Academic journal article New Formations

Semioethics, Voluntarism and Anti-Humanism

Academic journal article New Formations

Semioethics, Voluntarism and Anti-Humanism

Article excerpt

That which is willed happens but rarely; in the majority of instances the numerous desired ends cross and conflict with one another, or these ends themselves are from the outset incapable of realisation, or the means of attaining them are insufficient. Thus the conflicts of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produce a state of affairs entirely analogous to that prevailing in the realm of unconscious nature.

Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy, 'Part 4: Marx' (1886)

The idea of 'ethics' as a moral system, an idea which has developed from the early seventeenth century onwards, contains a basic contradiction in that it implies both a programme for behaviour and the will or agency to produce, adhere to and reproduce that programme. The latter, 'willed', ethics has roots in the Greek ethos and its concern with matters of character and the personal. Most recently, poststructuralism has rightly cast suspicion on the notion of ethics, but has also tried to re-draw its programmatic aspects by calling for an ethics characterized by 'openness' to the other. Even here, the idea of openness itself suggests a programme of initiative activity or will, by which dialogue can be achieved. Clearly allied to the conception of will, and certainly recognisable in the contemporary Western social formation, is the sense of ethics as a phenomenon in discourse. The programme of ethics is repeatedly framed as discursive, often appearing in institutional space precisely as a written code, and the grounds upon which ethics can be challenged or adjusted are likewise discursive ones. Indeed, many of the problems associated with the (lack of) efficacy of ethics, particularly in the era of multiculturalism and tolerance of the other, are derived from a belief in the putative discursive nature of ethics. The idea that many of the determinants of human life are 'constructed in discourse' has been a powerful one during the last thirty years, especially in relation to understanding subjectivity. Calvin O. Schrag's (2003) positing of 'communicative praxis', (1) for example, constitutes an important logical argument regarding the contiguity of communication and action, showing how such enterprises as ethics--willed and programmed--are necessarily conducted through discourse.

Yet, there are other sources of the 'discursive imagination' that have lent weight to the perspective in which human affairs and the effecting of change in human affairs are determined by the vicissitudes of discourse. The 'linguistic turn' in social thought, inaugurated by Richard Rorty's 1967 collection, (2) has been influential in areas of knowledge where the volume is seldom if ever cited. More important still, perhaps, and arguably more nebulous, have been structuralism and poststructuralism. Their basis in a philosophy of the sign derived from Saussure is often critiqued but infrequently rejected altogether. This has been elaborated upon and disseminated throughout the human sciences in the West. It was almost naturalized in Francophone academia from the 1950s onwards and from the late 1960s onwards in the Anglophone world. There is an increasing realisation, however, that both of these 'discursive' perspectives are not only past their sell-by dates but that they were always fundamentally flawed. The former has been exposed for its ahistoricism and its promotion of a complacent theory of knowledge, in which linguistic and logical qualities are overvalued to the detriment of knowledge's artifactual grounding. (3) The latter perspective is being deposed: the Saussurean version of the sign which has held such sway in the human sciences has been superseded by a more radical perspective on signs; this, in its operations, demonstrates the blinkered view that the iron grip of structuralist and poststructuralist sign theory has promulgated in the Western imagination. To help in understanding the way in which ethics and other forms of human action have repeatedly and erroneously been taken to spring from a will functioning on a plane of discourse, it is necessary to give a brief review of the superseding of semiology by semiotics. …

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