Askesis, ethics, judgment?

Following on from Stan’s provocation on the question of truth and subjectivity, (“Between ‘labor’ and ‘ownership’ what is the possibility for askesis?”), the question of askesis and anthropology recently came up in an exchange between Carlo Caduff and Didier Fassin in Anthropological Theory, (link)which provoked a couple of thoughts for me with regards to the practice of anthropologies of ethics.

In the exchange Caduff takes up Fassin’s distinction between “moral discourse” and “critical analysis”, whereby moral discourse is a ‘discourse of judgment’ and the critical analysis is a mode of inquiry into moral discourse. Caduff makes the point that in fact this distinction reproduces the problem of culturalism, drawing on Rabinow’s argument in Humanism as Nihilism (if I may summarize briefly, it consists in asking, why, given anthropology’s traditional reflection on the Other as the object of inquiry, as a way of knowing difference (in values, etc.), which are constituted by a meaning making system of relations, has anthropology not escaped the leveling of meaningful differentiation, the definition of nihilism? The original argument and meditations on anthropology as a scientific and ethical practice can be found in The Accompaniment).

Caduff’s response to the culturalist problem in anthropology is to extend reflection on one side of Fassin’s pair, critical analysis, so as to engage with the object on the other side, morals, or ethics. Following Raymond William’s entry under “Criticism” in Keywords, Caduff takes up the idea that critique as a practice is not synonymous with judgment:

“As Williams notes in his historical overview, its predominant early sense was of fault-finding’ (Williams 1976: 85). But what is at issue, he suggests, ‘is not only the association between ‘‘criticism’’ and fault-finding but the more basic association between ‘‘criticism’’ and judgment as apparently general and natural processes’ (Williams 1976: 86). This notion of ‘criticism’, he underlines, ‘prevents that understanding of response which does not assume the habit (or right or duty) of judgment.’ What needs to be understood, rather, is the ‘specificity of the response, which is not a judgment but a practice’ (Williams 1976: 86). The critical response, Williams points out, must be conceived of not as a judgment but as a practice.”

What might this practice of critique which is not ‘reducible’ to judgment consist in? Caduff finds a resource in Foucault; it is an attitude, indefinable in itself, always relative to something that it is the critique of, “an instrument, a means for a future or a truth that it will not know and that it will not be.” (Foucault 1996: 383)

The topic of critique was one of the conduits for Foucault’s reflection on what he termed, modes of subjectivation: the relation to self in which a subject recognizes that they have obligations and can go about practicing them.

I agree with Caduff that critique, for Foucault, is “a practice irreducible to the prescriptions entailed by a moral code of conduct,” however, what I think is evaded is precisely the question of what constitutes a situation as an ethical situation/ethical domain and how one can go about doing inquiry into it such that it is simultaneously a practice of ethics; that is to say, that a subject recognizes that they have obligations to practice. Such a situation is not just one in which a mode subjectivation is being practiced. There are further parameters.

As Foucault writes (already) in his Introduction to Kant’s anthropology, the 'solution’ to the problem of how to inquire at the correct ‘level’ into anthropos is through ‘usages’/Gebrauch/practices. But, as he continues, it is “unclear what the content of the solution” is; i.e. what is the content of a practice as that which is the object of inquiry, for the question of “what man can and should make of himself”? This question, to me, is one way of posing the inherent and problematic relation which Stan indicated in his post on Blumenberg; of a relation between a mode of veridiction and a mode of subjectivation.

The recourse to Mode of Subjectivation, by itself, offers little further guidance to saying something concrete about the relation of the ‘can’ and the ‘should’, than does, say, the culturalist position that many anthropologists eschew today. Hence, there is a need for what many of us within ARC, and particularly following Rabinow and Bennett’s diagnostic ( and long term engagement with an experiment in synthetic biology, having been thinking about, namely, “ethical equipment.”

There is, I think an important relationship between equipment and the practice of judgment, with scientific and ethical parameters: scientifically, following Dewey, “The meanings which are suggested as possible solutions of a problem, which are then used to direct further operations of experimental observation, form the predicational content of judgments.” I.e. if you’re doing a form of thinking which through experience can keep thinking and re-thinking the problem, then you need judgments.

Ethically, what is distinctive about a mode of subjectivation within the ethical field is that it is constituted in part by a mode of veridiction, and also, following James Faubion, one of the parameters of the relation of a mode of subjectivation is that of the mode of ethical judgment, comprising within it a mode of ethical valuation and one of ethical justification (see his, An Anthropology of Ethics). The engagement with such parameters warrant another post, but I wanted to signal both Faubion’s model-theoretic and Rabinow and Bennett’s diagnostic re-workings and engagements with Foucault beyond the mode of subjectivation.