Economies of Common Infinitude
Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, exhibit much variety and fluctuation, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature.—Aristotle1
The crucial issue here is not really what is one’s form of life...but that one’s singular life has (or partakes in) a form, and that this form, which has no need to be further defined, is always already a source of power.—David Kishik2
The long and ongoing engagement with ethics in the context of philosophy and in living itself can be encapsulated by the ancient idea of eudaimonia—the search for a good, for a way of being, acting and orienting oneself in relation to a good life. Literally translated, eudaimonia is composed of two parts—eu (good) and daimon (a deity); painting a “good life” with a rather metaphysical brush, the term suggests that a good life arrives under supernatural forces, like a guiding spirit of sorts. Less literally, eudaimonia has come to be interpreted as “human flourishing,” the quest towards the fulfillment of an augmented human being, capable of more than mere survival (more life and not mere life). Whether one apprehends the concept literally or in its more contemporary variant, what keeps the supposition relevant is the very indefinition of a good life. Ethics may well mean the carrying out of action in relation to a good, yet this good is an abstraction, and the corresponding point of active orientation remains obscure. The history of ethics is marked by the preoccupation with ways to describe and valuate what a good could be, while the volume of various interpretations for said good (even among the ancients—from Aristotle and the Epicureans to the Stoics, etc.) indicates the utter instability of a steadfast conception of a good. A good is not a finite object (like goods one can consume or monopolize under principles of scarcity), yet it partakes in an economy of shareable imagination, of infinite assimilation, of infinite affect—the valuation of which increases by the very property of its utter impropriety.
A good is not a naturally given good, but is a constructed good. With no God-given or naturally determined “good” of human interaction and behaviour,3 Aristotle decisively linked ethics with politics, with ways of doing (ethos) inseparable from politics (Aristotle having defined “humanness” largely based on man’s capacity and outright need for politics). Considering, however, that ethics is above all an action, a doing, a way of dwelling, the principal question of a good is not necessarily what that good is or is not, but rather how a good is apprehended as such. Under what processual circumstances does this intangible sense of a good take hold of our symbolic imagination? How does a good become valued as such, and how does this “valued” good gain currency in the sphere of cohabitation?
A good, or a good life, as an apparatus of social cohesion is positioned as that which identifies a particular culture to a life-world of possible behaviours, underlying modes of being and governance in adherence to that very comprehension of a “world.” Within this dominant portrayal, a good operates as a force of social normalization, of delineation, of ordering exchanges and behaviours in a particular fashion; a good, as such, becomes the good as it marks a finite perimeter of possible modes of inclusion within a given order.4 The good, in this regard, operates as a spectre over social congregation, becoming a part of the everyday imaginary, and, one could venture, the history of human civilization has been a popular experiment in defining and disseminating varying conceptions of this evasive good. The good, in this case, is deployed as a stabilizing device, the definition of which functions as an unwritten bond uniting particular populations. Subsequent to the archetypical partitioning of the “world” into nation-state territories first enacted by the Treaty of Westphalia, this good has largely been defined (and contained) under the command of those very states. The delineation of the good sets forth systems of belief, action, and modes of dwelling, instantiating forms of identification and, ultimately, delineating forms over life by determining inclusion in a given system of order. Important here is the divergence between forms over life and forms of life; whereas forms over life impose an imaginary limit, drawn as a perimeter of possible belonging to a given sphere, forms of life, which are immanently limitless, instantiate other modes of belonging to a world. In such an apprehension, the good is rendered as a property specific to a particular identity of peoples. Conceived thusly, the good is a property of the state, and all those who wish to be members are compelled to perform and identify with this property. The good is not a thing—not a good in the sense of a product—yet it has dramatic material consequences as we have witnessed in countless bloody battles fought over its utter signification, the insurgency in Iraq and the “winning of hearts and minds,” being a quintessential example.5 In the current state of affairs, where battles are waged less in the hopes of territorial expansion and more in relation to the occupation of cognitive territory (noo-politics, soft power, and networked organization), the fight is precisely over the semantic territorialization of the good. When the good is deployed as a property that one must perform for ritual membership, the good becomes an imperative and thereby enters the category of the moral or unquestionable, finite good. In taking on the quality of a moral command, the good demarcates the very possible topology of living (forms over life), to the negation of potential and limitless forms of life.
The Virtuous Good
One should reduce and limit the realm of morality step by step: one should bring to light and honor the names of the instincts that are really at work here after they have been hidden for so long beneath hypocritical names of virtue...—Friedrich Nietzsche6
There are two key points to note in the preceding description of the good. The first is to note that the good is used as an apparatus for the normalization of relations; and second, that the good is deployed as an imperative.
In the first instance, the good becomes synonymous with “virtue,” what Bonnie Honig elaborates as a “virtue theory of politics”7—politics understood as that which reconciles social dissonance, seeking closure and administrative or juridical settlement (grounded or “archic” politics). In her argument, Honig contrasts “virtue” politics with “virtù” politics, a term borrowed from Nietzsche’s Will to Power wherein “virtù” is a politics of perpetual contest and augmentation. For Nietzsche, virtù is an ethical position that disrupts stabilized order through the articulation of remainders of the system. Virtù is the expression of a surplus: of all that is excluded, concealed, or denied in the delineation of a system of virtue—of what is permitted to make an appearance. It is here where we find a parallel thread in the work of Jacques Rancière, whose distinction between the “social” and “politics” is of utmost relevance. Rancière equates the social with the “police,” which should not to be conflated with those men and women in uniform enacting authority; the police or the social is wholly non-pejorative. The social or the police is characterized by a hegemonic consensus that is performed through modes of being and appearing that are in accordance with their appropriate function, place, speech-act, and identity, and as such mark an understanding of the “partitioning of the sensible” that can be internalized (sensed) by its constituent members.8 The “social,” as such, can be defined as a settled apprehension of virtue, the stabilized “good,” that traverses a given community as sense (the common understanding of the signification of the good).
Politics, on the other hand, for Rancière, is the contestation relative to the very formation of a territory-in-common, to the ways in which something makes an appearance and the ways of making sense of that appearance. Politics shifts the symbolic ordering of the social creating new economies of equivalence between those who “count” and those who do not. Akin to Nietzsche’s virtù, which takes into account the remainders of a system, Rancière’s politics is the demonstration of the “part with no part,” the surplus community, function, place, identity, and so on, unaccounted for in the given sensibility of the social order. The part with no part is that which does not yet exist (it is a potential party—a party being s/he or that which is recognized as partaking in the partitioning of the sensible) in the given symbolic order and, as such, it is not merely a dispute between parties; it is the very constitution of a party as a part(y). Politics is a clash of sense and sense, namely dissensus: the struggle between the partitioning of the sensible (the hegemonic social) and the ways of making sense of it.9
When the good is deployed as a normalizing force, it is apolitical; it is a virtuous good upholding the habitual symbolic order of the social—and to reiterate, this is not necessarily pejorative, simply normative. The social good subtends a particular community of sense to the neglect of all that is supernumerary to its condition and its modes of interaction. The good, as virtue, imposes an economy of scarcity of other possible worlds as it is reinforced by the repetition of its consensual performance played out in daily rituals. The good, then, portrayed as a social entity according to which relations of consensus play out—to and in the world—is a form over life, a sign that delineates a proper place, function, and behaviour of members who are (ac)counted (for), to the exclusion of any possible supernumerary condition.
The second aspect of the good (and not a good) to be addressed, in tandem with its normalizing force, is the notion of the good symbolically defined as an imperative. Are there ethical principles at work in the deployment of an imperative, and, if so, what becomes of subjectivity when the good is figured as a prescriptive undertaking? As Alain Badiou has said, there are no ethics in general but only the capacity of humanity to conceptually recognize a good in particular situations—a good is, above all, a situated good and not the given good.10 Giorgio Agamben echoes this point when he writes that there are no mere tasks in being that need to be fulfilled11 (being in the world is not merely composed of fulfilling a certain checklist of duties), and it is in this task-less nature of being that the need for ethics arises. The generalized good as imperative, thusly, falls under the rubric of morality as outlined by Michel Foucault, that is, a “prescriptive code one is obliged to follow.”12 When the good, as a symbolic imaginary, is used to normalize the social via a commandment to obey its force as virtue, it is the moral good—the social good and not a political good.
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About the Author
Patricia Reed is an artist and writer who has participated in research and residency programs including at CCA Kitakyushu, Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart), the Banff Centre, and CCA Ujazdowski (Warsaw). She exhibits internationally, with recent and upcoming shows at Kunsthaus Langenthal; Botkyrka Konsthall (Stockholm), 0047 Projects (Oslo), the Limerick Art Gallery, Audain Gallery (Vancouver), PROGRAM (Berlin), and Württembergischer Kunstverein (Stuttgart). As a writer, Reed has contributed to magazines and journals including Art Papers, C Magazine, Fillip, Framework, Shifter, and YYZ Essays. Selected book contributions include Cognitive Architecture (010 Publishers, 2010), And the Seasons (0047, 2011), Waking Up from the Nightmare of Participation (Expodium, 2011), and Critical Spatial Practice (Sternberg, 2012).