Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Are we facing an ethical vacuum today?

In Living in the End Times (Verso, 2010, p. 324), the man who has been described as the “most dangerous philosopher in the West” (New Republic), Slavoj Žižek, makes the following remark: “The task [today] is to restore civility, not a new ethical substance. Civility is not the same as custom (in the strong sense of Sittlichkeit, ‘mores’, that is, the substantial ethical base of our social activity) — civility, on the contrary, and to put it in somewhat simplified terms, supplements the lack or collapse of the substance of mores. Civility stands for custom (or, rather, what remains of custom) after the fall of the big Other [the conventionally accepted symbolic order at a specific historical juncture]: it assumes the key role when subjects encounter a lack of substantial ethics, in other words when they find themselves in predicaments which cannot be resolved by way of relying on the existing ethical substance. In such situations, one has to improvise and invent new rules ad hoc; but, to be able to do so — to have at one’s disposal the intersubjective space in which, through complex interaction, a solution can be agreed upon — the interaction has to be regulated by a minimum of civility. The more the ‘deep’ substantial ethical background is missing, the more a ‘superficial’ civility is needed”.

Žižek’s remark occurs in the context of a wide-ranging discussion of what Foucault dubbed the “ubuism” of power — from Ubu Roi (King Ubu), a 19th century play by Alfred Jarry, which satirises obscene power and greed, and raises the question, whether there could be a link between the crazy exercise of power and the kind of “freedom” that is not linked to any accountability.

As anyone familiar with Žižek’s work knows, he does not fail to inscribe this question in specific historical contexts (too many to deal with here). One of these is the unbelievable celebration, in Indonesia, of a group of killers behind the “ethnic cleansing” (murder) of about 2.5-million people during the 1960s, notwithstanding which they were not held accountable, and instead lionised on state television in 2007, where their leader, Anwar Congo, revealed that their deeds had been inspired by gangster movies (to the delight of the studio audience). What interests Žižek about this is the fact that Congo and his henchmen made no attempt to hide the gory particulars of their massacres; instead, they openly boasted about the way to rape a woman in the most enjoyable way, to cut a throat efficiently, and to strangle someone with a wire.

This brings one back to the question of an ethical vacuum today. “Here the ‘big Other’ [the symbolic framework within which “ethical” behaviour is situated] enters”, says Žižek (p. 323), “not only with the fact that the killers modeled their crimes on the cinematic imaginary, but also and above all with the fact of society’s moral vacuum: what kind of symbolic texture (the set of rules which draw a line between what is publicly acceptable and what is not) must a society be composed of if even a minimal level of public shame — which would compel the perpetrators to treat their acts as a ‘dirty secret’ — is suspended, and such a monstrous orgy of torture and killing can be publicly celebrated decades after it took place, and not even as an extraordinary crime necessary for the public good, but as an ordinary acceptable pleasurable activity?”

His next words are crucial for understanding what is going on here (p. 323): “The response to be avoided here is, of course, the easy one of placing the blame either directly on Hollywood or on the ‘ethical primitiveness’ of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalisation which, by undermining the ‘symbolic efficacy’ of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum”.

Žižek’s amusing discussion of the bizarre behaviour of Italy’s Berlusconi as another illustration of the obscene consequences of power, combined with the freedom not to be accountable — this time in the shape of a melting pot of private business interests and politics — need not be pursued at length here. What I want to argue, is that one has seen, and is increasingly witnessing, the manifestation of precisely such an ethical vacuum here in South Africa; in the horrific recent murder of two toddlers at Diepsloot, for example — something that would have been far less likely to happen in a cultural context where traditional ethical structures still exercise a decisive influence.

Further light is cast on this issue by the work done by Foucault (in I, Pierre Riviére, having slaughtered my mother…; Bison Books, 1982) and his seminar group on the Pierre Riviére dossier dating back to 1835. All the court documents on the appalling multiple murder, by the young peasant, of his mother, brother and sister, together with an exceptionally eloquent memoir by Riviére himself (despite his rudimentary education), formed the basis of the critical essays by Foucault and members of his group in this book.

They show that Riviére’s memoir became an arena where emerging, competing modern discourses such as the juridical and the psychiatric confronted each other in an attempt to demarcate their respective domains of “power-knowledge” and establish their own legitimacy (1982:x-xi). Regarding Riviére’s act of murder, however, the following remark by Edith Kurzweil (reprinted on the back cover of Foucault 1982) testifies to the significance of the fact that this case was set in an historical context characterised by major social changes: “For Foucault, Riviere provides the ‘excuse’ to examine power structures and social institutions, to question the scientificity of medical science, and to delineate the chaos of values and beliefs, of knowledge and power as it existed 150 years ago — a chaos we have not yet eliminated”.

What strikes one as being different today, compared to the early 19th century, is that the Riviére case was set at the time when some of the major discursive constituents of modernity were struggling for recognition; a time which had turned (or at least tried to turn) its back on religious “superstition”, as Baumer puts it (Modern European Thought, MacMillan 1977: 314-323). By contrast, the present, “postmodern” era is characterised, on the one hand, by a proliferation of discursive pluralism and cultural eclecticism, and on the other by the fact that the dominant discourse among all of these is that of globalising, neoliberal capitalism — something Žižek also notes.

The effect of this is precisely what the events in Indonesia, referred to earlier, illustrate so well, corroborated by Kurzweil’s remark, that there is “a chaos [of values and beliefs] we have not yet eliminated” — a chaos brought about by the ongoing uprootment of ethical practices by a globalising economic system which does not recognise any traditional ethical contexts, imposing a symbolic framework that valorises excessive consumption and the individualistic pursuit of material wealth in the place of communal values instead. Is it at all surprising that people seem to become morally disoriented and lose their ethical bearings in this situation?

Violent outbursts of frustration and anger in the face of violent events that seem to surpass comprehension are understandable, but they get us nowhere. “What is needed instead”, says Žižek (p. 327), “is the act proper: a symbolic intervention capable of undermining the big Other (the hegemonic social link), of re-arranging its coordinates”. Until this happens, the slaughter is bound to continue.

For a sustained exploration of this theme, see my paper,”Discourse, agency and the question of evil”. South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 22 (4), December 2003, pp. 329-348.

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