Voluntary Simplicity as an Aesthetics of Existence

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve drafted a new paper on voluntary simplicity. It’s a bit more philosophical than my recent writing (and it’s rather long) but I hope that the title might tempt some of you to take a look. In a sentence, the argument I make is that living simply in a consumer society is an intensely creative challenge, one that is similar to the creative challenge of artist activity in the demand it makes on the imagination. I’ve posted an extended abstract and a short abstract below, and the full paper can be downloaded here: Voluntary Simplicity as an Aesthetics of Existence (Samuel Alexander).

The paper still needs some polishing and editing in places, but the core argument is there.

Extended Abstract: What becomes of moral and ethical discourse and practice if the search for a universal moral code is given up? The substantive part of this paper begins exploring this question by turning primarily to the later works of Michel Foucault – the texts of his so-called ‘ethical’ turn. It is in these texts where Foucault develops his notion of ethics as ‘an aesthetics of existence,’ which he presents as an alternative mode of ethical practice that can be taken up, by default, one might say, in the absence of a knowable and universalizable morality. Foucault argues that our identities are socially constructed entities, and that we lack a transcendental or purely rational ‘self.’ But he nevertheless carves out and secures a certain, albeit limited, degree of space within which our socially constructed identities can act upon themselves for the purpose of ‘self-fashioning.’ We may not get to choose the raw material of which our identities are constituted, but it nevertheless lies within our power to shape that raw material in various ways, just as the sculptor may make various things from a given lump of clay. According to Foucault, this relationship of the self to the self is the terrain of ethics, and when engaging the age-old ethical question, ‘How am I to live?,’ Foucault suggests that we avoid the traditional search for a moral code and instead ask ourselves the further question, ‘What type of person should I become?’. Using aesthetic metaphors to describe and develop this process of self-creation, Foucault summarizes his ethical position with the pronouncement, ‘Make life a work of art’ – an intriguing, provocative, but ambiguous statement that provides this paper with it’s foundation.  

The aim of this paper, however, is not to present a thorough analysis of Foucault’s notion of an aesthetics of existence. Instead, after providing a brief exposition of Foucault’s ethics, this paper will undertake to actually apply the idea of an aesthetics of existence to a particular subject of ethical concern, namely, to our role as ‘consumers’ in the context of First World overconsumption. Three consumption-related issues – ecological degradation, poverty amidst plenty, and consumer malaise – provide ample grounds for thinking that consumption is a proper subject for ethical engagement, in the Foucauldian sense of ethics as ‘the self engaging the self.’ If it is the case that our individual identities have been shaped, insidiously perhaps, by a social system that celebrates and encourages consumption without apparent limit – and it would not be unfair to describe consumer societies in these terms – then it may be that ethical practice today calls for a rethinking of our assumptions and attitudes concerning consumption, which might involve a deliberate reshaping of the self by the self.

This paper will explore the possibility of such an ethics of consumption in the following ways. First, by explaining how neoclassical economics, which is arguably the most influential paradigm of thought in the world today, conceptualizes consumption as something that benefits both ‘self’ and ‘other’ and, therefore, as something that should be maximized. To the extent that we, modern consumers, have internalized this conception of consumption, an ethics of consumption might involve engaging the self for the purpose of changing the self and creating something new. The second way an ethics of consumption will be explored will be through an examination of the theory and practice of ‘voluntary simplicity,’ a term that refers to an oppositional living strategy with which people, somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, seek an increased quality of life through a reduction and restraint of one’s level of consumption. The paradox, so-called, consists in the attempt to live ‘more with less.’ Since voluntarily living simply means heading in the opposite direction to where most people in consumer societies (and increasingly elsewhere) seem to want to go, one would expect living simply to require a fundamentally creative engagement with life and culture, especially in contemporary consumer societies that seem to be predicated on the assumption that ‘more consumption is always better.’ This need for a fundamentally creative engagement with life is what prompted the present attempt to elucidate the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity as aesthetics of existence,’ and it is this attempt to infuse Foucauldian ethics with an emerging post-consumerist philosophy of life that constitutes the original contribution of this paper.

Short Abstract: This paper argues that the identities or subjectivities that have been imposed upon us within consumer society have marginalized consumption as a subject of ethical concern, and it will be shown that this marginalization is best explained by and attributed to the hegemonic role neoclassical economics has played, and still plays, within consumer societies. Since human beings are socially constructed entities, it should come as no surprise that the social and institutional celebration of consumption within consumer societies has been internalized to some extent, shaping our identities and our worldviews, often in subtle ways. If it is the case, however, that First World overconsumption is driving several of the world’s most pressing problems, then it may be that ethical activity today requires that we engage the self by the self for the purpose of refusing who are – so far as we are uncritical consumers – and creating new, post-consumerist forms of subjectivity. This paper explores the possibility of self-creating such post-consumerist forms of subjectivity by infusing the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity’ with Michel Foucault’s notion of ethics as an ‘aesthetics of existence.’ The final section of the paper will outline several ‘techniques of the self’ that could be employed by those who wish to actually practice the idea of voluntary simplicity as an aesthetics of existence.

The full paper can be downloaded here: Voluntary Simplicity as an Aesthetics of Existence (Samuel Alexander).

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