Dialogue with Joanna Zylinska

We continue our Dialogues series with Joanna Zylinska. Zylinska is one of the most forward looking and thoughtful theorists in media studies, visual culture, and beyond.  Her work—in the past, ongoing , and to come—cuts through many of the issues communication +1 seeks to address. We are pleased to present this conversation with her in the hope that it will continue. We invite interventions and engagement in the comment section, or get in touch at communicationplusone at gmail dot com with suggestions.

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Q:        One of the problems that your work seems to address is how we might conceive of biopower after humanism. You draw on Agamben, for example, to look for a new ethics grounded in the material, but attentive to mediated and nonhuman influences.

If, in the modern state, according to Agamben, life and the body have become biopolitical concepts in which the materiality of life, its biological aspects, and its vegetative functions crisscross our bodies’ political and legal roles and positions, an effective bioethics that can counteract the normativity of the biopolitical regime has to be thought through the zones of indistinction between bios and zoē, matter and concept, human and nonhuman. (2009: 112)

How do you see your work in relation to the reconfigurations of the human subject in the new material approaches? Does a new, more dynamic conception of ethics have a dramatically different relationship with environment?

JZ:        First of all, I should perhaps signal that I am somewhat suspicious of these so-called “new material approaches”, sometimes presented under the umbrella of “new materialism” that is posited against a number of what I see to be straw targets, such as, say, poststructuralism, or “the linguistic turn”. The problem with such articulations is that they tend to remain blind to their own articulatory gesture and the rhetorical and conceptual conditions of its possibility. More importantly – and worryingly – they are also premised on the forgetting of the conceptualizations of matter and materiality in the philosophical traditions against which they set themselves. In works of this “new materialism” matter tends to be posited as “a priori and as, allegedly, beyond culture, despite an awareness of the untenability of such claims” (Bruining 2013: 151). Yet the positing of matter in this way can only be premised on the simultaneous occlusion of the humanist values that underpin such a philosophical “positing gesture” – not to mention the reintroduction of the old-style Cartesianism, except that now the principal driver of agency is on the side of “matter” rather than “the mind” (see Bruining 2013: 158). So, while I would take a position against what Dennis Bruining terms “material foundationalism”, an approach “in which matter translates and comes to signify an exigency of life” (149), I am certainly interested in materiality, that is in the way “stuff” works, transmutes and evolves – and in how we evolve with it and as part of it. Biopolitics for me is a sphere in which the indistinction between bios and zoē, matter and concept, human and nonhuman is enacted. Bioethics, in turn, involves moving beyond this indistinction.

 

“…the positing of matter in this way can only be premised on the simultaneous occlusion of the humanist values that underpin such a philosophical ‘positing gesture’ – not to mention the reintroduction of the old-style Cartesianism, except that now the principal driver of agency is on the side of ‘matter’ rather than ‘the mind'”

 

The above hopefully explains why my work on ethics, both in its earlier guises, in Bioethics in the Age of New Media (2009), and in my most recent book, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (2014), does not pivot on a fixed notion of an “environment” as such that would be somehow separate from the humans, and that those humans could then either damage or protect, but rather considers their mutual co-constitution and entanglement, to use Karen Barad’s term. However, it is important to highlight that this co-constitution and entanglement does not amount to supporting life continuism, or the indeterminate flow of matter: the singular instances of resolution, which I also term “cuts”, are important in the multiple processes of life – both ontologically (i.e., so that we can recognize some “temporarily stabilized beings” such as humans, dogs or rocks) and ethically (i.e., so that we can take a decision about, and make an intervention into, the “stuff” of life).

 

“I am certainly interested in materiality, that is in the way ‘stuff’ works, transmutes and evolves – and in how we evolve with it and as part of it. Biopolitics for me is a sphere in which the indistinction between bios and zoē, matter and concept, human and nonhuman is enacted. Bioethics, in turn, involves moving beyond this indistinction..”

 

Q:        In your work on the ethics of enhancement you explore some of the existing positions within the philosophy of technology on the problem of enhancement. In departing from older conceptions of the human that have relied on “a singular and fixed moral entity,” (2010, 150) you move towards a new ethical framework where human and nonhuman subjects are always considered in relation to material environments and technologies. Could you say more about how “re-imagining the conceptual and material boundaries of ethical subjects,” (154) for example, carries the potential to be more attentive to the ethics of contemporary mediated cultures and political life?

JZ:        As explained above, this entangled model of human-nonhuman relations provides a framework for my ethical deliberations, but it is also important to highlight moments of temporary agential resolution within this entanglement, which are also moments when those of us who call ourselves human can take responsibility for what surrounds us. My attempt to re-imagine “the conceptual and material boundaries of ethical subjects” also entails a call to us human to remain attentive to how these boundaries are instantiated and executed, and by whom, or, in other terms, a call to consider how material in-cisions become ethical de-cisions. Such reconceptualization of ethical subjectivity in terms of relationality and entanglement is not just an intellectual exercise: it allows us to develop a non-hysterical response to contemporary mediated cultures. This is not to say that “anything goes” and that all sorts of couplings or all sorts of enhancement are to be seen as morally or politically neutral. The second point is particularly important in the age of biocapitalism, when the relations of life in both their cellular and social aspects are subject to various complex processes of commodification, patenting and profiteering. Yet the consideration of the human as “always already enhanced” (an idea I develop from the notion of originary technicity outlined by the philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler) challenges certain normative positions on what humans should do or look like with regard to issues such as plastic surgery or drugs, be it medical or recreational, positions that often rely on a certain idea of what is supposedly “natural” for us. At the same time, the ethical theory I develop differs from the Spinozist-Deleuzian ethological model, in which goodness is judged on the basis of the power it increases in the body once it has entered into a composition with other bodies. This is not to dismiss the importance on Spinoza’s part of proposing a non-moralistic, immanent, functionalist model of ethics at a time when transcendentally-justified deontological (i.e. duty-bound) frameworks reigned supreme. Yet for me that ethical subjectivity, which – like for Spinoza – is always corporeal, also exists in the form of ex-istence, i.e. as an opening of the self beyond itself. It is in responding to that opening that an ethical act takes place, I suggest.

 

“My attempt to re-imagine ‘the conceptual and material boundaries of ethical subjects’ also entails a call to us human to remain attentive to how these boundaries are instantiated and executed, and by whom, or, in other terms, a call to consider how material in-cisions become ethical de-cisions.”

 

Q:        Bruining’s challenge to some of the moralizing configurations of ‘materiality’ by new materialist thinking is both a fruitful challenge and perhaps also a relevant point for segueing into a discussion of your own mixed methods practices of doing research. Can you say more about your interest in, as you put it above “the way ‘stuff’ works, transmutes and evolves”? Is this form of materiality that you describe at play in your work with and around art photography?

Yes, indeed. While my original training was been primarily textual and while I still have great fondness and respect for long-form arguments and narratives as developed in philosophy and literature, writing is only one mode through which I approach this question of ethical responsibility and human-nonhuman relations. Over the recent years, I have found myself increasingly drawn to other, less verbal, modes and methods of addressing some of these issues: those enabled by art, and, more specifically, photography and image-making. I had always had a passion for photography but in 2007 I plucked up the courage and enrolled on the MA programme in Photographic Studies at the University of Westminster, from which I graduated in 2009. This has encouraged me to not just continue writing about interdisciplinarity, boundary-crossing and hybrids but actually try and enact them in my own work. I must emphasize that I didn’t want to just replace ‘theory’ with ‘practice’ in any straightforward way. I have rather started practicing philosophy as if it was art, while attempting to think of art-making and photography as ways of philosophising. What originally made me interested in photography were not its representationalist ambitions: I was trained in poststructuralism so I never really bought into photography’s supposed indexicality. Even the earliest photographic practice, that of Fox Talbot and Daguerre, was a form of an enactment of a world in a certain way. Photography has always been ontological, or world-making, for me, rather than merely representational. Yet photography has a different materiality from writing and it carries a different set of practices and affordances. I’m interested in exploring these differences in my work.

Joanna Zylinska, From Topia daedala, 2014

Joanna Zylinska, From Topia daedala, 2014

For example, in my latest book, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (which is freely available on an open access basis), the traditional philosophical argument is accompanied by a visual track, consisting of a series of photographs that are inserted between the chapters. The book, riffing to some extent on Adorno’s Minima Moralia, is an attempt to think about life and death at a time when both human and nonhuman life has found itself under threat on a planetary scale. The Anthropocene names a new geological period, supposedly following the Holocene (although scientists are still debating whether the term should be officially accepted or not), in which the human has been identified as a significant geological agent who has had irreversible impact on the geo- and biosphere, via activities such as mining, deforestation and urbanization.

Joanna Zylinska, From Topia daedala, 2014

Joanna Zylinska, From Topia daedala, 2014

The series of images I’ve presented in the book, called Topia daedala, builds on my prior exploration of various forms of manufactured landscape. Taken from two vantage points on both sides of a window, the composite images interweave human and non-human creativity by overlaying the outer world of cloud formation with the inner space of sculptural arrangement. Remediating the tradition of the sublime, the photographs invite the viewer to question what counts as “landscape” and to challenge the conventions of its visual representation. The project also aims to raise questions for the role of “stuff” – specifically, plastic, as both construction material and debris – in the age of petrochemical urgency.

Q:        Could you speak to the current and future state of media studies in some more general terms? I am thinking in particular of your suggestion, with Sarah Kember, in Life After New Media that media may be better understood as interlocking processes, rather than as discrete objects. How do “the vitalism of Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze on the one hand, and the différance of Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler on the other” (2012: 71) inform this reading of media and mediation?

What Sarah and I tried to do in Life after New Media is raise questions for the oft-banded term “creativity”, with both the fuzzy buzz around it, both in academia and outside, and the negative connotations resulting from its associations with the creative industries whose sole purpose is to monetize any form of human activity. While we both have been increasingly working across the boundaries of theory and practice (with Sarah writing fiction as well as scholarly texts), we certainly did not want to proclaim in any kind of moralistic fashion that “everyone in media studies should now do practice” and that this is the way the discipline should now go. On the contrary, the book’s goal was to show the fundamental interlocking of the various practices of media creation, with language and narrative actually being some of the earliest media humans had developed. In this sense, theory itself can be a form of practice: although, sometimes in following the expectations, the routines and the trends, it is just an enactment of a program. The concept of mediation became a tool for us in trying to define this intertwined relationship between various modes of knowledge production.

We didn’t see mediation as a third term linking two stable entities (film-maker and audience, say), but rather as pointing to a different logic under which media operate. We defined mediation as “a complex and hybrid process that is simultaneously economic, social, cultural, psychological, and technical. Mediation, we suggest[ed], [wa]s all-encompassing and indivisible. This is why ‘we’ have never been separate from mediation. Yet our relationality and our entanglement with nonhuman entities continues to intensify with the ever more corporeal, ever more intimate dispersal of media and technologies into our biological and social lives”. … Broadly put, mediation became for us “a key trope for … articulating our … being in the technological world, our emergence and ways of intraacting with it, as well as the acts and processes of temporarily stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations, and networks” (2012, xv).

So, making visual work has become for me one way of enacting this dynamism and processuality of media, including photography. Curatorial practice, where the creative, or even world-making role is combined with that of order-imposition (in the philosophical sense of managing the chaos of the world which is not always of human making – and not just managing artists) has become another. Mediation has also served as a directive for my most recent project called Photomediations Machine, which is an online space I founded and co-curate with Taiwanese artist Ting Ting Cheng (http://www.photomediationsmachine.net). Photomediations Machine is an online space where the dynamic relations of mediation as performed in photography and other media can be encountered, experienced and engaged. The site adopts a process-based approach to image making by tracing the technological, biological, cultural, social and political flows of mediation that produce photographic objects. Showcasing theoretical and practical work at the intersections of art and mainstream practices, Photomediations Machine is both an archive of mediations past and a site of production of media as-we-do-not-know-them-yet.

To sum up my answer to your very important question about the future state of media studies – which is perhaps also a question about the future of scholarly investigation and experimentation, or even the future of knowledge as such – I have to say that even though I work on ethics (or maybe precisely because of it), I’m wary of issuing any kind of normative statements about how things should be, or work. So, instead of speaking in my own voice, I want to finish off by turning to this little exhortation to media scholars which Sarah and I had made, with a nod to Beckett, in the conclusion to Life after New Media:

  1. All of old. But ask again. Ask better.
  2. Cut. Cut again. Cut better.
  3. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (see 2012, 2005)

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 joanna_zylinskaJoanna Zylinska is Professor of New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths University of London, writing on new technologies and new media, ethics and art. She is the author of four books – most recently, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Michigan Publishing 2014), Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (with Sarah Kember; MIT Press, 2012) and Bioethics in the Age of New Media (MIT Press, 2009). She is also a translator of Stanislaw Lem’s major philosophical treatise, Summa Technologiae (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Together with Clare Birchall, Gary Hall and Open Humanities Press, she runs the JISC-funded project Living Books about Life – consisting of a series of co-edited, electronic open access books about life which provide a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. She combines her philosophical writings with photographic art practice.

http://www.joannazylinska.net/

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Dialogue conducted by Wendy Pringle May-November, 2014

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Works Cited in Dialogue

Bruining, Dennis. “A Somatechnics of Moralism: New Materialism or Material Foundationalism.” Somatechnics 3.1 (2013): 149–168.

Kember, Sarah and Zylinska, Joanna. Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2012.

Zylinska, Joanna. “Of Swans and Ugly Ducklings: Imagining Perfection in Makeover Culture.” Bioethics in the Age of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.

Zylinska, Joanna. “Playing God, Playing Adam: The Politics and Ethics of Enhancement.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 7, no. 2 (2010): 149–61.

Zylinska, Joanna. Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014. An electronic version of the book is freely available under the CC licence at: http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/minimal-ethics.html

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