Friday, October 27, 2006

Dissertation interlude: ethics and aesthetics

I. When social science and design come together we can create new spaces for ethics and aesthetics to converge. This convergence is complicated by how each practice understands and operationalises these concepts, but it is through this messiness that goodness and beauty come to struggle, and love and hope persist.

II. Neither social science nor design practice prefers messes. Shared expectations revolve around clarity, consistency and coherency--and there are indeed many things in this world that are clear and definite. But what about all the other things that resist being sorted or pinned down? “If this is an awful mess . . . then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?” (Law 2004:1). What interests and values are served by forcing them to comply with an order? Can we imagine different ways of engaging these messes?

III. Rather than having to do with morals, ethics also refers to ethos, or the characteristic spirit and sentiment of a people. This bottom-up rather than top-down approach to social conduct is also related to Latour’s “parliament of things” and his call for assembling around matters of concern rather than matters of fact: “There are no more naked truths, but there are no more naked citizens either. The mediators have the whole space to themselves” (Latour 1993:144). Aesthetics, not in the sense of art but in the perception of the beautiful, also arise from ethics. These concepts can be used to help social scientists and designers engage and evaluate social and material interactions within increasingly messy collectives of humans and non-humans (Latour 1999).

IV. Following Maffesoli (1996), ethical action and aesthetic experience are always already productively combined in social and cultural life. As Shields (2002:205) further explains, “Ethics alone is insufficient to make changes or guide actions. It is a content that requires a form – an aesthetics . . . Aesthetics alone is equally insufficient, for it leads to an aestheticized politics of manipulation and of form alone without content.” The remaining challenge, then, is to assemble and mediate shared matters of concern in an attempt to negotiate--and create--goodness and beauty in our lives and work.

V. According to the OED, voluptuousness is “suggestive of sensuous pleasure by fulness and beauty of form.” As such it also falls within the realm of an ethical aesthetics, and can thus be mobilised as a means of engaging each other. As Lather (1993:686) argues, a sense of voluptuous validity “goes too far toward disruptive excess, leaky, runaway, risky practice; embodies a situated, partial, positioned, explicit tentativeness; constructs authority via practices of engagement and self-reflexivity; creates a questioning text that is bounded and unbounded, closed and open; [and] brings ethics and epistemology together.”

VI. This is difficult work. Both designers and social scientists have been trained to do - and are rewarded for - the opposite. “So…faith has to be constantly replenished – and…hope which is crushed by history and experience. Yet people do get up and fight again, and they often do that despite any promises of success” (Zournazi and Papastergiadis 2002:84).


Blogger adamgreenfield said...

As it happens, I've been spending a bit of time contemplating mess since returning from A&ST.

I'm trying to understand, in a fairly deep way, why even simple systems always seem to ramify (and ramify rapidly) beyond the reach of any attempt to comprehensively describe them.

It's just as true of political and social systems (like my network of friendships and acquaintances) as it is of physical systems. Things get tangled, layered over, knotted up, effaced...and before too long, it becomes impossible to understand the relationship between one thing and another. It's just as you say, simultaneously a practical, an ethical and an aesthetic issue.

I find myself going back to complexity theory to try and make sense of what's going on, and what little I understand of thermodynamics, but they're not helping much - nor is my conviction, profound but in this case entirely useless, that the world is the only valid description of the world. I'm pretty close to accepting that I'll never even partially (let alone comprehensively) understand these networks of relationships, and that's leading me back toward some pretty simple heuristics for practical and ethical action in the world.

It's either that, or break down entirely.

Blogger adamgreenfield said...

(I should also say that this is some of the most crystalline, most beautiful writing you've done. I hope your dissertation reads like this!)

Blogger Phil said...

You lost me briefly around the 'collectives of humans and non-humans', but that's a minor niggle. Good (and beautiful) stuff.

I wonder if voluptousness would make a good conceptual dancing-partner for obduracy? The endlessly overflowing vs the stubbornly resistant - both, in different ways, antithetical to a perfectly-managed world of frictionless circulation. (I'm talking entirely in metaphors here - this may just be a conceptual collage. But I think it's quite a nice one.)

Anonymous anne said...

Thanks Adam - this is directly from my dissertation, so we know that at least some of it will read like this ;) As it happens, the problem of ethics and aesthetics is also at work in the restrictions the university places on how my dissertation can be formatted... but that's another topic for another time.

This matter of messes is something I've been thinking about seriously since starting my PhD, when I read John Law on ordering and obduracy and on complexity and the baroque. (He's since turned these and related papers into books well worth reading.) His concerns are methodological, which of course provides some sort of attempt to figure out what can actually be done - and I find that very helpful.

As for partial understandings, well, that's just fine with me. Since my first anthropology class in 1991 I've been taught that we work with partial truths and ambiguities, and since my MA I've become quite comfortable with more phenomenological accounts that actually do get close to your conviction "that the world is the only valid description of the world." (In _The Phenomenology of Perception_ Merleau-Ponty wrote that "man is a knot of relations" that we probably can't, nor should we want, to unravel.) But historically ethics hasn't really been the domain of phenomenology, and I turned to Alphonso Lingis' "post-phenomenology" for an ethics I could work with. (I've written about all of this here over the past few years, so please forgive the repeat.)

All of which is to say that the question of heuristics for me is a tricky one. For example, it's logically inconsistent or contradictory to provide universal guidelines for specific contexts. What I fear most about simple heuristics addressing complex issues is that they simply become another way of ordering and fixing messes...

phil - this bit from my dissertation comes after my analysis of ANT, so hopefully the reader will be clear on Latour et al. when they get to this bit... And actually, yes, I've written on how voluptuousness (excess, overflow, etc.) does provide a nice way, I think, to engage obduracy and fixity especially in relation to mobilities.

Anonymous jean said...

i also wanted to say that this is tremendously elegant writing - beautiful, in the fullest sense of the word. And magnificently dissertionesque.

Hmmm, perhaps in social science writing the perfect sentence is the place where the 'natural' synergy between aesthetics and ethics (both of which are branches of moral philosophy) re-emerges ;) Some people evidently believe, or at least write as if, 'elegant' writing is merely an attempt at ideological closure; I'm not one of them.

Although, can you be elegant and voluptuous at the same time?

Blogger awesomegoddess said...

I wish I could agree that ethical action and productive experience are always productively combined. I still struggle with that.


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