Friday, January 9, 2009

Universal Ethics and Fetishist Disavowal

The revolutionary rational which justified the colonial split from Great Brittan was a universalistic ethic of brotherhood: “All men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” However we are constantly confronted with the glaring inequalities which have existed since the very foundation of the nation. Slavoj Zizek asks, “Is even the most universal ethics not obliged to draw a line and ignore some sort of suffering?” According to Zizek this ignorance which sustains all universalistic ethics is called fetishist disavowal: “I know it, but I refuse to fully assume the consequences of this knowledge, so that I can continue acting as if I don’t know it.” (Violence, p. 53) Furthermore, the more universal the ethic – for instance the insistence that all men are created equal – the more violent the fetishist disavowal must be in response (p.54). Thus, ironically, it was not until after the Revolution that ontological violence which ensured the inferior treatment of blacks became truly engrained. Before and shortly after the Revolution, Southern leaders such as Jefferson and Washington did not doubt that their black slaves were of equal intellectual capacity. However, by the time Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun began speaking publicly black inferiority was a thoroughly established fact. In order to adopt the post-Revolutionary ethic that all men are created equal and therefore entitled to the same rights – while at the same time indefinitely perpetuating the institutions which denied these rights – Southerners, and US Americans, had to engage in fetishist disavowal. By constructing slaves as something Other, they could be ignored. Ralph Ellison’s book the Invisible Man makes real the theory of fetishist disavowal.

The ontological violence committed against blacks by universal ethics is evident in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. John Trueblood represents this historical treatment of African Americans. He is an agrarian relic of slavery. His log cabin home was “built during slavery times” (p. 47). The rationality and ontology of slavery placed black Americans in the same position as animals – without intelligence or conscience. Furthermore, this symbolic linkage between animals, wildness, and blackness persisted despite the collapse of slavery. The white benefactor Norton says, “the human stock goes on, even though it degenerates” (p. 53). Blacks feel this as part of their inherited identity. Ellison writes, “We were emberassed by the earthy harmonies they sang… we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led the quartet” (p.47). The “new blacks” of the 1900’s are ashamed of the agrarian “peasant” blacks of share-cropping subservience (p.47).

The ontological violence against African slaves has permeated the symbolic understanding of blackness, and it is even further entrenched by shame. Rather than embracing a unique black aesthetic, African American’s strive for inclusion in the white world which inherently rejects them. The exclusion of blacks helped create and constantly reinforces post-Revolutionary ontological violence against them through language:

“When [blacks] are treated by whites as inferior, this does indeed make them inferior at the level of their socio-symbolic identity. In other words, the white racist ideology exerts a performative efficiency. It is not merely an interpretation of what blacks are, but an interpretation that determines the very being and social existence of the interpreted subjects.” (Violence, p. 74)

Thus, the very social existence of blacks is degraded.

For instance we are told Trueblood is a share-cropper (p.46). Share cropping replaced slavery as a means, whereby wealthy white landowners could continue to profit off of black labor - a system of inferior social-status perpetuated by the socio-symbolic identity of blacks as dumb agrarians tied to the land and animals. Trueblood sleeps with his entire family. His economic status (which forces him to sleep in the same bed with his entire family) coupled with his social-identity as an animal, creates an incestuous domestic situation. Rather than being punished, however, Trueblood, is rewarded for this violation of social norms (p. 67). In this way the socio-symbolic identity of blacks is cultivated by white society. Animalistic sexual behavior is expected of him. This creates as self-perpetuating performative efficacy. Inferiority reinforces black behavior, while simultaneously placing this behavior outside of social norms, so that blacks can be rationally relegated to a position of inferiority.

This completes white America’s fetishist disavowal. White Americans can continue to praise the Declarations promise of social equality while ignoring obvious inequalities. Consider the (sub)conscious process that occurs: black Americans, like Trueblood, hold an inferior social status, but this isn’t our fault, we treated Trueblood well even though he degraded himself.

This is only one instance of fetishist disavowal in Ellison’s book. Another prime example is that of the Mr. Norton. His universalistic aesthetic of black progress and white benevolence doesn’t allow room for the possibility of black degradation. Rather, than distorting the degradation of blacks, this fetishist disavowal ignores them altogether.

In order to affirm Norton’s dream-reality he must constantly perpetuate a simulacrum of benevolence. Everywhere he is shown the success of his dollars invested in his own ego. However, the vet at the Golden Day exposes Norton. He says that the college going protagonist “is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement” (p. 95). The protagonist’s progress is essential to Norton’s self-assertion of benevolence. The invisible man, as the student striving to improve himself, is the realization of the white man’s ethical “destiny.” He functions much as the white paint on the campus buildings – shielding from view the violence inherent in the community:

“Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dream sir!” (p. 94)

Norton is one cog in the system of the structural violence which silences the suffering of others. The prevailing anguish and pain plaguing black Americans is glossed over and rendered invisible – even the student is invisible. Norton only sees his own benevolence shining back at him.

The fragile security of his ego was challenged by Trueblood’s condition. When suddenly confronted with Trueblood’s tragic story Norton’s perfect, white, benevolent, ethical universe is momentarily shattered pushing him into near catatonia. His psyche responded through evasion and implosion attempting to re-insulate itself from the overwhelming problem of structural inequality. Fetishist disavowal is quite explicit in this instance, he must retreat into solipsism in order to (not) deal with the obvious problems.

Finally, even apparently radically all embracing movements such as the “Brotherhood” feed into the system of ontological violence, because, the peaceful assertion of brotherhood for all goes hand-in-hand with the violent rejection of non-brothers. There is no room for the Other in their system of ethics. Their ideal is a “Rainbow” where everyone is of the same family (p.385). This ethic, like the ethic of equality for all fails, in the face of social reality. As Zizek says, “The Christian notion motto, ‘all men are brothers,’… also means that those who do not accept brotherhood are not men (Violence, p. 54).” One non-brother rendered non-man through his violent exclusion is Ras the Exhorter. “We recognized no loose ends, everything could be controlled by our science (p. ?).” Ras the Exhorter is not one of us; therefore, even though his project is similar to ours, he must be destroyed. Like all universal ethics, the ethics of “the Brotherhood” leads to ontological - and physical - violence.

Utopian visions and ideals must give way to more particularistic ethics which separate us from them without having to resort to ontological violence. Embracing a personal ethic should leave room for Others. The Invisible Man finds this balance while eating a yam:

“I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom – simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper. To hell with that, and as sweet as the yam actually was, it became like nectar with the thought.” (p. 266 emphasis added)

The yam represents a return to his roots, to a particularized black aesthetic. He says for instance that the yams are his “birthmark (p. 266).” He has found an individual ethic – yams good – derived solely from his own desires and sensibilities. Since this ethic is peculiar to him it does not require the acceptance of any one else. Likewise, it does not preclude the existence of other ethics which might work just as well for other people – yams good for me, but that does not mean that potatoes can’t be just as good. By limiting his ethics to a personal particularized system, he escapes the disadvantages of universal ethical systems which rely on ontological violence and fetishist disavowal for their coherence. If one would be willing to “continue on the yam level,” he says, “life would be sweet – though somewhat yellowish” (p.267).

Subjective ethics may seem schizophrenic and riddled with contradictions, but living and accepting this chaos is critical to understanding owns relation to the world and others. In the Epilogue our protagonist finally comes to understand this principle: “I lived a public life and attempted to function under the assumption that the world was solid and all the relationships therein. Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is their true health (p. 576).” Unitary ethics is impossible; we can never truly and completely empathize and agree with everyone. The protagonist acknowledges that hatred is as important to life as love (p. 578). Furthermore, our acts of benevolence become only projections of our own ego, unless we learn to accept chaos, flux and indeterminacy. He says, “I’ve lived to learn without direction (p. 577).” Become comfortable with not knowing. Be comfortable with yourself and your desires. At the same time accept others for their misguided desires. Thereby, coming to understand the most beautiful passage (in a non-comparative, schizophrenic sense, of course) of the entire book:

“America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived not controlled. Humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.” (p. 577 emphasis added)

The only way to stop running is to stop looking for something beyond what is there and simply accept our schizophrenic (non)reality. Only with this mindset can we avoid fetishist disavowal of that which we don’t like to see in America; Only with this mindset can the absurdity and violence of our splintered American identity be internalized and peacefully diffused.

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