Joanna Zylinska

Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

    3. Process

    Fig. 4: Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 4, 2014
    Fig. 4
    Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 4, 2014

    There has been a tendency in recent years amongst cultural theorists of various ilk to speak about process and relationality as the dominant modes of capturing the unstable ontology of what we conventionally refer to as “the world”. So-called process philosophy, expounded by thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze or A.N. Whitehead, foregrounds change as the key aspects of the becoming of the matter of the world—and of our becoming material in the world. The world itself, as we will discuss later on, is seen here as nothing more than a temporary mental organization, undertaken by the spatially embedded and embodied human, of the various processes of which this human is part. Process philosophy postulates what could be described as a “fluid ontology”, where being is not defined through substances with their supposedly inherent and immutable properties but is rather seen as dynamic and constantly changing. Even though the roots of process philosophy can be traced back to the ideas of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, with his theory of the universal flux, this philosophical framework has always constituted a more marginal line of thinking within the Western epistemic edifice. Yet processual thinking has recently gained a new lease of life through its (not always unproblematic) encounters with scientific developments in quantum physics, cosmology and molecular biology, developments that point to the inherent instability and changeability of the universe at both particle and cosmic level. The growing interest in process philosophy can be seen as an attempt to overcome the inherent bias of Western metaphysics, which has shaped many static concepts and assumptions that underpin our language and worldview.

    The argument developed in this book remains aligned with the processual mode of thinking about what our language traditionally describes as “reality”, but it also stays attuned to the possible disruptions to the flow of life encapsulated by this framework—even if it does not go all the way towards replacing the processual framework with a (so-called) object-oriented one. Yet it is these disruptions to the process that, first, allow us to see the process as a process, and, second, that make the process interesting as an event. It is precisely through these disruptions that life gets temporarily stabilized, that it presents itself to us as a series of states and objects. Many process philosophers do in fact acknowledge that “there are temporally stable and reliably recurrent aspects of reality. But they take such aspects of persistence to be the regular behavior of dynamic organizations that arise due to the continuously ongoing interaction of processes” (Seibt non-pag.). It is important to recognize that these temporary stabilizations, which can be described as cuts made to the flow of life, occur both at the level of matter and (human) mind. Some of these cuts are, to use Karen Barad’s term, “agential”, which is to say they enact “a resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological (and semantic) indeterminacy” (140)—although not all of these agential cuts have a corresponding human agent that enacts them. The recognition of the outcomes of those cuts is an epistemological activity: this is how we make sense, cognitively and affectively, of the chaos of the world. The act of taking responsibility for those, perhaps rare, cuts which we humans are capable of enacting (or not enacting) is in turn what I am defining throughout this book as an ethical endeavor.

    Henri Bergson is one of the process philosophers who can be of help to us in getting to grips with the process-entity dualism. His Creative Evolution is an attempt to encourage us to overcome the fossilized habits of our mind. The mind inevitably spatializes time by cutting its flow into what he calls solids, thus making us miss out on the true essence of life, or what we might call its lifeness. Indeed, for Bergson, our intellect is unable to grasp true duration because it is only at home working on inert matter, but the flow of time requires us to adjust its somewhat mechanical working (169). “If our existence were composed of separate states with an impassive ego to unite them, for us there would be no duration”, writes Bergson (6). Bergson’s philosophy of time is therefore primarily intuitive or, we might even say, experiential, a point he articulates in his restatement of the Heraclitean river dilemma: “consciousness cannot go through the same state twice” (8). For Bergson, time and duration provide the organizing logic of the universe, a thought he expresses as follows: “the truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing but change” (4). To deal with this incessant duration, we need to turn to intuition to recapture a more instinctual way of grasping life that allows us to apprehend that which is in process. Yet Bergson’s observation that “No doubt, it is useful to us, in view of our ulterior manipulation, to regard each object as divisible into parts arbitrarily cut up, each part being again divisible as we like, and so on ad infinitum” (169-70) signals a certain inevitable if reluctant pragmatism entailed in his argument, one that brings up states even if in order to debunk them.

    The differentiation between process and entity is itself premised on the possibility of the human stepping outside the world she is describing in order to say something about it. However, this is not to say that process is all that is. It is rather to recognize that “process” and “entity” are terms we humans use to describe, however clumsily, the different speeds and scales at which the transformations of matter are taking place in the universe—and to acknowledge that these transformations matter to us humans in different ways. Derrida makes a similar point when replying to Bernard Stiegler in Echographies of Television in their discussion of the technical process and what it involves (incidentally, for Stiegler as much as for Derrida, techne is originary to life, including human life, rather than being a mere product of human activity). Derrida says: “to speak of a technical process, and indeed of its acceleration, mustn’t lead us to overlook the fact that this flux, even if it picks up speed, nonetheless passes through determined phases and structures” (76). He is concerned with the way the term “process” tends to be used as a “pretext for saying: It’s a flow, a continuous development; there is nothing but process” (76). Consistent with the deconstructive logic that shapes his philosophical endeavor, one that shows seemingly opposing terms as each other’s conditions of possibility when they emerge as part of our human discourse in the shape of tools that help us make sense of the world, Derrida insists: “No, there is not only process. Or at least, process always includes stases, states, halts” (76). This kind of argument has been branded “correlationist” by Quentin Meillassoux and other proponents of the recently fashionable speculative realism, in the sense that humans are seemingly unable to envisage the world in isolation from themselves and their own concerns. Yet this is nothing of the kind. The world (or rather what we are calling the world) does of course unfold and act in a myriad ways outside and beyond us, many of which we are unable to see, experience and grasp. However, for us to be able to say anything about it, to engage in any kind of philosophizing, we are at the same time bringing forth this world in a necessarily cut-up, solidified and inadequate way, for which we furnish ourselves with concepts such as adequacy and truth in order to assess our efforts, as well as efforts of those whose modes of thinking are not aligned with our own. Many seem oblivious of this fact, engaging instead as they do in the construction of ontological edifices that float like palaces in the sky—and then passing them off as descriptions of reality on to others.

    The linguistic acrobatics we are inevitably engaged in here go beyond a mere exercise in representationalism or metaphor-production. In his reading of Bergson’s use of concepts, John Mullarkey points out that “if the language of process corresponds to process-reality that is because it also proceeds as a process-reality, rather than because it is a static image of it” (154; emphasis added). In other words, language does not so much attempt to (and fail to attempt to) capture life but rather enacts it, for us humans, in a certain way. The distinction between process and entity is therefore a heuristic, a conceptual device that helps us grasp the world and respond to it, while at the same time moving in it and being moved by it. The distinction is therefore both an ontological cut and an ethical device. Taking on the role of an injunction, it calls on us humans to respond to the movement that carries us through the world. Significantly, for Tim Ingold humans do not live in the world but rather move through it. He uses the term “wayfaring” to describe “the embodied experience of this perambulatory movement” (2011: 148). Movement is also a way of getting to know the world, according to Ingold, where knowledge is not seen as classificatory but rather as “storied”, being constantly “under construction” (159). Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that movement itself “is knowing” (160), challenging in this way the rigid taxonomies we construct about the world and thus foreclose it, make it lifeless, or—to cite Bergson—“solid”.

    How can this more intuitive mode of engaging with the world help us in our ethical project in the Anthropocene era? Should we try and intuit the Anthropocene and ways of responding to it rather than try to theorize it? Counterintuitive as it may sound, this is perhaps the only sensible way of approaching the issue of the human’s intervention into the geo- and bio-sphere since many well-documented rational arguments and responses have either completely failed or, deep down, have been completely irrational. And thus the popular Al Gore documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), originally devised as a slide presentation, may have raised awareness of its viewers but it is more difficult to prove it has actually changed behavior, especially on any meaningful scale. Any individual efforts to recycle more and switch off unnecessary lights have been more than offset by transnational counter-efforts: for example, “[i]n 2012 the US energy company Exxon—the world’s largest oil producer—signed a deal with Russia to invest up to $500 billion in oil and gas exploration and extraction in the Arctic, in Russia’s Kara Sea” (Emmott non-pag.), while around that time the UK government issued nearly 200 new licenses to drill for gas and oil in the North Sea. Suggestions to repair the environmental damage by only filling in half of the kettle, using one rather than two sheets of toilet paper, or buying an electric car fail precisely due to the inability to distinguish between process and entity and to think across different scales without collapsing them into a (singular) human measure of things. Such suggestions position environmental and climate change as a matter of individual moral decisions one is obliged to take, while completely blanking out the scale of phenomena we are facing, phenomena such as the overexploitation of oceans, the loss of tropical rainforests and woodlands, the rise in atmospheric brown clouds as a result of wood burning and oil use, and the overconsumption of water (including so-called “hidden water”, i.e., water used to produce other things) and meat. [1] Even the generic call for the protection of life is misguided, even if well-intentioned, because it, somewhat hubristically, turns life into an object, one that needs protection and that is posited as separated from us humans so that we can offer it protection, while equipping us with a God-like fantasy that we can indeed control and regulate it. In a truly Bergsonian vein, Ingold argues that

    An understanding of the unity of life in terms of genealogical relatedness is bought at the cost of cutting out every single organism from the relational matrix in which it lives and grows. In this understanding, life presents itself to our awareness not as the interlaced meshwork, famously invoked by Charles Darwin in his image of the “entangled bank” (Darwin 1950: 64, see Chapter 6, p. 84), but rather as an immense scheme of classification—nowadays going by the name of “biodiversity”—in which every individual is assigned to a specific taxon (species, genus) on the basis of covert attributes, comprising the genotype, that it is deemed to possess in advance of their phenotypic expression in a real-world environment (Ingold 2000a: 217). (2011: 163)

    A minimal injunction for our ethics of the Anthropocene would not therefore call on those of us who call ourselves human to protect “life” at all cost but rather to recognize that life itself is a system constituted by a dynamic movement of forces, that time itself is movement, that we are just wayfarers in the world, and that microbes were there before us (see Eldredge) and will no doubt survive us. Such ethics may seem terribly ineffective but, given the ineffectivity of the more grandiose sounding programs and undertakings as described above, perhaps a modest experiment in reimagining life—and in thinking and living critically—can actually be seen as a viable and vital alternative? This recognition of wayfaring as a critical model of engaging otherwise involves acknowledging, with Lynn Margulis, that “Neither animal nor plant is an eternal category of classification” (56), that “Animals and plants are far more similar to each other than they are to all the other kinds of Earth life” (56) and, last but not least, that extinction as a form of movement is part and parcel of the process.

    This recognition does not have to amount to fatalism: it carries a task for us transient human animals to start figuring out ways of moving better, of dying better, and of becoming extinct better, while not losing sight of the fact that any notion of “goodness” with regard to life is always species-specific and hence inevitably antagonistic towards its other articulations and enactments across other scales. Minimal ethics can therefore be said to refer loosely to a set of actions we can undertake once we have intuitively grasped this constant movement of life, of which we are part, and then turned to our compromised and imperfect faculty of reason—which is perhaps primarily a story-telling faculty—in order to tell better stories about life in the universe, and about life (and death) of the universe. Read on an evolutionary non-anthropocentric scale, extinction is an inevitable process of the withering away of any species, a process against which human attempts to “adapt better” must look hubristically naive. If the human cannot armor himself against extinction, its looming prospect “opens up the question of life more generally, and of how we wish to live whatever time is left for the human species” (Colebrook 2012: non-pag.). Evolution and extinction therefore open up the question of ethics.


    1. For more on these issues see Timothy Clark, “Derangements of Scale” and Stephen Emmott, Ten Billion. return to text