Scan | Journal of Media Arts Culture
Volume 11 Number 1 2014

An Ethics of Entanglement for the Anthropocene

Kate Wright

The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. (Bateson 1972: 491)

Cyberneticist and ecological philosopher Gregory Bateson is well known for his assertion that the basic unit of survival on earth is the organism-plus-environment, and so any organism that destroys its environment is committing suicide (1972: 491). In this paper I take this statement of interdependency not only to mean that the organism requires an environment to survive, but also that the organism is inseparable from the environment, and is itself an environment for others.

Looking at the world from the perspective of the Anthropocene reveals patterns of connection that bind flesh to earth, sea and sky on a multispecies planet. Atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” to describe a new geological age initiated by the human species where “human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature” (Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill 2007: 614). Ben Dibley poetically observes that the Anthropocene “vividly captures the folding of the human into the air, into the sea, the soil” (2012: Online).

The enfolded era of the Anthropocene demands an organism-plus-environment mode of thought which takes seriously the entangled and relational constitution of all life on earth. In the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, it is vital for humans to develop ethical and compassionate relationships with the nonhumans who share their world. In this paper I propose an ethics of entanglement which challenges the idea that an organism’s individual body is the primary site for ethical encounter. In this time of climate change, where Earth’s atmosphere is demanding attention, it is necessary to rethink the coordinates of ethical engagement. An ethics of entanglement is directed toward the relational connections between lives and worlds, and takes as its ethical subject the organism-plus-environment.

Human violence toward nonhuman others is often directed toward the body of an organism which has been conceptually abstracted from its environment and its relationship to others in order to legitimise suffering and slaughter. Unwanted bodies are easily disposed of when entanglements are ignored. An ethics of entanglement resists the abstraction of bodies from worlds which fosters violence and neglect by engaging with “connectivity and commitment” as modes of reasoning in a time of environmental crisis (Robin & Rose 2004: Online). It also recognises that many nonhumans who are worthy of ethical attention lack bodies, or lack bodies which are visible and recognisable to humans, such as the microscopic, often non-individuated, organisms which comprise the earth’s soils. Essential to an ethics of entanglement is a multispecies understanding of place that fosters understandings of the self as constituted, nourished and sustained by a community of what ecological feminist Val Plumwood termed our “earth Others” (2002).

In this paper I focus on two “unloved Others” – the European rabbit in Australia and the tick - in an attempt to explore the possibilities of an ethics of entanglement directed toward nonhuman life in the era of the Anthropocene. “Unloved Others” was the title of an edition of the ecological humanities journal which sought to include invisible or detested nonhumans within the borders of moral considerability (2011). Here I use the notion of the Anthropocene as a prompt into a similarly grounded inclusive ethics based on a visceral awareness of multispecies environments. To develop the organism-plus-environment model of ethics and behaviour I apply Jacob von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelten and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of Flesh. Both of these concepts link lives to worlds by developing unique conception of what a body means, and what constitutes the organism-in-its-environment, reminding us that encounter with an Earth Other is not encounter with the body per se, but with the life process as it is materialised in the body.

Entanglement in the Anthropocene

The period of the Anthropocene designates an era where human behaviour is disrupting the stability of the earth, the oceans, the atmosphere, and humans have become active agents on a geological time-scale. From a nature-cultures perspective, which rejects the arbitrary divisions of human and nonhuman worlds, this creased inter-becoming is hardly surprising. Humans and nonhumans are “always in it together, strange or not so strange collectives of things in the world” (Muecke 2006: Online).

However, the designation of a new era - the Anthropocene – implies a radically new epoch of entanglements, brought about by the crossing of critical thresholds which is threatening the ecological stability of the planet. In this unique formulation, entanglement appears as a threat to environmental health, implying that ecological balance is a result of disconnection between flesh and earth.

Ben Dibley observes that common philosophical responses to the emergence of the era of the Anthropocene preserve the distinctions between Society and Nature. He writes (2012: Online):

The Anthropocene is an ambivalent formulation. It at once announces a new epoch and a new geological agent which would make any distinction between nature and society untenable; and yet it also retains nostalgia for that very distinction… The Anthropocene supplies a vivid presentation of the entanglements – of the naturecultures, of the global hybrids – that are climate change, soil modification, ocean acidification and so on. Yet it is a formulation that would seem to be shadowed by a longing for that which its emergence signals is lost: Man and Nature.

This is a type of nostalgic Latourian purification which supports an illusory separation of nature from culture (Latour, 2001). Such a delusion denies that we live, and have always lived, in interdependent relationships on and with the planet. The dominant discourse of climate change implies that the impact of the human on atmospheric systems is recent, for example, but Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan remind us that the atmospheric conditions of the earth have never been separate from the actions of earth creatures. The atmosphere is relational, composed of and by Earth’s inhabitants. Margulis and Sagan (2000: 20) explain:

If Earth’s biosphere were not made of carbon-dioxide-consuming beings (plants, algae, and photosynthetic and methane-producing bacteria, among myriad other life forms), our atmosphere would long ago have reached carbon-dioxide rich chemical stability and virtually every molecule capable of reacting with another molecule would already have reacted. Instead, the combined activities of autopoietic surface life have led to an atmosphere in which oxygen has been maintained at levels of about 20 per cent for at least 700 million years.

In a time of climate change it is tempting to characterise human entanglement with atmospheric conditions in parasitic terms as humans undermine the viability of life on earth. Yet human entanglement with the nonhuman world is neither entirely malignant or benign – it simply is. Responding ethically and responsibly from this entangled position demands an acceptance of entanglement without idealisation or despair. The era of the Anthropocene does not signal the ‘End of Nature’ (McKibben, 2006), but alerts us to our responsibility in a multispecies world which thrives on connection. As Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis observe, ‘Life is a network of cross-kingdom alliances’ (2000: 191).

The Unloved Rabbit

In Australia the European rabbit is a much maligned pest. Public attitudes to the rabbit are influenced by an ecological-nationalist narrative which implicates the rabbit in the colonisation of Indigenous Australia. American historian Alfred Crosby has made the persuasive argument that the invasion of Australia, and other “neo-European” countries, was, necessarily, more-than-human. In his work, Ecological Imperialism, Crosby charts the historical partnership between human European colonisers in Indigenous lands and the “grunting, lowing, neighing, crowing, chirping, snarling, buzzing, self-replicating and world-altering avalanche” (2004: 194) of introduced life that they brought with them.

With this kind of “guilt by association” rabbits now signify a wound of colonisation which has spread across and infected indigenous country. Jay Arthur observes that the rabbits’ impact on the country is described using a vocabulary of contamination: ‘It is a “menace”, a “problem”, an “infestation”, a “nuisance”, a “plague”’ (2003: 170). In this discourse rabbit burrows appear as scars on a pristine native environment. These burrows are often sites of inter-species violence, where humans attack and kill rabbits. Explosives and machinery collapse the burrows, or poison gas floats through the underground tunnel system, as humans pursue a redemptive violence against the rabbit species come to symbolise the failures of colonisation.

Rabbits in Australia have been subject to a wide range of eradication measures over the past century including shooting, the destruction of burrows, poisoning, ferreting, trapping, and the well-known rabbit proof fence in Western Australia. Particularly noteworthy in this slaughter has been the introduction of biological control measures with the release of the savage and painful disease Myxomatosis in late December 1950, followed by the release of the Calicivirus (Rabbit Haemorrhage Disease, or RHD) in 1996. As recently as March 2012 the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries announced a 1.5 million dollar program called “RHD Boost” which is attempting to develop a more effective biological control agent for rabbits who have become immune to the Calicivirus (2012).

The biological control measures that rabbits have been subjected to align with Michel Foucault’s definition of bio-power as a form of power over the living that “focuses on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes” (1990: 139). Bio-power brings the body under the control of the polis, making it “possible both to protect life and to authorise a holocaust” (Foucault, cited in Agamben 1995: 3). Foucault suggests that the modern sovereign does not so much exercise “the ancient right to take life or let live,” but is instead synonymous with a “power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (1990: 138).

Giorgio Agamben argues that bio-power necessarily excludes certain bodies from the polis, and therefore is always producing “bare life” which is life that “may be killed and yet not sacrificed,” (1995: 8) life that can be destroyed without it constituting murder (Agamben 1995: 159). Recently scholars have noted the strong links between bio-power exercised over bare life and the present condition of animals (Chrulew 2011, Wadiwel 2012). Dinesh Wadiwel observes that “[t]he concept of bare life, which refers to life that is held within the grasp of the legitimised violence of the sovereign, is directly applicable to the life of the animal, particularly that life which is subject to biological control which is directed towards power” (Wadiwel 2012: Online). Wadiwel explains that the modern sovereign state takes control not only of human life, but all life, including plants and animals. Laws are in place to protect certain, precious lives, such as the life of native animals; to regulate and survey particular species, such as kangaroos and dingos; and to extinguish life en masse, such as rabbits and cane toads (Wadiwel 2012: Online).

In her analysis of the accidental release of the Calicivirus in 1996, Catharina Landström observes that the perceived success of the biological agent relied on the generation of a narrative in which the rabbit species presents such a threat to the environment that the bio-political interventions of technoscience are justified. Landström notes that CSIRO communication with the public in the mid-90s disseminated ‘stories about the importance, benevolence and efficacy of the virus’ (2001: 143).

The perverse irony of the calicivirus “running wild,” after an organisation has released a foreign organism into the environment and lost control of it, highlights that rabbit culling is part of the ongoing colonisation of the nonhuman world. The bio-power that the rabbit body is subject to also involves the manipulation of the microbial organisms of the virus.

This redemptive violence of rabbit culling is supported by the reduction of the life of the rabbit to its body, and the problematic behaviour of the species. This kind of species reductionism is part of an individual-effacing rhetoric where species designation is more important than the life of the individual. Yet, every single rabbit is an individual being with its own unique life. To deny this is tantamount to claiming that each rabbit that dies from shooting or poisoning is the same rabbit dying again and again.

Eduardo Kohn observes that humans tend to think that the only thing they have in common with nonhuman animals is a corporeal body, but reminds us that ‘[l]ives are more than bodies’ (2007: 16). A rabbit’s selfhood derives not just from its embodied form, its genetic make-up or DNA code, but also from its unique experience of the world, and its connection to a multispecies environment.

I contend that the rabbit burrow is approached as the site of vermin because Australia’s eco-nationalist politics extract the rabbit from its life-world, treating it as an alien body which infects the country like a virus. Its life is understood in terms of impacts, rather than relational connections. While the burrow alerts us to the presence of a rabbit body, that body is conceptually removed from its affective ties to a shared world. This means that the body is effectively already dead – a target of “speciocide” (Mazis 2008: 76).

To combat the violence of “killing for conservation” ethologist Marc Bekoff proposes an ethic of ‘compassionate conservation.’ Bekoff opposes the ‘numbers game’ of species thinking where certain taxonomies are valued above others, and instead argues that ethically grounded conservation must ‘respect all life; treat individuals with respect and dignity; and tread lightly when stepping into the lives of animals’ (2010: 24).

There is no denying that rabbits have caused immense damage to Australian environments, but it is important to acknowledge that damage in a way that does not reduce the rabbit to a point where it lacks moral considerability. By classifying rabbit lives as “inappropriate,” and therefore expendable, the process of slaughter is simply too easy. The idea that the rabbit should disappear from Australian environments is disturbing in its abstract approach to these living, sentient creatures who share with us both place and history.

An ethics of entanglement would approach the rabbit not as an isolated contaminant body, but as a body immersed in place. From this premise, the rabbit burrow could be encountered not only as a site of damage to a native environment, but as an invitation into a rabbit world - an enticing corridor into multispecies empathy.

Down the Rabbit Burrow

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a deep well.

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When Lewis Carroll’s Alice follows a white rabbit into its burrow, she falls deeply into another world. Alice falls down, down, down, into the unknowable depths of a subterranean wonderland, filled with strange creatures, twisted physical laws, and new ways of being in the world. Is it possible to take a similar journey in a non-fiction world? Can we enter the lives of others by following the paths they leave on the surface of our shared environments?

Having spent my childhood in rural New South Wales, I have grown up with rabbit burrows as familiar features of the landscape – surface traces of rabbit lives. As a child these burrows provoked my sustained curiosity. I would peer into them, and as I walked over them I was intensely aware of a rich subterranean world buzzing beneath my feet. I imagined rabbits conversing in long twisting underground corridors, looking up when they heard the echo of my gumboots on their rooves. Thinking about the rabbit burrow from the perspective of an organism-plus-environment ethics makes sense of how rabbit lives are folded into land.

Nineteenth century biologist Jacob von Uexküll used the term Umwelt to describe the way organism and environment form a whole system. Each organism has its own Umwelt which is its meaningful environment. Each Umwelt is determined by the perceptions of the animal and “Every object becomes something completely different on entering a different Umwelt” (Buchanan 2008: 108). Uexküll offers the example of a flower stem which, in a human Umwelt, is support for the flower, for the spittle bug is a pipe full of liquid, for the ant it is an upward path connecting nest and hunting ground, and for the cow, it is food (Buchanan 2008: 108).

Von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelten is deeply relational. It asserts that the experience of environments is impossible to grasp outside of what they mean to particular individuals. A flower cannot be food for an ant as much as it cannot be a path for a cow. Von Uexküll's concept of Umwelt provided a way of understanding how beings construct subjective worlds and are intertwined with their environments to such an extent that in order to understand an animal we must understand its relationship with its milieu. He emphasises worlds over bodies.

In her essay, “Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom”, Anna Tsing calls up a subterranean world of fungi in promotion of an immersive connection to the lives of nonhuman Others. Evoking the sensuous affectivity of a mushroom’s world, Tsing awakens human experience to an unfamiliar earthly terrain. “Reach down and smell a clot of forest earth”, Tsing instructs readers, “it smells like the underground city of fungi” (Tsing 2011: 5). To experience the way of the mushroom is to be attuned to another world. The layering of human and rabbit Umwelten which I experienced as a child enabled me to sense the affective experience of the rabbit in an anthropocentric world. Rabbit burrows intensify the inter-corporeal connections between human and rabbit, decolonising humanised space.

The overlapping of my world and the rabbit world through holes in the Earth reveals the connected and enmeshed embodiment that human and nonhuman share. Glenn Mazis defines embodiment as being “interwoven with a surround”, and, following Merleau-Ponty, the body of both the human and nonhuman animal as a way into the world (Mazis 2008: 70).

The rabbit resonates through the burrow into a human world; its own experience of the burrow is an echo or reverberation in our own perception (Mazis 2008: 75). Glenn Mazis observes that the body that is open to the world is also open to the affective life-world of the Other, that “within our own embodiment is a sense of others’ bonds with the world, both human and animal” (2008: 77).

The encounter with the rabbit burrow does not merely constitute an encounter with the rabbit-in-its-environment, but with a multispecies place sustained by a community of heterogeneous lives. The awareness of the many Earth Others which compose environments is at the heart of an ethics of entanglement.

Environmental philosopher Mick Smith has attempted to extend the borders of phenomenological encounter by drawing on notions of ecological connectivity. Given that many of our ethical frameworks rely on the bodily manifestation and visibility of the Other, Smith questions our ethical engagement with ‘those beings that pass us by unnoticed… that are invisible to the naked eye, or even those whose existence… we are not even aware of?’ (2011: 25) For Smith the answer lies in the ability to extend ethics beyond the body and out into the shared multispecies world. Because we live in a richly vascularised environment, intimately connected many others we will never meet, it is possible to use understandings of this connection to fuel an engaged ethical response that is neither abstract nor reliant on visibility. This is an ethics of entanglement which responds to all the beings which inhabit and nourish a multispecies environment.

Merleau-Ponty and the Flesh of the World

Maurice Merleau-Ponty built on von Uexküll’s work to describe the way organisms are interlaced with their surrounds. He used the term “Flesh” to describe the open and permeable embodiment that allows us to make contact with others and with the world. For Merleau-Ponty, the boundaries of the living body are like membranes that open possibilities for metamorphosis and exchange (Abram 1996: 46). The body in this sense is an “open circuit” that is complete only in contact with others and with the earth, with the world, with things, with animals, with other bodies” (Abram 1996: 46).

By “Flesh”, Merleau-Ponty is referring to both the flesh of the body and the flesh of the world. He writes (1968: 248):

[M]y body is made of the same flesh as world… and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroached upon the world.

Flesh is not skin, but an extra dimension to the elements of life on earth. Flesh “is the element that makes being possible” (Buchanan 2008: 140). Glen Mazis applies Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of Flesh to help understand the cause of speciocide. He argues that processes of anthropodenial, like the denial of the lived experience of rabbits, detach human beings from the flesh of the world. Mazis writes “If we are part of the flesh of the world, then our interconnection with other species is part of the depth of our perception” (Mazis 2008: 75), and “anthropodenial” ( De Waal, 1997), the cutting off of interspecies ties which reverberate with us” (Mazis 2008: 77) detaches us from our emplacement in a multispecies world.

A rabbit-burrowing

Merleau-Ponty “conceives of the body not as a thing, substance, or essence, but as an unfolding relation to an Umwelt through the phenomenon of behaviour” (Buchanan 2008: 115). Behaviour is very important in Merleau-Ponty’s thought because he believes that behaviour reveals the key to an animal’s manner of being, and so he focuses on process and action – on the act of burrowing, rather than the rabbit body, for example. Burrowing is a kind of activity that “acts as a cohesive bond between the organism and its Umwelt” (Buchanan 2008: 134). A rabbit burrow is made by the rabbit, but then determines the rabbit’s movements. “The Umwelt is the world implied by the movement of the animal, and that regulates the animal’s movements by its own structure” (Merleau-Ponty cited in Buchanan 2008: 134). This burrow is not passive, but rather composed of living soil which is home to an underground community of microorganisms which nourish the soil and transform it into nourishment for others.

The rabbit, the burrow, the soil, the multispecies community in place, all combine, and the rabbit-burrowing connects flesh to earth through movement and action. For Merleau-Ponty, movement is the principle means for “how we understand the animal and the world as a cohesive structure” (Buchanan 2008: 134). He writes (2002: 320):

If we want to take the phenomenon of movement seriously, we shall need to conceive a world which is not made up only of things, but which has in it also pure transitions… For example, the bird which flies across my garden is, during the time that it is moving, merely a greyish power of flight and, generally speaking, we shall see that things are defined primarily in terms of their “behaviour” and not in terms of their static “properties.”

What Merleau-Ponty describes here is the importance of recognising ways of becoming in the world over the properties of any particular body or organism. This is a relational focus on genre, rather than gene, where an organism’s interaction with its environment defines it. Brett Buchanan (2008: 135) explains:

The bird-in-flight encounters scurrying-brown-mouse. The oily-otter-swimming emerges from the water to become slow-basking-otter. In each case, the animal-environment is transformed and takes on new meaning.

The grey-rabbit-burrowing becomes the tired-rabbit-resting, but the burrow remains, evidence of an Umwelt that stays on the surface of a shared world. This burrow is more than a site of conflict or a structure that gives away the rabbit’s location - it is an invitation into another way of being, another world.

Conceiving of the rabbit burrow as an extension of the rabbit life and a site of multispecies connection shifts ethics from a focus on the discrete body into a focus on a relational world of behaviour and interaction. Connectivity becomes more important than the boundaries of fur or skin. While the body has integrity, skin breathes, and the borders between self and world are shifting and permeable. The body is also a world for others.

The Unloved Tick

The permeability of the body to the world and its inhabitants is exemplified by the tick. A tick feeds on human and other mammalian blood, and lives in the flesh of animals which it requires for basic survival and reproduction. Von Uexküll outlined the life of a tick to demonstrate an understanding of Umwelten at its most basic level. He describes how the blind and deaf tick can only perceive odours. Its affective life world is dominated by the sense of butyric excreted by potential hosts. Merleau-Ponty describes the way the tick responds to the scent of the mammal who will become its home as it “settles in and nourishes itself on warm blood” (2003: 174). In response to the presence of warm blood semen is ejected from the tick’s capsule and the egg of the animal inseminated. In the complex network of tick and its milieu the organism and environment are inseparable.

In a compelling article “Blood Intimacies and Biodicy: Keeping Faith with Ticks”, philosopher James Hatley (2011) explores how we may develop ethical concern for the tick, and include this co-evolved parasite in a respectful moral code of life on Earth. For Hatley the answer lies in recognising the coevolution and connectivity of Earth life. Ticks, he reminds us, are kin, however unlovable they may be.

Hatley develops a deeply personal version of an ethics of entanglement as he recognises his skin and blood as “an external appendage of the tick’s own body, unwilling but still necessary organs in carrying out the tick’s reproductive processes” (2011: Online). This embodied empathy recognises the human body as the tick’s world. In the tick’s Umwelt, Hatley’s flesh is tick. Here, the shared world of human and nonhuman becomes, literally, a shared self. This is a kind of “corporeal generosity” that Rosalyn Diprose writes of, where bodies are “opened to others, rather than being distinct” (2002: 69). In this unwilling entanglement of tick and flesh, anthropodenial is useless. No matter how we look at it, humans are participants in the tick’s reproductive cycle, mothers to tick progeny (Hatley 2011: Online).

The connectivity of life on Earth is imminent and tangible when a mammalian, often human, body becomes a habitat and therefore an essential part of another being. The tick embeds itself in human lives, spreading life threatening diseases through the bodies it requires to procreate and survive. This abject life form reminds us that entanglement is not always benign, or worthy of celebration. Here we are entangled with a nonhuman being whose life depends on sucking our blood, and whose world is dominated by the smell of a fresh victim.

Stephen Muecke’s insightful article about his son’s allergic reactions to dust-mites offers a natureculture perspective to radical entanglement and the permeability of the human body. Muecke observes that his son Sebastian “is himself a collective of beings living in relation to collectivities of things” (2009: 201). Humans are, like all earth life, composite confederations of heterogeneous life forms. Donna Haraway reminds us that “human gut tissue cannot develop normally without colonization by its bacterial flora… [a]ll stages of the life histories of evolving animals had to adapt to eager bacteria colonizing them inside and out” (2003: 32). And not all entanglements are mutualistic. Muecke observes that while some of Sebastian’s entanglements “make him flourish… others make him sick” (2009: 201). The dust mite, like the tick, reminds us that entanglement is a deeply ambivalent condition.


At a time of climate change, the era of the Anthropocene alerts us to the dangers of entanglement, but particularly to the dangers of not acting responsibly from within entangled systems. The ethics of entanglement I have promoted here attempts to address negligence and ignorance of the human place in Earth systems which has been supported by centuries of human exceptionalism and the illusion that bodies are separate from worlds. As a challenge to narratives which represent bodies as unloved and parasitic, the organism-plus-environment mode of thinking reminds us of the limitations of the body as a primary ethical subject, and the importance of recognising our ultimate permeability to an environment which we are composed of and which we constitute. As Karen Barad (2007: 393) observes, we

are always already responsible to the others with whom or which we are entangled, not through conscious intent, but through the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails… Ethics is therefore not about right response to a radically exterior/ized other, but about responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part.

It is tempting, when observing the patterns and connections of cross-kingdom alliances, to celebrate the connectivity of life on earth as a vibrant and multispecies dance of love and life. It is also tempting, when seeing ice-caps melt and communities threatened by rising sea levels, to deplore the entanglements between humans, their industrial societies, and the atmosphere which now threaten the kingdoms of life. Somewhere between these two extremes is an ethics based in commitment and connectivity, which takes joy in the mutualistic engagements between species, but balances this delight with the responsible awareness that no action is without consequence when one is never entirely alone.


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