Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Labyrinth ethics

On the door to my bedroom I have an emblem from one of the c17 collections, showing a labyrinth, with the legend, “there is no coming to the One with one jump, and none without going about.”  My Goethe/Faust theology is very much engaged with this notion of ethics as synthesis of a culture – rather than as an external, objective, kantian or platonic judgment on that culture.  What does it mean to decide once and for all that the expert psychologists and political philosophers have not and cannot tell one which life is the one most worth living?  Where does one go? 

So I’ve been reasoning that there ought to be a natural ethics of the labyrinth.  

My instinct has been to approach the problem from a post-feminist point of view, which means proceeding from the following premises:

  •  Survival depends on taking different identities in different situations: sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine.   The meanings of these terms themselves will change in every location. 
  • Learning about new forms of discourse, new rules, other classes’ ways of doing things is costly, sometimes fatal; but there is no equation for calculating the cost.  Which does not mean that the roll of the dice will always come out favoring one as much as another: but rather that there is to be no expertise for this endeavor other than those who have experienced by trial and error
  • Failing to engage the rules of each location means failing to adequately express oneself; it means an end to the possibility of flourishing, of self-expression, of possibilities for one’s own identity.  

So I want to argue that there are other ethical systems: one that involves respect for the engagement of the labyrinth; following the path through different locales, wandering where it goes, noting every nuance of engagement.  There’s an ethics of extending the scope of one’s engagement.

But in true relativistic fashion, I don’t want to end ethics there.  There are individuals particularly badly disposed to travel, from upbringing or disposition or rough weather.  These individuals can themselves find infinite engagement with a single locale: translating for strangers, bringing justice or love or fellowship out of their language.  But their calling is fundamentally different.  So the ethics may be as well: the honesty demanded of the primary location, the negotiation and translation with the self slipping into infinite slippages demanded of the traveler.

So Bauman got me there: Liquid Modernity comes up with no decisive answer on the problem of ethics, but he uses sociology to filter out a number of inconsistencies in advanced liberal politics.  Primary among these is the notion of community, best understood through another spatial metaphor — the strict boundary between self and other; the rough ejection of all those who don’t belong.  

I think the labyrinth/epic metaphor brings us closer to unwrapping that problematic: inherently its identity is about expanding, translating, renegotiating identity, and with it renegotiating all the principles and languages and symbolic forms through which ethics is expressed.  Shall we nail down a set of ethical principles that transcends all the spaces the wanderer may encounter?  That would defeat the purpose of wandering.  But we can talk about mapping, and the principle of sharing maps; and we can also allow for a definition of ethics within the spheres we have already visited.  An open ethics.  Allowing for a conversation with the labyrinth-wanderers and other vagrants.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The last edition of Greenleaf's Map of Maine hung on the wall here, and, as we had no pocket-map, we resolved to trace a map of the lake country. So, dipping a wad of tow into the lamp, we oiled a sheet of paper on the oiled table-cloth, and, in good faith, traced what we afterwards ascertained to be a labyrinth of errors, carefully following the outlines of the imaginary lakes which the map contains."
Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous James M said...

Spoken with Lewis recently? Just curious, remembering your dialogue with him.

9:38 PM  

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