Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ethic-Machines and Narratology

Ethical Narratives :: Narrative as Ethic

“What do we do, now?” was a learning objective I scribbled down for the EBOVeer seminar and while we already began to debate it among ourselves, on Friday, April 5th, we got to see 10 brilliant minds debate the same question as part of the GWU MEMSI Ecologies of the Inhuman. What emerged  was an exploration of the Ethics of Object-Oriented/Ecological philosophy.

One camp of comments, led by Ian Bogost, functioned within what I think of as an “Ethic-Machines” framework; wherein the different objects-of-our-lives ( both “goal” and “materials”) function to direct our actions; a toaster for instance is a mechanism which captures us into a habit of caramelizing bread, directing a series of actions towards that every day. I enjoy this model and will be writing on this more elsewhere, as it brings in for me a kind of parliament of gods, wherein our idiosyncratic world is dictated not by a single monolithic ideology but by a chorus of competing objects which draw us into their orbits.

A collaborating, but also divergent camp was Eileen Joy's suggestion of Narratology as a form of ethic-production. Following Joy, I speculated that just as a story cannot contain all things, so too our ethics will inevitably leak. A narrative constructs certain characters and the world in certain ways, establishes motives, compulsions, and logics of its own; while ever bracketing that the story might be told differently and from a different perspective. (Note: Narrative may be a way Ethic-Machines work).

Indeed, this is critical, as the self-narrative of my life proceeds, changes, and is revised I reassess my values as a result. Often this replacement of one narrative for another is grounds for severe emotional turmoil, as well as for relief. At other times, reminding ourselves of what story we are telling can help clarify our decisions and make life more livable.

This can be particularly tricky when the power of other’s narratives cut across ours or even overwhelm the furniture of our stories in their own (over-)determined system of values, beliefs, and logics. It can be the work of a weekend, a lunch with a friend, or a favorite book/movie to help us find ourselves again; to help us say: that is not the story I am telling, that is not the life I am living. This can be life-saving, where the stress, competition, and despair of other narratives would cast us as villains, failures, nonentities or fill us with unproductive shame. We need not accept every story we are told, especially about ourselves.

Failed Narratives :: Narratives of Failure

Ethics gets bogged down in the implicit logic of punishment. When we talk about our responsibility for violence in the world, even in secular conversations, we still speak as though our guilt is necessarily a reason to be fearful or to flagellate ourselves. We can point to our participation in exploitative industrial practices, our carbon foot-prints, our tax dollars going to kill people in another country and imprison our population at home. If you are a person of means, capable of doing all these things effectively, the chances that you, personally, being taken to task for it, during your life, is rather slim. Also, the chances of you severely changing the direction of these massive systems are slim. If we are failures, we are also failed by a failing world.

Guilt is frankly a status that doesn't require us to reify it within ourselves. Feeling guilty has its uses, it can incite people to action, but usually it just fuels a spiral of severe insecurity followed by small acts which produce either a sense of shame or of being holier than thou. As a Roman Catholic, I’ve seen the effects of guilt and they are widespread but in terms of usefulness it’s kind of a failure. Guilt is a parasite that destroys its host. Guilt is viral. There are such things as toxic narratives.

Instead of guilt, instead of counting all our ecological sins, instead of making this about punishment, what if we make this about the thousand tiny glories we see and make every day?

Say you will, every day, be somehow responsible for the suffering and death of 99 lives. Rather than wasting time on running our emotions across the coals, if we use that to fuel the acts (emotional and otherwise) that sustain the 1 life we did have enough care and power to help. If we are to do something for those 99, I see little reason, beside a personal enjoyment of masochism, to feel bad about our failures. Do something about it, or not, but Ethics and the Dead don’t necessarily care about our shame.

Con-Sequential Narratives :: Narratives of Consequence

Shame is an emotional mode of assessment; another collaborating but divergent mode is Consequence.

The consequence of our action may be retribution, being voted out of office, exploitation, death, or imprisonment, the loss of clean water. In that case, you are forced into counteraction, actively or passively. Again, your personal shame, unless that is the aim of the agents affecting the backlash, is likely a moot point. You did something and something happened as a result. (Admission from Q&A: cause-effect is yet another narrative; effects may happen w/out apparent cause or visa versa).

Now, one of those things that happen as a result may be shame. You may not have a choice in what you feel. However, after an initial wave of the emotion, you may gain some degree of choice (more for some than others) to change your emotions or avoid the instigator of the feeling. Choosing to feel shame may be done for many reasons, but again, in terms of its usefulness, I see it as relatively weak; inspiring hallow, slow, and self-doubting action. You may enjoy it. You may not see any other way to feel or have the power to change. Many of us, however, have some small but critical degree of power to make little changes in our habits to open up our emotional vocabulary and our capacities over shame.

It is a choice to keep looking at data about things you can’t change (or not without giving up on the things you are currently working to change). There is reason to be aware of problems outside the ones you are working to help, but primarily to help you assess what you can do, might do, and cannot do. At one point however, I have to turn from the 99 to the 1, and I work much better with a sense that at least I did something, anything, of value. It's a matter of emphasis, consequence and story.

Even if my intent and feelings are mistaken, the consequences of my actions and our actions will come at me regardless. It may be I do better than I intend or I may do worse. If there is a judgment and a living or unliving punishment awaiting me down the line, so be it. I don’t need to add fuel to the hell-fire by torturing myself in the process. My smallness can either be something I rue or else something I rejoice in; or both. Indeed perhaps all I can do for someone is feel for them. Still, rather than worry over the problem “I can only do so much” we can celebrate “look at what I did” or else “look at what I can do!”

If this world is a shipwreck, rather than count all the things we let slip through our fingers into the deep, we can instead hold onto those things that we can and that we care about, so as to further and celebrate them. So too with the new things that may come from up from the uncertain waters. They may be short-lived, but so are we. They may be small things, but so are we. In the dark night of the ecological soul, we erupt con-sequentially with a thousand tiny glories.

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