An Ethics of Vibes

This was originally published on September 13, 2023 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

Woah, I hadn’t realized it has been two months since my last post! In my defense I was focused on getting my book proposal and sample chapters off to my editor, and I did! So, vibes book: proposed!

As I was reading Jonathan Sterne’s new book Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment, there were two points in the book where something he said made me think: “Well, that’s basically what philosopher X said in another context.” The first has to do with Beauvoir’s ontology of ambiguity, and the second has to do with Rousseau’s critique of music theorist and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau in the Essay on the Origin of Languages.

Thinking these pairs of identical points together in their differing contexts is helpful in a few ways. First, thinking Sterne on impairment and Beauvoir on ambiguity together can help elaborate what we are supposed to do with the understanding of the subject as neither fully nor predictably “able” or “self-knowing” that Sterne offers in his book. Beauvoir takes this understanding of the “ambiguous” subject and builds an ethics for them (a.k.a. us). (One of the things I argue in the vibes book is that Beauvoir’s existential phenomenology is the best existing philosophical method for thinking vibes/orientations in a non-ideal and liberatory way, and I’ll develop that point a little bit in this post.) Second, thinking Sterne on the fallacy of grounding voice in the physiology of the human body together with Rousseau on the fallacy of grounding harmony in the physical properties of sounds helps clarify that there are actual several distinct ways that Western philosophy has tried to tie voice to body to personhood.  

Impairment Phenomenology and the Ethics of Ambiguity

“Impairment theory also disputes the idea of the able, self-knowing subject as the baseline for philosophies, histories, anthropologies, and phenomenologies of subjectivity, even as a baseline against which to push back” (Sterne, 155).

“This privilege, which he [l’homme] alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends. As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it” (Beauvoir, 7).

He may not think of it in exactly these terms, but Sterne’s attempt to rethink phenomenology from the perspective of disabled experience (as he does in the first quote above) has actually brought him to basically the same point Simone de Beauvoir begins from in her canonical work of existential phenomenology, The Ethics of Ambiguity. Both of these quotes make the point that while human individuals beings can be capable of self-knowledge and self-command, that capacity is not categorical: we are unavailable to ourselves at least as much as we are in command of ourselves. 

Both thinkers claim that humans are fundamentally dependent, fallible beings, and the history of Western philosophy has invented many complicated gymnastics to hide that fact so that it could make the privilege-enabled experience of frictionless self-knowledge and self-command appear to be the standard from which everyone less privilege deviates rather than the ideological position that it is. I’m thinking here of Charles Mills’s point that ideal theory “reflects the nonrepresentative interests and experiences of a small minority of the national population-middle-to-upper-class white males-who are hugely over-represented in the professional philosophical population” and thus offers “a nonrepresentative phenomenological life-world (mis)taken for the world” (“Ideal Theory as Ideology,” 172). Western philosophy traditionally takes the experience of capacity and ability that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy grants nondisabled cis white men as the model for human experience itself, when in fact this is an ideologically-motivated misrepresentation of the ontology of Earthly existence. To be a human being on earth is to be both self-knowing and governing and also radically dependent, subject and object, capable and impaired. 

Sterne gets to this point through a phenomenology of disabled experience in an ableist society. Beauvoir gets to this point through existential phenomenology. To some degree this is a case of the pointing Spidermen meme. But it is also I think a case for existential phenomenology as an umbrella framework that can accommodate Sterne’s impairment phenomenology, Beauvoir’s phenomenology of patriarchy, Fanon’s phenomenology of Black experience, and other accounts of the experience of oppression. 

For Sterne, “impairment phenomenology…does not assume a subject in command of their own faculties” (12). The self-mastery (Plato) or self-knowledge (Descartes, Husserl, etc.) or rational self-interest (liberals) that philosophy has traditionally presumed the subject to have are the sorts of idealized capacities Mills discusses in his breakdown of the components of ideal theory: they describe the idealized models of human faculties that canonical models of personhood, ethics, and politics require to work coherently. These are the faculties of what Eric Stanely calls the “self-possessed” (Atmospheres of Violence, 17) individual, the individual who has full ownership of their property-in-person. However, as Sterne argues, they are not a good basis for understanding the world in either a just or accurate way. Just as philosophy’s traditional nonimpaired subject reflects the idealized experience of the West’s most privileged groups, “[Iris Marion] Young’s account of gendered embodiment [and] accounts of impairment also subvert transcendence and render bodies as objects to themselves” (Sterne 21). Iris Marion Young’s “Throwing Like A Girl” is a classic account of traditionally feminized body experience, such as throwing while performing a stereotypically feminine body comportment; her point is that women are not born impaired, but become so as they are oriented to a patriarchal society. The frictionless experience of capacity perceived by privileged groups comes at the direct cost of the diminished capacity of minority groups. To bring a bit of Carole Pateman into the mix, we can argue that patriarchy impairs women by preventing them full self-possession. A constitutive feature of the sexual contract is its gendered distribution of property-in-person: men are in full self-possession of theirs, but they can freely impede on the property-in-person of cis women and non-cis people, through, for example, phenomena like rape culture or the trans panic defense. As an idealized model of human capacity, full self-possession is an ideological tool that naturalizes the entitlement patriarchal racial capitalism grants white cishetero men (and increasingly to some white women) to their full property-in-person as the boundaries of “the human” as such. Like Young, Sterne builds a non-ideal model of capacity grounded in the experience of those traditionally denied full self-possession of their property-in-person. As he explains, “a political phenomenology of impairment is therefore phenomenology minus one, minus unity, minus wholeness, minus quietude, minus a stable being” (18). In Sterne’s account, human existence is not a plenitude or a state of full possession, but one of lacking wholeness.

This is exactly what Beauvoir argues in The Ethics of Ambiguity. (In fact, Young draws significantly on Beauvoir in her own article.) I have taught this a billion times and the terminology is tricky, so let me explain it first and then dig into Beauvoir’s language. Her phenomenology is rooted in the existentialist view that nothing IS inherently or essentially any one way or other, but that everything in human experience HAS BEEN MADE TO BECOME the way it is, and CAN BE MADE OTHERWISE. Human beings have no essential nature: nobody is “a waiter,” nor is anyone “a woman.” People become those things by doing the activities of someone in those positions (think Butler’s concept of performativity here–it has its roots as much in Beauvoir as it does in Austin). I may be writing now, but I am not “a writer”; I am existing in the mode of writing. In a few minutes I’ll probably be existing in the mode of taking the puppy outside to pee. Existing is an activity, whereas being is, for Beauvoir, an ontological property that is possessed (or not).  “By uprooting himself from the world,” she argues, “man makes himself present to the world and makes the world present to him…I cannot appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in that very effort toward an impossible possession” (12) Existing is the interminable and ongoing activity of becoming something other than what one is at any given moment; being, however, is to possess a stable and fixed reality. 

When Beauvoir says that humans LACK BEING, she means that they do not possess a stable and fixed reality; existing is the work of negating my present state by doing something different in the next minute. For example, when I get up from writing this analysis to go take my puppy out to pee, I am negating the reality of the me who was sitting writing and creating a new reality in which I am up and about and wrestling with a squirmy baby dog. As long as we continue existing–negating any current ontological state for a new one–humans will never possess being. I AM NOT a woman, though I exist as one so long as I continue to act in ways that are aligned with current ideas of what that is. 

So, for Beauvoir to be an existentialist is to think that humans exist but they possess or have no being. This is what she means when she refers to Sartre’s claim in Being and Nothingness that “man is…a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being” (11). By acknowledging and acting upon the fact that one has no being–i.e., by existing–humans performatively (in Butler’s strict sense, remember) create our existing reality. For example, by recognizing that I am not a writer and that enacting the activity of writing is the only thing that will make me a person who has an existing relationship with writing, I make myself a lack (of BEING a writer) in order that I might exist as someone writing and who has written. As Beauvoir puts it, “It is not granted him [man] to exist without tending toward this being which he will never be” (13). As things that exist, humans are oriented toward being, but we never possess it. 

Beauvoir calls the process of “making oneself a lack of being” by negating a present ontological state for a new one “conversion” (14). Conversion is different than Hegelian sublation/aufheben, which is also the result of a process of negation. Whereas Hegelian sublation is a process that produces a new kind of determinate being through the mutual negations of two opposed determinate qualities of being, existentialist conversion negates being and produces existence, a state that tends toward being without attaining it. For the human being,

His being is lack of being, but this lack has a way of being which is precisely existence…Man makes himself a lack, but he can deny the lack as a lack and affirm himself as a positive existence. He then assumes the failure…The failure is not surpassed but assumed (13).

In other words, by negating my being through an action that creates a different state of existence, I positively affirm my existence while still not affirming my being. I am a lack of being, but a presence of existence. To “assume the failure” means to accept my lack of being, i.e., my existence, as the condition of my reality. 

It’s not just my own reality that lacks being–all reality lacks being, and is continually reshaped by humans as they exist on, in, through, and with the broader extra human world. “He wants to be, and to the extent that he coincides with this wish, he fails…But man also wills himself to be a disclosure of being, and if he coincides with this wish, he wins, for the fact is that the world becomes present by his presence in it” (23). Humans may tend toward being, but they are never fully aligned with it; however, as they exist in, with, and through the extra-human world, they give that world reality or “disclose being” by ordering it into a particular shape and texture. Or, as Beauvoir put it, “the disclosure is the transition from being to existence” (30). Existentialist conversion is the conversion from being to existing. The lack of being is never overcome or superceded, but assumed as the condition of existence. Humans exist, but we ARE NOT; our existence negates being. 

Converting being into existence, humans exercise a capacity for transcendence, yet in a way that does not fully or completely resolve the negation of being created by the movement of their existence: we exist, but we ARE NOT. I want to closely read an extended passage here because it both explains what Beauvoir means by existential conversion’s ambiguity and connects it directly back to phenomenology:

To exist genuinely is not to deny this spontaneous movement of my transcendence, but only to refuse to lose myself in it. Existentialist conversion should rather be compared to Husserlian reduction: let man put his will to be ‘in parentheses’ and he will thereby be brought to the consciousness of his true condition. And just as phenomenological reduction prevents the errors of dogmatism by suspending all affirmation concerning the mode of reality of the external world, whose flesh and bone presence the reduction does not, however, contest, so existentialist conversion does not suppress my instincts, desires, plans, and passions. It merely prevents any possibility of failure by refusing to set up as absolutes the ends toward which my transcendence thrusts itself, and by considering them in their connection with the freedom which projects them (14).

According to Beauvoir, existing involves the act of negating being, of transcending one’s present condition for a different one, but it also involves the failure of attaining being: existence includes both transcendence and failure. Such conversion happens in a context that is definitely conditioned by one’s material situation. Like Husserlian phenomenology, which holds that material reality exists and affects us, but is not fully or definitively knowable or graspable (think of the German term Begriff here–thinking as grasping or holding…or possessing) in itself (i.e., we cannot grasp reality as an absolute), existential phenomenology claims that humans definitely affect and change our material situation, but the aims toward which our actions tend do not themselves have being (i.e., they are not “absolutes,” ends with a metaphysical reality that transcends our performance of them). Existing is real and material, but not absolute; existing IS NOT.

So when Sterne argues that any just theory of the subject “must be founded on ambiguities, contradictions, fragments, webs: a subject who is somewhere and someplace, unsure of itself; a subject that oscillates between self-assertion and self-abrogation, between agential audacity and claiming its radical dependency and situatedness” (19), this is basically another way of saying what Beauvoir argues about human ontology in The Ethics of Ambiguity. For both Sterne and Beauvoir, humans are both empowered and impeded by their (ontological, metaphysical, material-social, etc.) conditions.

This similarity is worth pointing out because though recent attention to phenomenology from thinkers like Sterne and Ahmed are interested in alternatives to hegemonic norms regarding sexuality and ability (Sterne for example argues “norms are those things against which impairments and disabilities are defined” (30)), Beauvoir’s existential phenomenology offers a framework for understanding and practicing alternatives to a different, more recent form of biopower focused not on norms but on legitimation. (For more on what I mean by “legitimation” see this post and this post.)

Briefly, legitimacy is the form of governance focused on the legal or illegal ownership of private property. Marriage law, for example, creates legitimate and illegitimate relations for the inheritance of property and wealth. The doctrine of terra nullius established the supposedly legitimate colonial theft of land from indigenous Americans as distinct from other forms of supposedly illegitimate theft, just as today wage theft is largely treated as a form of legitimate theft whereas moral panics about fake shoplifting epidemics suffuse the media. One of the main arguments of my vibes book is that new forms of mathematical probability used in the algorithms that fuel platforms like TikTok, Spotify, and ChatGPT combine with the vernacular discourse of “vibes” to form a new kind of biopower different from the normative one Foucault theorized. This new form of biopower governs not through normativity, but through legitimation. For example, whereas 80s and 90s moral panics about LGBTQ+ people were about sexual obscenity (a violation of community norms), the 2020s moral panics about LGBTQ+ people are about sexual illegitimacy or criminalization (e.g., queer people as “groomers” violating laws about the age of consent, etc.). To be legitimate is to be oriented toward the lawful ownership of private property, to be illegitimate is to be oriented toward an unlawful relation with private property. And since private property is a racialized, gendered phenomena, legitimation is a technique for governing race, gender, and sexuality without explicitly calling them out as such. 

The basis of Beauvoir’s phenomenology and what makes it an existential phenomenolgoy is the claim that “the genuine man will not agree to recognize any foreign absolute” (14). Values, in other words, have no being; they exist as things people create and maintain. From this perspective, there are no divine or natural laws, nor social precedent, dictating what is legitimate and what isn’t. At every moment, our actions endorse values that we have either explicitly or implicitly chosen and bring into existence the results of those choices. For example, as I write this paragraph I’m drinking a glass of tap water; in so doing, I rely on publicly funded infrastructure that brings local drinking water to my house. Drinking tap water is a positive endorsement of public infrastructure and a rejection of privatized, commodified bottled water. I’m able to make that choice because I live in a town where the water infrastructure has not been left to rot due to austerity and/or environmental racism–i.e., the possibility of this choice lies in the orientation or situation I inhabit. However, sometimes when I travel for work I buy bottled water because I’m unsure of the quality of the tap water at the hotel where I’m staying. So, while in the abstract I always prefer public infrastructure over private markets, in those cases where I buy bottled water I am bringing to concrete existence a different set of values. As Beauvoir puts it, “human spontaneity always projects itself toward something” (25): I am always orienting myself to some things and away from others. As Beauvoir puts it, “freedom must project itself toward its own reality through a content whose value it establishes” (70). When we negate a present state of reality and bring something else into existence, we orient reality in the direction we have chosen.

One thing anglophone readers tend to get very wrong about Beauvoir is to read her notion of “choice” as an instance of the liberal idea of choice that dominates the vernacular sense of the term in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. Beauvoir is not a liberal; The Ethics of Ambiguity is an explicit critique of liberalism. Liberalism is definitionally a philosophy of liberty, i.e., of freedom from tresspass on one’s property-in-person. Beauvoir’s existential phenomenology is a philosophy of freedom, which she defines as the capacity to contribute to the common project of existing and mutually shaping the reality we share. As Beauvoir puts it, “no project can be defined except by its interference with other projects. To make being ‘be’ is to communicate with others by means of being” because “only the freedom of others keeps each one of us from hardening into the absurdity of facticity” (71). If existing is negating a present reality and making a new one, then I need other peoples’ existences because those are what have shaped the present reality I act with and through; they have also shaped the context for my action, my situation/orientation. These impacts are not trespasses, they do not necessarily limit or impede me (they only do so in situations of oppression); rather, they positively subtend and support my existence.

If human existence and the world in which we exist are orientated by our collective and cumulative actions in and on it, that means that when we negate a present reality for a new one, we are negating a reality made by someone. As Beauvoir puts it, “no action can be generated for man without its being immediately generated against men” (99). When I orient myself towards trans and nonbinary people, I orient myself away from TERFs and fascists. When I act in ways that support criminalized populations, I act in ways that negate the reality of patriarchal racial capitalist legitimacy. Every action is for some people, and against some other people. In a world oriented by patriarchal racial capitalism, this ambiguity isn’t neutral: though intersectionality makes it difficult to clearly be on one side or the other in every instance, our actions are always oriented with some and against others. The orientations of our actions may be ambiguous, but they are never, at least in our non-ideal world, neutral.

For Beauvoir, every action – individual and collective, intentionally thematized or not –  is a choice to orient ourselves towards some people and against others. This is why I think Beauvoir’s existential phenomenology offers the best way to approach the kind of phenomenological method we need to theorize and live in an epistemic regime that models the world as orientations (vibes, vectors, etc.) and governs them according to their relative legitimacy. The technique, form, or style of the action doesn’t really matter; what matters is with whom that action is in solidarity and whose realities that action negates.

This is where the last chapter of my vibes book goes: if 21st century biopower models reality as orientations (vibes and vectors), and then governs them for their relative legitimacy, then Beauvoirian existential phenomenology offers a philosophical model for theorizing both ontological and practical questions. Unlike 20th century commitments to, for example, “antinormativity,” Beauvoir’s model holds that we should not take any specific value, practice, or technique as BEING inherently resistant to patriarchal racial capitalist legitimation. Rather, if we want to orient ourselves towards freedom, then we have to concern ourselves with whom our actions orient us towards, and whom against. And the answer to that question will change across changing contexts. It’s not a matter of adopting a fixed orientation; existing is a continual demand to reorient oneself (not unlike the process of algorithmic modulation). We have a responsibility to continually reorient ourselves towards relations, people, and things that help us orient the world in which we exist to foster freedom for all (i.e., one in which everyone gets to contribute to the mutual re/orientation of our world).

I could go on–and will in the vibes book–but we’re at nearly 4000 words so I’ll stop for now.

I have more to say about the similarity between one of Sterne’s claims about the materiality of voice to one of Rousseau’s claims about the materiality of musical sound and how both of those claims relate to Western notions of the relationship between body features and personhood, but clearly I’ll save that for another post.