Throughout this semester I've been interested in conceptualizing a posthumanist material ethics, by which I mean an ethics that responds to nonhuman, nonlinguistic, and possibly even nonliving traces and processes and which conceptualizes responsibility to nonhuman others and nonliving, nonhuman forces. In my senior project, which also deals with material ethics, I'm particularly interested in trying to articulate an ethical approach that attempts to struggle with the dynamic, on-going material processes of the world, or the difficulty of "reality." There I'm trying to explicate the ethics of the limits of human perception and knowledge concerning nonhuman entities and stress the need for an ethics that directly challenges anthropocentrism and speciesism. In the paper I specifically take up the issues of plant genetics and crop breeding in industrial, monoculutre agriculture and farming to provide a practical, grounded example of material ethics.
Here though, I'd like to take some space to explore some texts that have been influential in prompting me to write about material ethics. The Butler we read in class, "Ethical Ambivalence," put me on to Emmanuel Levinas's Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence. Although the text is very difficult and I must therefore rely on Butler's reading of it to help me make sense of it, I am intrigued by Levinas's illustration of the ethical relationship, and the ethical address, the mode by which ethical demands are made.
In what is arguably his most important and influential work, Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence, Emmanuel Levinas states, "Saying is not a game. Antecedent to the verbal signs it conjugates, to the linguistic systems and the semantic glimmerings, a forward preceding languages, it is the proximity of one to the other, the commitment of an approach, the one for the other, the very signifyingness of signification," (5, my emphasis). What Levinas means here is that prior to all languages and linguistic accounts, there is a primordial saying, an approach that signifies an ethical responsibility. Because of the inevitability of proximity, of "I" and the Other, I am approached by the Other, and asked, as it were, to receive an address in which the Other lays a responsibility on me, or accuses me of failing in a responsibility. In a later essay entitled "Peace and Proximity," Levinas introduces the figure of the Other's "face," as being that which speaks the primordial saying. Though, as Judith Butler notes in the final chapter of her book of the same name, Precarious Life, "Someone or something else speaks when the face is likened to a certain kind of speech; it is a speech that does not come from a mouth or, if it does, has no ultimate origin or meaning there. In fact. . . Levinas makes it plain that "the face is not exclusively a human face."³," (133). Here we see that not only is the face not necessarily a human face, but the face also does not actually speak, per se. Butler further expounds upon the structure of the ethical address itself:
"To respond to this address seems an important obligation during these times. This obligation is something other than the rehabilitation of the author - subject per se. It is about a mode of response that follows upon having been addressed, a comportment toward the Other only after the Other has made a demand upon me, accused me of a failing, or asked me to assume a responsibility," (129).
"So if we think that moral authority is about finding one's will and standing by it, stamping one's name upon one's will, it may be that we miss the very mode by which moral demands are relayed. That is, we miss the situation of being addressed, the demand that comes from elsewhere, sometimes a nameless elsewhere, by which our obligations are articulated and pressed upon us," (130).
Here Butler articulates the primordial structure and origin of the ethical address: it comes before one's will, before one's judgment, and lays upon one a command, or holds and persecutes one for failing in such a commandment. According to Levinas, the primordial address that sends me an ethical edict, Levinas uses the example "thou shalt not kill," (for Levinas, the life of the Other takes primacy over one's own and the edict "thou shalt not kill" is what signifies the face; "the other for the other") is that which comes both before and after oneself. This is what Levinas means by his key phrase "otherwise than being." One's responsibility to the Other precedes one's existence, to language, and will continue after one's death. He states, though, that:
"The otherwise than being cannot be situated in any eternal order extracted from time that would somehow command the temporal series. . . It is the temporalization of time, in the way it signifies being and nothingness, life and death, that must also signify the beyond being and not being. . . the differing of the identical is also its manifestation," (9).
This passage highlights the decay and transformation of the address through time, of the meaning extracted from such an address, and the specific and conditional nature of an ethical responsibility. It also highlights the difference, the trace, or the diffractive disturbance of sameness that the face of the Other marks. "This difference," Levinas later states, "in proximity between the one and the other, between me and a neighbor, turns into non-indifference, precisely into my [ethical] responsibility," (166). Thus, it is not necessarily in language in which all meaning (ethical or otherwise) is located and produced - meaning can also be located and produced in the trace or difference, the pre-discursive without which language would not exist.
While Levinas's precise point in Otherwise Than Being is to critique the location of meaning in ontology as such, arguing that it is rather what is beyond being that constitutes the revelation of the meaning of being, I would like to take the liberty of using Levinas's theory of the ethical relationship in an ontological direction, although not in the sense that ontology is concerned with "things as they are." Indeed, Levinas's point about the temporalization of time, signifying the decay and transformation of address which in turn signifies otherwise than being would seem to belay the idea that the world is composed of "things" that await understanding and representation, harkening instead to an ontological understanding of "things in their becoming with others." It would seem to me that there cannot be any understanding of "what is ethical" outside of our understanding of living (or outside of death and the nonliving forces which perpetuate the possibility of living), which would necessitate an exploration of the stuff of the living - not in order to fix it into a permanent position of knowing it, but to attempt to awaken ourselves to the pre-discursive traces which form an ethical address from a nonhuman face. For in talking about 'I,' the strangeness and impossibility of 'I,' and the ethical obligations of 'I' to the 'Other,' it seems necessary to talk about that which brings 'I' and 'Other' into being, forms them and makes their becoming possible, sustains them until their subsequent death, and perhaps even brings about that death. This is why I am interested in conceptualizing an explicitly material ethics and this de-centering of personal interest, the consideration of forces outside the human in particular to which the human owes its existence with/beside other nonhuman life forms, also suggests that the ethical approach that is required is one that does not privilege the human, and even radically challenges anthropocentrism and speciesism, in the guise of benevolence in which humanism and its incarnations cloak themselves. What I am suggesting is that material - actual material - must be foremost in ethical inquiry. As suggested by Levinas's articulation of the temporalization of time, however, the engagement with material in ethics can not be one that stops short at an understanding of material as inert, static, as waiting to be inscribed by discourse (though matter certainly is inscribed and constructed by discourse). It must also engage with matter as a transformative force in its own right, allowing it its own weight in a materially accountable ethics of becoming.
At this point however, I am still left with some rather basic-seeming questions about some of what appear to be key concepts for Levinas, such as the "temporalization of time." As I said before, these texts are quite difficult, so I'd really appreciate any help anyone might have to offer in understanding them. I also welcome any and all criticism anyone has to offer.