Media @ McGill

Bioethics Otherwise | Rafico Ruiz


"How can the human speak in the shadow of the post-humanist critique?" Such was the question whose own substantial shadow put in relief the challenging talk delivered by Media@McGill's Beaverbrook Visiting Scholar Dr. Joanna Zylinska. In our potentially post-human age, Zylinska argues, interspecies ethics and the identity of the human/non-human animal are not so much dependent on the work of fixing boundaries and definitions, but rather on what they contribute towards a transformed understanding of the human-a transformed understanding that can at once allow us to think better about ourselves and distant, different others, but also to live better with others, whether machine, human or animal. As is customary in much of her exemplary scholarship, Zylinska's talk opened a thinking and living question at the heart of ethical inquiry that asks: how to live?

Zylinska's two-week residency at McGill University's hub of media research, Media@McGill, is largely devoted to furthering her ambitious translation project of Stanislaw Lem's major philosophical treatise, Summa Technologiae, for the University of Minnesota's Electronic Mediations series. Many of her past books, including On Spiders, Cyborgs and Being Scared: the Feminine and the Sublime (Manchester University Press, 2001), The Ethics of Cultural Studies (Continuum, 2005), and Bioethics in the Age of New Media (MIT Press, 2009), have combined a rare ability to cross new media theory with philosophy and cultural studies in order to critically examine and veritably create the transitions that these disciplines take together towards ethics. With her latest endeavour, Life after New Media (with Sarah Kember) for the MIT Press, Zylinska tackles the idea of mediation. As a Reader in New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, she also furthers the mandate of Culture Machine, a highly respected international open-access journal of culture and theory, as one of its editors. Her investigations into what she terms the "pragmatics of the how" (from subjectivity to existence) are always challenging forays that stem from an intellectual curiosity that feels and thinks across cultural theory, new technologies, new media, ethics and art.

The second shadow, albeit an illuminating one, that marked off the broad strokes of Zylinska's talk is that of Donna Haraway's cyborg. In returning to the human after the cyborg, she also sought to offer up some possibilities for what she sees as "the post-humanist impasse of some strands of contemporary cultural theory, whereby the widespread acceptance of the notions of transhuman relationality, interspecies kinship, and machinic becoming by many humanities scholars seems to have diminished the need for a more rigorous interrogation of the singularity of trans-species and intra-species difference." Zylinska is also very much aware of how this return to the human, that she puts under the sign of Descartes' query of "But as for me, who am I?", runs the risk of being an ill-fated attempt to cling to the fantasy of human exceptionalism. Having us stand in the nude alongside Jacques Derrida with that distant cat of his all eyes, she pointedly puts to us the question "Is there animal narcissism?," having us dwell upon whom it does its bearing.

In order to get at this futural-present condition of human exceptionalism, Zylinska turns to "the emergent (inter)discipline of animal studies which has gone some way towards thinking human-nonhuman relations precisely as relations," which she approaches from the vantage point of interspecies or companion ethics. Taking issue with Matthew Calarco's Zoographies, Paul Patton's essay "Language, Power, and the Training of Horses," and Donna Haraway's When Species Meet, which introduce such key debates in animal studies as the being of animals, the possibility of making the human-animal distinction, and, within this, the twofold question of living-with and living-as animals, Zylinska expressed doubts regarding the viability of the ethical framework proposed by these and other animal studies theorists; her doubts are largely due to the three "blind spots" that have plagued thought in animal studies, she terms these the humanist, technicist, and violentist blind spots.

In response to Haraway's injunction that humans, failed animal lovers included, should be open to the "other-worlding" that animals make available, Zylinska counters with the claim, read through Simon Glendinning, that the aforementioned ethical framework within which this moral claim making originates evinces a certain anthropocentric "cognitivist presumption." If we are asked, as Haraway does, to feel for and think along with the cat at our feet, these human acts lack an accompanying and mediating doubt from their very outset. As Zylinska remarked, "ethical doubt has the potential to turn the focus and attention of the study of interspecies relationality precisely to the alterity that is not in me. It does not therefore serve the ultimate reaffirmation of the human I"; and in so doing turns ethical concern away from an ontology of the self towards an ethics of the other. Zylinska draws out this distinction for interspecices ethics through an examination of animal training, which she looks at through the examples of Haraway and her dog Cayenne, and Patton's horse Flash. The relationship between human and animal established by training is an ambiguous one for Zylinska, and in asking "what is it for?" she comes to the conclusion that animal theorists are often caught in an originary, co-constitutive logical loop, "with the theorist's fantasy and projection covering over the violence involved in making the world and in making meanings in the world with and via animals."

Leading into her concluding remarks on the possibilities of thinking of bioethics otherwise in a post-humanist age, Zylinska underlined the doubly binding poles of anthropocentrism and violence that structure each and every ethical framework. Yet, as she acknowledges, in an age of multiplying, imbricating and flowing biotechnologies and digital media, these transformations "command a transformation of the recognized moral frameworks through which we understand life, as well as a rethinking of who the moral subject is in the current conjuncture." The disruptive claim that post-humanist critique makes is in its fragilizing of the anthropocentric bias in our established ways of thinking-the human, here, is part of a complex, non-hierarchical, natural-technical network, and constitutes a non-discrete entity that must make decisions in the face of a past-present of "consumerist and exploitative attitudes towards non-humans (mammals, fish, rainforests, the ecosphere as a whole, etc.)." By thinking ethics "as phenomenological responsiveness and moral responsibility-a position which assumes that whatever attitude I adopt towards the other, I am already responding to the other's presence and demand"-Zylinska, through Emmanuel Levinas, weakens respect as an a priori position of ethical approach. Immersed in this eventful positionality, bioethics, for Zylinska, becomes an engaging supplement to both morality and politics. Neither practical tool nor model open to simple implementation, this alternative, critical-creative work of bioethics that Zylinska's talk brought forward seeks to shift the boundaries of ethical debate from that of a singular, problem-based paradigm that relies on pre-established principles, to an immersive political context that seriously acknowledges that individual decisions are caught up in complex relations of power, economy, and ideology.

In proposing a technics-aware bioethics, Zylinska foregrounds the need to account for violence in the thinking of ethics. This need is felt all the more within an ethical framework that accounts for relationality and interspecies kinship by recognizing the collapse of life forms, human, animal and machine, into a seamless flow. Zylinska's non-normative, technics-aware bioethics, by considering "the polyvalent relations of co-evolution and co-emergence," relies on doubt as its condition and structuring device. Caught in the charged field between cats (Derrida), dogs (Haraway), and horses (Patton), a veritable zoo (Calarco) of competing projected other-worlds, Zylinska's doubt interrupts cognitive essentialism and asks of both animal studies experts and decision makers like all of "us" (animal, human and machine), to come to know the nature of interspecies difference. To know it not yet and otherwise.

Zylinska's talk was a collaboration between Media@McGill and the Art History and Communication Studies (AHCS) Speaker Series.

Rafico Ruiz is a doctoral student in Communication Studies and the History and Theory of Architecture at McGill University.