Academic journal article Canadian Social Work Review

Forum [Invited Papers]: "BEING IS NOT SYNTACTICAL": Ethics as Intensities

Academic journal article Canadian Social Work Review

Forum [Invited Papers]: "BEING IS NOT SYNTACTICAL": Ethics as Intensities

Article excerpt

"...the radically contingent presence things have in the moment to moment passage of their happening." (Eamon Grennan, "Snap," New Yorker, July 30, 2001, p.30)

THE MOST devastating condemnation of Enlightenment/modernity ever uttered is Nietzsche's depiction as "a night that has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon" (quoted in Sen, 2000, p. 33). Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot contains many metaphorical allusions to modernity's end, such as Vladimir's speech describing reason as foundering and "straying in the night without end of the abyssal depths." When Michel Foucault, our great anti-Enlightenment "poet of radiant uncertainty" heard these lines uttered in 1953, he never saw reason in the same light again. Foucault's thought moved towards endless pluralizing and dispersion, and at the same time he began to turn the lights out on all universal concepts, codes, categories, truths, and ways of being. He began his meticulous exploration and examination of the variety of roles that the concept of reason has played historically and in the present and how reason has constituted multitudinous social practices, many of them exclusionary and destructive. Foucault did not see reason as a universal separate entity that could be used to assess our social practices. In an interview, he illustrated his critique of universal Western reason:

I think that the central issue of philosophy and critical thought since the eighteenth century has always been, still is, and will, I hope, remain the question: What is this reason that we use? What are its historical effects? What are its limits, and what are its dangers? One should not forget it was on the basis of the flamboyant rationality of social Darwinism that racism was formulated, becoming one of the most enduring and powerful ingredients of Nazism. (Foucault, 1984, p. 249).

World War II was the final shattering of any lingering hope that modernity could, through science, reason, and technology, create a "better" world, a world that now seemed heartbreakingly fragile and vulnerable. Terrible wounds and fissures had opened up in modernity's thin carapace, and any previous claim of Western civilized superiority based on reason, ethics, and morality was thoroughly discredited by the awful destruction of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The world appeared beyond healing by the instruments of modernity and reason. When Ghandi was asked in 1948 what he thought of Western civilization, he said he thought it would be a good idea. In a world containing such cisterns of sorrow, we are driven from any pretense of a universal ethics (such an ethics did nothing to prevent such unspeakable events) or perhaps any ethics at all, inhabiting only the chaos of a world as fluid as melting ice. Often, it seems, all we can rely on in our tortured postmodern world is an uncertainty that harbours us like a winter mist.

My only interest in ethics is a feeble tangential one; rather than pursuing a quaint notion of a social work ethics and what should and should not be in a code of ethics for social work, I am intrigued by exploring territories where bodily identities and mental orderings might be radically remade. In pursuing this intent I draw on the work of philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, and the painter Francis Bacon. Deleuze wrote books on both Foucault and Bacon (Deleuze, 1998, 2003), and all three moved compellingly beyond the highly aerated daydreams of Enlightenment/modernity and looked with scepticism on the many self-appointed curators of ethics and morality. My argument, however frail and improbable, is that ethics can only emerge, and then only obliquely, when we view being as not syntactical (Beckett's claim) and consider human and social existence through the lens of intensities (as does Deleuze).

Ethics for Foucault was not a history of moral codes, or the writing of regulatory codes of ethics, or the application of universal moral imperatives. …

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