Jon Bialecki

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The Genealogy of ‘Ethical Life’

“The Genealogy of Ethical Life,” my essay-length book review of Webb Keane’s Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, has recently come out in Marginalia.

I don’t have much more to add to the review; my editor at Marginalia was kind enough to give me sufficient space to lay out my argument in full.  (Seriously if you ever have an opportunity to write for them, take it; it was one of the best editorial experiences I’ve had in my life).

The only thing I can do is to underscore three points already present in the review.  The first is that Keane’s book is an important contribution to the field, and when taken alongside Laidlaw’s and Faubion’s recent monographs, it suggests that the “ethical turn” in anthropology has reached an astonishingly high level of maturity in a relatively short time. The second point is that Keane’s book is without a doubt mainline anthropological through and through. There have been some interpretations of the book that misread it as psychological or cognitive anthropology. There is much more to the book than that. Large sections are concerned with Garfinkel and Goffman level microanalysis of interactions, and the last sections take up issues that rise to the level of transnational movements and political economy. It is true that Keane does some novel things with child development, psychology, and cognitive science, finding a clever and ethnographically focused way to take out the determinist sting from these ‘scientific’ accounts. Since this is such an unusual move and needs to be carefully walked through by reviewers, it can create an impression that these psychological, cognitive, and developmental issues are at the heart of the book. They are not; this book is about how ethics anthropologically subsumes different disciplinary accounts pitched at all different scales.

The third point is that to my eyes at least, this book looks like the end of a developmental line. What I mean by this is that while there will certainly be good ethnographic and theoretical work done in the future along these lines laid out by the current anthropology of ethics, the discussion of ethics and morality started by Laidlaw, Faubion and Mahmood over a decade ago may have gone as far as it can. This discussion, even when it tries to go against type, is shot through with a foundational presumption that is deeply humanist. Now, there is nothing wrong with humanism, especially in a discipline that claims to study the human. And for political, intellectual, and aesthetic reasons, there are certain populations which are better ethnographically served by a humanist framework. Finally, all this humanism is the product of previous historical turns that themselves either collapsed under the weight of their difficulties, or that were exhausted – this is not just humanism, but it is also post-counter-humanism, a reaction to a reaction against humanism in anthropology.

But when all you have is a single eye, though, you have terrible parallax vision. What is needed is a second anthropology of ethics that can run parallel to the current conversation. What is needed is not necessarily a cynical anthropology of ethics, but perhaps a pessimistic and inhuman one, with inhuman meaning here not a multi-species approach, but an approach starting off from a position of profound alienation.