A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Ethical Models for Nonhuman, Collective Rhetoric: A Review of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times by Alexis Shotwell and Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene by Joanna Zylinska

Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (U of Minnesota P, 2016) and Joanna Zylinska, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Open Humanities, 2014)

Andrew Pilsch, Texas A&M University

(Published September 27, 2017)

In a recent essay on sustainability, resiliency, and the imminent swallowing of Miami by a rising ocean, Stephanie Wakefield observes that humanity appears in the midst of a “wave of experimentation with new ways of transforming bodies, minds, lives, and the world around them: from hacking, making, modding, prepping, and lifting to citizen science, eco-design, solar energy grids, wireless mesh networks and crossfit boxes” (Wakefield, n.p.). In this new wave of transformation, “people everywhere are searching their souls, scouring the earth for tools, and trying in a million ways to reinvent what it means to be human and to dwell on earth” (Wakefield, n.p.).

As Wakefield argues, this need to reinvent what it is to be human is motivated by the uncertain future implied by the uncertain present of climate change. However, as recent reporting has also suggested, this experimentation can have a dark side. As an example, a recent piece in The Guardian by Bee Wilson traces the rise, spread, and dangers posed by the trend in diet known as “clean eating.” Wilson begins by recounting Jordan Younger, an Instagram star, wellness blogger, and diet-program author, whose hair started falling out because of the restrictive diet she was selling. Wilson writes that, “far from being super-healthy, she was suffering from a serious eating disorder: orthorexia, an obsession with consuming only foods that are pure and perfect” (Wilson, n.p.).

Alexis Shotwell, in her recent book Against Purity, has primed me to see this diseased desire to eat “pure and perfect” foods as symptomatic of what Shotwell calls “purity politics.” While evoking genocidal political regimes, Shotwell connects the political desire for purity to a variety of fields, notably offering an extended meditation on the soap in an airplane lavatory in the book’s introduction. For her, this cultural obsession with purity (her soap promises “purity made simple”) is a symptom of the Anthropocene, which she suggests is “the moment that humans worry that we have lost a natural state of purity or decide that purity is something we ought to pursue or defend” (Shotwell 2–3). Noting the number of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the purity-promising soap, Shotwell argues that purity is impossible. Instead, “all there is, while things perpetually fall apart, is the possibility of acting from where we are” (Shotwell 4). Shotwell’s overarching thesis, which I discuss in more detail below, is that purity politics reveals a growing anxious awareness of our entanglement with the world and that being done with this quest for individual purity is the only way to ethically engage “complicity and compromise as a starting point for action.” (Shotwell 5).

On the point of action, Shotwell comments on the concept of entanglement she draws from Karen Barad by noting that though “a tremendous amount” of her thinking in Against Purity comes from Barad, she finds “the specifics of how we would understand and act on the specifically ethical call” implied by entanglement “somewhat thin” (Shotwell 117). This perception of Barad's thinness on the question of action is a common response, I suspect, to a variety of non-human turns in recent theory that have been incorporated into rhetorical studies: Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, and the various texts in the object-oriented ontology field all articulate the lived reality and felt force of the nonhuman in shaping the horizons of what is supposedly human existence; however, so what?

Taking Bennett as another example, Joanna Zylinska, in Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, makes claims similar to Shotwell’s account of Barad. Tracing how Bennett can be read to imply that solving the politics of self-interest that has ruined The Earth requires a new kind of self-interested engagement with vibrant matter, Zylinska worries that

The politics of vibrant matter therefore risks looking like a middle-class affectation, one aimed at people who read critical theory but also have a preference for organic food, shop at farmer’s markets, like getting out of the city now and again, and generally are “anti-consumerist”: basically, nice affluent moralists who are doing their bit for the planet while also suffering not just from derangements of scale but also derangements of their own decency. (Zylinska 132)

Zylinska, like Shotwell, is suspicious of individual responsibility as the key unit of analysis for building an ethical response to climate change, and she, like Shotwell with Barad, acknowledges the importance of a new materialist bent for formulating such responses while also finding Bennett’s thoughts on actual praxis a bit thin.

By thinking about new materialism as an ethical program instead of an ontological move, Shotwell and Zylinska both offer models of praxis that build upon insights into the role of material entanglements in shaping human action that, as I argue here, are important to an emerging discourse of nonhuman rhetoric. As it stands, I think rhetorical theory has now arrived at a robust description of the problem of the nonhuman for rhetoric but could stand an infusion of specific ideas for rhetorical practice that engages with and allows the nonhuman to flourish. James J. Brown and Nathaniel Rivers inaugurate this tendency in my thinking about nonhuman rhetoric, when they remind their readers that rhetoric has been an “actionary” discipline in contrast to philosophy’s “reactionary” mode of engagement, a difference between doing and thinking as responses to the ethical demands of the material world (Brown Jr. and Rivers 31). Though I have argued for limitations in their choice of Ian Bogost’s carpentry as a method elsewhere (Pilsch), their reminder that “an actionary rhetorician cobbles together strategies, practices, and tactics in order to address engagements to come” is important for thinking about rhetoric and the non-human.

As such, in this review, I look at Zylinska and Shotwell’s books as theory for building an actionary rhetoric that engages with the nonhuman and models a set of practices for doing rhetorical work in a world of potentially agential stuff. Both books take up the call of new materialism with an eye toward enacting what could be termed “ecological justice,” practices of human action that can better nurture the flourishing of a wide variety of populations dispersed throughout the lived environment. Shotwell’s work relies on, in addition to new materialist thought, trans-feminism, indigenous thought, and queer memory as potent theoretical allies in thinking about ethical responses to the impure environments in which we live. Zylinska’s work relies on her post-human revision of Levinas, process philosophy, and bioethics to cover similar territory. While both works cover divergent territory, they are unified in their focus on ethical action in compromised times, their extremely accessible prose, and their “mode of philosophizing … that borrows from artistic sensibilities and that produces ideas with things and events,” as Zylinska puts it (Zylinska 14).

Zylinska’s project is, as I outlined above, primarily philosophical in nature. However, it offers two things to strongly recommend it to a wide audience: one, it is available freely online having been published open access by Open Humanities Press and, two, it is written “as an exercise in brevity … that comprises ten short essays, each one presenting one argument or proposition” which makes it extremely readable for non-specialists and might prove effective in classes interested in theories of the Anthropocene (Zylinska 22). Each chapter deals with a specific topic: “grounding”, “scale”, “process”, “evolution”, “humanity”, “ontology”, “ethics”, “poetics”, “politics” and “manifesting.” Each chapter is under 20 pages and moves very quickly over a compact though insightful sortie into a particular theme. The main “spiral” Zylinska sees linking these ten propositions is the twin development of what she calls “post-masculinist rationality” and the construction of ethics as the primary philosophical terrain, more primary than ontology (Zylinska 22).

She constructs her idea of “post-masculinist rationality” through an intellectual lineage of Wendy Brown’s “post-masculinist politics” (Brown) and Darin Barney’s “post-masculinist courage” (Barney), which both attempt to recoup concepts associated historically with masculine violence. Barney seeks a form of courage outside the “bravado whereby men seek to exert control over everything around them by the force of instrumental rationality and will” and instead imagines “the courage to face the uncertainty of that which we cannot control; the courage to take up the uncomfortable burdens of judgment and action; the courage to be let go into action that begins something truly new and unpredictable; the courage to become political” (Barney, n.p.).

Relying heavily on those passages from Barney, Zylinska seeks to construct a set of ethical practices that deploy rationality without the desire to control the world through these practices. She locates masculinist rationality in much of the humanistic work responding to climate change, which she says is subject to a “kind of derangement of scale” when facing such a slow-moving global crisis (Zylinska 27). Scalar derangment, which is the most important theoretical concept to be found in a book packed full of them, is any process whereby humans, when moving from one scale (usually the human one) to a different scale (the microbiotic or the cosmic, for instance), insist on grasping this new scale in terms of a human scale. In relation to Anthropocene theory, Zylinska suggests that many humanistic accounts adopt “a … mechanistic approach to this presumed entity they alternatively call ‘the planet’ and ‘the world’” in which they “first posit and locate this entity at a distance, and then try to act on it” (Zylinska 27). Acting at a distance on the world is a derangement of scale because in thinking this way, these theorists forget that they are part of the totality they set as separate from themselves. Constructions of this form seek to control the totality of the world from the perspective of a single observer.

Thus Zylinska seeks an ethical thought that can build practices attuned to these scalar shifts without returning them to the human scale. She argues that “ethics needs to be thought on a universal scale, even if it itself will remain decidedly non-universalist,” by which she means that all ethics must start from the perspective of universal totality (Zylinska 50). This perspective is Zylinska’s debt to process philosophy: unlike ontology, which posits a pre-fabricated universe of things, process philosophy sees the world as a single flux into which individual consciousnesses cut with their perceptions in order to extract entities. For instance, my perception of my desk is a set of cuts I make into flux and extract a desk perception. Zylinska’s intervention into this tradition is to argue that this act of cutting is ethics. From this, she argues that ethics precedes ontology.

All cuts into the world are structured by an ethics, but we can as individuals learn to make more generous cuts that allow broader patterns of flourishing once we understand our entanglement with totality. Zylinska concludes from this that the task of ethics in the Anthropocene is “to think big, perhaps as big as we can, and then to issue the smallest injunction” (Zylinska 100). The task then becomes “to pose the Anthropocene as an ethical injunction” and to rethink our practices of cutting accordingly. Her hope is that in this process of critically considering the cuts we all make into life (collectively but also individually), we can better construct and live a good life, given that our current modes of cutting are not particularly effective.

This account of Minimal Ethics in the Anthropocene is a particular set of cuts made into the fabric of the text. There is a lot to think about in this brief book. I have not touched on Zylinska’s account of life and death in the Anthropocene but could imagine a rich engagement with this discourse in epideictic rhetoric. Similarly, I feel the need to briefly mention the gleeful joy of her chapter on ontology, which traces the repeated usage of words such as “erect” and “rigid” through Alain Badiou’s Ethics as a means of arguing for the anti-feminist nature of the return of ontology in continental thought.

As Zylinska argues, “ethics entails violence, but it should also work towards minimizing violence” and this notion of collective reflection and the violence of any act of incision in the flux of the world is a strong connection between Zylinska and Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity (Zylinska 141). Where “scalar derangement” is Zylinska’s term for the tendency to construct “ontological edifices that float like palaces in the sky—and then passing them off as descriptions of reality … to others,” Shotwell relies on purity as the figure of retreat from the entanglement of the world (Zylinska 41–2). As I outlined above, purity for Shotwell represents a growing trend to escape from the reality of an entangled and inherently impure world into the manic quest to attain purity. Such purity is individual and an individuating process that reacts against the collectivity mandated by an entangled perspective.

Shotwell traces models for praxis that resist purity through a wide range of theoretical, aesthetic, and activist sources, suggesting a wider scholarly terrain than Zylsinka. This claim is not meant, however, to detract from Zylinska, merely to situate Shotwell’s book. Shotwell is an associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and philosophy and did her graduate work at the famously interdisciplinary History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz. The book thus covers a wider range of fields than Zylinska. However, like Zylsinka, Shotwell’s clearly ordered prose makes a wide citational range easily accessible. Like Minimal Ethics, Against Purity is an informative and exciting text.

The book is divided into three sections of two chapters each that deal with past, present, and future, respectively. The first two chapters explore indigenous reconciliation efforts in Canada and recovery work in the history of AIDs activism. In both, Shotwell foregrounds memory as a key tactic in reckoning with a fraught past of traumatic violence. In the chapter about First Nation reparations for abuse and trauma suffered through native boarding schools in Canada, Shotwell shows how the Canadian government’s attempt to remember the boardings schools as a sad chapter in Canadian history is a practice of purity: the past was bad, but the present is free from all of that. Shotwell instead, highlights the First Nation efforts to “unforget,” a term in decolonial theory, the boarding schools, to counter practices of historical foreclosure with accumulating records of the continual presence of the past as the foundation for the present.

From these practices of reckoning with a fraught past, Shotwell offers two chapters that trace practices to account for the present and, potentially, deflect the traumas of the past into a new future. Continuing an engagement with classification practices that animates the chapter on indigenous activism, Shotwell first explores community science efforts to track frogs in Sudbury, Ontario, a town whose ecological devastation was used to accustom Apollo astronauts to the “visceral experience of what walking in a place without living things felt like” (Shotwell 81). She suggests that fears of a toxic environment are, as with clean eating, an attempt to free ourselves from the ethical responsibility implied by entanglement. However, the question in these two chapters (the other is on meat eating and radioactive cows) is how to imagine “a practice…of resisting human exceptionalism while at the same time thinking that humans have responsibilities” (Shotwell 98).

As with Zylinska, Shotwell ties this to practices of narrative: “we need to make different agential cuts that allow us to generate different narratives and different nodes of attention,” practices that will allow us to engage the responsibility toward the world implied by our reflective cognition while not turning frogs into marker species or ignoring cows because nuclear accident has rendered them too radioactive to consume as food (Shotwell 106). Part of Shotwell’s response to this is a disavowal of the individual ethical actor, which makes up the bulk of Chapter 4’s argument, and the understanding that all life involves consumption. She suggests that seeking “forms of noninnocent responsibility” is key to building toward a better future on the foundation of the present as it is shaped by an impure past (Shotwell 121).

These noninnocent responsibilities are communal, as entanglement means that individual purity is a nonexistent framework for action. She suggests that we make individual ethical acts but only “as individuals understanding that the meaning of our ethical actions is also political” and that our “political practice will also be only partial and incomplete” (Shotwell 130). This partial and incomplete political practice structures the final two chapters, on disability and futurity in performance art and the science fiction of Octavia Butler. Here Shotwell develops perhaps the most important concept in Against Purity: “open normativities.”

Open normativities are “collectively crafted ways of being that shape subjectivities oriented toward widespread flourishing” (Shotwell 139). Through a careful reading of Georges Canguilhem (one of Michel Foucault’s teachers), Shotwell parses key differences between “norm”, “normative”, and “normalization” to argue that politics is impossible without normativity (Shotwell 140–3). She asserts that “normativity claims that something is correct, good, to be pursued, acceptable, endorsed or allowed” while “normalization is the disciplinary process that enforces that claim” (Shotwell 145). When we mistake the latter for the former, we engage in purity politics by suggesting that resistance is individual and “obscuring the agency and power involved in setting norms” (Shotwell 143). In contrast to the non-normative bent in queer theory, Shotwell suggests that future-building demands constructing open normativities that do not need the violence involved in normalization to a white, cis-gendered, patriarchal normativity.

The processes of a non- or anti-purity politics, for Shotwell, “is to start from an understanding of our implication in this compromised world, to recognize the quite vast injustices informing our everyday lives, and from that understanding to act on our wish that it were not so” (Shotwell 204). Importantly, for both Zylinska and Shotwell, acting on this wish is an individual process that is constantly calibrated through and with collective flourishing in mind. Shotwell signals that working collectively opens up the “distributed ethicality” that makes human responsibility (Shotwell 203).

I see strong resonances with both these books and questions of the nonhuman in rhetoric. As Diane Davis and Michelle Ballif summarize in their introduction to the special issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric on “Extrahuman Rhetorical Relations,” the field of rhetoric has used a wide array of approaches to get at the question of nonhuman or posthuman rhetorical practice (Davis and Ballif). As they argue, traditionally, rhetoric has conceived of persuasion as being centered on “a knowing subject who understands himself (traditionally, it is a he), his audience, and what he means to communicate; indeed, this capacity to mean what he says and say what he means is, putatively, what distinguishes him as human” (Davis and Ballif 347). They document a wide array of posthuman, feminist, and materialist ways of opening up who or what might speak beyond this “profoundly humanist and foundationalist (not to mention sexist)” formulation of the suasive speaker (Davis and Ballif 347).

Reading through their introduction, many of these new rhetorical agencies still posit or imply a singular “I” who speaks, even if that subject is entangled with networks or broadened beyond the human. Commenting on this tendency to retain a speaking “I”, Casey Boyle has argued that rhetoric, when made into a reflective practice, is about “dividing subjects and objects” and that this division retains a humanist bias even in the most radical contexts (Boyle 537). In Zylinska and Shotwell’s accounts of new materialist, ethical praxis, I find a further models for a rhetoric that significantly disrupts the presumption that the singular “I” is the best place to begin in acting ethically in public. Boyle suggests that such an ethical rhetorician must be first-and-foremost “humble,” and I find further a model for practicing this humility in these two books (Boyle 552) The individual is an inadequate perspective from which to begin grappling with something like climate change. For Zylinska it is because the scale of climate change exceeds human scale; for Shotwell, it is because individual responsibility is a practice of purity that cuts off the realities of entangled, collective existence. At the same time, our individuality is what we have. Both thinkers ask us, instead, to grapple with the limits of our own perspective as part of our ethical engagement.

As an example, a recent piece in The Guardian by Martin Lukacs mirrors many of the claims made in both these books by asking “Would you advise someone to flap towels in a burning house? To bring a flyswatter to a gunfight?” before detailing the degree to which individual responses such as buying green lightbulbs or bicycling to work pale in comparison to the government-enabled corporate destruction of the environment. Lukacs concludes “it is time to stop obsessing with how personally green we live – and start collectively taking on corporate power” (Lukacs, n.p.). Zylinska uses the figure of “filling the kettle with just enough water to make tea” for this focus on individual responsibility (Zylinska 27). For Shotwell, the focus on individual acts of going green are purity politics avant la lettre.

What would a rhetoric that foregrounded the collective dimension of these ethical projects look like? Rhetoric has for so long been tied to the idea of a single “I” who speaks, even the attempts to overturn the white, straight masculinity of this speaker often retains a singular “I.” Both Against Purity and Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene highlight that acting ethically is also an interrogation and a critical transformation of our human perspective. Rhetorical theory has recently started to include more agents within the purview of who argues (animals, robots, etc.), but how might we instead build a model of rhetorical engagement that focuses on populations, species, ecosystems, corporations, and planets as speakers, audiences, and allies? This question is the challenge I take from both works and I think their focus on collectively modulated ethics as a response to damaged and impure times is crucial reading for rhetorical theory in the Anthropocene.

Works Cited

Barney, Darin. “Eat Your Vegetables: Courage and the Possibility of Politics.” Theory & Event, vol. 14, no. 2, June 2011, doi:10.1353/tae.2011.0023.

Boyle, Casey. “Writing and Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice.” College English, vol. 78, no. 6, July 2016, pp. 532–554, http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CE/0786-july2016/CE0786Writing.pdf.

Brown Jr., James J., and Nathaniel Rivers. “Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop.” O-Zone, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 27–36, http://static1.squarespace.com/static/50b4d1aee4b0214dc1f68c69/t/52979aebe4b09eb8018f2156/1385667307737/04_Carpenter's+Workshop_FINAL.pdf.

Brown, Wendy L. Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Theory. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.

Davis, Diane, and Michelle Ballif. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Pushing the Limits of the Anthropos.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 47, no. 4, Dec. 2014, pp. 346–353, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/562405.

Lukacs, Martin. “Neoliberalism Has Conned Us into Fighting Climate Change as Individuals Martin Lukacs.” The Guardian, July 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2017/jul/17/neoliberalism-has-conned-us-into-fighting-climate-change-as-individuals.

Pilsch, Andrew. “Invoking Darkness: Skotison, Scalar Derangement, and Inhuman Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 50, no. 3, Aug. 2017, pp. 336–355, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/666620.

Shotwell, Alexis. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. U Of Minnesota P, 2016.

Wakefield, Stephanie. “Field Notes from the Anthropocene: Living in the Back Loop.” The Brooklyn Rail, June 2017, http://brooklynrail.org/2017/06/field-notes/Field-Notes-from-the-Anthropocene-Living-in-the-Back-Loop.

Wilson, Bee. “Why We Fell for Clean Eating.” The Guardian, Aug. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/11/why-we-fell-for-clean-eating.

Zylinska, Joanna. Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene. Open Humanities, 2014.