Joanna Zylinska

Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

    1. Grounding

    Fig. 2: Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 2, 2014
    Fig. 2
    Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 2, 2014

    Life typically becomes an object of reflection when it is seen to be under threat. In particular, we humans have a tendency to engage in thinking about life (instead of just continuing to live it) when we are made to confront the prospect of death: be it the death of individuals due to illness, accident or old age; the death of whole ethnic or national groups in wars and other forms of armed conflict; but also of whole populations, be it human or nonhuman ones. Even though this book is first and foremost about life—comprehended as both a biological and social phenomenon—it is the narrative about the impending death of the human population, i.e., about the extinction of the human species, that provides a context for its argument. In contemporary popular science and mainstream media the problem of extinction is usually presented as something both inevitable and impending. To cite the British scientist Stephen Emmott, head of Microsoft’s Computational Science research and co-author of the book Ten Billion, [1] the current situation in which the human species finds itself can be most adequately described with the phrase “we are fucked”. The reasons for this supposed state of events are as follows:

    Earth is home to millions of species. Just one dominates it. Us. Our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities have modified almost every part of our planet. In fact, we are having a profound impact on it. Indeed, our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities are now the drivers of every global problem we face. And every one of these problems is accelerating as we continue to grow towards a global population of ten billion. In fact, I believe we can rightly call the situation we’re in right now an emergency—an unprecedented planetary emergency. (non-pag.)

    This unique situation, or rather geo-historical period, in which humans are said to have become the biggest threat to life on earth, has recently gained the moniker “Anthropocene”. Emmott’s practical solution to this situation is rather blunt: given that any possible technological or behavioral solutions to the current state of events, even if theoretically possible, are unlikely to work, the advice he would give his son would be to “buy a gun”. This is of course a powerful story, the goal of which is to shock and awe us into action. Without shooting our gun-wielding messenger, it is worth pointing out that there seems to be something both defeatist and narcissistic about jeremiads of this kind and those that tell them. Also, we humans have actually produced narratives about different forms of apocalypse ever since we developed the ability to tell stories and record them.

    Rather than add to this catalogue, my aim in this book is to tell a different story about the world and our human positioning in and with it, while taking seriously what science has to say about life and death. I am mindful of philosopher John Gray’s admonition in his review of Emmott’s book that “The planet does not care about the stories that humans tell themselves; it responds to what humans do, and is changing irreversibly as a result” (6). Gray is no doubt correct in his skepticism. Yet it should be noted that we humans do care about the stories we tell ourselves. More importantly, stories have a performative nature: they can enact and not just describe things—even if there are of course limits to what they are capable of enacting. This book is one such story about life and death at both macro and micro scales, shaped into a set of philosophical propositions for non-philosophers. More specifically, its aim is to outline a viable position on ethics as a way of living a good life when life itself is declared to be under a unique threat. In other words, it is a story about how we can live a good life at this precarious geo-historical moment—and about what constitutes such goodness.

    The injunction to outline some kind of “teaching of the good life” (Adorno 15) when life itself is said to be under threat comes to me partly from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a 1944 slim volume by the Frankfurt philosopher written as a gift to his friend and collaborator Max Horkheimer, and subtitled Reflections on a Damaged Life. On one level, Adorno’s diagnosis seems to be similar in tenor to Emmott’s:

    Life has changed into a timeless succession of shocks, interspaced with empty, paralysed intervals. But nothing, perhaps, is more ominous for the future than the fact that, quite literally, these things will soon be past thinking on, for each trauma of the returning combatants, each shock not inwardly absorbed, is a ferment of future destruction. Karl Kraus was right to call his play The Last Days of Mankind. What is being enacted now ought to bear the title: “After Doomsday”. (54)

    Yet the context of Adorno’s reflections, themselves presented in a series of fragments and what we might term “shards of thought”, is very unique: they spring from what he perceives as life’s catastrophic and irreparable destruction in the Holocaust. Bemoaning the fact that others are already envisaging the possibility of “rebuilding culture” as if the murder of millions of Jews had been just an unpleasant interlude, he sees modern life as reduced “to the sphere of the private and then merely consumption”, a state of events that leads to alienation and the withdrawal of vitality from life itself. Citing the Austrian writer Ferdinand Kürnberger, Adorno laments that “Life does not live”. But Adorno does not stop because of that: instead, he goes on looking for life’s traces buried in language, and for the possibility of continuing with critical thought and writing, with a determination to teach us about “the good life”, even if on a very small scale.

    My own project on minimal ethics draws inspiration from Adorno’s persistence in Minima Moralia to keep philosophizing as if against all odds, to look for signs of life in the middle of an apocalypse, even if my own context and the existential threats that shape it are very different from his. The ambition and orientation of my ethical propositions also differ from Adorno’s: even though I embrace the critical spirit of his work, I turn to various philosophies of life as well as feminist thought in order to outline a more affirmative framework for the times when life is said to find itself under threat on a planetary scale. My aim here is for us to consider to what extent we can make life go on and also how we ourselves can continue to live it well, while interrogating what it means “to live life well”, and whether such a consensus can actually be reached.

    It needs to be signaled right from the start that the very “we” of the argument that will ensue is also already posited as a problem, referring as it does to what philosophy and common sense have designated as “humans” but also opening onto a complex and dynamic network of relations in which “we humans” are produced as humans and in which we remain entangled with nonhuman entities and processes. The seeds of this book were originally planted during the preparations for a wedding of ecosex artists Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, who married Lake Kallavesi—which is part of the Iso-Kalla lake system in Northern Savonia—at the ANTI Contemporary Art Festival in Kuopio, Finland, on September 30, 2012. (I wrote a short piece on minimal ethics as a wedding gift for them.) This human-nonhuman wedding between more than two parties was not Stephens and Sprinkle’s first: in previous ceremonies they had married the Earth, the Sea, the Snow and the Rocks, thus playfully taking on and enacting the naturocultural kinship in which love is not enough. Stephens and Sprinkle’s performance serves for me as an entry point into a different mode of philosophizing, one that borrows from artistic sensibilities and that produces ideas with things and events rather than just with words. This mode of philosophical production is necessarily fragmented: it gives up on any desire to forge systems, ontologies or worlds and makes itself content with minor, even if abundant, interventions into material and conceptual unfoldings. A minimal ethics outlined throughout this book is one such possible intervention.

    The mode of working employed in this book mobilizes what could be termed “a post-masculinist rationality”, a more speculative, less directional mode of thinking and writing. This notion develops from Darin Barney’s concept of post-masculinist courage. For Barney, “courage that is post-masculinist is not necessarily therefore feminine (or even really post-masculine—though it is very likely to be feminist)” (non-pag.). Barney’s call is in turn inspired by political theorist Wendy Brown, who has outlined a vision for “a post-masculinist politics” in which freedom is reconciled with love and recognition. Such politics requires “much courage and willingness to risk” (Brown 202). Barney suggests this sort of courage needs to be distinguished from “the sort of bravado whereby men seek to exert control over everything around them by the force of instrumental rationality” (non-pag.). Post-masculinist courage involves for him “the courage to face the uncertainty of that which we cannot control; [...] the courage to be let go into action that begins something truly new and unpredictable” (non-pag.). A post-masculinist rationality is by no means non- or anti-rationalist; it just calls for a different modulation of rationality, one that remains more attuned to its own modes of production. It is always already embodied and immersed, responding to the call of matter and to its various materializations—materializations such as humans, animals, plants, inanimate objects, as well as the relations between them. Such post-masculinist rationality remains suspicious towards any current attempts to (re)turn to ontology, in both its idealist and materialist guises, as a predominant mode of philosophizing. It sees any such attempts for what they are: ways of producing and hence also mastering “the world” and then passing it on (as fact) to others—even if such ontological production is to be dressed in the language of immanence and autopoiesis. (My suspicion towards ontology does not mean I do not believe there are “things” out there beyond the realm of the human and beyond the human conceptualization of them. However, as soon as the human takes to the human-centric practice of philosophizing, “things” immediately become far less objective, realist and “out there” than this human would often like, or would like others to believe.)

    The reflections offered in this short book are linked to my previous work on what it means to live a good life at a time when the very notion of life is undergoing a radical reformulation, both on a philosophical and biotechnological level. However, I am less concerned here with a critical discussion of different theoretical positions on ethics and more with sketching out an affirmative proposal for an ethics that makes sense—and that senses its own making. This idea of the ethical call of the universe, in its temporary stabilizations, expands on my argument from Bioethics in the Age of New Media, in which I positioned bioethics as an originary philosophy, situated even before ontology. That idea was inspired by the work of Emmanuel Levinas, although I was—and still am—troubled by the humanist limitations of Levinas’ ethics, whereby primordial responsibility exerted upon me always comes from human others. In bioethics as an “ethics of life” the way I understand it, the human self has to respond to an expanded set of obligations that affect her, make an impression on her, allow for her differentiation from the world around her and demand a response that is not just a reaction. While I do recognize, together with other theorists of post-anthropocentric thought, that “it is not all about us”, [2] I also acknowledge the singular human responsibility which is exercised both by philosophical theory (which is consciously undertaken by few) and by philosophical practice (which is a much more widespread undertaking, even if not always a conscious one). This recognition hopefully justifies to some extent the reluctant yet also sometimes inevitable use of the pronoun “I” throughout this volume, and the multiple paradoxes implied in any attempt on the part of a singular female human writer to author a post-anthropocentric ethics. The post-anthropocentric ethics of expanded obligations becomes a way of taking responsibility, by the human, for various sorts of thickenings of the universe, across different scales, and of responding to the tangled mesh of everyday connections and relations. To do this, I shall go back to Levinas for inspiration, but also cross-pollinate him with other ideas with the help of some Brilliant Bees: (Henri) Bergson, (Karen) Barad, (Rosi) Braidotti, (Wendy) Brown and (Jane) Bennett, as well as some other members of the Philosophical Hive Mind (Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Tim Ingold, Stanisław Lem and Timothy Morton).

    If the mode of working in this book embraces a post-masculinist rationality, its method—in a departure from a modernist form of critique—can be loosely described as “critical vitalism”. This method involves rethinking and remaking “life” and what we can do with it. Taking life as a (yet) non-valorized minimal condition, critical vitalism remains attuned to stoppages in life, seeing life as both a becoming and a fracturing process. Claire Colebrook articulates this dual, productive-destructive tendency of life, in the following terms: “Philosophy cannot simply decide to begin from ground zero; nor can the living being become so open and receptive to its milieu that it would not inflect, pervert or fold its passions around its own life. Immanence is an ongoing struggle, and the aims of becoming-imperceptible, seeing the world anew or becoming-child are given force and power just through the resistances they encounter” (2010: 166). Critical vitalism entails knowing the difference of difference. It considers how differences ensue and matter, who they matter to, how matter resists and recoils, and to what effect. Starting from the premise that “everything is interconnected” (Morton 2010: 1), it also considers differentiation within those processes of connectivity while offering a reflection on human situatedness in and responsibility for different connections of relations of which s/he is part. Situated at the crossroads of cultural theory, media and cultural studies, continental philosophy and art, the book inscribes itself in the trajectory of what Timothy Morton has called “the ecological thought”. Yet, still following Morton, this is a curious kind of ecology, as it is not based on any prelapsarian, romanticized notion of Nature that can allegedly be recouped in order to make the world and our lives in it better.

    Let me explain at last what it thus means for the ethical framework outlined here to be pointed, via the preposition “for” included in the book’s title, towards the geo-historical period described as “the Anthropocene”. Proposed by the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, the term “Anthropocene” (from anthropo, man, and cene, new) serves as a name for a new geological epoch that supposedly follows the Holocene, “the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,700 years ago, and that—officially, at least—continues to this day” (Kolbert 29). The need for the new term is being justified by the fact that human influence upon the geo- and biosphere via processes such as farming, deforestation, mining and urbanization, to name but a few, has been so immense that it actually merits a new designation in order to address the challenges raised by that influence. Even though the term has not been universally and unquestioningly adopted by all geologists, its use has significantly increased over the last decade—and has been popularized beyond the professional scientific community thanks to the 2011 article on the topic by Elizabeth Kolbert in the National Geographic magazine. Yet even amongst those who are sympathetic to the term there is widespread doubt as to which moment in time should serve as a beginning of this epoch: some point to the early days of agriculture some 8,000 years ago, others to the Industrial Revolution or to the last fifty years of excessive consumption, while still others see the Anthropocene as an epoch that is yet to come.

    Significantly, in the opening pages of his Ecological Thought Morton claims that “One of the things that modern society has damaged, along with ecosystems and species and the global climate, is thinking” (4). The Anthropocene can therefore perhaps be seen as articulating, alongside the ecological disasters, this crisis of critical thinking. My own use of the term “Anthropocene” in this book is first and foremost as an ethical pointer rather than as a scientific descriptor. In other words, the Anthropocene serves here as a designation of the human obligation towards the geo- and biosphere, but also towards thinking about the geo- and biosphere as concepts. The ethics for the Anthropocene would therefore entail a call for a return to critical thinking, for a reparation of thought. Combining inventiveness with criticality, it would promote non-instrumental modes of thinking, while avoiding easy solutionism and what some theorists have called the derangement of scale (see Clark; Kember and Zylinska), whereby filling in half a kettle is perceived as “doing one’s bit for the environment”. Yet, even if the Anthropocene is about “the age of man”, the ethical thinking it designates is strongly post-anthropocentric, as indicated earlier, in the sense that it does not consider the human to be the dominant or the most important species, nor does is see the world as arranged solely for human use and benefit. The term does however entail an appeal to human singularity (not to be confused with human supremacy), coupled with a recognition that we can make a difference to the ongoing dynamic processes taking in the biosphere and the geosphere—of which we are part.

    Minimal ethics for the Anthropocene is not just an updated form of environmental ethics: it does not pivot on any coherent notion of an “environment” (or, as mentioned earlier, “nature”) as an identifiable entity but rather concerns itself with dynamic relations between entities across various scales such as stem cells, flowers, dogs, humans, rivers, electricity pylons, computer networks, and planets, to name but a few. This is why the closest way of describing this kind of minimal ethics would be as an ethics of life, with life understood both philosophically and biologically. Its starting premise is that we humans are making a difference to the arrangements of what we are calling “the world”. Naturally, we are not the only or even the most important actors that are making such a difference. It would be extremely naive and short-sighted to assume that, as it would be to proclaim that we can affect or control all occurrences within that world—but we are perhaps uniquely placed to turn the making of such difference into an ethical task. Thanks to our human ability to tell stories and to philosophize, we can not only grasp the deep historical stratification of values through an involvement in what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called “a geology of morals” (1987) but also work out possibilities for making better differences across various scales. While our participation in the differentiation of matter is ongoing, frequently collective or distributed, and often unconscious, ethics names a situation when those processes of differentiation are accounted for—when they occur as a cognitive-affective effort to rearrange the solidified moral strata, with a view to producing a better geo-moral landscape.

    The ethics discussed here is minimal in the sense that it is non-systemic (i.e., it does not remain rooted in any large conceptual system) and non-normative (which is to say, it does not rest on any fixed prior values, nor does it postulate any firm values in the process). Inevitably, for some readers a non-normative ethics will be a non sequitur, a conceptual blind alley that will not deliver what it promises. For me, in turn, non-normativity is the only possible way of thinking ethics and life generally in a responsible and non-hubristic way, from amidst life itself. But, wary of capital-V values, I nevertheless embark on this project with one minimal assumption: a conviction that we have a responsibility to engage with life—materially and conceptually—because, as we know from Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato Apology, 38a, non-pag.). What counts as the examination of life goes beyond the Socratic method of inquiry instantiated between two parties with a view to eliminating erroneous hypotheses. It also involves physicalist engagement with the matter of life, with its particles and unfoldings.

    The minimalism of the ethics project presented in this book does not just refer to the premises of its main argument but also to its content. Aimed as an exercise in brevity, the book adopts a formal structure that comprises ten short essays, each one presenting one argument or proposition. The aim here is to say just enough. The book also contains a photographic project, Topia daedala, which arises out of ongoing efforts on my part to “do philosophy” with different media. While the project draws on selected philosophical standpoints, as well some ideas from physics, biology, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, and cultural and media theory, academic references have been kept brief. The argument is constructed on the basis of a spiral, with ideas being introduced across the subsequent theses and then returned to and expanded on. Linear reading may be one way of getting through the book. Yet, given that each chapter constitutes a small essay in it its own right, entering the book at any point may offer a different reading experience, introducing the reader to this minimal ethics in medias res. In medias res can actually serve as a description of the location of our minimal ethics.


    1. The book arose from a successful lecture-play at the Royal Court in London in which Emmott took part in the summer of 2012. return to text
    2. This is a frequent mantra of various theorists of post-anthropocentric thought, principally the followers of actor-network theory and object-oriented ontology: it is even included in the dedication of Levi R. Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects. return to text