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.


An Anthropology of Ethics: Book Review

Faubion, James D. 2011. An Anthropology of Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

By: Anna Strhan (University of Kent)

How do people engage with questions about the good and how we ought to live in everyday social encounters? What role do particular moral logics play in the constitution of human subjects, and how, when and where does the formation of ethical subjectivities happen? Such questions might seem basic to any study of the nature of social and cultural life, and Michael Lambek notes in his introduction to Ordinary Ethics that ethnographers often find that the people they meet “are trying to do what they consider right or good, are being evaluated according to criteria of what is right or good, or are in some debate about what constitutes the human good” (2010: 1). Yet specific attention to ‘the ethical’ has arguably been historically something of a blind spot within anthropological and other social scientific theorizing. Continue reading

Faubion, “An Anthropology of Ethics”

Faubion, James D. (2011) An Anthropology of Ethics Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Publisher’s Description: Through an ambitious and critical revision of Michel Foucault’s investigation of ethics, James Faubion develops an original program of empirical inquiry into the ethical domain. From an anthropological perspective, Faubion argues that Foucault’s specification of the analytical parameters of this domain is the most productive point of departure in conceptualizing its distinctive features. He further argues that Foucault’s framework is in need of substantial revision to be of genuinely anthropological scope. In making this revision, Faubion illustrates his program with two extended case studies: one of a Portuguese marquis and the other of a dual subject made up of the author and a millenarian prophetess. The result is a conceptual apparatus that is able to accommodate ethical pluralism and yield an account of the limits of ethical variation, providing a novel resolution of the problem of relativism that has haunted anthropological inquiry into ethics since its inception.