Sunday, March 28, 2010

Conducting Prudence

The instruction to be derived from Virno concerns practical reason:  drawing upon the lessons of the past to make a decision in the present situation promising the best outcome for the future well-being of the community.  Good judgment requires the virtue of phronesis, prudence.  Prudence is a virtue, meaning that it is a matter of disposition, a quality of character.  The practice of deliberative reason follows the paths of inference:  abducting from the particular conditions to the rules (an archive of maxims and proverbs representing the wisdom, the experience, of tradition and associated respected authorities).  The rules supplied the premises for deductions formulating hypothetical cases, which in turn inductively were applied to the situation.  The problem with practical reason today, Virno observes, is that there is not now, and never has been, a rule for applying the rule to a case.  The application requires a decision, and this decision represents the aporia of ethics.

The aporia is even more implacable than Virno admits, since in the sublime conditions of the industrial city the archive of maxims and proverbs recording the wisdom of collective experience lost all authority.  Moreover, the locus of causality disappeared from everyday life, to become accessible only to scientific expertise supported by technology.  Commerce filled the void, promoting through advertising the conversion of citizens to an entirely new state of mind, oriented along the axis of pleasure-pain.  Marchand cites a pronouncement made by one advertising agency in the 1920s to note the role commerce attempted to play:  "The product of advertising is public opinion; and in a democracy public opinion is the uncrowned king. It is the advertising agency's business to write the speeches from the throne of that king; to help his subjects decide what they should eat and wear; how they should invest their savings; by what courses they can improve their minds; and even what laws they should make, and by what faith they may be saved" (Marchand, 31).

Virno's proposal assumes that we are now living in conditions of a permanent "state of exception," in which the rules guiding judgment may be open to revision, to innovation, to testing against experience.  His suggestion to replace valid reasoning with the deliberate use of fallacies, in order to expose the enthymemes, the assumptions and values determining the ineffective deductions guiding decision-making, acknowledges the unconscious as a site of ethical decision unsuspected in premodern philosophy.  Ethics we now understand is beyond the reach of both reason and will.  Fallacies and joke-work are transitional forms manifesting the fourth mode of inference emergent within electracy:  conduction.

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