Webb Keane on his new book, Ethical Life

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Imagine that you happen to be in a long line at the airport, and find yourself chatting with another academic, say a media scholar who studies Cuban television before and after the revolution.  How would you describe the ways your book might be useful to her?

Of course no one standing in line at the airport is talking to the people around them because they’re all absorbed in their personal devices.  But anyway, there are two ways to approach your question: first, as being about revolution, and second, as being about television.  Let’s take revolution first, and then turn to television (leaving aside the old question of whether the revolution will be televised).

Revolutions, like religious revivals and social reform movements, exemplify the fact that ethical life isn’t just about being in the flow of things or cultivating virtuous habits and embodied sensibilities.  People also have a fundamental capacity to stand apart from that flow, in highly self-conscious ways.  They can take what I call the third person stance toward ethical life.   Although this kind of stance is often associated with religious moralities, avowedly atheist revolutions show that one can cultivate a god’s eye view without God.   This is why the book devotes a chapter to the Vietnamese revolution.   Obviously all sorts of factors go into any given revolutionary movement, but Vietnamese history casts light on the distinctively ethical underpinnings of political commitment.   After all, why should urban literati like Ho Chi Minh (or, I could say to your Cuban media scholar, people from privileged backgrounds like Fidel or Che) have cared about socially distant peasants enough to deviate from their own comfortable pathways in life?   I argue that to understand Ho’s revolutionary project and its wide appeal in its early years, we have to grasp its sources in what are properly ethical concerns about harm and justice.   People like Ho could crystallize those ethical concerns as a principled and readily communicated political critique thanks to the availability of a third person perspective on their society.  From the early decades of the twentieth century, Marxist social theory and historical narratives, along with elements of Confucian and Catholic social thought, provided Vietnamese revolutionaries with a position from which the view their own world from the outside.   But that “god’s eye” position alone couldn’t make a revolution.  The Vietnamese revolutionaries understood the importance of what we call ordinary ethics, that is, the way that values like respect, dignity, social recognition, and equality are embedded in everyday habits and activities.   In light of the enormous economic , political, infrastructural, and military challenges the Vietnamese communists faced, it’s remarkable how much emphasis they placed on changing seemingly trivial norms of speech and other aspects of face-to-face interaction.  In this respect, they were trying (with greater or lesser success) to bring the third person stance to bear on the habitual and unself-conscious flow of first person experience and second person address.

As for television, like any medium, it is a vehicle for the circulation of objectifications—images, expressions, and narratives that retain some formal integrity beyond their original context.  These objectifications have historical consequences for ethical life.  They contribute to ethical self-consciousness of individuals, and the consolidation–and dissolution–of public norms more widely.   So one question to ask about television is how its impact differs from face-to-face interaction and other media like newspapers, radio, cell phones, the internet, and so forth.  What difference does it make that a given medium has the speed it does, or geographical reach, social scale, visual versus aural or tactile sensoria, one-way versus dialogic format, centralized control versus open access, the techniques of intimacy and alienation, and so forth?  These questions open up a huge set of empirical problems that extend well beyond the scope of my book.  But here are some of the distinctively ethical questions we might ask.  Your own work with teenagers has focused on one of them: is it okay to break up with someone by text message?   If not, why?  What ethical difference does it make whether your social actions are carried out in one medium or another?  If this is a question about the second person address of interaction, we can also move our attention outwards into more public and sociological scales.   Do certain media facilitate the third person stance or enhance first person subjectivity?  What difference does it make that a message is conveyed in verbally explicit form or implied by sonic or visual means?  Is it more ethically dubious to be swayed by the sound of someone’s voice than by the logic of their arguments or the authority of their institutional position?  Do certain media forms reinforce the monologic voice whereas others enable dialogism?  Television and social media notoriously escape the confines of context: what weight do we give to semiotic form and producers’ intentions when a supposedly neutral image enters a context where it’s deemed pornographic, racist, or blasphemous?  These aren’t just academic questions; they also worry teachers, parents, lovers, artists, political activists, censors, lawyers, and propagandists.  We know, for instance, that the easy transmission of sermons via cassette tapes played a critical role in fostering a new kind of public space in the run-up to the Iranian revolution.  And of course all sorts of claims have been made for the transformative effects of social media on the Arab Spring—not all of which have stood up well over time.  Is the form of a medium effective independent of its content?   Muslim preachers in Indonesia seem to think so when they hire mass media consultants from American Christian televangelists.

One of the key theoretical moves you make to fashion a more interdisciplinary conversation about ethics is expanding the notion of affordances.  Psychologists and media scholars have used this concept to discuss human interactions with the material world.  In your hands, affordances can belong to “anything at all that people can experience” because they “possess an indefinite number of combinations of properties.” (30)  Yet anchoring affordances in materiality provides a significant theoretical purchase – it has typically afforded a way to conceptualize limitations and resistances.  When a cloth can be torn but not made to radiate light, this is a way that matter matters.   In your framework, what is the grounding for resistances and limitations, for determining what is possible and impossible?

I expand on the notion of affordances by including people’s experiences of such things as emotions, cognitive biases, linguistic form, patterns of interaction, and social institutions.  But ultimately these are only available to experience because they have some material manifestation.  Although this may push the concept of affordance further than its more familiar uses, I think it’s consistent with them.

I’ve been seeking to develop a realist approach to anthropology that nonetheless retains the insights of the constructivist traditions in social thought and does not succumb to determinism.  The attraction of affordance lies in this.  It treats the components of the world as real, and as making certain things possible.  But it does not do so by claiming that the things of this world necessitate anything in particular (nor, for that matter, does the analysis depend on us claiming to have the “correct” depiction of that world).  One example I use, echoing something George Herbert Mead wrote long ago, is the chair.  A wooden chair affords sitting, but only if you’re of a certain size, shape, and flexibility.  So the affordances of the chair only exist relative to the capacities of someone who might take them up.  Moreover, the existence of chair doesn’t mean that you will sit.  You could use that chair to block a door, hold down papers, prop up an art work, hit someone over the head, burn to keep warm, hide behind, step on to reach something out of reach, or, for that matter, you could simply ignore it.  That is, affordances are summoned up in response to projects of some sort.   As new projects develop, hitherto unforeseen affordances will emerge into view.

Impossibilities have to be part of the story too: you could say that a chair will not enable you to fly.  But here’s a more relevant example in the book.  Humans cannot learn to speak a full-fledged language without first developing some cognitive capacity to infer other people’s intentions and otherwise work with what some psychologists call “Theory of Mind.”  You can’t even use first and second person pronouns unless you have a rudimentary grasp of the perspective on “I” that is momentarily granted by saying “you.”  This affords all sorts of things, including shame, prayer, novels, torture, games, and witchcraft.  It also casts doubt on certain strong claims about ethnographic difference—namely, that there are some societies where people really have no concept of interiority or intentions.   To make this claim is not to eliminate interesting differences among social realities.  Rather, it pushes us to examine them more closely, to ask, for instance, what is at stake for some societies that forcibly deny the intention-reading that they are, in fact, doing all the time.  I think there’s more ethnographically specific insight to be gained this way than by treating each cultural world as autonomous, the creation of its own heroic Promethean powers to create reality.  But this should not lead us back toward any of the familiar reductive forms of determinism.

In this book, you address the possibility that self-consciousness or reflexivity can be a necessary but not sufficient first step towards social change.  Sometimes self-awareness does not change social interactions, or only does so for a fleeting moment.  What do you think makes self-consciousness socially successful so that it shapes how others evaluate ethical behavior as well? 

This is a question about the role of ideas and values in the extremely complex social and political histories out of which they emerge and on which in turn they have their effects.  The extraordinary speed with which gay marriage has gone from being an easy political wedge issue to divide classes and regions in America to much wider acceptance than anyone expected is a fascinating case.  But I think it’s too soon for us to see clearly how this came about and what will follow.  We have more perspective on the abolition of North Atlantic slavery.  As historians have pointed out, in Britain the arguments against slavery were already well known in the seventeenth century and increasingly came to find acceptance over the course of the eighteenth.  But all sorts of other things had to happen for those ideas to induce the social changes that finally came about in the nineteenth century.  These include the great wave of popular evangelical Christianity, England’s political and economic competition with France and its ideological interest in distinguishing its moral superiority to a newly independent (and slave-owning) America, the emergence of working class identities that put pressure on the value of manual labor, and more.  These elements are heterogeneous and their conjunction is largely contingent.  So the history of ideas matters—they have to be available and they have to be plausible.  But ideas only become socially viable when all sorts of other factors come together.  Ethical concepts, social institutions, political organizations, laws, technologies, economies, and so forth have quite different logics and temporalities, and are enmeshed in distinct kinds of causality.  Explicit ethical concepts help crystallize people’s intuitions and allow them to circulate in new ways (which takes us back to the issue of media raised in your first question) but they can’t tell the whole story alone.

Explicitness has such power for enabling shared agreements about what is ethical to travel across cultural contexts in your account.   I can’t help thinking however that we are currently in a stage of capitalism when the market is viewed as the ideal spontaneous order precisely because self-awareness is irrelevant to its functioning, when algorithms are viewed as idealized ordering mechanisms, but only because, in a sense, they are seen as circumventing explicitness.  What do you think of social orders that disavow explicitness, viewing explicitness as largely irrelevant for social interactions to function?

In this context, explicitness means being able to put an ethical stance into so many words: “the voting law is unjust” or “the Dean can be trusted to say what she means.”  You do this by drawing on the ethical vocabulary that’s available in a given social location and historical moment.  (By the way, this means that particular ways of being ethical are necessarily historical: As old ethical categories disappear and new ones come into existence so to do ways of being, or not being, ethical, and new ways for people to affirm or deny one another’s ways of being ethical.  Try as I may, it’s simply not possible for me to be a virtuous Athenian or a Confucian sage today.  An ethical vocabulary is not just a set of labels for ideas or values that are already there, waiting to be named.)  What some philosophers have called “morality systems” try to stabilize ethics by codifying it.  But explicitness is just one moment in the ongoing dialectics of objectification and subjectification.  It involves stepping into what I call the third person stance, taking a distance from the first person of experience and the second person of address to see oneself and others through generic categories.   It is a kind of self-distancing that induces particular forms of self-consciousness.  For this reason, explicitness has also been held in suspicion in various ethical regimes.   We can see this in certain styles of romanticism and mysticism which treat self-consciousness as a form of inauthenticity, and celebrate being in the flow of things.  It’s a recurrent issue:  some ancient Chinese philosophers also worried that any purposeful striving to be ethical would be nullified by that very effort.  Such regimes aim—paradoxically—to actively inculcate effortless, habitual ways of being ethical.   The goal is to live entirely in the first person, as it were.   But this can be only part of the story.  On the one hand, an ethics that wholly lacks the first person stance would be unsustainable—it would have not claim on anyone.  That’s part of my argument against utilitarianism, which insist one only look at things from the objective position of the third person stance.   It’s only from the first person stance that one can really care about ethics in a fully embodied and inhabitable way.  But to insist that ethics is only one or the other—either objectification or being-in-the-moment—is to deny the fundamental motility of human life.  People cannot remain entirely present in the first person, nor is it possible to sustain the third person stance only.  We are always in motion among them.   This motility isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

So, to turn to the rest of your question, what about this period of capitalism?  We could say that neo-liberalism expresses an ideological reaction against the third person stance of the centralized nation-state, with its blueprints and planners.  Does this make it a-ethical?  Not necessarily.  After all, there is an ethics of autonomy there.  I call this an ethics because the autonomy expressed in neo-liberalism is sometimes treated as a value in itself, beyond any instrumental justification.  We may feel it’s based on false premises or has harmful consequences, but I think we should recognize that it makes ethical claims of a sort.  They’re just not necessarily ones I would accept.  However, although none of us as human beings can, or would want to, avoid ethical judgments, in our limited role as anthropologists we should not be in the business of making ethical pronouncements ex cathedra.  Having said that, neo-liberalism does deny or ignore something very basic to ethical life as I describe it in the book, the fact that people are thoroughly enmeshed with one another in very fundamental ways.  Any form of social organization that denies this and tries to treat them as wholly independent units is empirically mistaken and, let’s say, ethically compromised.

You imaginatively move a step beyond the insight that ethics is the challenging task of living alongside other people to argue that ethics at the core is about the challenging communicative task of living alongside other people when no one has telepathy.  That is, communication is profoundly at the heart of what it means in a given historical and cultural context to be ethical.  Say that you are as persuasive as I hope you will be.   What types of research projects should people explore beginning from this insight?

If people lack telepathy, then we have to take communication very seriously.  That means that every time we want to say something about experience, affect, concepts, values, intuitions, subjectivities, we should ask how they are mediated.  But communication isn’t a simple matter of transmission, getting a self-contained message from one head to another head.  For on thing, communication takes place over time, but, as I show in my chapters on social interaction, it always loops back on itself, opening messages to revision, reframing, denial, anticipation, dissemination, and so forth.  Moreover, mediation isn’t just an empty vehicle.  It is always embodied in semiotic forms (words, images, actual bodies, spaces, places, rituals, institutional procedures, and so forth).  Semiotic forms are never entirely purpose-built—as Derrida remarked long ago, “the engineer is a myth.”  As a result, they bring with them their contingent histories, they face causal constraints and give rise to unintended consequences well beyond anyone’s communicative purposes, and they possess affordances that can point their users in unexpected new directions.

It follows that research should be very attentive to the formal and material properties of our evidence.  So much contemporary ethnography tends to be literal-minded.  And far too much of it is based on interviews.   So the first point is just to take semiotic mediation seriously.   Partly this just means paying close attention the form and not just content of communication.  In addition, it means attending to materiality, to both the qualities of media and the causal networks they’re involved in.   If you were researching the internet, for instance, you might ask both about the body’s relationship to movement viewed on a flat screen and about the infrastructure that makes that relationship possible (cyber-utopians never seem to talk about how we pay the monthly smart phone bills or the environmental costs of powering Google’s servers).   So rather than suggest new research topics, we might look at the research we are already embarked on from new angles, asking what are the constraints on people’s projects, the distinctively ethical affordances and unintended consequences to which their semiotic media can give rise?

I would pay particular attention to the interplay between what gets made explicit and what remains unsaid, either because it’s too obvious to say, too ordinary to notice, or is simply impossible to put into words.   In looking at social change, for instance, what’s the relationship between those who are articulate and passionate, on one hand, and those who are silent and indifferent, on the other?  Are the voices we hear most clearly always where the action’s at?  When they are, is this because of what they say, who’s saying it, or how they say it?  In my book, I look briefly at feminist consciousness-raising during its radical moment, in the early 1970s, before it became absorbed into mainstream therapeutic culture.  (As with my discussion of Vietnam, this example draws on the historical perspective that we lack when looking at current events).  What’s interesting is how these women, some of whom had been influenced by reading Maoism and Frankfurt School Marxism and by practical experiences in the Civil Rights movement, discovered the affordances of ordinary conversation.  Out of their conversations they created a new ethical and political vocabulary for experiences that had until then seemed idiosyncratic, pathological, or simply inchoate.  The result was what I call “historical objects,” values and concepts (sexual harassment, glass ceiling, control of one’s own body) and that can be pointed to, debated, circulated widely through the media, and institutionalized—or suppressed—in explicit norms and laws.  One could argue that new ways of being a person, of flourishing, and of identifying harm came into existence that simply did not exist before.   But history is full of projects that go nowhere: objectified values and concepts remain only theoretical unless they can enter into the flow of everyday life in some way.   To see how this pans out ethnographically requires careful attention to semiotic mediation

As the Vietnamese and feminist examples suggest, the interplay between the explicit and tacit, or the said and unsaid can be crucial to understanding how social movements pan out.  There’s a lot of ethnographic interest in these topics already but I would suggest that we need to pay special attention to the motility among first, second, and third person stances.  To repeat, the idealized third person stance—an ethics of pure principles—remains only notional unless it offers some concrete ways of being inhabitable.   But as soon as something becomes concrete—for instance new kinds of marriage, styles of child-rearing, acceptable means of making a living, or practices of ethical pedagogy– all sorts of unforeseen affordances are likely to become visible and unintended consequences likely to emerge, such as new kinds of semiotic transgression or performative failure.

Your cover is so striking, when I got the book I immediately flipped to see where the cover came from, only to discover it is one of your paintings.   Could you talk a bit about the story behind the cover – did you paint this piece intending it to be the cover?

Before entering academic life, I was an artist (I’ve never taken a college course in anthropology—maybe that’s why I’ve never grown tired of the subject).   That cover image is part of a series that I painted many years ago.  When I was finishing my second book, Christian Moderns, I decided I didn’t want to have a cover that would try to illustrate the book, both because that seemed too literal-minded, and because illustration covers often encourage certain readings of the book at the expense of others.   As it happens, an abstract painting that one of my old studio mates had given me was on the wall, and worked very well.  So for Ethical Life I thought I’d use another work by a friend.  However, none of the pieces I myself owned seemed to work.  But someone suggested I use my own painting.  The original is in blacks and greys, which seemed a bit too somber, so I invited the press to alter the color scheme.  Since my first books had been green and blue, I favored red, but that turned out to look a bit too much like bloody bandages.   At any rate, you’re welcome to read into the cover what you will!

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