post-phd thinking, writing, art, cartography, abstraction, Robinson Crusoe – risking appearing deranged – writing-as-thinking
From the top – welcome back, hands! Let’s hear those inputs flowing – welcome welcome, let’s turn our attention to Simone de Beauvoir and The Ethics of Ambiguity, with whom we will keep the hands moving and typing on this somewhat grey and damp-but-drying morning. We’ve rolled out of bed and we’re together, what did we bookmark from the beginning? Why did we start reading? It was a recommendation, I wouldn’t have been drawn to read this from my own perambulations, labouring under the misapprehension as I was that existentialism was all about being individualistic and solipsistic and perhaps even nihilistic, all the istics really which is not such a vote of confidence, and I felt that the Marx-world represented more stable ground for thinking about what matters politically and philosophically. But here I’m very glad to have come over because it turns out existentialism, or at least de Beauvoir in this book, is none of these things and and and the impetus was thinking about personal freedom and responsibility and how to deal with being a person who makes choices and creates meaning in one’s own life, lacking as I believe we do a context in which a god-entity is available to provide a meaning-framework of the sort I’m interested in.
The Ethics of Ambiguity is a relatively short book at 159 pages but it can punch you in the face and make you cry so shortness is no drawback. I’ve been reading in smaller doses having begun with it as the only book I took with me on a long faraway trip, precisely in order to force myself not to put it off.
Tone-wise there are lots of men and man is always doing stuff – we suck it up, reader, the year is 1948 and men broadly speaking have just done a lot of things. The epigraphgram for the whole book is from Montaigne, “Life in itself is neither good nor evil. It is the place of good and evil, according to what you make it.” Montaigne stays with us for the opening of the first section, on ‘Ambiguity and Freedom’, where he murmurs to us:
“The continuous work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” (p.7)
Note to self – I feel it would be valid to at this time choose a shorter way with my page noting system, but can I bear to move to a numbers-only way? : …”to build death.” (7) All those p.s littered around… alright, let’s do it. Come with me.
Let’s momentarily fire up the interwebs for a brief Montaigne context reader readers:
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne (/mɒnˈteɪn/; French: [miʃɛl ekɛm də mɔ̃tɛɲ]; 28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. His work is noted for its merging of casual anecdotes and autobiography with serious intellectual insight; his massive volume Essais contains some of the most influential essays ever written.
In his own lifetime, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, “I am myself the matter of my book”, was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would come to be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skepticalremark, “Que sçay-je?” (“What do I know?”, in Middle French; now rendered as Que sais-je? in modern French).
This from Wikipedia, dear reader my apologies, sounds like Michel could become a friend of the podcast doesn’t it? It’s been some time since I read his work, when I was studying philosophy as a first year undergrad, which I did much better at than my chosen art history and perhaps ought to have stayed with. I wonder if I would have come in a similar direction or if that would have set me off very differently – unknown. The personal anecdote, the self-regarding book, the doubt – why are more people not keen on this level of scepticism? I suppose it’s scary and perhaps the feeling of knowing is more commonly experienced, I’m not sure. I find the feeling of not knowing to be far more accessible.
We welcome Michel to the podcast and continue: de B puts MAN in context as the thinking animal, but as she uses (this edition uses) double quote marks in general I’m not sure which bits are quotations from M de M and which are scare quotes. ‘Thinking reed’, she writes, (7) MAN as this entity which “escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it” (7). I think the ‘freeing’ element is what the post-human fans are after. I like the acknowledgment of a sort of stymied movement, a pushing out, a trying to escape but not achieving freeing, being bound or grounded, a rooted plant. This Reed-Man “also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things” [capitalism, isis beheading videos, the internet, people] At the risk of typing typing out too much this bit’s good:
Continuing on 7:
At every moment he can grasp the non-temporal truth of his existence. But between the past which no longer is and the future which is not yet, this moment when he exists is nothing. This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.
The next bit is good too but the need to paraphrase in order to claw towards thought asserts itself. De B describes a condition of ambiguity in which we find ourselves, looking at the large scale social context in which we are part of an immense collectivity, which I take to encompass the idea of the species as well as the community (such as these are) or the group or family, the relatedness with others, and this fundamental relatedness, inter-relation, existing alongside the problem of being an individual without access to the consciousness of those others, and so being a solip, might we venture, dear team, a reed in the reed-bed, shall we also venture. This condition being something we must confront and wrestle with rather than trying to explain away, deny, or otherwise disengage from. Spake de B: “At the present time there still exist many doctrines which choose to leave in the shadow certain troubling aspects of too complex a situation […] Cowardice doesn’t pay.” (8)