Cosmopolitics and Ecological Ethics
My job as a philosopher is not to describe the probable but, rather, to activate the possible.
- Isabelle Stengers
Perhaps the two most radical (and radically important) concepts that I have encountered so far this year have come from the philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Graham Harman. The first has proposed the concept “slow science” as a practice of thought (an ecology of practices) that takes into account the effects of scientific knowledge production alongside of how well the sciences are undertaking their own constructions of knowledge. The second concept comes from Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. Harman has suggested, provocatively, that we should reject two often-related concepts: holism and interconnectivity. I’ll try and give an account of why I think both Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and Stengers’ account of slow science provide counter-intuitive, but enormously helpful, insights to contemporary practices of ecological ethics. Slow science and object-oriented philosophy will perhaps merge into one another in this essay, though I shall try and treat them separately and sequentially as much as possible before offering some conclusions.
Slow science, one might say, is an insertion of the precautionary principle into the very structure of scientific knowledge production itself. In other words, slow science attempts to join the effects of scientific knowledge production with the actual practices of scientific problem-solving. By merging the ethical impact of the sciences with the logic of science as an effective problem-solving tool, we generate a new kind of science; one that is structurally geared towards ethics, social complexity, and the future. “Need less to say,” says Stengers,
Slow science does not mean idle. The choice of the expression slow science makes this initiative part of the “slow motions,” best known of which is slow food—resisting fast, bad quality and ready-to-eat food and the system that produced it. Slow science is about the quality of research that is also its relevance for today’s issues.
We might say that slow science is thus first and foremost a form of slow thinking. Slow thinking attempts to stay with phenomena—to follow the actors where they might lead—so that a clearer understanding of the situated character of beings might emerge. This is necessarily a democratic process that turns the scientist into the composer of new publics and turns the citizen into a participant in the processes of scientific and technological knowledge production. Slow science is not a deconstruction of scientific enterprises but rather an attempt to construct better sciences that serve more people. It is in this respect that one might invoke the precautionary principle and build it into very logic and apparatus of the sciences; slow science attempts by democratic means what government attempts by legislative, judicial, or electoral means.
A practice of slow science has become necessary since modern technoscientific practices and modes of production have turned the whole planet into a volatile laboratory—without due process or consent from any of its erstwhile guinea pigs (which currently includes every living creature on the planet). Without knowledge or permission the beings on planet earth have been exposed to new, foreign chemicals, harmful pollutants, genetically modified foods, nuclear technologies; and an ongoing contamination of living, local resources. Science is no longer simply a question of hypotheses and experiments, nor is it simply an ethical matter regarding what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ scientific subject for investigation (though it is both of these). Rather, science has become the production of whole new world-spaces.
Here I want to be clear and emphasize that science has not only opened up new perspectives on a pre-existing world, but actively participates in and dominates the composition of new material world-configurations. To think that the sciences simply represent one perspective amongst many represents the scourge of perspectivalism; perspectivalism equivocates and, in so doing, completely flattens the possibility of a genuinely powerful engagement with the more than human world and our various modalities for knowing it. My point here is not that the sciences occupy a sovereign position over other ways of knowing, or that the sciences provide any kind of a clear route forward for humanity. No, it is precisely because the sciences produce effects so unpredictable, so far spread and wide reaching, and are so linked to militarization and exploitative models of consumption that they demand special attention by the public. We need more science, not less. But the kind of science that we need is slow science, a participatory model of science that takes the public—both human and nonhuman—seriously.
This notion of slow science—hinged on the very premise that the sciences and ecological worlds are intimately linked—finds a strange companion in a highly counter-intuitive ontology. I am referring of course to Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. While most scientists, politicians, and philosophers have come to grips with the fact that we need a better account of ‘things’ and their impact on human societies and the earth’s ecology, fewer people have accepted that these ‘things’ may have a deeper, subterranean layer to them that, despite our best efforts at physical or conceptual interaction with them, resist our capacity to encounter them fully. Here the various professionals and hobbyists who have tried to understand ‘things’—economists, artists, ecologists, and philosophers—have adopted two primary commitments about things: (1) all things are interconnected, and (2) they can be fully understood by their interactions with other things. To deny that either of these theses is true seems to cry out for a flat earth in an age of GPS satellites and quantum physics.
To think ecologically it just doesn’t seem to make sense to argue against holism and interconnectivity, but this is exactly what Harman’s object-oriented philosophy does and, I would argue; it not only makes good, justifiable sense in an ecological age, it might actually provide us with some of the strongest grounds with which to construct a new kind of ecological ethics. Harman’s thesis about objects is rather simple and has four basic postulates: (1) beings cannot be reduced to their presence to any other being, which means that; (2) any object is not exhausted by either its use or conceptualization by any other object, implying; (3) whilst objects do interact with another—and can be created, transformed, and destroyed—no object directly impacts another, this amounts to (4) A “vicarious causality” where the contact between two objects is always mediated by a set of relational qualities that emerge between the interaction of objects themselves.
Vicarious causality has an aesthetic structure insofar as all objects are limited in their interactions between each other such that there is a process of abstraction at work where each thing can only ever render an incomplete picture of the other things that it comes into contact with. I would argue that this aesthetic quality of causality also has what one might call a metonymic structure. Just as the ancient Greek philosophers tried to conceptualize the whole of Being through a series of metonymies—symbolic parts that stand in for a greater, more complex whole—so each thing in the universe enacts a simplified rendering of an infinitely deeper cosmos. Where the pre-Socratics variously posited earth, air, fire, or water as the primary elements by which all other phenomenon could be interpreted, so to do things of this world form simple metonymies of the cosmos, caricatures that bespeak a thing-specific enactment of a world that sits at the surface of an ocean that remains infinitely deeper.
Harman’s argument for the non-relational qualities of objects has important contributions to make to ecological thinking. In ecological circles there is an ever-present concern with ‘ecofascism’—a term used as a point of criticism by leftists and conservatives alike to point to the unsettling ability of some ecological discourses to totalize and subordinate the parts of a system to the whole of a system. The problem with holistic schemes is that they tend to wreck havoc on social relations, and usually to the determinant of the already marginalized. Global summits on climate change, for example, routinely demand tougher regulations on ‘developing’ nations while the very rich continue on expanding as they please. But if we take Harman’s object-oriented philosophy seriously, than it appears that totalities are actually ontological impossibilities; and if totalities are ontological impossibilities then it starts to make sense why holism can feel so wrong from a sociological perspective—holisms try and force a totalized identity upon an irreducibly diverse community. In this sense holism is not only politically dubious but also ontologically dubious.
What a slow thinking of Harman’s philosophy helps us to understand is that, yes, ecology is about relations, but this is only a part of the story since it ignores the huge and potent dimension of non-relationality that affords an important substantiality to all beings not well-captured by interconnectivity or holism. When you think about it, not only does this raise some provocative ontological questions, but it also helps us to think the hugely important question of why relations are, without contest, the unquestionable center of ecology to begin with when ecology should just as readily be about the non-relational. Take industrial growth society for example, its completely unsustainable and the central problem with industrial growth society is that its central goal is to connect everything to everything else through capital exchange. Ecological ethicists, for example, do not want the Keystone pipeline built precisely because it will make things more connected and not less. The Keystone pipeline is dangerous only insofar as it increases the interconnectivity between tar sands in Canada and oil producers in the heartland of the United States. In this case increased interconnectivity is a terrible thing for ecological ethics and we need a better conceptualization of the non-relational to understand what it is that makes sound, ecological sense.
In other words, what ecological ethics needs right now is a strong theory of non-relationality to compliment its overemphasis on interconnectivity—not to deny the importance of interconnectivity in ecology but to recognize that ecology is not exhausted by interconnectivity. Harman’s emphasis on the dark nucleus of objects held in reserve from direct contact with other objects allows us to consider a fuller ecological ethics, one more acquainted with a non-totalizable alterity—the truly alien—that does not sacrifice our ability to contemplate a rigorously more-than-human and ecological ethics. In fact, Harman’s ontology actually produces the conditions for the possibility of the alien and so makes, we might say, a condition wherein liminality is ontologically basic. Here we have a cosmology that is not a homogenous or unified whole, but rather something like a series of intimate collectives—ecologies of actuality—encountering and shaping one another. These liminal gaps are what make interconnectivity possible in the first place. Objects thus resist the tryanny of the one (or what Harman calls “overmining”) and the tyranny of the many (or what he calls “undermining”).
The point is not to reduce or discount the ontological monism(s) upon which the earliest theories of ecology were built (Cf. Ernst Haeckel) but to continue to think the project of ecology forward so that we can better adapt human society to the earth’s ecologies. We might theorize, then, that Stengers’ practice of slow science and Harman’s object-oriented philosophy produces a revitalized sense of what ecological ethics actually means. With slow science we are concerned with the sciences as a constructive enterprise that actively shapes the future conditions of a common socius–the earth community–and that such an understanding should be connected to practices of science as such. On the other hand, Harman’s ontology provides ecological ethics with the opportunity to consider the non-relational elements of things as central to ecological issues, and in this case we ought also to consider the disconnect between beings if we are to practice a relevant form of ecological ethics.
- Corporations are People Too: Why We Need Object-Oriented Ecology (knowledge-ecology.com)
- Cosmopolitics: Learning to Think With Sciences, Peoples and Natures (knowledge-ecology.com)
- Strange Materialism and Cosmopolitics (knowledge-ecology.com)
- Slow Thinking, Slow Science: Cosmopolitics and Ecological Ethics (knowledge-ecology.com)