Why Bother?

In STA’s last entry he posted an awesome animated lecture by Žižek (did you know that RSAnimate has lots of cool videos on youtube?) and discussed the limits of working for social transformation and developing better ethical consumption practices through consumerism. Then he concluded with a somewhat pessimistic statement (perhaps partly due to the fact that he was writing this way too early in the morning, huh?) about the pointlessness of his own actions:

as ill-defined as my intentions with the blog were at the outset, and have been as it’s evolved, I just find it hard to commit too much to what I see as small, if not completely futile, actions aimed at incremental improvement of a situation, especially when I’m aware of the massive opposing forces counteracting whatever feeble steps I’m taking. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep recycling or turn the water off or buy grass-fed beef. It’s better than nothing. But it’s delusional to think that those things I’m doing, at the scale I’m doing them on, are enough to really make a significant difference in the world.

I agree that it can be overwhelming when we focus our attention on the larger forces that shape us and that severely limit how we can resist and what products/resources we have access to. Once you become aware of how large these problems are and how seemingly inconsequential our own actions are, you can really get bummed out (how’s that for an understatement, eh?). It is precisely at this point of failing, where the models that we have relied on–the charitable model in which we help/care for others in order to feel better about ourselves or the liberal-individual model in which we are motivated by a fervent belief that our individual actions are all that we need to do to affect change–are exposed as failures. Obviously they don’t work; they don’t motivate us to act and they don’t solve our larger problems (exploitation of workers, abusing the land, excessive over-consumption, etc). But, here failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Instead, the recognition that our (that is, the dominant model) ethics of consumption is a big failure provides us with the opportunity to rethink why we act and why we should bother.

I know that for me one big part of this unchained project is attempting to get at the root of why I act the way that I do and how I might act differently. That root isn’t just about my own failings or my own inability to care or engage in responsible practices; it’s about how my own actions are connected/related to larger structures and chains of production and consumption. Hmm…that sounds a lot like feminist consciousness-raising? Cool. Anyway, I don’t think my individual actions or choices can make that much of a difference if they aren’t guided by larger visions of the problem and how and why we continue to perpetuate it. And I don’t think I can ever really break my bad habits if I don’t break from some of the larger structures that shape and encourage them.

Now, at this point I really, really want to start talking about Foucault again and this essay that I am slowly reading (too much else to read right now…) about the ethics of consumption. The author has much to say about the problem of pessimism and how Foucault’s later work was about developing a virtue ethics of self-styling that responded to the questions of how we can act in face of such of such pervasive and insidious structures of oppression and why we should even bother. But, I don’t have the energy of time to write it right now. Sigh. I will try to get to it soon; it’s part of my larger project on virtue ethics.

Instead of veering off into more Foucault, I want to conclude this entry with my own assessment of our project (and of STA’s last post). STA’s recognition of failure (his own and that of the ethical models from which he has been drawing) is not a failure at all; it is the beginning of a break from bad habits and a shift towards cultivating new ones from the ruins of the old.

As I read through this entry, I am struck by how much I sound like a teacher-as-authority here. Let me be clear: I am still struggling in my own efforts to break from bad habits. I definitely don’t know what is to be done. What are the chains that bind me to my bad habits? They’re different from STAs. All I know (or maybe feel/experience?) is that acknowledging and reflecting on my failure to break those bad habits is a first step towards a freedom from chains/being chained.

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