Much has been made lately of the claim that we have entered a new geologic epoch provocatively termed the ‘Anthropocene’. The gist of the claim is that humans have intervened and complicated core geo-ecological systems to the extent that we have become the dominant force on this planet. Of course, there is logical space in such claims to argue about particulars, but in terms of quantifiable measurements we would be remiss not to conclude that humans are at least the dominant force driving change in the composition of the biosphere. No species exists in isolation and all beings are imbricated and entangled in all sorts of affording and asynchronistic contexts and relations, but the human species has successfully (in relative terms) bootstrapped our frontal lobes to patch together a series of epoch-making machinic hydras underpinned by massively delusional cultural abstractions and technologically short-sighted tools of material-energetic reorganization. These civilizational machines have either disrupted or displaced (or both) every mode and manner of geohistorical cycle and system hitherto evolved as the habitable zone known as the biosphere. These are baseline realities evidenced in so many ways – and realities which increasingly require our keenest attention and practical engagement.
I’ve been out of the game for a while now, but a recent post by Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects has moved me to say a thing or two on the possibility of ecological ethics and politics in the Anthropocene. Where Levi’s post/comments factor in for me is at the level of discourse and think-ability. How are we to think and communicate about all those anthropocenities witnessed around and within us without reverting to various default vocabularies and semantic resources which are themselves supportive of the pathological systems and networks driving contemporary life? If humans have become an undeniable material and systemic force on this planet how are we to explain and/or guide the relations and the conditions of possibility which lead to the recoupling of earth systems on human terms?
The terms ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, to use the most demonstrative example, reinforce the very decisional binaries supporting those conceptual operating systems which allow many of us to compartmentalize and rationalize our evaluative actions and routine behaviors. It was once self-evident that humans were special: outside of nature and destined to control it in the service of divine or humanistic goals. And some still cling to this delusion despite now centuries of gathered scientific knowledge and adjusted artifactual material dependencies. Our most sophisticated and emergent modes of analysis and consideration – however precariously devised – suggest that we are ‘of’ and ‘from’ this material and corporeal world in much the same way as all those objects and processes once conceptually relegated to the external and unhuman Nature. ‘Culture’, then, isn’t ontologically opposed to ‘nature’ in any consistent or rationally justifiable way, but rather can now be understood to be an emergent development within in nature. Humans, languages, cities, nuclear reactors and all our other monstrous and affording machines are as much nature as beaver dams, amoebas, fruit-flies and dandelions. In a universal plane of consistency where everything is elemental, energetic and enmeshed there is no getting outside of nature. We are in and of this world in every way that matters. Everything is ecological.
One of the more glaring paradoxes still to be confronted in this regard (and in any satisfactory way) by the more intelligent witnesses of the anthropocene is how to reconcile the realization that there is no getting outside the dark ecologicality of things with the accompanying logic that this inescapable embeddedness is at the same time a universal naked exposure to the forces, beings and ontological tendencies that constitute our being, becomings and relations. That is, even as there is no getting outside the mesh everything is also always already ‘outdoors’. Exposure, fragility, change, enrichment, growth, change, decay are ubiquitous features of reality. If everything is ecological everything is also relational and co-constituted and interdependent. This is an inescapable conclusion from understanding and coping-with vulnerability as the very condition of possibility for possibility.
But, again, how are we to think this? And what are the implications that follow for us with regards to how decide and act in the world, and for how we evaluate our actions and the actions of others? In short, what are the ethics and politics of a radically ecological human perspective?
As Levi outlines, Tim Morton has done great work to deconstruct the concept of nature in its traditional and romantic guise. If we abandon the notion of Nature, as Morton suggests, we terminate the operating binary preventing us from further ecological revelation and thus open the conceptual field to begin to think about exactly how we are embedded and forever inside of the mesh of ecological beings and collaborating in the shell game of appearance and relation. However, like Levi, I am reticent to abandon the term altogether, interested instead in possible rearrangements in connotation and allowing the term to evolve more poetically into an umbrella ethos bridging, for example, the notion of Being-as-such to more concrete attunements to the actualities of biospheric complexity.
Regardless of what we do at the most general levels of representation, the important point is that we re-cognize the falsity of the binary (and of all associated binaries) and begin fashioning new conceptual arragements and associations for coping-with the actualities of an enmeshed existence. If we are going to develop logics adequate to the task of mapping and communicating within the thick tapestry of complex relations and modes of existence we are going to have to reconcile ourselves to non-exclusionary semantics capable of holding multiple levels and contexts in awareness simultaneously. The dangers of exclusionary, analytic and strictly differential frameworks are many, and incidentally have always been at the core of my suspicions regarding object-oriented philosophies. Entities or beings or systems or objects are always dependent on some relation and always already enmeshed and causally contingent. Instead of positing ‘objects’ or ‘relations’ as the prima facie ontological engine of reality what we are required to think and cope-with is how things and relationships and ecologies are simultaneously auto-affective(situated) in the widest possible metaphysical sense and co-constituted (interdependent). All objects are systems: dependent, open and enmeshed in processes of exchange and uniquely withdrawn and operationally potent. What we need to think this then, as Levi states, are logics of “and” rather than the “or”.
In a non-ecological ontology, we either 1) see the qualities of a being as arising from within that being independent of all other beings (e.g. genes defining the features of the phenotype), or 2) trace effects or qualities back to a single cause. In a mesh or ecology this no longer holds as it’s a variety of causes that produce effects. For example, the sex of a fetus is a product of the genes and diet and hormones and birth order and probably other things besides. It is the result of an interplay between all of these things, not one of these things. The color of my coffee mug is ecological in this sense. It’s not in the mug, but is the result of an interplay between wavelengths of light, nervous systems, and the chemical properties of the mug. When we turn out the lights, it’s not that the mug remains blue and we just can’t see it, it’s that the mug has genuinely lost it’s color because it’s not interacting with other bodies such as photons of light.
And this follows nicely into the question of ethics and politics. Populations, communities, and states are simultaneously self-organizing ‘machines’ and open systems/matrices/collectives. So what we need to understand about these ‘social’ realities is exactly how each system or network is composed, and what materials, relations, links, nodes, passages or structures go into each particular situation. We need to glean a practical sense of the onto-specificity of things as they are disclosed in consequential human terms. This type of will to ontographic enagement can only ever be a reflexive praxis predicated on the necessity of coping and creatively acting in the world – and from this follows a self-conscious, open and praxis-oriented move towards an ethics and politics capable of a sophisticated incorporation of the insights generated by the ecological sciences and confirmed by all those everyday and non-representational confrontations with our visceral, material and ecological circumstances.
But how are we to code all this in the social imaginary? I have my references and influences just as any reader will, but what matters, what will have some purchase of how we conduct our speech-acts, bodily movements and choices, is to evolve vocabularies and articulations and art and images that resonate and activate us. Language is an expressive medium with practical implications, and the communication and images we construct and use have material-energetic consequences for how we operate, motivate, congregate and militate as we are confronted with pre-representational realities. Thus, ecological ethics and politics not only have to be construct-aware but also practically oriented towards affective activation and physical mobilization. In this regard, then, what seems to be required is an ethics and a politics of nature that is simultaneously about the ecological as well as capable of self-consciously and self-confidently being ecological. That is to say, to think the ecological is to think below it at the level of details, alongside it at the level of praxis, and beyond at the level of perpetual reflexive accommodation.
And yet, if the ecological is everything it is also nothing. The nothingness of the concept shines through in this regard and demands of us to think more precisely, to think more materially, and to think and thus act and relate in the world in ways acutely sensitive to its onto-specificity: the particular weave, warp and swerve of real affective, corporeal beings and situations. What we require are embodiments and songs and dances and improvisational arguments that connect the nodes, details and entities and their relative causal complexes to life-worlds of appreciation and determined behavior. These modes and emanations, of course, will only ever be generated in the matrix of anarchic expression-response cycles, non-linear feedback loops, and material conditions, but we need to strive to become more context-aware niche constructors and develop normative rationalities and political practices sensitive to the exquisite complexity and potency of elemental life. Only a praxis nurtured by such creaturely sensitivity to the non-thetic messiness and naked specificity of things deserves to be called ethical.
- Ecological Ethics (larvalsubjects.wordpress.com)
- Anthropocene (redstateeclectic.typepad.com)
- The Degradation of Ethics (larvalsubjects.wordpress.com)
- Evaluating Social and Ecological Vulnerability of Coral Reef Fisheries to Climate Change (plosone.org)
- Cannibals to the last man: Derrida and the Anthropocene (veraqivas.wordpress.com)
- Ecology and Time (knowledge-ecology.com)
- Man the Meaning-Faker (rsbakker.wordpress.com)
- Optimism in the Anthropocene (longnow.org)
- Ecologies of Space-Time in Organic Ontologies (footnotes2plato.com)