Friday, May 02, 2014

The Data of Ethics

A hundred years ago, in an essay called "The Serious Artist", Ezra Pound declared that "the arts provide data for ethics" (LE, p. 46). The seriousness of the artist, said Pound, was rooted in the honesty with which he presented his data, which in turn would allow us to determine "what sort of creature man is".

The serious artist is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, of his hate, of his indifference as precisely that, as precisely the image of his own desire, hate or indifference. The more precise his record the more lasting and unassailable his work of art.

For my purposes, I will sidestep the invocation of both "science" and "art". I believe that Pound uses "science" in vague, and perhaps even ironic, deference to the temperament of his age, and I'm certain that if I were to call my own ethical project "artistic", I'd be speaking metaphorically, at least by Pound's "serious" lights. But this notion of "data for ethics" intrigues me. On what basis, on the basis of what experience, can we develop an ethics? In this case, of course, I'm talking about a research ethics.

It is my view, as I've said before, that we can only develop a research ethics by speaking plainly about our own, personally experienced, research practices. Ethics cannot be developed on the basis of survey questionnaires or even in-depth interviews. The "data" must consist of honest accounts of our own experiences, indeed, our desires, our hates and our indifference. We must tell each other how we feel about research, about the research community in which we work. We must talk about what we think this is doing to our character. We must face the possibility that our "discourse is perpetually undermined from within by the contradiction of [our] desires, the influences [we are] subjected to, [and] the conditions in which [we] live," as Foucault put it (AK, p. 149). In this sphere, Pound argues, "falsification of data" is as reprehensible as it is in science. "If the artist falsifies his reports ... in order that he may conform to the taste of his time, to the proprieties of a sovereign, to the conveniences of a preconceived code of ethics, then that artist lies" (LE; p. 44). In the case of research ethics, the sources of the pressures to conform can be as easily enumerated: orthodoxy, funding bodies, professional codes of conduct, and university policies.

As Foucault suggests, there has been a tendency in "modern" research to pretend that science is a coherent, rational, unified affair, that is not subtended by desire, hate, or indifference. We appeal to our methodology, as Heidegger said, to describe the "practice" of research, as though our methods alone can account for the formation of wholly dispassionate beliefs. Ethical issues are identified only as "violations", not in the ongoing formation of the character of researches, i.e., by all the things we, in a certain sense, do "right", i.e., "by the book". If I can muster the courage over the next few weeks, this is what I hope to write a little bit about. Let's see how it turns out; let's see what sort of creature a researcher is.

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