Joanna Zylinska

Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

    6. Ontology

    Fig. 7: Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 7, 2014
    Fig. 7
    Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 7, 2014

    “The world” does not really name any kind of objective external reality. Rather, as I suggested in chapter two, this term should be understood as first and foremost referring to a temporary mental organization, undertaken by a spatially embedded and embodied human, of the various processes of which she is part. To say this is by no means to deny the existence of things beyond our representation or imagining of it; it is just to acknowledge the limitations of our cognition and language in grasping things as they (supposedly) are. Imposing unity on them through the concept of “the world” (or, equally, separating them with our intellect into those very “things”) is therefore nothing more than a mental operation, an operation which is conditioned by our adopted theoretical and linguistic frameworks. This kind of mental operation becomes a way of domesticating the enormity and complexity of our universe, as is made evident in Neil Shubin’s popular science book, The Universe Within. Citing the American philosopher William James, Shubin says that religious experience is said to emanate precisely “from ‘feeling at home in the universe’”, which is similar to how Kant explained the mechanism of the sublime, with our mind ultimately triumphant over the failure of our imagination to grasp extreme scales or complex dynamics precisely because it can theorize this failure, and thus obtain consolation. For scientist Shubin consolation comes from our acknowledgement of the unity of cosmic matter across different scales in the universe, even if we cannot see or fully grasp those scales. He writes: “With bodies composed of particles derived from the birth of stellar bodies and containing organs shaped by the workings of planets, eroding rock, and the action of the seas, it is hard not to see home everywhere” (185).

    Consolation and cosmic domesticity are desired by us humans precisely because the majority of processes in the so-called “world” (or, indeed, “universe”) across its different scales unfold outside and beneath both human agency and human consciousness, in ways that we can at best describe with mathematical equations but that we cannot ever obtain a “total” picture of. Some think it is just a matter of developing better physics or better telescopes. However, I am in agreement with the proponents of flat ontology such as Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and Levi R. Bryant, who claim that “the world does not exist”—even if myself I retain the need to use the term strategically. Yet, even while doing this, I follow Bryant in asserting that “there is no ‘super-object’, Whole, or totality that would gather all objects together in a harmonious unity” (32). This, I should signal, is perhaps my only substantial point of agreement with object-oriented philosophy, a recently popular framework of thought which debunks traditional (“correlationist”) philosophy as humanist while at the same time occluding its own foundational, and not any less humanist, gesture. Indeed, object-oriented philosophy’s ontological ambitions are premised on the very correlationist principles its authors critique in proponents of other modes of philosophizing about “the world”.

    It is this unexamined desire to construct ontologies, be it flat or layered ones, that is most troubling for me in the work of many contemporary thinkers today—including a number of process philosophers, who seem not to attend to the processuality of the process all that carefully. Indeed, for many, “process” becomes just a tool in the building of worlds, even if the actual worlds produced are deemed unstable, open, fluid. More often than not, such worlds are just gifts that the (usually male) philosopher charms out of his hat and passes on to his followers. To put it bluntly—although I aim to defend this statement later on—this intellectual trend towards ontology-building is not just masculinist but also, in a bizarrely achronological way, pre-feminist. Many of the thinkers I am hinting at here—not just the object-oriented ontology “school” but also political philosophers of the more continental bent such as Alain Badiou or Slavoj Žižek—defend the ontological modes of the thinking they promote through the supposed urgency of the current political conjuncture, offering various forms of critique of the emasculation of philosophy by sophistry and calling for a return to philosophy “proper” (see Braidotti 2013: 5). [1] Badiou deserves a special mention here as a self-fashioned lone voice in a philosophical desert, a defender of ontology and the truth process amidst the cacophony of deception and rhetorical half-truths. This is why I want to spend some time looking at the ontological desire espoused yet also partly occluded in his work—especially as I aim to position minimal ethics as a viable way to continue philosophizing in a counter-ontological, post-masculinist way.

    Significantly, it is common-or-garden ethics that evokes Badiou’s particular ire. In the Introduction to Ethics, a little book originally intended for sixth-formers, he writes:

    Certain scholarly words, after long confinement in dictionaries and in academic prose, have the good fortune, or the misfortune—a little like an old maid who, long since resigned to her fate, suddenly becomes, without understanding why, the toast of the town—of sudden exposure to the bright of day, of being plebi- and publi-cited, press-released, televised, even mentioned in government speeches. The word ethics, which smacks so strongly of philosophy courses and its Greek root, which evokes Aristotle (The Nicomachean Ethics, one of the great bestsellers!), has today taken centre stage. (2001: 1)

    The traditional kind of ethics that Badiou critiques, and that his own book Ethics is written against, is compared here to a woman—“an old maid”, not very attractive and yet clearly gagging for it, without much hope that it’s actually going to happen—who suddenly becomes the toast of the town. Everyone suddenly wants to have a bit of her, to have a share of her old maidenhood. Traditional ethics, the ethics of evil, of victimhood and of morals, might be a little “minging”, it’s a potential little slapper resigned to her solitude only to find herself suddenly on the stage, pole-dancing before the audience of randy, red-faced punters. Against this somewhat distasteful image of ethics as an old maid freely dispensing her not-so-attractive gifts, an ethics which “smacks so strongly of philosophy courses” but which in fact only masquerades as true philosophy, Badiou sets his ethics of truths: rigid, focused and solemn. It is an ethics that Peter Hallward calls “decisive” and Simon Critchley describes as “heroic”. The gaping hole of the slapper can be opposed here with the composure of an ascetic whose motto is “Keep going” (aka the Badiouan-Lacanian “Continuez”).

    Badiou’s critique applies in particular to the ethics of sympathy for the other, a mode of thinking which only in fact keeps the other in his or her place, and which, under the guise of the celebration of difference, confines this other to the oppressive category of the “victim” while simultaneously constructing a hierarchy of bigger and lesser forms of oppression. His book Ethics is an attack on “a generalised victimization” inherent in the ideology of human rights and a defense of the antihumanism of the 1960s. According to Badiou, Western hegemonic politics (what he calls “democratic totalitarianism”, 2001: lv) legitimizes its actions (e.g. intervention in Serbia, in Afghanistan) through moralizing sermons. Even though I am advocating ethics as a “better” mode of philosophizing than ontology, I do share Badiou’s concerns regarding replacing politics with the “mindless catechism” (2001: liii) or “moral terrorism” of contemporary culturalist ethical discourses, which in fact serve Western capitalism and its many institutions, where “goodness” itself becomes a good to be traded in. The multiplicity of “the world” becomes reduced to the knowable sequence of important human (and increasingly nonhuman) others, such as “animals”, with their particularist struggles being prioritized in terms of bigger and lesser oppression. As a result of this way of thinking, politics becomes subordinated to ethics, to the single perspective that really matters in this conception of things: the sympathetic and indignant judgment of the spectator of the circumstances (2001: 9). This type of ethics, according to Badiou, results in “the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest, the disappearance or extreme fragility of emancipatory politics, the multiplication of ‘ethnic’ conflict, and the universality of unbridled competition” (10). The human being is defined here as a victim, as “the being who is capable of recognizing himself as a victim” (10). This notion of ethics, argues Badiou, “prohibits every broad, positive vision of possibilities” (14); ethics becomes only a “conservation by the so-called ‘West’ of what it possesses” (14).

    However, it should perhaps be clarified here that this girly, weepy thing that Badiou condemns as ethics is really an old-fashioned moralism, which, in Wendy Brown’s words, stands for “a reproachful moralizing sensibility”, “or a kind of posture or pose taken up in the ruins of morality by its faithful adherents” (2001: 22-23). Although morality as well as moralism arise out of the subject’s unacknowledged attachment to a given idea of truth, and to identity positioned in terms of injury, moralism is particularly harmful, as it replaces the passion of a quasi-religious conviction which is nevertheless capable of inspiring an emancipatory movement with paranoia, mania and, ultimately, political stasis (see Zylinska 2009: 153). In the light of this dismissal of ethics, Badiou wheels out his ontological weapons: singular truths are the only thing that can provide a grounding for a viable ethical framework for him, a proposition that is markedly different from the various forms of the ethics of alterity (Levinas, Irigaray), antagonism (Mouffe, Butler) or relationality (Braidotti) that have been prevalent in cultural theory over the recent decades.

    Indeed, Badiou insists that his “ethics of truths” must remain a-relational and hence a-social because it compels distance from commonplace opinion, introducing a clash between post-evental fidelity and “the normal pace of things” (2001: 54). A rhythmic vacillation is clearly implied here: it springs from the disturbance of the regular order by the irruption of the extraordinary. This is the moment in which we are endowed with a task of having to remain faithful to this event (or, rather, to our naming of it), i.e. having to live the consequences of its nomination. Badiou writes, “An evental fidelity is a real break […] in the specific order within which the event took place” (42). A truth is thus always post-evental; it is a name which is extracted from the void (see Badiou 1991). Another way of understanding the event—one of the key terms in Badiou’s philosophy—is as an eruption of the novelty that obliges one to think the situation, or as a provisional suspension of the multiplicity of interpretations (which implies a prior recognition of this multiplicity). The event is thus a breach of the ordinary by the extraordinary, an exposure and explosion of our animality by something that has happened and that makes us “decide a new way of being” (Badiou 2001: 41).

    The imagery of seizure and interruption, of puncturing and piercing through, is recurrent in Badiou’s writings. A truth process enabled by the event “punches a hole” in our knowledges of the situation (43) and prompts us to think again, anew. I am “seized by the not-known”, and, “as a result [of the event], I am also suspended, broken, annulled; dis-interested” (49-51). “[T]he piercing-through of an encounter” composes a subject (52), while “[e]ach faithful truth-process is an entirely immanent break with the situation” (44). Yet it is difficult for me to pass without comment over this sense of seizure and piercing through, of uprightness and rigidity, of violence and irruption, of Badiou’s philosophy, and the language through which it is conveyed. I am aware that Badiou himself not only shows little interest in linguistic games but is in fact actively committed to “freeing philosophy from the tyranny of language”. Those who are preoccupied with linguistic interpretation and language games, supporters of what Badiou, after Lyotard, calls “The Great Linguistic Turn” of Western Philosophy (1999: 94), are deemed sophists, and thus positioned as anti-philosophers, who are nevertheless “useful” in marking the beginning of a new philosophical era which Badiou is hoping to inaugurate. Badiou writes, “The sophist is from the outset the enemy-brother, philosophy’s implacable twin” (1999: 116). The trouble is that contemporary sophists frequently masquerade as “great philosophers”, playing with their veils and mirrors to create an illusion that “the fundamental opposition is not between truth and error or wandering, but between speech and silence, between what can be said and what is impossible to say” (116-17). Denying the existence of truth, the sophist’s claims only support convention, rules and language games—where the seriousness of truth as the central category of philosophy is required, the sophist, “a perverted double of the philosopher” (133), is only interested in playing (or, perhaps even, in playing with himself). But philosophy’s task is by no means to annihilate the sophist—as Badiou puts it, “No, the sophist must only be assigned to his place” (133). The sophist’s unruliness, his constant stepping out of line, his shadowing of the philosophy with his illusions and performances, his conniving tricks, have to be terminated, if the return of and to philosophy is to be accomplished.

    The actual “sophists” referred to in Badiou’s writings are predominantly male philosophers (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Derrida, to name but a few). But let us ponder for a moment whether it is not the femininity of the sophist, i.e., his position as a woman, a figure of masquerade, pretense and non-truth, that needs to be expelled from philosophy for it to continue in its systemic (rigid, correct and erect) manner. Derrida’s Spurs offers a mocking explication of precisely such a masquerade in which woman as the “truth of non-truth” deceives and disguises the truth of philosophy with her artful tricks:

    Since [woman] is a model for truth she is able to display the gifts of her seductive power, which rules over dogmatism, and disorients and routs those credulous men, the philosophers. And because she does not believe in the truth (still, she does find that uninteresting truth in her interest) woman remains a model, only this time a good model. But because she is a good model she is in fact a bad model. She plays at dissimulation, at ornamentation, deceit, artifice, at an artist’s philosophy. (1979: 67)

    From the vantage point of “philosophy proper”, the minimal ethics outlined throughout this volume would be seen as precisely such a masquerade, an exercise in sophistry that does not offer any truths, engaging instead in the game of smoke and mirrors. Admittedly, its twenty one theses outlined in the Conclusion perhaps read more like poetry. And yet in its withholding of truths and its lack of desire to build “worlds” and pass them off as reality, it is premised on one strong injunction directed at the human who is already involved in the game of philosophizing—either professionally, as a scholar, writer or theologian, or, in a broader sense, as someone trying to make sense of how to live a good life: an injunction to keep a check on one’s ontologizing ambitions. To recognize the human activity of sense-making and the human orientation towards what is not in her already entails an ethical challenge: to respond to the difference of what we are calling “the world”.

    “Difference” is not of course a problem-free category—Badiou points out that “There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself”. (And then he adds, “As many, but also, then, neither more nor less” (2001: 26).) What Badiou seems to be doing here is emptying the philosophy of difference of its meaningfulness, i.e., reducing it to the absurd, to banality, to vacuity. As it is such an obvious and commonplace thing to notice that people are different from each other, it is really a waste of time (and of political energy) to go on about these differences—it is boring, facile and counter-productive. Yet the notion of difference within the minimal ethics outlined here is also, we might say … minimal. It refers to the ongoing process of differentiation that is immanent to matter, and hence to what we are calling “the world”, and that mainly occurs outside and beyond the human—but it still calls upon the human to take responsibility for the differentiating cuts into the flow of life s/he is herself making with his/her tongue, language, or tools. Minimal ethics for the Anthropocene is therefore less about building a better world as an external unity and more about making better cuts into that which we are naming the world. But, to avoid becoming yet another masculinist enterprise which knows in advance and once and for all what it is striving for, the minimal ethics proposed here has to embrace the very openness and vagueness of its premises. It needs to recognize in itself the indecency, the gaudiness, the masquerade of any attempt to make philosophy, and then to try and make it better—which perhaps means smaller, less posturing, less erect.


    1. In The Posthuman Braidotti interprets this state of events as indicative of a broader move away from various forms of more speculative critical theory in the early twenty-first century humanities: “It is as if, after the great explosion of theoretical creativity of the 1970s and 1980s, we had entered a zombified landscape of repetition without difference and lingering melancholia. A spectral dimension has seeped into our patterns of thinking, boosted, on the right of the political spectrum, by ideas about the end of ideological time (Fukuyama, 1989) and the inevitability of civilizational crusades (Huntington, 1996). On the political left, on the other hand, the rejection of theory has resulted in a wave of resentment and negative thought against the previous intellectual generations. In this context of theory-fatigue, neo-communist intellectuals (Badiou and Žižek, 2009) have argued for the need to return to concrete political action, even violent antagonism if necessary, rather than indulge in more theoretical speculations. They have contributed to push the philosophical theories of post-structuralism out of fashion” (5). return to text