Does troubling virtue = valuing vice? And other questions about vice and virtue, part 1

Note: Having just finished this entry after almost 4 days of deliberating over how to frame it and what to write, I feel compelled to comment on my blogging process. I am not sure if this entry makes sense, but it has been incredibly productive for me as I attempt to place my own thinking about virtue ethics and troublemaking in a larger context. Writing this entry has enabled me to clarify my thinking, generated a lot of new questions and sources, and has fueled my passion for troubling virtue ethics. Cool. This entry is one reason why I love blog writing.

Way back at the end of May, I wrote a rather lengthy entry about Peter Sagal’s book, The Book of Vices. I had a big problem with a key passage in his introduction:

In the long war between Vice and Virtue, Virtue has been met on the battlefield, routed, defeated in detail, occupied, and reeducated in prison camps. When last seen, Virtue was working on the Strip in Las Vegas, handing out color flyers advertising in-room exotic dancers. She says she’s happy, but she doesn’t meet your eyes (2).

I don’t want to rehash my argument in this entry. Instead, I want to take up the question of what happens to virtue when we trouble it (queer it? displace it? pose problems to it? jam its codes? rework it)? Does the troubling of virtue necessarily lead to the valuing of vice? What is/should be the relationship between virtue and vice? And what kind of virtue (or vice?) is troublemaking?

But first, back to Sagal. In Sagal’s passage, virtue has been overtaken (corrupted?) by vice. The moral system has been reversed, with vice replacing virtue as the guiding force for many Americans’ excessive and immoral behaviors. Sagal’s reversal of moral codes is not meant so much as a valuing of vice (or especially those practices, identities, or communities that are understood to be vices), but a mocking of virtue and those individuals who promote it but fail to practice it.

1There are many reasons why I find this approach problematic. One key reason: it uses practices that are deemed vices, and the individuals/communities who practice them, as the raw material and the evidence for mocking conservative values. And who, quite frequently, are these folks (that is, the raw material)? Radical sex workers or individuals or communities who engage in non-heteronormative (queer?) sex practices. That’s right,  all of those people whose sexual practices fall outside of the inner charmed circle that Gayle Rubin discusses in “Thinking Sex“.  Because of their improper (deviant) practices these folks are understood as having fully rejected virtues and any “proper” moral codes. In Sagal’s version of virtue and vice, with vice vanquishing virtue, those who are relegated to the vice category seem not only to be in opposition to ethics, but serve as the proof that ethics/virtues have failed or no longer exist.

But what would happen if we thought about those practices that have been labeled vices as having some ethical content? Could it be possible to claim them as virtues and as part of the foundation for a new sort of ethics? Or, could it be possible to resignify (or maybe disidentify) with the category of vice–to inhabit it, but use it differently by reclaiming it or reimagining it as ethically valuable? Is this what Michael Warner is attempting to do in The Trouble with Normal with his ethics of shame?

Okay, in asking this question about Warner I realized that I needed to go back and revisit what he actually says about an ethics of shame, so I re-skimmed the first chapter of The Trouble with Normal. Very useful.

One way to think about vice as ethically valuable is to open up the category of virtue to a much wider range of possibilities for what counts as virtuous practices (So, those practices formerly deemed vices would be re-imagined as virtues–practices like fist-fucking.) Some might ask: Does this lead to unbridled relativism and moral chaos, where any and all practices (as long as some folks like doing them!) are morally acceptable? Gayle Rubin, in “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory and the Politics of Sexuality” understands this question to come out of a belief in the “domino theory of sexual peril” and the “fear that if anything is permitted to cross this erotic DMZ [the line between proper and improper sexual practices], the barrier against scary sex will crumble and something unspeakable will skitter across” (Rubin, 14). This fear of relativism and the loss of morals, leads many to conclude that lines must be drawn (and strictly adhered to) between what is proper behavior (virtue) and what is improper behavior (vice).

But Michael Warner, in his ethics of shame, sees the expanding of morality (virtue) differently. Framing his discussion of it in terms of sexual autonomy and dignity, he writes:

Sexual autonomy has grown…by making room for new freedoms, new experiences, new pleasures, new identities, new bodies–even if many of us turn out to live in the old ones without complaining.…Pleasures once imaginable only with disgust, if at all, become the material out of which individuals and groups elaborate themselves (12).

trouble_with_normal_cover1For Warner, sexual autonomy is about dignity and one’s humanity (Judith Butler’s ideas about the livable life and the human are echoing in my head right now) and is central to an ethical project based on morality and not moralism (where sexual practices and tastes are mandated for everyone). This ethical project uses practices/communities that engage in “shameful” acts as the raw material (not a la Sagal, for jokes proving how corrupt we are all) for an ethics of dignity, autonomy and (human) community.

So, Warner envisions an ethics that is grounded in shame, disgust, repulsion, embarrassment. Aren’t those the emotions we are supposed to feel when we recognize that our practices are vices instead of virtues? Interesting…

But, wait, it gets better. Consider what Warner writes about dignity, indignity and shame. Distancing his understanding of dignity from the “bourgeois propriety” version of it in which dignity is assigned to only some sex practices (heterosexual, private, loving), “as long as they are out of sight” (37), Warner imagines rethinking (resignifying/disdentifying with) dignity through indignity. He describes this as a queer ethic of dignity in shame:

If sex is a kind of indignity, then we’re all in it together. And the paradoxical result is that only when this indignity of sex is spread around the room, leaving no one out, and in fact binding people together, that it begins to resemble the dignity of the human (36).

0415969239Wow! How come I didn’t see this passage before? Pondering this significance of Warner’s claim, I am reminded of Butler’s idea of being undone by others. What connections and/or disconnections do we see between envisioning indignity (shame, disgust, could we include failure here?) as the foundation for our humanity (Warner) and understanding our subjectivity (and humanity) to be predicated on our vulnerability and undone-ness (Butler)? I need to think about this some more–I want to read Warner’s claim as being more than a call for those who are labeled undignified or disgusting to develop coalitions (even though this is important); I want to think about it as a call for a new version of humanity and a new vision of ethics–one that resignifies and claims vice (disgust, shame, failure) as virtue.

This resignifying of vice is not a mere reversal of the virtue/vice binary so that what we think to be bad is actually good, and what we think is good is actually bad. And, it is not just an expansion of the list of virtues to include those things that have been previously understood to have no ethical content (only in opposition to ethics).  So, what is it?

To be continued…

Men Behaving Badly: Virtue, Vice and the Battle for our Souls?

The Book of Virtues / The Book of ViceI just started reading Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice (subtitled very naughty things and how to do them). Sagal offers up this book as a (quasi-satirical?) response to William Bennett and his The Book of Virtues (subtitled a great treasury of moral stories). Bennett wrote his book in 1993 as a response to what he saw as the lack or decline of moral education in the United States. Since I plan to devote several future blog entries to this book (I will end the suspense here: I have many, many problems with Bennett’s book), I will just offer this brief summary: The Book of Virtues is a collection of stories that are meant to educate both children and adults on classic virtues like self-discipline, compassion, courage, responsibility, and honesty. In writing the book in 1993, Bennett hoped to continue the tradition (a tradition that he thinks is being lost) of passing on important values to the next generation.

I have only read a few pages of Sagal’s book, but I can already tell that it is at least partially a reaction to Bennett and his lofty goal. From the flipped (book of vice not virtue) title, to the strikingly similar book jackets, to Sagal’s gleeful reference to Bennett’s own inability to live up the standards his book promotes, it is clear that Sagal wants to make fun of virtues and virtue talk. He also wants to demonstrate that, even if people think that virtues are a good idea, they really want to talk about and imagine how to practice vice. Here is his (disturbing, I think) assessment of virtues vs. vice:

In the long war between Vice and Virtue, Virtue has been met on the battlefield, routed, defeated in detail, occupied, and reeducated in prison camps. When last seen, Virtue was working on the Strip in Las Vegas, handing out color flyers advertising in-room exotic dancers. She says she’s happy, but she doesn’t meet your eyes (2).

WARNING! WARNING! I see some real problems here. When I first heard about this book, I was intrigued and thought it might offer an interesting counter to the rigid link between virtue and conservative (frequently fundamentalist) thought that is so prevalent these days in popular and scholars-who-don’t-study-religion-or-ethics talk. On some level, I am still hopeful, but I absolutely cannot let this paragraph pass without reacting to Sagal’s satirical take on William Bennett and his virtue crusade. (Wow, this is page 2. How long will it take me to read all 252 pages?)

In Sagal’s scenario, Virtue is a man at battle who is courageously defending the honor of virtues and morals. He is weak and eventually overtaken by Vice. Okay, overtaken is too tame of a word. He is routed, defeated, occupied (violated? penetrated?), and re-educated by Vice (possible translation: Virtue becomes Vice’s bitch?). Having been completely emasculated, he becomes a whore on the street who is so demoralized that she (yes, he is now a she which demonstrates how far he has fallen!) can’t even look you (by the way, who is the you in this sentence?) in the eyes.

Of course, Sagal is joking here and he using his humor to demonstrate (among other things) the hypocrisy of moral crusaders like Bennett and the disconnect between what Bennett (and other “family value” folk) vigorously promote and what they secretly (or not so secretly) practice. I have no problem with exposing such hypocrisy, but I am bothered by how he does it. Let me explain. The image that Sagal gives us here (and as far as I can tell, throughout the book) is exclusively of a white, heterosexual male who must undertake the epic struggle between being virtuous and having vices. Women (of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages) may tempt and successfully seduce him but they are only serve as evidence that the struggle exists. They are not subjects or actors engaging in the struggle themselves.

Now, I understand that Sagal is writing from his own perspective and that he is a white, heterosexual (and happily married) male. And his writing style is one that draws heavily upon his own humorous engagements with and observations of the various vices. For these reasons, I understand why the book would skew toward the white male heterosexual (aka the-top-of-the-heap) demographic. But, in his blurb about virtue and vice in a battle (for our souls) he doesn’t just ignore women, that is, not consider them in his description of the battle. No, he uses them as the foundation for his joke; he uses them to serve up his humor about men who claim to defend virtue but end up (always and inevitably?) being seduced by the dark side and behaving very badly. Ha Ha. Look. Virtue has become a whore. Isn’t that funny? While Bill Bennett and his cronies may be the butt of Sagal’s joke, it is women (and their roles as strippers giving lap dances in the introduction and chapter 3 or as prostitutes handing out flyers) and the reader’s shameful pleasure of them that dominates so much of what I have read so far (since I started this blog entry, I have made it to page 81).

The pitting of women as strippers/whores/objects of our lust against white, heterosexual men as failed paragons of virtue/typical guys-who-want-to-behave-badly is established in the author’s note even before the introduction. Sagal writes about how this book is partly inspired by and dedicated to Marv Albert (and those like him) who engage in vices (Marv is an adulterer who has a secret biting fetish) and get caught. No fair, Sagel cries as he ponders: Why are a select few allowed to get away with it while the rest of us (men, that is) are burdened by our pesky virtues and moral (and legal) accountability to our families and society? Poor Marv, Sagal laments. Basketball players like Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant can engage in bad, perverse behavior, but a schmo like Marv won’t ever be able to get away with it. He won’t ever be able to engage in polymorphous perversity (or force sex on a woman) and bite a woman (without consent and repeatedly) on her back. Of course, Sagal is not endorsing Bryant’s, Chamberlain’s or Albert’s behavior. But, by not considering the perspective of the women who are the objects of this vice (in this case, sexual perversity and more), Sagal is leaving out an important part of the story about how battles over virtue and vice are engaged (and represented in the popular imagination).

At whose expense is this battle between vice and virtue waged? Whose souls are being struggled over (and who doesn’t have a soul or at least one worth fighting for)? And, why, no matter who wins (Virtue or Vice), does the woman always end up the loser?