Ethics: to make friends with death

by Arran James

Knowledge Ecology has posted a  rich, dense , and frankly fantastic audio interview with Timothy Morton that introduces the idea of dark ecology, an ecology coated in ‘shame, and horror, and disgust’. If you haven’t already, I urge you listen to it here.

The collision between human history and geological time began the ecological emergency- where we ‘directly intervened with the earth’s crust- occurs at the same time that philosophy is denying material reality and establishing human exceptionalism. Human beings remain in a state of denial; the denial that follows a grief. This ecological emergency is one of what I call situated catastrophes that follow the original catastrophe of creation, of things becoming manifest as cosmos.

What I especially like is the idea that the world has already ended. Morton states that we have this ‘uncanny sensation of angst’, of the meaninglessness of our junkward world which is already over, as the ecological emergency is already underway, has already happened.

I would be more hyperbolic than Morton. The ecological age, the ecological catastrophe, is merely the proximate situation. We are actually inside a cosmological age; cosmos itself is a catastrophe which is headed towards it’s inevitable conclusion. That is not to say that the ecological catastrophe is of no importance (or no more non-importance than anything else); we are coping-beings that by and large can’t help but go on. If it is the case, as Morton says, that the ecological catastrophe has already happened then here we have a way to make sense of my question of a politics that is a question of the self-management of extinction.

Morton doesn’t talk about pessimism in this interview but I think that his outlining of a dark or black ecology is precisely part of a pessimism. I haven’t read a great deal of Morton’s work but from this interview I feel as though I ought to.

Finally, the most important part of this interview for me, Morton states that we have already given up and that we must ‘make friends with death’. This is the essence of my idea of the coalition in favour of death. 

Crucially, Tim’s continued returns throughout the interview to ideas of fragility (I have, in the past, written about humans as ‘fragile systems’), coexistence and so on also form the kind of ethics that I am beginning to think through constantly, even if I am not writing about it. This is the idea that I first found in Judith Butler’s Frames of War where she writes about the precariousness of life as the founding moment of any ethics or politics worth its name. This is vitally important to me in my clinical practice as a psychiatric/mental health nurse and in the role I play in helping my partner to raise her child in a non-authoritarian way.

Yet Butler remains caught within the anthropocentric image of thought wherein the interdependence that reveals precariousness remains that which exists between human beings. What projects like Morton’s, and he is by no means alone in this, is illustrating and calling attention to the ways in which such an interdependence is simply not reducible to anthropic relationships. Interdependence is what all flat ontologies show us as the condition of all objects/entities in existence.

All of this leads us to the point where we can speak about pessimist ethics. The dark knowledge of extinction leads us to what I have ironically called an ‘autopsy vitalism’; a perspective from which all living things are already dead but continue to live. They still live because their death, although an accomplished fact, has not yet occurred. Isn’t this akin to Morton’s view that the ecological emergency has already befallen us? All that remains is the dying dead existing among one another. An interdependent community of dying. Beyond this, pushing it further in the realisation of life as a negative concept  (a la Schopenhauer or Thomas Ligotti) we are really a community of interdependent beings on the road to destruction, or disappearance. And this is the key to pessimistic ethics because for the pessimist the question is the alleviation of suffering. To speak in the discourse of my profession for a moment, we are the first patients in the hospital to realise that all that remains to us is the self-administration of palliative care.  I think this leads us towards the kind of sentiment based ethics of Schopenhauer. I will end on a quote that will serve merely to illustrate this connection- I have to return to the banal world of housework- a quote that comes from the latter German miserablist and pessimist but which, I feel, wouldn’t have been out of place in Morton’s interview:

 

 

The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instill in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? … this … reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

 

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, p.50.

 

That things ought not to exist. There is no hierarchy or preference here. All things that exist deserve compassion, indulgence. I would venture the uncontroversial claim that we can’t help but feel this all the more forcefully for other beings like us; sentient, conscious, living. An equality of being, but still an inequality of feeling. In this regard Morton’s is the ethical dictum that follows undecidability (the ethical situation as that in which there is no manual, no technique to unconsciously deploy); the cultivation of a mindful relationship with death itself.

 

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