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How do we respond to crisis?

“…I don’t want to advocate purity, or the tyranny of re-wilding, as if we could. But I do want us to account for our relationship with nature. How are our ‘performances of nature’ as you said, hurting other beings? Given the premises of co-emergence, relationality, interbeing, what kind of response can be formed? What does this knowledge ask of us? If we are not to be dichotomous about good and bad, what is the alternative that won’t lead us into a moral relativism that accepts the harm being done as something blameless, unaccountable or even acceptable? And what response would promote accountability without purity, without moral righteousness and without some reified goodness? What process can get us engaged in a relationship with responsibility in a world so ‘queer’ and ‘preposterous’ as this?”

The excellent questions above are from my brother, Christopher Bowers. They are part of a larger conversation about ethics in a compromised, queer world. Chris and I thought we’d like to share the text of that conversation with you subsequently. At the moment, because of the themes we explored during the October 28 session – revisiting our unspoken commitments to the binary concepts of good v. evil, reconsidering playfulness in new light (as Eve Annecke invited us to do), among other matters – I thought I’d bring some of that energy to this follow-up note.

Answering Chris’s questions is difficult, and I have struggled with them for a long time – long before he typed those first words to me. I do not have a ready answer – not only because there is no neat way to address all the attending issues rigorously, but because there is no vantage point to assume in order to gain a portrait of the whole. This is why Markus Gabriel says “an overview of the whole is impossible”, and why Niels Bohr reminds us that “we are part of the nature we seek to understand.” The matters Chris’s questions touch upon include everything from well-entrenched ideas and propositions like “humans have free will”, to the arguments about what postmodernism augurs for our understanding of morality. In an age when the spectre of ‘fake news’ chastises our laissez-faire, relativist, there-are-no-facts (“you keep to your truth, and I’ll keep to mine!”) approach to sharing information, we are dealing with the vast and troubling consequences of insisting there is no world beyond our own minds or ‘outside’ of awareness. If “anything goes” (as Chris presses us to resist), then how can we claim grounds for justice? What rights do the Standing Rock protesters have against big oil? What is it okay to lynch those black bodies, empty them of their bowels and hang them on trees? Is Shell no less justified in its destruction of farmlands in the Niger Delta, than the young and armed militia men who now kidnap expatriate petroleum workers for ransom and as a form of resistance?

To say “anything goes” – to devolve into this less than satisfactory ethical relativism – is a frightening thing to do. And yet, to propose some moral foundationalism/universalism, one which not only parses (in an absolute way) between good and evil but demands that we are always able to tell the difference, doesn’t seem…what’s the word…‘earthly’? The ethics of strict codes – the one that says right is right and wrong is wrong – feels not of this plane. Purity feels violent and tyrannical. Little wonder that those who subscribe to moral foundationalism or essentialism are most likely to believe that ‘evil’ people will go to hell, and ‘good’ people will go to heaven – for all eternity.

But if we do not swing the pendulum to moral relativism (“anything goes”/everything is permissible) or to moral absolutism (regardless of context or culture, some acts are essentially evil and others are essentially good), then what other way is there to frame ethical matters? Seeking to soften the blows from either side, seeking a balance, some of us might lean towards a ‘situationalism’ – or the idea that environmental factors count in determining what is good or not good. We shouldn’t try to look into the actor, we should look at the actor’s context. But situational ethics commits – in my opinion – a faux pas: it centralizes the human ‘actor’ in matters of value. I will explain down the line.

Before I continue, I should mention that it is not my intent to answer these questions that Chris has posed in some final way. I however intend to give them some serious/studious attention – as such my response here, fragile as it is, is lengthy, uses many academic words (which is often hard to escape since the matters discussed do not have popular language markers yet) and may task many of you. Do not worry about this: the things that confuse you are not evidence of ‘stupidity’ (which is what my schooling taught me) but evidence of the particularities of your own performances of knowing. In short, in worlding itself, the world needs many streams of threading, many performances of the real. In responding in the ways I do, I do not also mean to dismiss the many positions we have on these issues. I am very suspicious of ideological purity, and so welcome the messiness of a counterpoint (what crosses our paths may hurt us or trouble us, but it is evidence we are not alone). In fact, I had played with the idea of leaving Chris’s questions unanswered: there is a prestigious quality to the asking that is somewhat undermined by the introduction of a response. This is a very important point to make – so important that I will now commit the original sin of quoting myself (such hubris!). The following passage is from my book of letters to my daughter:

“It is often taken for granted that the opposite of a question is an answer; there is a cosmic, platonic double-step logic about it. Black is to white, as night is to day, as cats are to dogs, and questions are to answers. But what if questions are not free-floating formations that are summarily resolved with answers? What if questions are not made only of words? What if questions are material things, speciated and tactile, with body parts, particular histories of their own, affective accompaniments, genealogical ties, and burial grounds? What if questions are like guests to a home—to be welcomed, catered to, dusted up, considered affectionately, spoken with, and put to bed? And what if giving an answer is sometimes the ethical equivalent of slamming a door on the face of a guest as soon as you’ve said hello?

Could this be the reason why we need tricksters? To slow us down from the treachery of a swift resolution and the quest for a binding reconciliation of contradiction? To keep the world fresh? To help us consider the many ways questions trigger, exert themselves upon, and shape us? Could there be value in the yet unanswered question? What if questions have colors, sometimes spritely and gay, other times dour and withdrawn? What about textures? Can we think of textured questions? Glossy, smooth, and finely finished? Or rough to the touch? Ungainly and threatening? Lustful questions? Desiring questions?

Think about it. A question doesn’t just appear out of the blue like most things Cartesian. It sizzles and pops and snarls and hisses at the frothing edge and moving face of a material process that might have touched exploding nebula and congealing planet and noble rock and riverbed and trellised sky and falling leaf and unrequited skin touch and curdled moon in its becoming. So that an “answer”—equally diffracted and grand—is not always the way to respond to a question. Not even the right way.”

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In a sense, Chris’s questions are not probes sent from the world of appearances into the world of the real. The answer is not at the back of the book, waiting, dormant, asleep in the cosmic law and layout of things – available only to the wise or to the persistent. Because the world is an ongoing, open, generative, errant orchestra of surprise and irony, Chris’s questions are being asked by the universe at large. And any response – like the one I feel inspired  to provide – would be (not an answer in the way we understand answers, but) akin to touching a lover in a fleeting gesture of love.

[Selah. Take pee break here. This goes on further. Back already? Okay. Let’s continue]

When Eve Annecke spoke about singing and actually made arrangements for beautiful music to be played for us, I thought to myself, during my listening: “Isn’t it strange that in the midst of all our troubles, in the middle of fascism’s rise and in the face of ecological devastation – in the embrace of all this grief – here we are listening to some music as a way of responding to our crises! Is this being accountable to the problems we face? Shouldn’t we be protesting or something?” You have probably asked those questions too. Or you may be worried that this gathering is another exemplification of white privilege – turning one’s face away from the real lives of non-dominant groups. This brings us to a modified version of Chris’s question: who is accountable, or how do we understand accountability?

At least from one classical perspective, accountability is something fluffy – something out of this world, something immaterial and disembodied that makes known the higher demands placed on us by forces outside of us. In Christian circles, we called this ‘conscience’. In Christian Pentecostalism – especially the variety that is in vogue in my own country – the ‘Holy Spirit’ that indwells the believer is the one that whispers what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, or at least ‘heals’ the conscience’s ability to recognize these other-worldly signals. Saying yes to these internal dictates is an embracing of accountability. Saying no is a rejection of accountability. Ethics is the dynamic between me and the supernatural voices within me.

This absolutism is challenged by relativism – which invites us to be suspicious of all claims to authority and all claims to final truth. Accountability then is not about the relationship with any universal, otherworldly set of precepts. It is whatever my culture or my person says it is.

Notice however that both accounts of accountability centralize the ‘subject’ and requires the separation of the subject from the object, the observer from the observation. Culture from nature. In other words, the nexus of ethical concerns is the ‘self’ – the person within, the cornerstone of the interiority of experience. In these accounts, ethical matters revolve around the gravity of the human person.

Responsibility and accountability are anchored to an anthropocentric stronghold. Since we are the ones with agency…with will…with choice, the ethical relation, questions of what to do or how to respond, concerns about suffering, are all bound up to humans. Consequently, in these accounts, ethics is a human attribute, a dance of animated culture upon bland nature. It comes after the fact or before it. It is a supplement and a deterrent. It is anything but the fact itself. This is why a research group might clone a sheep, and then ask afterwards about the ethical value of the act of cloning. Committees might then meet, and in time come up with an ethical statement after spending hours on the issue.

But a different perspective is possible. One may call it ‘relationalism’. Relationalism is the idea that the world is not made up of things, it is made of relationships. We usually think things precede relationships – that A meets B, and then they have a relationship. The double slit experiment I spoke about on Saturday is part of a movement of reconsiderations – showing us that relationships precede things. Niels Bohr made this observation about the results of some experiments – that the observers and the measuring tool were entangled. The things we ascribe value to aren’t just lying about, in bubbles of independence, their features already pre-determined. Instead, they gain attributes or features in entangling relationships. A piece of string has no length until it enters into relationship with the measuring apparatus (the ruler). Through this relationship, certain specific properties become prominent, while others become excluded.

Reading the world in terms of entanglement also helps us see not only that matter is relational, fluid and dynamic, but that it is entangled with meaning, with value. With mind. Any act of measurement allows certain attributes to ‘appear’ and other features to disappear or become meaningless.

What appears (or what disappears) is a function of the ‘whole’ – or an ethical matter. An ethical question. In this sense, blame cannot be summarily given to human actors – since what it means to be ‘human’ is always at stake in a world profuse with boundary-upsetting relationships. If we must use the language of blame, then everything is to blame. Everything is accountable. And the human is decentered as the gravitational centre of moral matters.

Let’s think of our bodies. Our bodies are ethical configurations, given the premises I’ve already established. They are also simultaneously political projects, social projects, biological projects and technological projects. Our bodies are at once local stabilities and open questions, challenging the way the dust settles, disturbing the real, wounding the normal. When a pacemaker is attached to a human body, a corporeal ethics of entanglement reminds us that what is at stake is not necessarily if it is wrong or right to blur the boundaries of human becoming in this way, what is at stake is the complementary possibility excluded from mattering. What is at stake are the colours we do not yet see, for the sake of the colours we now see.

Allow me to use bullet points to isolate some other ideas.

Humans are not ‘accountable’, they are co-accountable: The ‘subject’ has no ontological/metaphysical privilege – in a world of relationships. There is no subject/object dichotomy. Ethics is thus not predicated on human action, neither is accountability a human phenomenon. Certain specifics assemble human and nonhuman bodies into ethical assemblages or species. But there is no substratum, no determinate ground, no final layer or transcendental imperative. Ethics is uneven, open, already compromised, ironic, haunted and contingent. We are co-responsive in changing contexts. And the question of how to respond silently easily lose sight of the fact that we are already ethically-materially configured – to the exclusion of other kinds of questions that impact the world in other ways.

Ethical matterings are rhizomatic, unpredictable and often chaotic. Ethics is not a final matter. In these Barad’s relationalism, the focus is not on individual units or human agents and their ontological values in ethical schemes, but on capacity for action generated in these assemblages. Asking what one should do is already an ethical matter. It is a performance that doesn’t necessarily warrant an answer.

Ethics is material, not disembodied goodness. It weaves and dances and murmurs like other earth critters. It shapes us, activates meanings in the questions we pose, and dismisses other realities.

Relationalism is not relativism: The idea of ‘anything goes’ assumes the arbitrariness of things. Relationalism is not arbitrary – it invites us to notice how specific matters/bodies/meanings/values are constituted in a way that necessitates the exclusion of a complementary phenomenon.

Ethical relations do not necessarily end with determinations of what is right or wrong, they simply do not terminate in any final sense. Instead ethics is part of how the world materializes, in fluid, ever-flowing, open-ended gestures that often congeal into closed, specific ethical-political-social configurations while scrambling other boundaries, breaking them wide open (in one single move). The same flow that gives birth to a flower punctures the seed; the very movement that makes some presences possible makes others invisible. Ethics is how bodies – political-biological-psychological-virtual-spiritual-ghostly-technological bodies – materialize.

Our issue is that we are used to seeing these aspects as separate provinces, as categories. We are used to seeing biology as something separate from politics, separate from spirituality, separate from concerns about ecology, separate from ethics. Relationalism makes room for a corporeal ethics that is already entangled with how the world becomes-with. There is no supernatural notion of fairness that hangs outside the world, which we must all gaze at in order to know how to act, or think, or do. Fairness is a local performance of bodies, a material movement of differential practices that come with their own sets of exclusions. The world is not essentially democratic or ‘fair’ or ‘even’ in its production of bodies. Ethics, agency, accountability – are the very dynamism of the world in its entanglement. Embodiment is already an ethical configuration. Matter and value are entangled.

“Responsibility and accountability are released from their [human-centric] stronghold and the ethical field is thrown wide open, to become… ‘a matter of the ethical call that is embodied in the very worlding of the world.’ There is no pre-given privileged point of reference, instead, a point of reference, such as the human, is produced, or locally stabilised. From this, the issue of who or what gets to have agency [or who is accountable or what we are accountable to] is displaced as it is no longer restricted to the domain of human inquiry, intention, or action.” (Peta Hinton, The Quantum Dance and the World’s Extraordinary Liveliness: Refiguring Corporeal Ethics in Karen Barad’s Agential Realism)

There is no going back to wipe the slate clean: Clean slates are the fantastical productions of human-centric accounts of our ethical relations. For if we are subjects, independent of objects, and not entangled with the world in its ongoing ethical openness, then we can undo what has been done – in a unilateral way. We can simply line up the cards willy-nilly, and expect dead/mechanical nature to simply to our bidding or bend to our internal/alien senses of appropriateness. But if the whole world is in league with us – so much so that nature is us, then clean slates are not just impossible, but not even desirable. Does this mean we cannot correct suffering? Does this mean we cannot address structures of inequality? Living in an entangled world means that we are part of a larger apparatus, complicit within the dynamics that create suffering. Even to ask ‘how can I help the world?’ is to – like a domino flow of falling cards and cascading movements – shift the world itself and destabilize it, unleashing new potentials and excluding others. We are already ethically complicit, already dancing with others. The question is not “what can I do?” as it is “how am I already being produced ethically in relation to others?”

I’ll continue this account shortly. What is probably striking is that coming down to earth means we must rethink ethics. Just as some suppose we could begin to speak of the humanities as ‘humusities’, maybe we should maybe rethink ethics as ‘earthics’!