Joanna Zylinska

Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

    2. Scale

    Fig. 3: Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 3, 2014
    Fig. 3
    Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 3, 2014

    The minimal ethics posited in this book needs to be thought on a universal scale. This may sound like a paradox, yet it will only seem so if we rush ahead of ourselves and expect such ethics to furnish us with some generally applicable principles that will have to remain valid across all times and locales. But we have said nothing of the kind. By speaking of the universal scale we are merely attempting to situate our philosophical endeavors meaningfully and responsibly, without foreclosing them all too early by the kind of thinking that would carve out entities such as “the animal”, “the body” and “the gene”, and locations such as “the world”, “Africa” and “the lab”, and then attempt to work out good ways of managing relations between them. The universal starting point assumes the shared materiality of the universe, which is another way of saying that everything is made of the same stuff—although not necessarily in the same way. And yet, as explained by Stephen W. Hawking, “Despite the fact that the universe is so uniform and homogeneous on a large scale, it contains local irregularities, such as stars and galaxies. These are thought to have developed from small differences in the density of the early universe from one region to another” (122). The preceding statements already posit this somewhat imaginary entity, the universe, which includes planets, galaxies and the space between them, or, putting it differently, all matter and energy that exists, or that is actively transmuting and interrelating. The universe thus serves as a fictitious point of unity for an ongoing process of the unfolding of matter across time and space that supposedly started around 13.82 billion years ago, with an event we have retrospectively called “the Big Bang”. (Even though ongoing, this process will one day come to a halt. There could have also been other events and processes before the Big Bang, but we do not know anything about them.)

    The term “scale”, from Latin scala, means “ladder”: it is a practical and conceptual device that allows us to climb up and down various spatiotemporal dimensions in order to see things from different viewpoints. Adopting a universal scale is therefore inevitably a dynamic process. It involves coming to terms with time understood, after Bergson, as “duration”, a continuous flow into which we as observers make insertions in order to carve out some “solids” from it, to temporarily stabilize matter into entities. In an attempt to grasp the passage of time, we make incisions in it with our proprioceptive and cognitive apparatuses, and then pass off the products of these incisions as images of the world. Bringing (back) the universal scale will thus serve as a reminder for us that there is an excess to our acts of world-making and that it is perhaps imprudent or even irresponsible to forget about it in all kinds of discussions—those concerning politics, ethics or even our everyday existence. Timothy Clark points out that considerations of scale tend to undermine many policies, concepts and common-sense beliefs about what we refer to as “our world”, since any efforts to conduct environmental reform in one country, say, may be effectively negated by the lack of any such efforts in many other (frequently more powerful, wealthier and more environmentally damaging) locations of the globe. This forgetting of scale results in what Clark calls “a derangement of linguistic and intellectual proportion”, whereby filling the kettle with just enough water to make tea or buying a slightly less petrol-guzzling make of car are seen as ways of “saving the planet”. Yet it is not only many eco-activists and, more broadly, those who care about the environment and climate change, that suffer from this kind of scalar derangement. The latter malady also affects many scholars in the humanities, including those occupying themselves with problems of ethics and morality. Adopting a similarly mechanistic approach to this presumed entity they alternatively call “the planet” and “the world”, humanities thinkers of various theoretical persuasions in various disciplines first posit and locate this entity at a distance, and then try to act on it. This leads Clark to conclude that “dominant modes of literary and cultural criticism are blind to scale effects in ways that now need to be addressed” (150). The problem with this “planetary” mode of thinking lies in the apparent grasping of complexity, which is nothing more but a form of reductionism, whereby “[r]eceived concepts of agency, rationality and responsibility are being strained or even begin to fall apart into a bewildering generalizing of the political that can make even filling a kettle as public an act as voting” (151). My attempt to outline a minimal ethics thought across a universal scale offers a partial response to Clark’s exhortation to consider scale effects seriously.

    The preceding argument hopefully explains to some extent why the minimal ethics outlined in this book needs to work on a universal scale. Once again, this is not to say that such ethics needs to be applicable across all times and locales: it just needs to acknowledge the temporally and spatially unbound perspective of “the universe” that circumscribes how relations, entities and phenomena appear to us. It also confirms our specific locatedness in space and time from which we will conduct our enquiry. If we then continue to philosophize, proselytize or moralize about the world, we will have registered that we are doing it from a uniquely situated (even if inherently unstable) standpoint, on a certain selected, historically legitimized scale. Bringing back universality, which is a form of McLuhanian “all-at-onceness”, [1] as a horizon of our enquiry can therefore actually act as a reminder to us of the partiality of a story we can tell, or of an intervention we can make—but also of the locatedness of the many concepts and values we humans have developed across all kinds of constrained historical scales. An attempt to grasp a phenomenon as complex as, say, climate change across various scales may lead to a challenge “to basic dominant assumptions about the nature and seeming self-evident value of ‘democracy’ as the most enlightened way to conduct human affairs” (Clark 152). Thinking at scales that intuitively used to “make sense” may actually turn out to be, according to Clark, “a form of intellectual and ethical containment. […] Viewed on very long time scales, human history and culture can take on unfamiliar shapes, […] altering conceptions of what makes something ‘important’ and what does not. Nonhuman entities take on a decisive agency” (159). Acknowledging this means being called to reconsider our notions of politics and ethics beyond the conventional liberal and human/ist bounds and templates—in the light of the recognition that “it is not all about us”—even if the act of theorizing and reflecting on such politics and ethics itself is to remain, at least for the time being, a uniquely human task.

    An invitation to look at things on a universal scale is also meant as an encouragement for us to swap the telescope for the microscope, [2] to change perspective from the universal to the quantum, in order to try and see otherwise—without losing sight of the complex entanglements of matter, and us as matter, across various ways, and of the fact that we are not really able to “see” much at either end of the physical spectrum. The notion of entanglement is used here in the specific sense given to it by Karen Barad, for whom “Existence is not an individual affair”. According to Barad, “Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (ix). From this perspective, the notion of scale cannot be seen as an external measuring stick that can be objectively applied to time and space but is rather part of the phenomena it attempts to measure, as “time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity” (ix). The ontology of the world is therefore that of entanglement. It entails the constant unfolding of matter across time—but also a temporary stabilization of matter into entities (or rather, things “we” and other nonhuman “beings” recognize as entities) in order to execute certain acts and perform certain tasks. Only very few of these acts will be pre-planned and conscious. Yet it is precisely this perhaps rather narrow domain of at least partly conscious activity undertaken by entangled beings who have historically allocated to themselves the name “humans” that becomes a field of action for the minimal ethics outlined here.

    This mode of thinking on a universal scale might seem to be seamlessly and unproblematically aligned with other modes of “big thinking” currently en vogue, such as big history or ubiquitous computing. Yet, in their upscaling and downscaling efforts, the latter approaches more often than not turn out to be just not deep enough because they overlook too much in the process. This is why Sarah Kember and I, in our article “Media Always and Everywhere: A Cosmic Approach”, have drawn on a principle that postulates the “just right” size or amount to be applied in each particular case, while not losing sight of the wider horizon. Called “the Goldilocks principle”, this thought device is used in fields such as computing, biology or economics to suggest that a given phenomenon needs to remain within certain margins and avoid reaching extremes. The term is developed from a children’s story “The Three Bears”, in which a little girl named Goldilocks sneaks into a house inhabited by three furry creatures, trying to make herself comfortable in it. On identifying the “just right” porridge, chair and bed, the trespassing little proto-feminist is made to face the irate bears, who chase her away from their house. For Kember and me, Goldilocks inscribes itself in the long line of feminist figurations such as “the cyborg” or “the nomad” proposed by thinkers such as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti. [3] The cyborg and the nomad tread foreign territories as uninvited guests with a view to outlining an alternative political imaginary. The role of Goldilocks in thinking on the universal scale is to make us aware of our own derangements when sliding up and down the historical or even geological pole all too smoothly, to recognize some blockages on it, and to add some stoppage points herself. It is therefore to provide a “just right” assessment of universality.

    A Goldilocks-controlled universality can help us enact the post-masculinist rationality mentioned in the first chapter, which is a form of rationality that, in acknowledging the multiscalar properties of the universe, eschews any attempts to collapse those scales in order to tell a totalizing story about it. A minimal ethics thus envisaged is thus inevitably a form of pragmatics. It involves recognizing, as well as undertaking, pragmatic temporary stabilizations of time and matter. Minimal ethical statements can be understood as articulations, from Latin articulatio (“separation into joints”), as they both link things together and enact a separation between them in order to say something about the relations of the world, and about our possible modest contribution to developing and managing those relations. Ethical articulations therefore always perform an ontological function: they stabilize and organize the universe for us, but in a way that is to benefit not just us but also the universe as such. It is in this sense that ethics precedes ontology: not on a linear scale but rather in the sense of making a prior demand on us.

    Seeing things across different scales is more than an attempt to represent the universe: it actively produces entities and relations. It is in this sense that seeing is already a “doing” (Barad 51), with concepts being understood as “specific physical arrangements”, not “mere ideations” (54). Such an approach makes of theorizing “an embodied practice, rather than a spectator sport of matching linguistic representations to pre-existing things” (Barad 54). Consequently, the minimal ethics I am outlining here needs to be an embedded and embodied practice; it needs to involve a material working out of the relations between entities and of their varying forces, instead of relying on a priori systemic normativity. True to its name though, it does adopt some minimal principles, the first one of which is the recognition of the entangled positioning of the human in, or rather with, the universe and a uniquely human responsibility for that universe. That responsibility is also minimal, in the sense that it does not involve any pre-decided values and rules. It only carries an injunction to mobilize the human faculties of reasoning and sensing, and of articulating thoughts and affects through the historically outlined practice of philosophy (or, more specifically, ethics as a practice of both value formation and reflection on it), in order to respond to the processes and relations of the universe—some of which may directly involve the human. This inherent connectedness of the universe should not be understood as “linkages among preexisting nested scales but as the agential enfolding of different scales through one another (so that, for example, the different scales of individual bodies, homes, communities, regions, nations, and the global are not seen as geometrically nested in accordance with some physical notion of size but rather are understood as being intra-actively produced through one another)” (Barad 245). The notion of intra-action—as opposed to the concept of “interaction”, which assumes an encounter before previously stabilized entities—points to the inherent dynamism of matter, which only “becomes something” in relation to something else, over and over again. Naturally, the majority of such intra-actions across different scales are beyond human ken. Minimal ethics refers precisely to this very narrow spectrum of the universe’s intra-actions for which the human is able to take at least some degree of responsibility—materially, conceptually and morally. It is this partial ability to do this, rather than a prior resolution of how to do it, that serves as a tiny corner-pebble of our minimal ethics for the Anthropocene.


    1. “Today, the instantaneous world of electric information media involves all of us, all at once. Ours is a brand-new wold of all-at-onceness. Time, in a sense, has ceased and space has vanished”, McLuhan on McLuhanism, WNDT Educational Broadcasting Network, 1966.return to text
    2. “Gazing out into the night sky or deep down into the structure of matter, with telescope or microscope in hand, Man reconfirms his ability to negotiate immense differences in scale in the blink of an eye. Designed specifically for our visual apparatus, telescopes and microscopes are the stuff of mirrors, reflecting what is out there. Nothing is too vast or too minute. Though a mere speck, a blip on the radar screen of all that is, Man is the center around which the world turns. Man is the sun, the nucleus, the fulcrum, the unifying force, the glue that holds it all together. Man is an individual apart from all the rest. And it is this very distinction that bestows on him the inheritance of distance, a place from which to reflect—on the world, his fellow man, and himself. A distinct individual, the unit of all measure, finitude made flesh, his separateness is the key. Representationalism, metaphysical individualism, and humanism work hand in hand, holding this worldview in place. These forces have such a powerful grip on contemporary patterns of thought that even some of the most concerted efforts to escape the grasp of these anthropocentric forces have failed” (Barad 134). return to text
    3. See Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women and Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects.return to text