Aspects, affordances, breakdowns

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © C. Jason Throop. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.026


Aspects, affordances, breakdowns

Some phenomenological anthropological reflections on Webb Keane’s Ethical life: Its natural and social histories

C. Jason THROOP, University of California, Los Angeles

Comment on Keane, Webb. 2016. Ethical life: Its natural and social histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ambitious in scope and subtle in argumentation, Webb Keane’s book Ethical life: Its natural and social histories (2016) provides a vital contribution to the growing body of literature in anthropology devoted to the study of ethics and morality. Giving careful attention to psychological, semiotic-interactive, and socio-historical aspects of ethical life, Keane’s efforts are broadly interdisciplinary in the best sense of the term. Critically reflecting on insights generated in a range of disciplines that span the natural and social sciences, Keane distills a novel perspective on moral experience that refuses to give in to the prevalent polemics of either/or that characterize a great deal of scholarly debate on the topic.

Keane’s skillful engagement with various disciplinary approaches is notably even-handed in its efforts to positively build upon, as opposed to merely dismiss, what many may take to be incommensurable approaches to ethics and morality. To this end, Keane examines the various ways that basic psychological capacities (such as “gut-level” emotional responses, intention-seeking and joint-attention, self-distancing, norm enforcement, and cooperation) are implicated in, and implicate, ongoing semiotic-interactional dynamics (such as turn-taking, conversational repair, stance, voice, and first/second/third person pronominal positioning), which together complexly articulate with various social processes, historical objects, and [470]material practices (such as religious piety movements, political revolutions, human rights discourses, and humanitarian interventions).

The linchpins to Keane’s efforts to trace points of generative connection between the always-indeterminate relations that define such psychological, semiotic-interactional, and socio-historical dimensions of ethical life are the dual analytics of affordance and awareness. Significantly, Keane argues that various dimensions of ethical life are never in and of themselves necessarily ethical phenomena. They are instead better understood as ethical affordances, which may variously figure into defining the texture of any given individual’s, group’s, or community’s moral frameworks. Heterogeneous, multiscalar, and in continuous flux, such ethical affordances may complexly articulate with differing forms of ethical awareness, in the process configuring interactive and historically distinctive forms of ethical problematization, which at times may then potentiate possibilities for ethical transformation. Accordingly, Keane empirically traces, and theoretically explicates, how “what counts as ethical in one social context . . . lies altogether outside the domain of ethics in another” (2016: 25).

As should be clear from the tone of my review of Ethical life so far, I find the book to be wonderfully rich, expansive, and thought-provoking. Given the exceptional scope of the book, as well as the notably fair-handed way in which Keane builds his argument, I am particularly puzzled, however, by what appears to be a significant blind spot: namely, the failure to explicitly engage with a number of phenomenologically inspired analyses of morality/ethics within anthropology, many of which anticipate, complement, and extend a number of Keane’s core interventions. Indeed, Keane’s foregrounding of interactional and embodied dimensions of ethical life, his efforts to trace the dynamic complexities inherent in everyday experiences of morality, his analysis of the aporias arising between first-, second-, and third-person perspectives, his concern to elaborate a nuanced view of the relations between more and less reflexive varieties of ethical experience, his commitment to detail the ways in which ethics comes to concretely inhabit individuals’ lives in such a way that events, happenings, situations, relationships, and experiences come to deeply matter to them, as well as his attention to historical, social, and institutional dimensions of morality as lived experience, are each aspects of ethical life that have been variously taken up by phenomenologically inspired anthropological work contributing to the “ethical turn” in the discipline (see Al-Mohammad 2010; Benson and O’Neill 2007; Csordas 2009, 2013; Jackson 1982, 2013; Kleinman 1999, 2006; Mattingly 1998, 2012, 2014; Seeman 2009, 2015; Throop 2009a, 2010a, 2012a, 2014; Willen 2014; Zigon 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014a, 2014c; Zigon and Throop 2014). While to be sure, Keane briefly references Cheryl Mattingly’s hermeneutic phenomenological approach and does spend a bit more time critically discussing Jarrett Zigon’s perspective, he largely passes over the numerous ways in which the work of these two scholars in particular—as well as many others who have contributed to phenomenologically inspired anthropological approaches to morality—illuminate aspects of ethical life that are taken to be central to Keane’s own theoretical, analytic, and ethnographic efforts.

For instance, drawing directly from hermeneutic phenomenology, Mattingly (2012, 2014) is, as far as I can tell, the first anthropologist contributing to the “ethical-turn” to have explicitly discussed the ways that firstand third-person [471]perspectives provide distinctive lenses on ethical life, an insight that she uses to critically interrogate both social scientific and everyday orientations to morality/ethics. Very much aligned with Keane’s efforts to reveal the ways in which third-person perspectives may induce forms of publically mediated self-reflexivity that transform first-person experiences, ongoing embodied social interactions, and historically sedimented moral systems, Mattingly ethnographically interrogates “the capability of taking a third person perspective on oneself [as a means] to subject those third person categories and norms to evaluations and contestation” (2014: 180). Moreover, while she does not focus upon the semiotic-interactional dynamics of second-person perspectives through precisely the same linguistic anthropological lenses that Keane relies upon, Mattingly’s “first-person virtue ethics” is one that does takes second-person interactional dynamics seriously, however, in as much as it clearly positions “the dialogical nature of our intersubjective life as primary” to all forms of moral becoming (2014: 206). Historically embedded, interactionally dynamic, and experientially responsive, Mattingly’s “first-person virtue ethics” thus covers a terrain that overlaps in generative ways with the range of concerns addressed in Ethical life.

While Keane does spend a bit more time engaging Zigon’s phenomenologically grounded analysis of “moral breakdown” than he does Mattingly’s hermeneutic phenomenology, he unfortunately restricts his comments to a critique. In this regard, Keane is particularly critical of what he takes to be Zigon’s “overly simple” distinction between “consciousness and unconsciousness” that “maps onto . . . distinct moments of moral decision making and the ongoing flow of habit and routine” (Keane 2016: 134). Neither momentary, confined to decision-making that arises in and around a bounded ethical dilemma, nor primarily oriented to resolving itself in unreflective and comfortable modes of dwelling, Keane claims to distinguish his approach from Zigon’s by suggesting that moments of standing apart from action and being absorbed in the midst of it, are differing and ever-shifting stances that continually fluctuate and vary (Keane 2016: 135). To be sure, an emphasis on the complex, fluid, and dynamic qualities of various forms of experience is most certainly a crucial insight, one that I have also sought to advance in somewhat different ways in the context of my own work (see Throop 2003, 2005, 2009b, 2010a, 2010b, 2014). And yet, if we are going to be fair to Zigon, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which his renderings of “moral breakdown”—and the forms of awareness that arise in its wake—are also necessarily temporally arrayed along varying gradations, intensities, and articulations.

Given his debt to phenomenological analyses that take seriously the various aspectual and shifting ways in which lived experience is articulated (Zigon 2009, 2014c; see also Desjarlais and Throop 2011), it takes a rather ungenerous reading to render Zigon’s account one that fails to recognize the ways that moments of ethical reflection may shift in and out of focus in the complex intersubjectively mediated ways that are so perspicaciously described by Keane. Indeed, even in his earliest formulations of the concept (which he further develops in later writings; see Zigon 2009, 2011, 2014a, 2014b, 2014c), Zigon points out that such “breakdowns” may arise and dissipate, fluctuate and coalesce, in the midst of everyday activities, relations, and mundane events, as much as in those exceptional situations where individuals may find themselves recurrently struggling to cope with uncertainties and [472]dilemmas that come about in the face of society-wide difficulties, troubles, disasters, revolutions, et cetera (Zigon 2007). Moreover, as I have argued in the context of some of my own work on moral moods, there are also varieties of breakdown that are attuned to more deeply rooted forms of “dissatisfaction with one’s existential condition” (Throop 2014: 69). What is meant by moral breakdown in such cases is not simply “the stuff of particularized, identifiable, and bounded moral transgressions. It is instead the ‘totalistic’ situation characterizing an individual’s (and perhaps also his or her community’s) existence as such” (Throop 2014: 69). Significantly, the mooded varieties of ethical responsivity arising in the wake of such breakdowns entail ever-fluctuating forms of awareness that lie halfway “between moments of explicit ethical reflection and habitual embodied forms of morality” (Throop 2014: 68). Such moods therefore entail shifting intensities of awareness that may allow “moral problems to remain viscerally bound to one’s being, while extending moments of transgression, worry, and/or concern into both past and possible future horizons of experience that stretch well beyond the confines of the present or even the particularities of an ongoing interaction or narrative” (Throop 2014: 68).

Far from contradicting Keane’s account, it is important to recognize the numerous ways that these phenomenologically grounded insights anticipate and resonate with Keane’s interventions, including his efforts to trace dimensions of ethical life that “work beneath” and “range beyond” “normal awareness” (2016: 26), as well as his elucidation of situations in which “certain moments of social interaction fail to flow smoothly,” which may prompt individuals to “‘step back” and question themselves (283). These approaches also seem to complement aspects of Keane’s examination of expressive dimensions ethical life, such as stance and voice, in which “linguistic and stylistic variations” in speech evidence the ways that “apparently routine activity involves a range of ways of taking stances, from fully inside to completely alienated, with degrees of self-awareness and conflict along the way” (145). While Keane himself maintains that this “variability is quite ordinary; no particular ‘moral breakdown’ is required,” it seems that the ways that stance and voice variously encode efforts of trying “to position” oneself “within a range of ethical stances,” suggests that forms of breakdown, both more and less formulated, which themselves elicit a range of intersubjective and intercorporeal responses, more and less reflexive, may indeed still be operative—the key is being able to recognize the varying range of intensities, and forms of discernibility, that qualitatively differing varieties of breakdown may take on (see Throop and Duranti 2015: 1060–62).

Such possible points of contact between Keane’s approach and more explicitly phenomenological ones are also evident in one of the most generative of Keane’s contributions in Ethical life: his development of the concept of moral affordance. Keane characterizes moral affordances as encompassing “any aspect of people’s experiences and perceptions that they might draw on in the process of making ethical evaluations and decisions, whether consciously or not” (2016: 27). Including “anything at all that people can experience, such as emotions, bodily movements, habitual practices, linguistic forms, laws, etiquette, or narratives,” ethical affordances are thus potentialities, based upon various subjective capacities and objective properties, that arise in relation to particular activities, practical projects, and engagements. It is important to once again emphasize that a phenomenological approach to morality should not be seen as pitted against such insightful theoretical [473]contributions. It is instead highly resonate with them. For instance, as Zigon makes clear, a phenomenologically based analysis of morality is necessarily “multi-aspectual” in nature (2011: 64). As he explains, “in the social world, that is to say, in the everyday interrelationships between institutions, discourses, and persons, one encounters only the various aspects of what might come to count as morality or ethics in a particular situation” (2011: 64). Such moral aspects, which can be thought of as variably prominent, ever-shifting, and differentially discernable “pluralities” (Zigon 2009) that arise from specific “moral assemblages” (Zigon 2011), are thus constituted out of the same vast array of variable experiential potentialities that make up ethical affordances. Aspects and affordances are thus, it would seem, two sides of the self-same coin.

In closing, I would like to make clear that the brief reflections on Ethical life offered here are not meant to diminish in any way the many truly remarkable contributions that are found in the book—I am thinking here particularly of Keane’s close attention to the ways in which the concrete dynamics of everyday social interaction mediate “psychological and historical dimensions of ethical life” (2016: 33), as well as his analysis of “a variety of ways in which ethics can become a problem that prompts reflexivity” (184). Nor do they exhaust other areas where a more explicitly phenomenological anthropological analysis would provide a complementary lens through which to engage the core topics addressed in the book—I am thinking here particularly of existing phenomenologically inspired work on “empathy,” “intersubjectivity,” “will,” and “mental opacity” (see Csordas 1994, 2008; Desjarlais 1997, 2011; Duranti 2010; Groark 2010; Jackson 1998, 2012; Murphy and Throop 2010; Throop 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2012b). Less a critique, and more an invitation, I hope the comments convincingly highlight for Keane (and others) the significance of pursuing a more sustained and sustaining dialogue with phenomenological anthropological perspectives on morality/ethics.


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C. Jason Throop
Department of Anthropology
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