The Ethics of Uncertainty by Michael Anker

What does it mean to live in uncertainty, to live without clearly defined ideas of Truth and it’s dialectical brother, Falsehood? How does it effect our day to day decisions, our ethical concerns and even our entire outlook on life? What does it mean to attempt to act within an uncertain world, to exist without even a firm ground from which to conceive of acting? What happens when the Other disappears after Nietzche’s “death of God”, when all we know or suspect can only be of this world, and not of another metaphysical plane? In essence, what happens when we sense, explosively, in the words of Jean Luc Nancy, that “the world in itself is enough”?
Michael Anker seeks to answer some of these questions in his book The Ethics of Uncertainty by drawing on the works of Jacques Derrida, Nancy, and Wolfgang Schirmacher, among others. Seeking to define, or at least to point to, an ethics which grows out of, or acts from, the acknowledgment that there can be no certain, exclusive permanent state of something which is not already containing within it something else—that is no black without the white— Anker lays out, in breathtakingly concise forms, a materialist continuation of Derrida’s “messianicity without messianism,” invoking Nancy’s “sense of the world” and Schirmacher’s homo generator.
Reducing the thoughts of Heraclitus, Heidegger, and Deleuze, as well as Derrida, Nancy and Schirmacher into a short “summarization” (his words), Anker writes that “as something is coming to be it is always already becoming something other”. Using this idea as a touchstone, Anker explains that to understand the work of the above philosophers—as well as our own condition—it is necessary to remember, on a materialist basis, that all things are subject to “continuous activity [and] simultaneous action” and that there is “no point of origin” nor “future in the sense of horizon”. Anker writes further that all things “exist only in relation” and that “there is only an excess of being.” In this, he attempts to show (for a proof would amount to a certainty) the interconnectedness of all things.
In examining the varied and vast work of Derrida, Anker focuses first on the necessity of the aporia—that is, the blockage or bind—as it relates to the concept of “responsibility”, which as he writes, is “intimately entwined with other notions such as duty, decision, ethics and politics.” (27) The recognition of the aporia is a necessary precondition for an ethical decision for it is only in its recognition that we allow the space for something other to freely exist. It is the the existence of the bind, temporary and constantly yielding to another, and another, and yet another bind (or double bind, in Derrida’s terminology) that allows other things—ideas, concepts, practicalities—to both exist and “to come (a venir).” It is by allowing oneself to remain open, multiple, undefined (except temporarily, momentarily) that one allows the other to come, to be possible. To allow for the possibility of an arrival, one needs to give way to the indeterminate future, embrace the uncertainty over the certain. The moment that is totalized becomes closed, and by extension dead. Freedom, the true “impossible decision” lies, for Derrida, as for Anker, in resisting the totalizing, determining moment, the uncompromising Truth. Anker writes that “totalization, in all its many forms, attempts to close down the future and give nothing other than what is and what is already known. It gives us a world of calculation and pre-existing knowledge in the here and now, but it cannot give us a future which holds the potentiality of an-other, a some-thing other, a thought not yet thought or determined by the present conditions.”(43) It is by remaining open in the fluid aporetic space that we allow other things to become manifest, and by so doing act ethically—and thereby, according to Anker, democratically— by refusing the totalizing structure of (pre)determined knowledge and calculation. “Making decisions here,” Anker writes, “in this space of contextual indeterminacy, is truly to make a decision, for the decision did not come by means of predetermined conditions; it was inventive through and through.” (33) For Derrida then, in Anker’s words, “the moment of decision is always surrounded by a context of indecision.” And it is this “context of indecision”, in which Derrida’s différance, the space between the decisions is allowed to freely disseminate, which allows one to be, or rather to become, constantly and without rest.
It is this multiplicity of being—that is, the constant be-coming of selves—that leads Anker from Derrida to Nancy and then to Schirmacher for, as he writes, “the ego (subject) is not alone even by itself, or in itself; it is always already with itself as multiple selves” and further that this plurality of selves represents not only itself but “a plurality of self with others, and a plurality of other selves with self.”(70-71) We cannot separate the self (or selves) that we call ourselves from other selves. It is instead a constant interaction, a flow of beings becoming, the singular (to use Nancy’s terms) becoming plural. Nancy writes that “being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another, circulating in the with and as the with if this singularly plural coexistence.”(70) The circulating with, or sharing, however, is not simply the result of a rising god-head, the postmodern equivalent of a Vedantic unitary, universal consciousness. It is rather, as Anker writes, “a sharing of singularities—a sharing of the irreducible otherness of each and every singularity itself,” making up, and here Anker quotes Nancy, “the singularly plural and the plurally singular.”
From this be-coming being of Nancy’s existing within and on the margins of Derrida’s différance, and as the traces of the singularly plural merge with plurally singular, so Schirmacher’s homo generator comes to the foreground as a constantly creative, generating force, one living a life of “imperceptible” fulfillment. This is not a fulfillment built upon the certainty of right and wrong, not the arrogant confidence and satisfaction of piety, but instead a quieter, uncertain quality, one taking place “behind our backs,” as Schirmacher notes in a conversation with Jean-François Lyotard, related by Anker. It is a fulfillment which arrives, subtly, easily when in concert with nature and not opposed to it. Anker writes that in “generating and generation, it comes to sense (Nancy) its meaning and thus its possible fulfillment, not in the recognized and determinate domain of thinking, but in a “finite thinking” open to the continuous and uncertain coming of difference and other.” (104) It is the constant generating force which gives force to itself, not the built-already, thought-already edifice of conventional thinking. It is the unattached, ungrasping qualities of an uncertain existence which leads to true creativity, and lends perhaps, in the words of Schirmacher, “the chaotic and seemingly failed life a touch of lightness.”(103)
Ethical decisions are conventionally judged on previous encounters, prior knowledge of right and wrong gleaned from experience. Whether it is a personal decision or a decision made by society, preceding history—precedent—is always viewed with heavy consideration. It is precisely this, however, which leads one to existing and deciding (irresponsibly, according to Derrida) in a pre-determined and therefore closed universe. Instead, Anker writes, “absolute freedom…opens us to a world without absolute measure,” a place of “anxious indeterminacy” where “what we do … makes all the difference in how the world unfolds.”(106) It is only in this unfolded world (constant in its folding and refolding) where the true ethical decision can be made. While there are no clear answers (nor could there ever be in the face of such immense, open possibilities) it is only in this aporetic, uncertain space that true ethical responsibilities can be carried out. Anker writes on the final page of the book that “ethical possibility, or as Derrida would say, a decision worthy of being called a decision (and thus a responsible decision), exists only in this uncertain terrain of contextual becoming—a becoming which be-comes not through the determined path of absolute knowledge or truth, but through the opening (Nancy) in the aporia of being itself.”(106) It is only here then that a true decision can be made, if only for an instant, before the arrival of the “to come”. Aporias, in a world without absolute measure, like that first step beyond the known universe, give us the absolute freedom through absolute uncertainty to make a truly free decision, and to live a life which is truly “ethical.”


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