Faubion, “The subject that is not one: On the ethics of mysticism”

Faubion, James. 2013. The subject that is not one: On the ethics of mysticism. Anthropological Theory 13(4): 287–307.

Abstract: Any anthropological approach to ethics that gives a central place to subjects and the positions they might occupy is obliged sooner or later to address an apparent paradox, instances of which are widespread. They occur in those many ethical systems that valorize a condition that can hardly be characterized without equivocation: the subject that is not one. We commonly think of such a (non-)subject as a mystic. A useful starting point in coming to terms with the mystic rests in the distinctive place in which he or she typically stands in relation to any given ethical domain – a place decidedly not at the center, at the axial conjunction that the ethical Everyperson occupies. Victor Turner’s treatment of liminality provides a useful analytical precedent, but it does not of itself adequately clarify either the specific ethical difference or the specific ethical function of mysticism as such. Crucial to both is the mystic’s generation in practice of what turns out to be a very real paradox of self-reference, the thinking and acting out of the proposition that ‘this ethics is not an ethics’. The upshot is that the mystic as (non-) subject confronts the ethical system in which or by which he or she resides with its logical and its social incompleteness. No wonder, then, that mystics are rarely beloved of ethical absolutists, whose absolutism – by their very being, and whether or not wittingly – they call into question. No wonder, on the other hand, that moral-ethical liberals so often find them beyond the pale. The ethical paradox of the mystic is insu- perable – but all the more socioculturally significant in being so.


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