- Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene by Joanna Zylinska
In both its form and composition, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (2014) by Joanna Zylinska is a short, original, and elegant book, the aim of which, as the author emphasizes, is to “tell a different story about the world and our human positioning in and with it, while taking seriously what science has to say about life and death” (Zylinska 2014, 11). The book consists of ten chapters, each of which can be seen as an independent essay representing one element of the overall argument and thus constituting a possible entry point.
Following Emanuel Levinas, Zylinska positions ethics as primary philosophy, which means that it precedes other domains of philosophical inquiry, such as ontology or politics. The project is proposed as minimal: it is neither embedded in any large conceptual system, nor is it founded upon any preceding system of values (21). Although the author admits that humans are not the only beings “capable of relating to and collaborating with others” (93), it is the human condition, human becoming in, with, and different from the world, that constitutes the center of the question of ethics. Ethics is understood here as a history- and context-dependent cultural practice that involves being responsive to and taking responsibility for the difference that we, as humans, make in the world. It is about responsible engagement with life on both philosophical and physical levels. In this sense, Zylinska presents her project as a more [End Page 315] accountable and modest way of dealing with the fundamental questions of being/becoming and relatedness than the popular contemporary theories favoring ontology, such as object-oriented philosophy or Alain Badiou’s theory of truth, which she also discusses in detail as examples of oftentimes strict, violent, and undercover humanist ambitions.
The author situates her argument at the intersection of feminist theory (or, more precisely, the work of feminist theorists labeled as “(new) feminist materialists”: Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Claire Colebrook) and various philosophers engaging with the question of life (e.g., Henri Bergson, Timothy Morton, Stanislaw Lem or Levinas). It is premised on what she calls a “post-masculinist rationality,” a mode of thinking that is “always already embodied and immersed, responding to the call of matter and its various materializations” (15), and is cautious with regard to any attempts of electing ontology as a dominant manner of philosophizing (for the reasons I already mentioned). Zylinska’s own formulation of ontology mainly relies on Barad’s theorization of entanglement, an idea that relationality is a primary feature of matter, which constantly changes throughout time and space, and that entities (e.g., organisms) emerge in the ongoing processes of materialization. This set of ideas prioritizing the importance of relations and dynamics of matter are shared by numerous new materialist theorists. I find Zylinska’s position, as well as her critique of the present discussions on the role of ontology, both convincing and highly important. Yet, what I am simultaneously missing is any further commentary from her part on the place of ontology in the work of feminist thinkers, whose theories form one of the major inspirations for her minimal ethics. For example, would Barad necessarily agree on the prioritization of ethics over ontology? Another aspect that could be developed or highlighted more (especially if one takes into account Zylinska’s project’s investment in feminist materialist thought) is the question of knowledge- and meaning-production and epistemology, which are mentioned in the book only marginally in the context of ontological divisions enacted through agential cuts.
Despite these secondary issues the complexity and significance of Zylinska’s argument served in its poetic form deserve special attention. A minimal ethics (like any other ethical framework) is not innocent: it does involve certain forms of violence. Ethical de-cisions, as she emphasizes, are also material in-cisions or cuts, which, along with dependency, constitute “inevitable conditions of relationality and ‘worlding’” (98). Our task is to remain accountable and responsible for the cuts we contribute to. Furthermore, Zylinska succeeds in rereading...