This article was written on 24 Oct 2014, and is filled under New Ecologies.

Living the Good Life after the End of the World: On Joanna Zylinska’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala, 2014. "Taken from two vantage points on both sides of a window, the composite images inter- weave human and nonhuman creativity by overlaying the outer world of cloud formation with the inner space of sculptural arrangement."

Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala, 2014. Composite image taken from vantage points on both sides of a window. “Human and nonhuman [interweave] creativity by overlaying the outer world of cloud formation with the inner space of sculptural arrangement.”

This October, at the House of the Cultures of the World (HKW) in Berlin, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) will commence a series of meetings to decide if the designation of a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—will be formally accepted. Informally, the term has been widely and varyingly accepted to account for, draw attention to, and agitate against the earth-magnitude transformations of the lithosphere that can be chalked up to human activity. (Sadly, a number of alternatives currently in circulation, including the Cthulucene (Donna Haraway), the Capitalocene (Jason Moore), the #misanthropocene (Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr), and the Anthrobscene (Jussi Parikka) will not be considered by the ICS. Nor will the Manthropocene, although only one female scientist sits on the 29-strong Anthropocene Working Group. ) While the proposal of a new geological epoch is an event in its own right—the last time this occurred was with Paul Gervais’ proposal in 1867 of the Holocene for the current inter- or postglacial epoch beginning about 11,700 years ago—the advent of this new epoch known as the Anthropocene is extremely unsettling, for the biosphere and for ethico-political thought alike.

Against this monumental setting, and against a steady stream of triumphalist titles (e.g. Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us), Joanna Zylinska’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2014) might come across as audaciously inapt. In an epoch where the human species is routinely imagined as a planetary cancer or an asteroid strike, “minimal” seems to be an incommensurate designation for an ethics that promises

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.” (13)

But Minimal Ethics isn’t about living the good life as much as it is about rethinking “life” in a way that would be less divisive for living things. In this way a minimal ethics could also be thought of as an elemental ethics. In a historical moment where the shared materiality of the universe is profoundly sensed, where the human and the lithosphere are initimately entangeled, a minimal ethics flips into a maximal one. (Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter is as much of an influence as Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution.) Such an all-at-once ethics is not intended to be applicable across all of time and space; instead, it attends to the temporally and spatially “unbound” perspective of the universe that “circumscribes how relations, entities and phenomena appear to us” (28).

Similarly, the philosophical underpinnings of “minimal” are quite extensive and not at all negligible. The most immediate touchstone for this minimal ethics is Theodor W. Adorno’s post-war Minima Moralia, itself an inversion of Aristotle’s book of Magna Moralia (“Great Ethics”). Writing in the wake of the Holocaust and in a period when 1945 was widely regarded as the “zero hour” of German history, Adorno’s non-systemic and non-normative “reflections from damaged life” were written from a greatly diminished present and a sense of diminished human agency. In these senses Zylinska’s is also a “minimal” and diminished ethics. Yet Minimal Ethics is no mere updating of Minima Moralia. Zylinska’s reflections are situated amidst the disappearing future and the dissipating humanisms unique to the Anthropocene. Responding to pressures largely unforeseen but well underway in 1951, Zylinska explicitly writes from within an ongoing yet dimly understood planetary mass extinction event whose seriality (The Sixth Extinction), apparent inevitability, and inability to maintain any reliable distinction between perpetrator and victim greatly complicates the formulation of any ethics, let alone the perpetuation of critical thought. A minimal ethics is well-suited for the reduced ecologies of the Anthropocene.

The nine short essays, twenty-one theses of a biopoetic manifesto, and interpolated photographs that comprise Minimal Ethics respond to this diminshing biosphere while abandoning any straightforward articulation of a moral philosophy. It is a book of questions. The avatar for this mode of moral inquiry is the wayfarer, via Tim Ingold. The wayfarer evades excessive anthropomorphizing through its articulation as a conceptual persona for what is provisional, nomadic, and transient: the provisional concept of the human, of species, and of other such “cuts” made into life. Accordingly, the wayfaring reader is invited to enter the book at any point. In medias res, Zylinska writes, “can actually serve as a description of the location of our minimal ethics” (23).

In this post-masculinist book of questions—it eschews “any enterprise which knows in advance and once and for all what it is striving for” (88)—there are no calls for heroic individual action, no appeals to save the earth, no petitions for energy corporations to ensure that existing fossil fuel reserves remain in the ground. There is no gesture toward climate justice, for this minimal ethics would be foundational to politics: “it needs to prepare the ground for political work in which responsibilities are always shared and demands conflicting” (123-4). Addressed primarily to philosophers and philosophically-minded non-philosophers, its principal admonition is along the lines of Timothy Morton’s “Don’t just do something, sit there.” No doubt this will come across as irresponsible to some readers. Such readers may want to begin by reading Chapter Two, “Scale.” There we see that Minimal Ethics is articulating the radical response-ability of the human to “the unfolding of matter across time and space” (26). For Zylinska, such philosophical endeavors

can be foreclosed 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. (25)

Bergson’s philosophy of time and concept of “duration” is a sustained point of reference, but Zylinska’s intervention into Bergson is “less about building a better world as an external unity and more about making better cuts into that which we are naming the world” (87). Minimal Ethics is an ethics of the incision. That is to say, it installs ethical reflection first and foremoest at the site of the division of life into human and nonhuman, bios and geos, and so on and so forth. It asks us to consider to what extent the ethical and political impasses of the Anthropocene can be traced back to such poorly-thought but excellently-executed divisions.

For several years OHP’s Critical Climate Change series has produced a startling number of open-access monographs and edited volumes that variously articulate the relation(s) between epistemo-political and terrestrial mutations. Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, the most recent addition, stages a welcome intervention both into this series and into the Anthropocene imaginary. This is not an ethics of the Anthropocene but rather for an “Anthropocene” that is first and foremost mobilized as an “ethical pointer” articulating a radically expanded “human obligation towards the geo- and biosphere” (19). (As in Adorno, these reflections are not on but from damaged life; in minimal ethics, prepositions and pronouns are fraught with significance.) As in Levinas, this is a demand that comes from another, but that other can be immanent to the human in the form of a “differentiation from within” (95) rather than in the form of a transcendental Other.

The image of the human as “a complex and dynamic network of relations” rather than a discreet, species-specific “we” thus evades the sticking point of some recent criticism (see Rob Nixon’s and Jon Christensen’s reviews of Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us). Zylinska’s “we” is radically capacious—perhaps too much so given “our” unabated exploitation and disavowal of the nonhuman—and her “human” is polymorphous perverse—but perhaps not enough given the pervasiveness of human exceptionalism. The book’s auspicious beginning points toward such a geo- and biophilic future:

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.

The ecosexual exploits of Stephens and Sprinkle—elsewhere documented in Goodbye Gauley Mountain—offer another ethos and another environmentalism than the status quo. Zylinska is quick to dismiss Minimal Ethics as “not just an updated form of environmental ethics” given that

it does not pivot on any coherent notion of an “environment” […] 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. (20)

But as foreign as these objects might be for a traditional environmental ethics, our post-natural history cannot avail itself of an environment not traversed by anthropogenic artefacts. Even if we do not take wedding vows to lakes and mountains, we are increasingly aware of our survival being wedded to theirs. And to electricity pylons, wind turbines, and photovoltaic cells. I, for one, want to read Minimal Ethics’ weird assemblages of anthropogenic and nonanthropogenic matter as a 21st century environmental ethics. Among others. It might have little traction at a regional scale—and the totalizing assertion that “everything is connected” is neither useful nor helpful for many, relatively discreet and preventable disasters like oil spills, industrial pollution of waterways, insect endangerment due to neonicotoids, ozone depletion, etc.— but it is designed to operate at the scale of the Anthropocene.

Still, no matter how you divvy up the biosphere, its diversity is rapidly diminishing. The WWF’s Living Planet Index recently registered a 52% decline in a large sample of wildlife between 1970 and 2010. For an environmentalist kill-joy, an ethics that consists in making novel cuts into “life” is less creative evolution and more a creative accounting that would be complicit in the (capital-friendly, life-adverse) managerial logic of carbon trades, environmental mitigation, and corporate sustainability initiatives. Zylinska insists, however, that the unique human position is neither as manager nor as steward that would stand aloof from her nonhuman wards. Just as a minimal ethics adopts a universal scale so too does it, in my reading, adopt the perspective of a general economy.

In this way, Minimal Ethics offers what Claire Colebrook in Essays on Extinction I calls a “counter-ethics,” one that “would be theoretical in beginning from the condition of the present—looming extinction— without assuming the ethos of the present” (43). Simialrly, Zylinska’s essays shift away at key points from an ethos of “life” and the bios and toward another ethos, one in which the division between life and nonlife is no longer articulated. This tentative move beyond a carbon imaginary is honey for an emerging Hive Mind: see Martin McQuillan’s “Notes Toward a Post-Carbon Philosophy” in Theory in the Era of Climate Change (2012), Elizabeth Povinelli’s 2013 “Geontologies” keynote to The Anthropocene Project at the HKW, and the discussions of humanity’s “minerality” in Kathryn Yusoff’s “Geologic Life” (2013). Living the good life, as Zylinska and her fellow wayfarers provisionally posit, involves confronting the end of life as we know it.

-Jason Groves


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