Joanna Zylinska

Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

    9. Politics

    Fig. 10: Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 10, 2014
    Fig. 10
    Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 10, 2014

    Hopefully by now the reader has a sense that the Anthropocene is a really serious matter, one that requires our attention as both critical theorists and living, breathing organism that are preoccupied—and that ought to be preoccupied—on an intellectual and a visceral level, with ensuring the continued possibility of life. I am referring here both to individual life and to the life of whole populations, or even species. This ethical injunction therefore immediately opens up onto a political task, one that involves having to negotiate between conflicting demands, work through antagonisms arising from opposite and sometimes even irreconcilable positions, and calculate between various options available to us. To say this is to counter the accusation issued by certain political philosophers that ethics is just a replacement problem, or even an individualized neoliberal strategy that prevents us from analyzing bigger issues, planning collective action and working against injustice or catastrophes on a global level. Indeed, my argument here (as in my previous work) is that ethics must be foundational to politics: it needs to prepare the ground for political work in which responsibilities are always shared and demands conflicting. Unless we engage in the work of ethics that involves a reflection on our own constitution of values, we run the risk of unreformed moralism being passed off as politics. I would go so far as to say that there can be no political urgency urgent enough that could serve as a justification for abandoning the foundational and structural work of ethics. Many political projects of different orientation have failed precisely because of their proponents’ inability, or unwillingness, to reflect on the constitution of their own values: their idea of justice and “good”, their clamor for a “better tomorrow”—which is likely to be someone else’s horizon of horror.

    It goes without saying that the Anthropocene presents itself to us as a political problem, but it does require at least a minimal dose of ethical reflection if a politics it is to usher in is to be both truly effective and truly political. The constitution of this kind of ethical reflection in preparation for a more considerate and more effective politics of the Anthropocene is precisely the ambition of this book, even if, or in fact precisely because of the fact that, this term carries a certain geo-temporal urgency. Minimal ethics for the Anthropocene is to serve as a caution against understanding the Anthropocene too well and too quickly, and against knowing precisely how to solve the problems it represents. The task of such minimal ethics, as argued earlier, is to pose the Anthropocene as an ethical injunction. However, this injunction also entails the requirement to remain critical towards the very concept of the Anthropocene and the way it is framed in the current debates, both academic and mainstream ones—not in order to reject it, but in order to develop a more complex and more responsible discourse on the Anthropocene, as well as facilitating a better political response to it. The three issues that require particular attention, as already discussed throughout this book, are the underpinning masculinism, solutionism and scientism of this discourse—all manifested, to return to a quote from Darin Barney included in the first chapter, “the sort of bravado whereby men seek to exert control over everything around them by the force of instrumental rationality” (non-pag.). The interpellation here is not to impose women-only activism, suspend any search for solutions or bash science: it is only to keep a check on some of the excesses that have come to the fore in the debate on the subject to date. The conclusion that emerges from the above is that critical thinking is one of the forms that politics of the Anthropocene can or even has to take. Indeed, perhaps thinking is the most political thing we can do with regard to the Anthropocene, before we go and do anything else. This should not be mistaken for a sign of resignation or quietism in the face of a planetary task. As Dave Boothroyd observes, “Thinking is doing something even if from the outside it looks like doing nothing” (16).

    If the Anthropocene raises questions of decay, destruction and death on a much larger, deeper and more significant scale than many of the previous political figurations, such as “the Iron Curtain”, “Al-Qaeda” or “globalization”, it is also arguably a game changer with regard to the established political models and formats. Indeed, it requires a reworking of the positions, allegiances and frameworks, as well as of some of the fundamental concepts that underpin them, such as freedom, justice and life itself. As pointed out by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his by now well-cited article on the Anthropocene,

    Climate change, refracted through global capital, will no doubt accentuate the logic of inequality that runs through the rule of capital; some people will no doubt gain temporarily at the expense of others. But the whole crisis cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism. Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged (witness the drought in Australia or recent fires in the wealthy neighborhoods of California). (non-pag.)

    Chakrabarty’s article is not free from the masculinism and scientism that characterizes many other humanities writers on the Anthropocene, and it ends up reaffirming a reformulated form of humanism, with a sprinkling of old-style liberalism. Yet his analysis does raise the important question of directionality for the left with regard to the critique it forges and the future it envisages—for itself, for humanity and for “the world”. The imminent depletion of our planet’s reserves, dubbed an “eco-eco disaster” by Tom Cohen, pushes us to revise politics as a matter of “the ‘economical and ‘ecological’ tandem” (2012: 14).

    This brings up not just the question of how we can define “a political subject of climate change” (Cohen 2012: 18) who is at the same time a subject of economic injustice, labor scarcity and bad debt, but also the problem of whether we should perhaps remain suspicious towards any attempts to fix a political subject in its identitarian position as a wounded self that can then retroactively respond to a situation. Instead, would a more potent political strategy not need to mobilize a distributed, relational and even partly nonhuman subjectivity as both its agent and an object of its attention? Cohen suggests that, if we take on board the issue of climate change and the human-led transformation of the geo- and biosphere, what we call the “political” needs to “migrate from an exclusively social category (Aristotle), as it has been defined in relation to the polity, to a cognitive or epistemographic zone” (24). This is to say, the arena of politics has to become much more expanded but it also requires a conscious effort on the part of those of us who want to actively participate in it to relearn and reimagine its geopolitical and geomoral configurations, to see anew where political urgency currently lies. Also, if the Anthropocene is defined as a crisis of scarcity, in the sense that humans are said to have almost used up the existent resources of the planet they call home, it is also worth asking, with Arundhati Roy, “What happens once democracy has been used up?”. Speaking from the position of someone who deeply cares about the democratic ideal, she nevertheless offers a damning indictment of its enactment in the so-called global world:

    Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly—our nearsightedness? Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do) combined with our inability to see very far into the future makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost. (non-pag.)

    For Roy, the problem lies in the actual strategies we have used across the globe precisely in the name of democracy—strategies that have led it to fuse with the free market into a predatory mechanism whose sole rationale is the maximization of profit. In India, which is the focus of her analysis—although the examples can be extrapolated to other developing countries too—this has involved making sudden and drastic decisions with regard to the building of dams, which has led to the submerging of inhabited lands by water; massive land acquisitions at gunpoint; the bulldozing of acres of living areas; the uncontrolled pollution of rivers and the unprecedented increase in car use and electronics consumption. While the scarcity of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, is a familiar line of argument with regard to the Anthropocene, Roy points to something that may initially sound counter-intuitive: namely, that the very political framework that underpins the foundational notions of democracy such as popular sovereignty, political equality and freedom to choose political representation may have become exhausted through its overexploitation by the demands of the global and local market. Uncared for, democracy is reduced into a mere shadow of its former self, serving mainly the interests of those who do not really care enough, or even understand what it means to care, about the future of the polis in all its bio- and geo-political dimensions.

    However, there is a certain paradox at work in trying to combat the political self-interest that has got us to where we are. It lies in the fact that many efforts to respond to the Anthropocene actually mobilize a certain notion of speciecist, or more precisely humanist, self-interest—to combat self-interest! Political theorist Jane Bennett is aware of this problem but remains unapologetic when she asks: “Should we try to detach geologic sensibility from all notions of self-interest? Is it really possible, given our current evolutionary form, to live according to the maxim that ‘while the human species can’t get along without the geologic, the geologic will continue on in some form or other long after we have ceased being part of it?’” (2012: 246). This is of course a pertinent query, one that drives many current scientific and philosophical efforts to respond to the supposed urgency of the current geopolitical moment in order to ensure a better life, politically and biologically, for both ourselves and the future generations, and to prolong that life in the shape and form that is considered more sustainable or even salutary at both micro and macro scales. However, it may also be worth asking what it means for a politics of the Anthropocene to be principally driven by species narcissism, or a desire for human survival? How will it differ from some of the worst excesses of materialist politics, whereby the definition of materialism is less Epicureanist and more Gordon Geckoist? To put it really crudely—and perhaps also unfairly to Bennett, whose own political orientations lie very much on the left—how do we ensure her position is differentiated from pronouncements such as those by Conservative politician and London mayor Boris Johnson, who, as reported by The Guardian, in the 2013 Margaret Thatcher lecture “mocked the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 as he called for more to be done to help the 2% of the population who have an IQ above 130”. Johnson said: “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2% … The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”. [1] Indeed, if this desire for survival is seen as primarily natural (as this is how we have evolved, according to Bennett), how will we guarantee it does not result in the short-termism of goal and the return to organicism she is so keen to escape otherwise? Does her acknowledgement in Vibrant Matter that she shares Epicureanist monism’s “conviction that there remains a natural tendency to the way things are—and that human decency and a decent politics are fostered if we tune in to the strange logic of turbulence” (2010: xi) not assume the existence of a whole group of some rather nice people who will all agree in advance, by tendency, osmosis or just through their plain good upbringing, what “human decency” is and what a “decent politics” will look like?

    Indeed, I would risk saying that Bennet’s politics is not political enough because it forecloses on the examination of narcissism, or, more broadly—its own affective investment in the idea of survival, life as energy and vibrant matter—at the heart of politics. While I agree with her that “Affirming the geo-mode of long time also holds promise for lifting American political discourse above its currently idiocy, wherein crucial issues like climate change are elided for the sake of moralistic red herrings or theo-populist slogans” (2012: 245), I am more concerned about the moralism of eco-eco politics. Indeed, I fear that it may end up reducing any political efforts to self-interest on a mega scale, while also remaining inattentive to the cuts, small interventions (made also by, but mainly to, those “idiotic Americans” with their idiotic discourses, not the nice decent people who all agree on the idea of human decency) with regard to their current situation, both geographical and socio-economic. I wonder whether what Bennett ends up proposing, together with many other theorists of critical environment studies—even those who have gone to great lengths to raise questions for the established ideas of “nature” and “the environment”—is not just a politics for those who like (deconstructed) nature a lot, with matter becoming “the new nature”. The politics of vibrant matter therefore risks looking like a middle-class affectation, one aimed at people who read critical theory but also have a preference for organic food, shop at farmer’s markets, like getting out of the city now and again, and generally are “anti-consumerist”: basically, nice affluent moralists who are doing their bit for the planet while also suffering not just from derangements of scale but also derangements of their own decency. Incidentally, the notion of decency is one evoked most frequently by the UK Conservative party, whose aim is to “help you and hardworking people in your area”. [2]

    Now, I absolutely agree with Bennett and other theorists of nonantropocentric thought about the need to perceive agency as distributed amongst human and nonhuman actors, some of whom/which are unstable and difficult to see (by us), and thus to recognize that our own belief in the possibility of controlling every aspect of the unfolding matter is nothing but a delusion. Indeed, unless we take into account the agential force of nonhuman phenomena and objects, we risk being unable to truly intervene into things. Yet it also seems to me that the politics for the Anthropocene will have to come to terms with what Chantal Mouffe has called “the democratic paradox”—for which there is no room in Bennett’s flat ontologies. The democratic paradox signifies that the liberal democratic idea of “human rights,” for example, if applied to its logical conclusion, will always inevitably jeopardize someone else’s existing rights. Mouffe emphasizes that it is important for us to understand that in a liberal democracy there always exists “a constitutive tension” between different logics, grammars or articulations (say, of ideas of God, freedom, nature, justice, property, dignity, etc.), “a tension that can never be overcome but only negotiated in different ways” (5). Mouffe does not naïvely advocate any kind of straightforward resolution of such tension premised on a liberal rational argument as the latter will inevitably entail its own constitutive blind spots, but rather offers (discursive, but perhaps also bodily—i.e., involving the opponent’s gestures, breath, spit) “contamination” as the best resolution we can hope for (10).

    When talking about articulation here we are back in a somewhat constrained realm of human discourse, but at the same time we have to acknowledge humans’ constant and ongoing entanglement with other entities and processes. I am therefore happy to borrow from Bennett the notion of “political ecologies” and to acknowledge, with her, “nonhuman materialities as participants in a political ecology”. Importantly, Bennett herself goes to great trouble not to claim “that everything is always a participant, or that all participants are alike”. Indeed, she insists that “Persons, worms, leaves, bacteria, metals, and hurricanes have different types and degrees of power” (2010: 108). However, even if “A vital materialist theory of democracy seeks to transform the divide between speaking subjects and mute objects into a set of differential tendencies and variable capacities” (2010: 107-8), questions arise with regard to the inadequately theorized (even if not unacknowledged) [3] moments of articulation on the part of the materialist philosopher who speaks about and for other actors. The problem here is that the philosopher has already claimed his or her articulatory ground: by philosophizing, in the rather conventional humanist medium of the book (most often made of dead trees, no less!), about things that have already been muted once they have been constituted as objects of discourse, especially if the relations into which they have been made to enter include notions such as decency, sustainability and vigor. What is therefore troubling for me about all this is the lack of adequate examination on the part of the many philosophers of materialism and materiality of their own affective investment in, as well as of their role in constituting, the discourse about politics.

    Even the apparently hospitable and generous gesture of opening up the political ecology to other actors is enacted from the position of the established practice of philosophical exegesis—while remaining constrained by uninterrogated notions such as “decency” and “vibrancy”. Consequently, “there still lingers the notion of, and a longing for, a present underlying foundation and/or truth in some political and theoretical movements and writings” (Bruining 2013: 150), [4] even or maybe especially those that explicitly disavow any such foundationalism. Indeed, even though matter for Bennett entails violent tendencies, her description of it is like that of a really lovely and bubbly friend: Bennettian matter is “vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and effluescent” (Bennett 2010: 112)—very much unlike the life-draining, low-in-energy, cantankerous, old-school critical theorist who can only find problems with things… The more substantial issue with this approach lies not in the recognition of the existence of matter as such but rather in what Dennis Bruining has termed “material foundationalism”, an approach “in which matter translates and comes to signify an exigency of life” (149). In works of so-called “new materialism” such as Bennett’s matter tends to be posited as “a priori and as, allegedly, beyond culture, despite an awareness of the untenability of such claims” (Bruining 2013: 151). Yet the positing of such matter can only be premised on the simultaneous occlusion of the humanist values that underpin such a philosophical “positing gesture”—not to mention the reintroduction of the old-style Cartesianism, except that now the principal driver of agency is on the side of “matter” rather than “the mind” (see Bruining 2013: 158).

    Another problem with this new “rediscovered” matter and all its posited foundationalism is that it assumes a community of those who call themselves human who supposedly experience and “feel” it strongly enough, in the sense that relationality across strata and scales becomes meaningful enough for them as something to shape their world-view—rather than as something, say, too overwhelming, too general or even too banal to consider. In the same way that it is much easier to “do animal studies” if you really “like” animals (even though the latter position can lead to the similar kind of moralizing critiqued in this chapter and end up producing positions that are actually anti-philosophical), it is much easier to “do materialist ecopolitics” if you feel energized by (all kind of talk of) matter.

    To close off this chapter I would therefore like to propose the possibility of outlining a politics for the Anthropocene from a different place than species narcissism or enthusiastically sensed materialist affinity with things “out there”, across the universe. We can call it an ironic politics for city lovers—for those for whom matter is not a bubbly friend, for whom “it” does not move just like “wind” (120) but more like a Porsche, and for whom philosophizing, storytelling and art-making function as inevitable technical prostheses for a human engaged in the theorization of matter—or, indeed, in the theorization of anything else.


    1., accessed December 2, 2013. return to text
    2., accessed December 2, 2013. return to text
    3. Indeed, Bennett self-consciously comments: “I court the charge of performative self-contradiction: is it not a human subject who, after all, is articulating this theory of vibrant matter? Yes and no, for I will argue that what looks like a performative contradiction may well dissipate if one considers revisions in operative notions of matter, life, self, self-interest, will, and agency” (2010: ix). return to text
    4. Bruining is drawing here on Wendy Brown. return to text