attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: ethics

To care enough

In a previous post I claimed that there is a double-bind at the heart of late capitalism. A friend of mine who I talked to about that post recently said to me that he thinks that there is also a double-bind at the heart of nursing, although we could probably extend that to all formal care work. It is this: care, show that you care, be caring; but not too much! be professional! maintain the proper amount of distance! There is no guidance on how to achieve this strange balance, and still less is there any discussion of what constitutes a proper limit to this particular brand of affective labour. My friend’s suspicion is that it is this double-bind that causes so many nurses to stop caring at all, to become negligent, abusive, and all that the popular image of nurses has in mind. In other words, “compassion fatigue” is caused by the effort to prevent “compassion fatigue”. If care workers were allowed to express and embody an authentic human relationship with those they cared for, with clearly negotiated limits to what constitutes caring-for, then less care/health workers would experience affective collapse. Schopenhauer thought universal compassion would produce universal morality. What if, to the contrary, all demands that we care for one another, each and every single one of us in our singularity, destroys ethicity and only leads us to the exaggerated claim of the “death of affect”. Care as a foundation to an ethics and a politics must have its limit, or it ends by destroying itself.

The question for all ethical and political subjects, all people who posit themselves as these kinds of beings, is the question of how to cope with caring. It isn’t immediately obvious what the answer would be, although I have a spontaneous affinity for those traditions that make genuine care possible on the basis of a kind of detachment.

The sixth extinction

Somehow the Guardian’s series entitled The Sixth Extinction has managed to escape my attention. With the strap line ‘How humans are driving animals and plants to extinction’, it certainly bills itself as sad, but provocative reading.

It features a visually arresting ‘interactive map of the world’s extinct and endangered species’, which introduces itself with the intro-blurble ‘Over the past 500 years, human activity is known to have decimated 869 species. Habitat destruction, hunting, alien species, disease and climate change are among the forces responsible for the vulnerability and loss of the 12,000 species on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species. With a total of 16,928 plant and animal species at risk, life on Earth is populated by creatures poised at the brink of extinction. Today, one in eight birds, one in four mammals, one in five invertebrates, one in three amphibians, and half of all turtles face extinction’. It isn’t pussy footing around.

The series also features an interview with musician and naturalist Bernie Krause and includes samples of audio he has recorded from habitats before and after extinction- and produced some haunting silences therein, as well as the deploying the immediately appealing term ‘bioacoustics’. Ocularcentrism has a tendency to make us forget that life is an acoustic phenomena as much as it is visual. Krause writes that ‘A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening’- although I can’t say I’m too happy with hierarchising or playing off industrial or commercial noise with against that produced by more organic beings- after all, I doubt Krause is talking about the sound of talking.

There is also a report on the conservation model of Ecuador, which hosts the most biodiverse area in the world and is the only country in the world to have included nature in its constitutional rights…and the claim that ‘Pharmaceutical companies have based countless patents on results from the forest, where the chemical mix and match is immeasurably more dynamic than that of any science lab’, is interesting if ultimately anthropocentric.

Yet this blog considers that cosmological extinction is a real but not yet actually accomplished fact, that human extinction is not a distant possibility, and agrees with Timothy Morton’s reminder that climate science knows that the disaster has ‘already occurred and that we are now living in its aftermath’. For Morton the Krause recordings are ‘fragile sonic worlds’ that are ‘objects of sadistic pleasure and Schadenfreude’. The entire Sixth Extinction, with its desire to watch the extinction events, to be a kind of panoptic overseer of the processes of extinction, and to situate itself within a classificatory system (Extinction VI, rather like DSM-V?) speak of a kind of mania for the whole thing. It

This might sound like it would be part of Catastrophia’s remit (‘love of collapse’, after all)…but Catastrophic ethics are an ethics of compassion, and they want to be nonanthropocentric. Sadism is incompatible with Catastrophia. The end of all things is precisely the immanent fact of creation that Catastrophia names in the term Catastrophy. It is in this sense that its pessimism is still one that is attached to what is, even if stubbornly and ambivalently. Death and extinction are not problems we can solve, either through evasion or mastery. The Guardian’s Sixth Extinction series may be interesting but it remains afraid of destiny, of cosmic fate, and for this reason it is a good example of the domestication of thought, specifically the domestication of the thought of the end of though, life, and perhaps being itself. Catastrophia orients us to the intimate precariousness of everything that catastrophically exists. Everything is a fellow traveller towards the last moment. Everything, is heading at every moment to extinction. Everything living, indeed everything that exists (in my terms, ‘Cosmos’) is attempting to cope with that, to survive it’s own death a little longer. In this way, perhaps we are melancholic- perhaps this is why we are so confused and stupid when it comes to ecological politics- melancholic in Freud’s sense… we can’t let go of a lost object.

There might be little to separate Catastrophia from Tim Morton’s own dark ecology in the end, save his greater depth of thinking.

Ethics: to make friends with death

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.

 

Cosmic pessimism and addiction

So, while Schopenhauer himself was a curmudgeon, and while he does state that this is the worst of all possible worlds, his philosophy ultimately moves towards a third type of pessimism, one that he never names but which perhaps we can christen: a cosmic pessimism.x For Schopenhauer, the logical endpoint of pessimism is to question the self-world dichotomy that enables pessimism to exist at all. But such a move would entail a shift away from the relation and difference between self and world, human and non-human, subjective attitude and objective claim. Instead, it would entail a move towards an indifference, an indifference of the world to the self, even of the self to the self. Cosmic pessimism would therefore question even the misanthropy of moral and metaphysical pessimism, for even this leaves us as human beings with a residual consolation – at least the world cares enough to be ‘against’ us. Schopenhauer’s cosmic pessimism questions ethical philosophy’s principle of sufficient reason – that there is an inherent order to the world that is the ground that enables reliable judgements to be made regarding moral and ethical action. It also questions the fundamental relation between ethics and action, whether of the Aristotelian first principles type, the Kantian-axiomatic type, or the modern cognitivist-affectivist type. Cosmic pessimism seems to move towards an uncanny zone of passivity, ‘letting be’, even a kind of liminal quietism in which non-being is the main category. In cosmic pessimism, this ‘indifference’ is the horizon of all ethics. As an ethics, this is, surely, absurd. And this is perhaps why Schopenhauer’s ethics ultimately ‘fails’.

– Eugene Thacker, ‘Philosophical doomcore’. Read in full here.

No self-world relation, the impossibility of such a relation. Under Schopenhauer’s gaze the question of whether the shark should eat the child makes no sense as it is part of this self-world (the child is the image of ourselves, the shark the image of the world). If there is but one Will in Schopenhauer it would be a question of the individuated wills (shark-child) being phenomenal instances of the noumenal  Will. The question is thus should the Will eat the Will? A question then of a kind of cosmic suicide of the real. Should the real be allowed to consume itself? What would it mean to answer negatively, except that one hasn’t paid enough attention to entropy?

Lurking everywhere: undermining and idealism.

But, the Will operates like a death-drive integral to objects in this cosmic pessimism (cosmos is a term I’m using more and more instead of nature- it denatures nature quite nicely). The temporality of all objects leads to this same result: death, disintegration, disappearance. Autopsy vitalism sees the living object as if from the perspective of it’s disintegration and knows that the apotheosis of all things is catastrophic. If Schopenhauer undermines objects (operatives/operations) that is because deathdoes undermine objects. Not out of viciousness but out of the law of existence, its sole irrevocable law. This is the meaning of Inevitability. All cosmological things are constructed, be it by evolution or the processes in physics and chemistry, the written or spoken articulation of concepts (as in dynamic nominalism), by research, poetic experience, and so on. All cosmological things are subject to catastrophe. In this sense all things are subject to the law that Paul Virilio reserves for technological objects that the accident shows us the truth of the substance and, in this way, that ‘the accident is “invented”, it is a work of creation’ [1]. Destruction reveals those powers, those capacities or operations, of an object that would otherwise remain withdrawn and, simultaneously, reveals that the catastrophic moment was always nascent within that object. As such, destruction and creation are conjoined and can’t be surgically or magically separated.

If Schopenhauer’s ethics fail perhaps it is because, when scrutinized, all ethics fail. Yet, as the strap line of this blog contests in it’s Beckettian reiteration, we can but fail again and again, failing a little better every time. Why? There is no reason why. The best I can think is compulsion, need, and, as I have written elsewhere, addiction. But perhaps addiction should be raised to a metaphysical principle. The cosmos: take it or leave it. That’s what it boils down to. And if you choose to leave it, you’re still right there.

[1] Paul Virilio. Interview in le Monde. Here.

Child-eating sharks galore!!! Ethics, objects, death and Darwinism

Thus, when people obtain the right to life, the fact is that they are no longer able to live. – Jean Baudrillard [1] 

 There have been all sorts of things posted about flat ethics recently. My previous post was on the same topic but I’m peripheral to the whole thing, just an interested observer. I particularly like this point though, made by Alex Reid:

In [a] soccer match, those ethical relations are mediated by a grass field, white lines, goal posts, nets, flags, a soccer ball, uniforms, shin guards, cleats, a whistle, a timing device, etc. They are also mediated by language,which is also nonhuman. In fact, one could (and often does) say that one must compete not only against the other team but field conditions, weather, ref calls, and so on. So in imagining ethics, a flat ontology requires us to see that there is no such thing as “human” ethics. All ethics are nonhuman in the sense that “human” refers to a particular modern, ideological context. As such perhaps it is better to say nonmodern ethics than nonhuman ethics.

I also like Jeremy Trombley’s point:

I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction.  What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to?  What would the court system think?  Is the shark an endangered species?

(emphasis added)

 All ethics are nonhuman ecologies in which humans may appear.

 

Yet I think it is crucial to remember that in the first quote the key word is that the ethical relationships between players of a football (soccer) game are mediated by nonhuman operatives. Likewise, a trip to the zoo is mediated by the animal feed producers, train operators, railway lines, animal handlers, money, the machinery used to produce a ticket handed over at the gates… but would we say that a trip to the zoo consists of these things? Or rather, would we say that the ethics of a trip to the zoo consisted of these things?

 

I think we would. If the ticket-machine were produced by a corporation who exploited workers in order to  produce that machine, or some other of its product line. We might feel the same way if the animal feed being given to animal X were made out of intensively farmed animals of the same species as animal X. Yet while we might say they are agents within an ethical ecology, that they are composite operatives within an ethical system, I doubt that we would ever suggest that  either the ticket-machine or the animal feed are ethical agents in that ecology. To risk a paraphrase of poor taste, they really are ‘only following orders’; the banality of evil become the banality of the object. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that it is wrong for the animal feed to allow itself to be fed to animal X.

 

I suppose the thing I’m getting at is that an ethical relationship is much like the love relationship that I believe (I think I remember) Levi Bryant theorised a while ago on his blog; a third, independent object. There is me. There is my partner. We do not fuse into a singular object (two does not become one) but both of us remain autonomous, nested within the third object called the relationship. While we are busy talking about ethical relationships we’re forgetting that each particular ethical ecology is singular (which is the point in Trombley’s quote). the point here is that the ethical ecology is an ontological ecology and not an ecology of ethical actants. In the original shark-child relationship nobody thinks to include the ocean, the sand on the sea floor, the moon and it’s capacity to effect the tides, sea-going vessels.

 

It appears absurd to me to include these things in an ecology of ethical operatives even though they are ontological units involved in the original ethical ecology, playing a part in determining the shark’s behaviour. Likewise, we might consider why the child is near the shark. Is this a holiday bought by its parents? Should we then include the travel agent that sold the holiday in the ethical ecology, or at least as an operative that aided in the sculpting of process of causality that arrived at that juncture? I suspect we wouldn’t.

 

That there is a flat ontology does not necessarily imply that all the things that build or generate a particular situation should be considered being ethical agents. I suspect that because things exert an influence on each other, that is because they have powers or capacities to act and act in concert with each other to generate the situations in which ethical problems arise, it is easy to be led to think that they too are subject to ethics. To labour the point let’s return to Alex Reid’s example. There is a football game. A problem of ethics arises in the playing of this game. This ethical problem is mediated by nonhuman things, including language. Here was the ethical problem:

 

Last week, we found ourselves winning 6-0 about 15 minutes into a 70-minute game. I pulled our strongest players, but we were still up 9-0 at half. In this league, goal differential is a potential tie-breaker for determining the champion, so I suppose there is potential motive for running up the score. But that’s just not something you do with 11 year-old boys. At half-time a instructed the boys that only those who had not yet scored that season should really try to score and that otherwise their job was to make good passes. Again, I kept my best players mostly on the bench, and the final score was 11-3. It probably could have been 22-0. And I’ve seen scorelines like that in my time as a coach, though our team has never been on either end of one.

 

The question is over the ethics of competition and whether it would have been unethical to give the opposing team a thrashing. Reid suggests that in part this is done out of respect for the game of football. To have won the game by 22 clear goals would be to play football ‘out of the spirit’ of the game, to disrespect football as ‘an emergent object’. Yet why would football care? It can’t care. Here Reid alludes to a kind of spirit and to respect. A sense of fair play and tradition then? I don’t understand why one would need a flat ethics to highlight two pretty standard reasons for playing the game without taking the piss. (A far more compelling reason might be that if you keep playing games where your team- Reid is the coach of child’s football team- constantly embarrassed other teams- composed of kids- you may risk losing having anyone to play with).

 

Reid is the coach of this football team and he writes about what he can do to have an impact on the emergent object of the game in order to highlight how we can have an ethical relationship the thing called ecosystem:

 

 As a player or coach, I can’t affect the game directly. As a coach I can put players in different positions, suggest tactics, and prepare players in practices. As a player, I can make decisions about how I play. Those decisions participate with others to create the game experience. I can modify my decisions in response, but there isn’t a direct relationship with the game only with other actors in the game. The extent to which I realize that whatever decisions I make to win require that the overall game continues

 

Neither Reid, nor myself or any body else, can have a direct relationship with the ecosystem wherein they can directly affect that ecosystem. Instead, Reid might be able to affect petrochemical companies through lobbying against them by joining a lobbying group with other people. You might organise a coalition of environmental or ecological activists to carry out direct actions ranging from tree-hugging, to consciousness-raising, or from occupying an airport to committing acts of ‘ecoterrorism’. I might simply be the kind of person who refuses to recycle and thereby assists in the mass anonymous effort of building the giant debris filled landscapes of landfills (which, I must admit I do find aesthetically pleasing and intriguing). None of these decisions and actions will make direct contact with the thing called ecosystem (things are withdrawn), nor could it ever do so in a unilaterally determinative manner (just as the coach is within the football game, so I am within the ecosystem), and finally because the ecosystem as a thing is emergent from all those other things that we have made contact with (other people, lobbying organisations, parliaments, airports, just as much as trees, oceans, clouds, frogs, catfish and children and sharks).

 

In Reid’s example we ought to act in a way that allows the game to continue, so by extension we should also act in ways that allows the ecosystem to continue in order to consider ourselves as being ethical in relation to the ecosystem. For Reid these considerations mean that  ‘I am engaged in an ethical relationship’.

 

A couple of brief problems before returning to the ethical. First, I’m not sure if we can say that winning a game of football 22-0 would mean we were no longer playing a game of football. Playing by the rules and regulations, associated objects (a football etc), the people required (players, coaches, referees and linesmen) are all that are minimally required for us to consider ourselves playing a game of football. In the absence of any of these elements we are not playing football; these are the things in the assemblage that minimally form a game. If we play outside of the spirit of the game, if we do not respect it as an emergent object, we are still playing football but we are playing badly. The second point is whether Reid is talking about a specific game or the game of football itself (is there a ‘the game of football’ that exists in any other form than metaphor? Surely that would be a kind of ideal game or ur-game?)

 

This reveals the actual problem of the ethical here. Each ecosystem, including that planetary ecosystem as a whole, must be considered in it’s singularity. Isn’t that the point of object-oriented strains of philosophy? If we treat all ecosystems the same, and if we treat ecosystems the same as games of football/the game of football then aren’t we performing a kind of reduction of the singularity of each to the abstraction of all? The pragmatic deployment of Reid’s metaphor might have a material impact on how we conceive of the ethical relationship we have to the ecosystem in a way that draws attention to the complexity and partiality of that relationship but I still don’t see that this is something new to an object-oriented approach or that is inaugurated by a flat ethics.

 

The original question was whether or not the shark should eat the child. This question is the question of the shark’s ethical relationship to the child, of whether it can be considered an ethical operative. Is a shark the same as a football or a football player? A shark is no more the same as these things as it is the same as a ticket-machine or a batch of animal-feed. The point I’m making at some length is that it makes no more sense to say that the shark should or should not eat the child than it does to say that the goalpost should or should not be an obstacle to scoring. And there is a very good reason for this that Alex Reid hits on: the ethical relationship is one burdened with decision. A shark cannot be said to count within it’s capacities that of making an ethical decision. This is not to say that no animals can make ethical decisions, it is probable that many of them can. This is also not to say that no nonhuman nonanimal things can (or could) make ethical decisions. If we listen to the technoevangelists and transhumanists it might soon be possible for AI to make such decisions, or to simulate them so perfectly as to baffle these considerations even further.

 

 

I believe that the entire issue of whether we should let the shark eat the child is centered on this mistake. A shark cannot be held responsible. It can only be held accountable. We can say ‘the shark is going to eat the child’ or ‘the shark ate the child’ but the should has no place in anything. (The question of whether we should kill the shark for what it has done is a separate issue).

 

A further point emerges from Trombley’s quote- and from others- regarding evolution. Levi Bryant has written in the past about how we have failed to take Darwinism and the lessons we have learned about evolution seriously. Nature, all of nature (and there is nothing that is not nature) is utterly pointless. That is, it is without ultimate purpose. Nature, life, existence, is useless. I think that Levi Bryant hasn’t taken this lesson in fully either. I don’t think any of us can really. We are nature…the pointlessness of the cosmos and of the subatomic particle is the pointlessness of arranjames who is sitting here typing. All ethical problems arise in this context, to those species that have an evolved moral sense…a moral sense that is, in impossible last instance, useless. Yet because the final cause of ethical decision making is pointless does not mean that the affective life of the one making the ethical decisions are pointless; they are immediate and do not require much of a point beyond themselves.

 

Should the shark eat the child? From the ontological position there is absolutely no reason why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. It would upset me, that is all. Human ethics boil down to ‘this is good, this is bad’.

 

So it is that I agree with Bryant’s assertion that there is no nonanthropocentric ethics. It is always humans judging what it is that they consider ethical, making their ethical decisions. Other animals might also make such decisions and so might other beings in the future- thus it might not be a human ethics that remains human for all time. The separate question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should hold that which cannot be held responsible responsible. Why would we do this? I think because, in some sense, our ethical attitude to other things arises from the blind, stupid, pointlessness of the evolutionary processes that compel us to fear death and reproduce. The question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should pretend to ourselves that their is a meaningful, ordered universe. The clash between the stupidity of nature and our desire for a meaningful (or just) nature is what produces the question of the shark. The shark eats the child because it is a shark; we kill the shark because we are terrified of a cosmos in which children can be eaten.

 

Like Levi Bryant I don’t think the shark has a right to live. At the same time I don’t think that the child has a right to live either. Bryant’s concern is with the way neoliberalism has deployed rights-discourse, and one could also point to Deleuze’s concerns over rights-discourse being a (non)political sleight of hand where the rabbit is pulled out of the hat only to disappear in a puff of cigarette smoke [2]. I am not concerned here with rights discourse as such but specifically with the idea of a right to life. Life is something that simply happens. As Thomas Ligotti [3] has cogently argued, it is also a phenomena that doesn’t always get off the ground (abortions, miscarriages, still-births, mother and neonate dying during labour). It is imaginable that some process in the Big Bang could have failed or that the Earth did not exhibit the conditions required for the emergence of life. That a conscious operative, capable of making ethical decisions, were somehow to survive a possible Earth swallowing blackhole created by the CERN particle accelerator, could we really imagine that being bemoaning the right to life of all that died and was destroyed? I don’t think so, but I’m sure it’d be extremely upset. There is nothing new in claiming that the right to life is little else than a hangover from a society still enthralled to Divinity; the shark and the child’s right to life are equally fictions pertaining to the sacredness of life that is directly contradicted by the science of evolution; the right to life is a Sacred Left-over. And here, in the divine, lives are considered something inaugurated for a purpose, given a purposeful function, guided and developed…in short Created by a Creator. An ethical Creationism.

 

It is possible that the ethics we set up, as we necessarily will and do, are rooted in our fear of death, our evolutionary heritage, and our emotions. In the mixture of all these elements. It is a question of finding ourselves with questions about our conduct, questions that are often immediate and in no sense hypothetical (I’d take this juncture to remind people that I’m a nurse), where we don’t know what to do but know we must do something. As such ethics remains a human problem…for now. It is a human problem that is intricately bound-up with (often radically) nonhuman beings.  It is even possible, I am spontaneously inclined to the thought- the feeling,  the sense- that our ethics are a kind of therapeutic aesthetic; a production in the Ballardian sense of a real that finds its reality as a stage-set that may be pulled away. The therapeutics of ethics in this sense would be that ethics are that production that codifies our monstrous awareness of suffering, of ontological vulnerability, of the Inevitable; the disavowed denial of the metaphysical truth of Darwin. None of which prevents there being better or worse ethics, and none of which prevents the production of ethical truths being real or any more or less worth holding on to. It is just the case that in this instance we realise ‘a definitive recognition of nature as waste’ [4], and there is nothing that isn’t nature. To borrow from an earlier post by Alex Reid not concerned with all these sharks and children, it is possible that ethics are a therapeutics that we deploy in order to fix the glitches of reality.

 

 

All ethics are human problems embedded in fragile nonhuman ecologies. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A disclaimer: if I misrepresent anyone’s positions, any ideas or arguments I take fully responsibility for that.

 

 

 

References:

 

[1] Baudrillard. 2007. Darwin’s Artificial Ancestors and the Terroristic Dream of the Transparency of the Good. Read here.

[2] Deleuze. 1996. On Human Rights. Read here.

[3] Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy against the human race.

[4] Baudrillard. Ibid.

Misanthropology: vulnerable children, vulnerable sharks.

Misanthropology is a new blog focussed on the prospect of ‘doing sociology with minimal references to humans’ operated by Craig McFarlane. This is an interesting project and accords with the current realisation of the relative unimportance of humans in any way other than to themselves. I also love the strap line of the blog, a quote from Hume that I constantly keep in mind when discussing suicide with colleagues in mental health:

There is one post on misanthropology at the moment. It is a response to Levi Bryant on flat ethics, a discussion in which Bryant tells us that a flat ontology (that the substance of all beings exists in equality, even if those beings exist to differing degrees qua capacity to operate on other beings) does not involve a flat ethics in which it is not an ethical problem if a shark eats a child. On this matter, McFarlane has this to say

I find myself in a strange position arguing against both. Against the critic I want to affirm the accusation–yes, of course, sharks should be allowed to eat children and there is no good reason why qua shark that we should prevent it; there might be good reasons qua fat, juicy, corn syrup fed child why “we” wouldn’t “let” the shark eat the human fatling, but this has nothing to do with the shark. Against Levi I want to argue that his position brings in anthropocentrism through the backdoor: humans are transformed into the un-eatable by mere virtue of being human.

This seems undeniably reasonable to me. In a cosmos where all that is contained within it stands with its own degree of autonomy as any other I can see no ethical objection to why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. In fact, if we broaden out to a more cosmological scale then the problem even seems ludicrous. Rephrased in another way: should  the inevitable expansion of the sun swallow the earth? This might seem silly but it is easy to see that the shark, the child, the sun and the earth are all parts of the cosmos, are all systems contained with and giving shape to that cosmos; they are all equal operatives, the life of the earth is of no greater importance to the universe than that of the child.
In the comments to Bryant’s original post he responds to McFarlane by drawing on the idea of conatus. When pressed to give a reason why one should a priori privilege the conatus of a human over that of a shark (or more generally a human over any given nonhuman), Bryants only response is to say that self-preservation is ‘a primitive fact’ and that he would not allow a shark to eat his child (Bryant is father to a daughter) ‘because I love her’. Perhaps this seems like terrible philosophy. Interestingly, here the issue isn’t his daugter’s conatus which contains her self-preservation instinct but something going on in and between the operatives marked as Levi Bryant and his daughter.
Yet it also seems intuitively like the only honest answer, and heralds the point at which philosophy and temperament coincide. Bryant loves his daughter. That is understandable. What parent would let their child be eaten? And I want to quickly depart from discussing a real little girl being eaten by a shark for much the same reason. Because there is a primitive fact going on. There is a bias that it may not be possible to argue for or against, in much the same way that it wouldn’t make much sense to argue against the existence of the sun or the earth or little girls or oysters. I think it is too much for Bryant to generalise this to humanity as such, in the sense that a parent’s desire to protect their offspring could justify anthropocentrism as such. Sometimes things are unjustifiable. Sometimes we, humans, do things because not to do them is not in our constitution, unless something has gone wrong in some sense.
The danger of this is that it seems like I’m risking saying that a nonhuman ethics is an ethics of evil, of monstrosity. Yet I’m really only saying that evil or monstrosity are integral to the human being. I can’t speak for sharks.
Should the shark eat the child? There is no reason why it shouldn’t, except that I don’t want it to. The answer might resolve around desire, or it’s absence, and the mechanisms evolved to rationalise those desires. The disagreement here is of a Wittgensteinian order, the order of two irreconcilable pictures being forced into the same frame; the antagonism is the result of the conflation of ethics and emotions. That might not be satisfactory but the cosmos doesn’t care if we are satisfied and, as I have discussed in relation to Stoicism, we couldn’t endure the condition of satisfaction- or at least not for long.
Or, in another direction, the reason the shark shouldn’t eat the child might be born precisely because of this fraught conflict between preservations and desires, a conflict of the indifference of each to the other other. The precariousness of existence might be the reason we ought to insist on the possibility of a nonhuman ethics beyond primitive facts of conatus or irrevocable evolutionary instincts and fears. In the comments to Bryant’s post someone makes mention of the fact the consequentialist ethics of suffering of a Singer (whatever suffers falls into the domain of ethical concern) excludes mountains, planets, ecosystems and so forth. Precariousness doesn’t entail such an exclusion.
By drawing on precariousness I am thinking of Judith Butler’s work in Precarious Life and Frames of War; humans are born to precarious lives, lives exposed to specific dangers that threaten our material existence and confront us with the thought, and experiences of proximity to, our own death. All humans share in this precariousness in that my continuance depends on the operations performed by other human beings. Going beyond Butler we must also say that we are dependent upon the operations of other operatives; of the sun, the earth, sharks, little girls, fathers, philosophers, oysters, ecosystems, the internet, and so on and so on, all the way up and down the cosmos. All of existence and all lives are precarious.
 
If there is a possible nonhuman ethics it might well be based on the thought of precariousness or, in more traditional terms, vulnerability. Any and all operatives- a term I’m here using as a catch-all term for whatever exists and is evinced by its power to operate on other things that exist- are vulnerable. This is also what I mean by ‘catastrophic thought’, using catastrophe in a double sense: 1) the Aristotelian dramatic connotation involving the displaying and working through of traumas and wounds and 2) the more Cioranesque sense of all operatives being headed towards their own death, disappearance or dissolution. Within an ethics of vulnerability these two senses overlap.
(As an unrelated aside, the term misanthropology reminds me of the concept ‘anthropathology’).
The thought has to remain underdeveloped for now. My partner is calling me to help as her kid is trying to destroy our internet connection. Is there any reason the child shouldn’t eat the internet?

What’s worse than the undecidable?

Derrida’s only true insight was that ethics lies in the experience of a certain failure: I don’t know what is happening, I don’t know what to do, I can’t decide. This also reveals the reason that ethics and politics are separable, why they fail to gel neatly together in a bloodless fashion. Politics lies in the experience of a certain success: I know what is happening, I am in among it, I can’t help but decide. Which of these is more terrifying? The difficulty is that these two moments so often coincide.

Beneath both of them is the experience of indifference. Neither ethical nor political, indifference knows only the burden and the paradoxical frivolity of all decisions.

Dominic Fox: ‘Nature sucks’

The end of a short post ‘Nature Sucks’ at Poetix

At what point does the ubiquity and intensity of suffering in the natural world render meaningless the individual effort to reduce the suffering of this or that suffering creature? Perhaps at no point: kindness remains a virtue, no matter how bad things are or how much worse they may get. But it does render one kind of meaning unavailable, and that is the redemptive meaning that the rhetoric of “animal liberation” gives to the task of extricating non-human animals from the grasp of human power, need and appetite. Life on earth without us would not be a paradise, in any sense that we could recognise according to our own preferences for comfort and security over terror and pain. The departure of humanity would, in fact, leave the world devoid of its only remotely ethically attractive feature: the propensity of human beings to try to make parts of it nicer, for each other and for such non-human animals as they elect to care about.

– Dominic Fox, author of Militant Dysphoria