasis on the importance of individual morality rather than state or corporate sanctioned morality, which is inherently flawed. I feel the turgidity of the long string of institutional structures, or longed-for structures, that we desire to prop up our moral selves with matches his point eloquently. It witnesses the turgid nature of false claims of communities real and imagined to tell us what is moral— an antichrist of a sort— bent on sanctioning moral behavior.
    I don’t know enough de Man to really engage your point there, but I feel a bit defensive of him as his appraisals of Coleridge and Shelley are among the best available. Perhaps it takes one critic fraught with moral ambiguity to engage another of the same kind. However, I was resistant to your lumping all of postmodern practice under the rubric of amorality.

  3. I suspect the Tutor was referring to de Man’s collaborationist excursions in occupied France.
    He may not be typical, but I’m going to use Richard Rorty as counterpoint. You say: “Isn’t understanding the complexity of the moral self an important first step to constructing a morality that is not based in quicksand?” This, along with Rorty’s efforts in the same direction, seems anti-pragmatic, anything but something guaranteed to produce a foundation for morals. Rorty thinks this is fine, but taking him as representative of deconstructionist practice, I don’t think he would agree that avoiding quicksand is a meaningful goal. “Avoiding quicksand” sounds dangerously close to a foundationalist ethics, which I believe most deconstructionists would take full issue with.
    Rorty’s attack on the idea of a ‘final [moral] vocabulary’ leads to a vision of a sustainable ethics similar to Wittgenstein’s view of public language: without referent, sustained by its practitioners.
    I’m only referring to deconstructionism here; I’m not sure on the structuralist front or cultural theory, where reconstructed Marxism seems to hold pretty considerable moral weight.
    I do think it’s interesting that the people in this postmodern tradition who’ve been most amenable to hard ethics–Levinas, Habermas, and if you’re willing to count him in, MacIntyre–have been the ones willing to throw away large amounts of deconstructionist/Heideggerian dogma. Levinas is far more classically individualist than any deconstructionist.
    The question for me is if there’s a coherent, sustainable non-foundational ethics that isn’t reducible to pure relativism. This is the only kind, I believe, that would satisfy the common forms of postmodernism, and I’m not optimistic that one exists.

  4. If we all were used according to the deserts of our prose, who — save perhaps my illustrious colleagues who post here — should ’scape whipping?
    Perhaps the reason I so vigorously inveigh against ascribing mystical power to language lies in my intense appreciation of the importance of using words carefully, precisely, deliberately, and my moral disgust at carelessness with words (and its effects), still worse at the power some derive from their evil manipulation of words.

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