The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir

by stronged

A robust piece of writing that discusses the sociological and conceptual paradigms that shape “the human condition.” Beauvoir takes us through the nature of man from childhood to the different stages of being in existence. She finishes by articulating how no one man is alone for we only exist as a cohort – a binary or comparative construct. We are interconnected in our conception of what mankind is.

Here are some brief notes:

  • the characteristic of the spirit of seriousness is to consider values as readymade things.

I have a tendency to behave in this manner. Many of us I do. We only feel stable and secure in our own identity and being when there are certainties. Our perception holds that bona fide facts is what stabilises us in our life. However, if we were to scratch below the surface we would discover that our perception of the world is grounded in our own subjective experience of it. More of a phenomenological understanding rather than a reference to any scientific factual evidence.

I know I must keep in mind (for my own sanity) that the world is not fixed in absolutes, but is in a constant flux of change. The more I understand this fact the more I will enjoy the process of what life throws at me and the inevitable changes that I will encounter. As Buddhist dharma claims: “life is suffering.” We must come to grips with the imperfections of the world and ourselves in order to live in harmony. This includes understanding that nothing is permanent. I know I for one fear making a mistake because it reflects on my character. I must keep reminding myself that my character is ever-changing and therefore what has occurred in the past is separate from my present self.

  • he feels himself protected against the risk of existence by the ceiling which human generations have built over his head.

By the term ceiling, I imagine Beauvoir is speaking of the societal paradigm that mankind has constructed from a moral aptitude we have developed through various sources of religious (canonical) manuscripts. These constructs are what apparently has dictated the laws to which we abide and how we conduct ourselves within society in general. They dictate to us the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of being.

  • there are still many who take shelter in the shadow of men; they adopt without discussion the opinions and values recognized by their husband or their lover, and that allows them to develop childish qualities which are forbidden to adults because they are based on a feeling of irresponsibility.

This does not seem as common as it was back in the day. However, this still occurs within particular cultural paradigms where a member of a relationship assumes a subordinate role in abdication of their identity.

  • Ignorance and error are facts as inescapable as prison walls.

There’s no shame in being ignorant if it is balanced with humility and enthusiasm for new things. However, if one is to surrender all their responsibilities to a superior then they restrict themself from becoming a whole, independent person.

  • “Why must I act that way? What good is it? And what will happen if I act in another way?” He discovers his subjectivity…Men stop appearing as if they were gods…the individual must at last assume his subjectivity.

When a man finds in him a curiousity to question the establishment – generally in adolescence – he takes on an autonomy and independence that also questions his own state of being. Harking back to Anthroposophy, this occurs from the age of fourteen onwards, when the ‘intellect emerges’ (Edwards, 7-8).

  • it is always on the basis of what he has been that a man decides upon what he wants to be.

Similar to the construction of an interactive narrative. If the interactant selects a clip that is unsavoury, they will not select it again. Through a diachronistic assemblage of experiences we learn we to place our next step.

  • He is afraid of engaging himself in a project as he is afraid of being disengaged and thereby of being in a state of danger before the future, in the midst of its possibilities.

I feel as though this is me in a nutshell. There is so much fear wrapped up in failure. But when we look upon failure from an objective, pragmatic standpoint, we realise that this is the only way to learn. It is through failure that we learn how to accomplish tasks. Trial and error. If we reject engaging in tasks in the first place then we will never learn. Never know. Fear of failure, for me, stems from being continually ridiculed as I grew up – as I would imagine is the case for many people. We are taught to favour analysis and criticism from a very young age as a model for productivity. But this is not the most constructive mode of interaction and progression. No one wants to feel as though they are the outsider. Unwanted. Unappreciated. Unloved. Therefore one strives to succeed in all tasks. This is undoubtedly unrealistic and subsequently sets you up for a merciless failure imbued with guilt. We give ourselves such a hard time in order to please others and therefore be accepted into the community that there is no room for the imperfections of life. Those wondrous imperfections that makes being an enriching experience. We must learn to develop a thicker skin in order to become happier, more carefree people, so that when we fail we accept that this is a part of life and does not reflect the quality of our personhood. Within any collaborative discourse there must be a balance between criticism and encouragement (head and heart).

  • The passionate man makes himself a lack of being not that there might be being, but in order to be. And he remains at a distance; he is never fulfilled.

I feel it is necessary to be without. There is always going to be a lack of something within your life so one must accept this. I do not think this is a bad thing though. It is the lack that motivates us to strive for fulfilment. Sure, it can seem futile at times, but the thirst for knowledge or money or love or your dream house is what propels you on to create paths to these temporary destinations. I know I have an insatiable appetite to understand people and how we operate within this world. Although at times I fall into the slump of believing I will never know the answer (and quite frankly I wont!), I am still satisfied when i strike information that resonates for me; a fragment of subjective truth about the human condition (as indeed this article has been).

  • The cause of the passionate man’s torment is his distance from the object; but he must accept it instead of trying to eliminate it.

This ties in with the last point.

  • many intellectuals seek their salvation either in critical thought or creative activity.

Honours seems to be asking for both simultaneously. They seem to compliment each other in the search for clarifying the ambiguous qualities of life.

  • The artist and the writer…attempt to realize…[existence] as an absolute.

I feel this is both a problem of semantics and sociological conditioning. On the one hand, language is a blunt tool that we endeavour to articulate indescribable instances. Whilst on the other hand, our desire to pin things down into some type of guarantee or constant derives from our epistephilia (Nichols, 40).

  • The word, the stroke, the very marble indicate the object insofar as it is an absence.

The notion of absence articulating an object reminds me of an article written by Norman M. Klein titled Waiting for the World to Explode: How Data Converts into a Novel. He explains that ‘[s]tory is generally organized through absence. Put another way, absence is presence’ (3). He goes on to say that ‘[i]n time lines, an absence is what cannot fit on the path. In a map, absence is what cannot be classified. In a film, absence can be what lay just outside the frame; or just before the action begins’ (5).

I commend Klein for highlighting the importance of absence. For we cannot experience everything in it’s entirety – or we’ll blow a fuse! Absence enables a shape and rhythm to a narrative or art form. The artist acts as conductor when they design their artefact of expression, creating ebbs and flows of information that are weighted for maximum communicative appeal. Matt Soar explained how he designed each act (winter, spring, etc.) of his K-Film Ceci N’est Pas Embres with a positive SNU connected to a negative SNU which in turn connects to a positive SNU. In this way the interactant experiences a dramatic arc throughout the narrative content.

  • Kant said when he defined art as “a finality without end.”

I had never come across this quotation in my reading of Kant, so thank you Beauvoir for rectifying this. All art is open-ended to some degree. Even with films that offer a clear resolution the lives of each character continue to go on after the credits end. There are always some loose ends that have not been tied up.

  • To make being “be” is to communicate with others by means of being.

I like this point, as it illustrates that being does not have to rely upon constant verbal communication or ‘productivity’, we can simply “be” in each others company without the pressure to perform in any way.

  • Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men… To will oneself free is also to Will others free.

This closing point brings us back to the connectivity of humankind and indeed all existing things. I’m not speaking of chaos theory here, I am surmising that there exists an energetic plain that connects us all together in a spatial and temporal context. Similar to Jung’s theory of synchronicity, I have found that we all draw from the same pool of a collective unconsciousness. There have been many times when I have thought up a story idea for a film that I find in the next couple of months is being made on the other side of the world. Call me crazy, but when coincidences occur I now look further into the chain of events to see why I have fallen into synch in such a way.

Can be read here: The Ethics of Ambiguity

This also relates in regards to contemporary subordination and pigeon-holing: