I’ll be the first to admit that, on first read, the Green New Deal — that hefty package of legislations designed to tackle global warming — comes off as utopian. “Our charge is about saving the planet,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded us, “[The Green New Deal is] kind of…a broader agenda.”
One part of the deal is by no means controversial, it includes all the obvious hallmarks of an environmental legislation: calling for more energy efficiency, smarter grids, and investing in renewable energy sources. But why, we might wonder, do we include reforms in public ownership, indigenous sovereignty and economic equality too? These are “all good values,” as Pelosi says, but is this the time to insist on solving all the world’s problems in one fell swoop?
Most of us will see Pelosi, and others like her, as the counterpoint to proponents of the Green New Deal, or in other words, as the “realists, pragmatists, or rationalists,” opposite the utopians. In broad strokes, these rationalists acknowledge global warming as the paramount threat of this generation (a good start), but they reason from this fact that we can — and should — put aside our (necessary) differences on other issues to unite against this existential threat common to all. Save the world first, they’ll preach; our society comes later.
What belies this rational front, however, is a pernicious naiveté with respect to how the world actually works.
How do you support divestment without understanding that continued invasion of indigenous land is what enables fossil fuel extraction in the first place? How do you tackle the fossil fuel industry while ignoring the political-economic system that keeps it afloat, a system that will just as easily pivot to an exploitative and damaging lithium industry should the need arise? What does it even mean to make the world liveable and sustainable if liveability and sustainability are defined to the exclusion of certain people, let alone species?
Having revealed my hand, let me now reverse the question often directed at us utopians. Tell me, how do you solve this one problem without tackling all the others? That is like trying to make tea without boiling water.
If utopianism entails an unrealistic belief in a perfect world, then the “rationalists” have us beat. In their fantasies, causes and effects are disentangled, problems are neatly apportioned in disassociated chunks, and all we need to do is work through them one by one like your middle-school math homework. We can save the world without really changing it. How convenient!
So, if we’re all going to be utopians anyways, why settle?
I’m not sure where the idea that we have exclusive access to our “true” selves came from (maybe Descartes’ whole thing with “I think, therefore I am?”), but it certainly seems to have stuck. Of course, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the psychologists have known, for a long time, about how our biases affect how we construct our own identities. Still, these biases apply just as well to anyone else, so they do not challenge the idea that there is some special relation we have to ourselves that others do not.
This idea is what makes first-person novels so interesting to me, because these novels, implicitly or otherwise, take on a different authority. While the first-person perspective has been historically used to motivate an unreliable narrator, thus rendering a separation between the speaker and the so-called objective world, the subjective aspects of the novel, that is, the desires, intentions, beliefs, and motivations of the first-person protagonist cannot be questioned. These things are incorrigible, to put it in philosophical jargon, i.e. you cannot be wrong about your own desires, intentions, beliefs, and motivations.
In the novel No Longer Human, the protagonist Oba Yozo believes that he is not human. Whatever he may be, it is a matter of fact that he believes he is not human. He cannot relate to the humans that surround him. That much cannot be questioned. He pretends to be farcical, likable, but he is not really so. That cannot be questioned either. Or so the story goes.
Though the book was initially written in 1948 (the English translation being released 10 years later), its themes still resonate today, perhaps more than ever. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the concept of “intention” and “belief” have been thrust into the spotlight of our mainstream political discourse. It seems everywhere we turn, there is some discussion about someone’s intentions behind their actions, but more than that, there is an unhealthy emphasis being placed solely on one’s intentions. It is our intentions that define us, that condemns or acquits us from moral wrongdoing. How many comedians have we seen that apologize by stating their wholly innocent “intentions?”
What I find remarkable about Dazai’s novel is that the book spends almost all of its time building up this character Oba as solely a performer, someone whose intentions run contrary to his actions, someone who has spent his life, in essence, “faking it.” And what is worse than a pretender? We hate them, right?
But to say this is to say assent to the idea that we do have some special, exclusive access to our true nature. In some way, we know ourselves better than anyone else. So here, we must ask, why? Our relationship to ourselves is just another one of many relationships; is there any a priori reason to think this has to be different? Yes, we may have access to certain parts of ourselves, but so do others. Just as only we can truly know how we feel, only others can truly know how they feel about the actions we take, only others can know how our actions affect them. And is that not a form of knowledge they have about us, that we do not? If so, why think that is any less “special” than the kind of knowledge we have about ourselves?
In the prologue of the novel, Dazai does exactly this, where a character pronounces this: “The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing and if only he hadn’t drunk — no even though he did drink — he was a good boy, an angel.” In a seemingly abrupt ending, Dazai declares that no, Oba was wrong, he was human, if only he knew himself better.
A few years back, there was what seemed to me a sudden spike in the number of articles on the ethics of self-driving cars, and perhaps for good reason. Machine learning was really hitting its stride, the (Western, technocratic) world was excited, and as with all novel technologies, critics came to temper our enthusiasm. The main idea behind these articles was this: how should we program the car to approach ethical dilemmas? Should it protect the driver? Apply a utilitarian principle? A deontological one? The normative ethicists are finally getting their time in the spotlight.
The reason (or at least one reason) we might care is that we want to know where the responsibility lies. But it seems in all these discussions, one option does not really get taken seriously: that the car itself is responsible.
Controversial, maybe, but here’s what I mean. Obviously, it does not mean that we throw a Tesla in jail on bail and wait for the court dates. But like a good criminologist who does not ask whether a criminal is morally responsible for their criminal actions so much as what factors drive the individual to commit these actions, so too, we should ask the same of the self-driving car. In other words, we ought to ask how and why the car was put in the situation in which it had to make these moral decisions.
Instead of assuming that these moral decisions come up inevitably, we should challenge their existence. Do self-driving cars necessitate a re-structuring of our city-scape, forcing us to rethink the concept of roads and sidewalks, or more generally how our pedestrian lives are entangled with our driving lives? Or for that matter, is self-driving technology best suited for private vehicles? Can it not be implemented into a better public transit system? Would this latter possibility not mitigate many of the risks associated with self-driving vehicles?
(Let’s not even get started on a class analysis of the ethics of self-driving vehicles, which is grossly absent from the articles I have read on mainstream news outlets. Suffice to say the people at risk in these real-life trolley problems are mostly going to be devoid of the rich.)
My point here isn’t really to advocate for any of these restructuring agendas (though I am a fervent supporter of investment in better public transportation), I am far from qualified. What I want to do is expose some assumptions about our ethical discussions on self-driving vehicles, and how these assumptions subtly reinforce a particular vision of the world as natural, and thus, unchangeable. The world is not. And, to make my point clear, maybe we should ask, why do we even want self-driving cars in our lives anyways?
Now, I have been speaking of self-driving cars as a future event, something that has begun to creep into our lives, but still remains far enough for us to “figure it out” before it shows up in full. But really, the fundamental problems I have with our discourse on self-driving cars is nothing new. It is not, as many writers make it seem, a unique problem posed to us by a radically new form of technology, i.e. machine learning/artificial intelligence. The technology may be new, I guess, but all technology alters the way we interact with each other and the world. The dearth of imagination in our discussion of the ethics of self-driving cars, however, represents a failure that is just as present in our discussions of business ethics.
If anything, corporations are forms of artificial intelligence. They operate with a certain telic logic (without being reducible to simple binary operations) that we might, if we expand our definition a little, even call intelligence, and this intelligence is no less artificial than that of a computer chip. In fact, we’ve begun to treat corporations as sentient beings, capable of intent. Just take a look at the whole fast food twitter thing happening a while back.
The psychologists among us might point and cry “that’s just projection! Of course we all know they don’t really think!” And most of us will concede the point (I will too for now, as there isn’t enough room to get into a debate on the philosophy of mind). Yeah, corporations, like self-driving cars, don’t really think or even act. They are not moral agents, so we cannot rethink their place in the world. And like self-driving cars, the result is that we look elsewhere for moral responsibility, which of course, means the focus is shifted back onto the human.
As ethicists, we can only ever ask whether the people who work for corporations are morally responsible for unethical behavior by these same corporations. As individuals, we can only ever hope to act as ethically as we can within the confines of our roles in these corporations. In both cases, the lines have been drawn. The existence of corporations itself cannot be understood morally, or so they say. No, we do not need to ask whether corporations really need to exist, especially if our concern is living in a more ethical world. We take them as a given, and proceed from there. But why?
For so long, artificial intelligence has captured our collective imaginations. In our college dorms, we might ask ourselves whether our technologies may overtake us, drawing on our extensive knowledge of popular science-fiction like The Matrix or the Terminator franchise. We might ask whether we have the power to unplug our own creations. Well, it looks like the problem isn’t whether we are able to unplug or not, but whether we even know what it is that needs unplugging. Our current situation suggests that, no, we do not.
It’s weird, because we have so little trouble casting humans out of our world. The United States is particularly egregious in this matter. We throw them in prisons, mental asylums, deport them, murder them. It is so easy for us to tell someone, your existence threatens my world, so you are no longer welcome. Yet we never truly think to do the same with corporations or cars, even when we believe they do not have feelings and cannot suffer, which, if anything, ought to make it so much easier to say goodbye.
The Midnight Gospel was a confusing and conflicted watch for me. Up until the sixth episode, the show presented itself as basically an anthology series featuring semi-related vignettes, in which our protagonist Clancy visits differentiated simulated worlds and interviews a character for his “spacecast,” a podcast for, I guess, space.
Just from the premise alone, this was my type of show, and there was a lot to like about the first five episodes. While the different philosophies espoused by characters of the show can seem quite surface level at times, the show itself doesn’t seem to hide it. It is called The Midnight Gospel after all, a nod, perhaps, to the weird cosmic detours conversations can turn once midnight hits and you find yourself awake with a companion.
But between these free-flowing conversations, you could glean a central philosophy underlying it, a philosophy that works to give it that Linklater-esque conversational momentum. As with much of Pembleton’s work, the dialogue is more a gushing than an exchange, with characters building on, rather than acting against each other. Even the visuals, with characters never stopping for too long in space or composition, subtly enhances this movement. Go with the flow, the show seems to be saying.
There is something I found utterly refreshing about this. Adventure Time displays the same unceasing movement over its runtime, true (Finn, the show’s protagonist, for example, actually ages, unlike most children’s shows), but it is in The Midnight Gospel that this movement becomes the central focus.
Movement, as it turns out, happens to be the antithesis of modern mainstream philosophy, in the sense that philosophy is primarily about rigorous deliberation (sometimes for deliberation’s sake). It is about finding everything wrong with an idea, with either the hope of fixing it or moving on to a different one. Mainstream philosophy wants to, must, stop at every turn. The Midnight Gospel is not interested in that, instead, it goes, “well, hey, that’s interesting, where can we go with that?”
Clancy, in their role as an interviewer, then, acts as a particular type of philosophical interlocutor, in the same way Socrates acts as one in Plato’s writings. But rather than finding flaws (as Socrates does so well), Clancy “goes with the flow.” He pokes and prods at times, to be sure, but does that not to stop the movement but to continue it, not to problematize but to clarify and expand. It is a form of philosophical generosity that is quite rare, I find. It is a show that does not fight back with our pre-given assumptions but takes radical ideas in stride.
Still, there is also an ever-present worry, that despite how much I enjoyed the show (at least until episode 6), I could not fully shake. And unfortunately, the problems I do have with the first half of the show comes part and parcel with what I loved about it.
You see, “go with the flow” is a great philosophy when contrasted with the sort of oppressive, un-moving quality of mainstream philosophy in which nothing happens, it also births another sort of oppressive form of philosophy in which many things happen, but nothing matters. It is philosophy as epiphenomena. All the characters move, yes, but there is no destination.
In the fifth episode, this message is honed in. Clancy arrives at a prison and converses with a bird while watching an inmate repeatedly die. Here, the show gives us conflicting messages. On the one hand, it says “everything is connected,” and on the other hand, it tells us to accept the world as it is, that there are some things you can control and some things you can’t, which is to say some things just happen, they are random. But if everything is connected, how can anything be random? If randomness means something’s being is not determined by anything else, then isn’t randomness just a form of ultimate dis-connect?
The fifth episode inadvertently sums up the show so far. As much as things do happen on screen-time, and as crazy or radical as they may be, they are ostensibly random. They don’t mean anything. How we see it, well, that’s for us to figure it out. All we can do is take it in stride. Go with the flow, so to speak, but never change it.
Even the premise of the show itself subtly reinforces this point. Clancy goes into a simulator. It isn’t real. Clancy makes a spacecast, which blasts out to only one person. His actions, in this sense, aren’t real either. They are inconsequential. Nothing really matters in the show, not even within the world of the show. Like mainstream liberalism, everything is lip service, nothing is real. So, at this point, I thought I had a good idea of my thoughts about the show. Then, episode six came around.
Actually, the stage was set well before episode six. If I had been watching more closely, as I did on my second run through, I would’ve noticed that things did matter, as much as I was led to believe they didn’t. The throw-away lines of the simulator’s nagging, the sister who Clancy owes money to, and the random items that pop back with Clancy are actually central to the point.
Clancy, you see, has been hopping into the simulator to avoid responsibility, a.k.a to avoid the “real world.” This completely re-contextualizes the “go with the flow” philosophy that has been implicit so far, and reveals it to be less a form of engagement and more a form of avoidance, of negligence. At once, the show moves from being utterly inconsequential, with nothing to say, into one of the most incisive critiques of mainstream liberalism, whose hallmark is precisely that it manages to both welcome all forms of civil discourse and ignore them; discourse, in our liberal society like in Clancy’s simulations, becomes epiphenomenal, at best negligible, and at worst actively undermining real change (for more on this point, see Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies).
But just as soon as this interpretation had taken hold, the show pivots two more times, once at the end of episode six, and another at the start of episode seven. At the end of the sixth episode, Clancy had overcome his avoidance of responsibility and becomes enlightened. Of course, I found this quite problematic, since certain strands of Buddhism were known for their denunciation of the self, and if there is no self, how can the self hold the property of being enlightened? To be clear, this was not just a misreading of Buddhist philosophy, it directly undermined its criticism of liberalism, since to retreat back into a state of mindless meditation (it must be stressed that many Buddhist mindfulness practices were never divorced from politics) is to reassert the ostensible message of the first five episodes. However, episode seven reverses its message once again, and claims that, actually, Clancy was wrong to believe he was enlightened. “That was embarrassing,” Clancy admits to his simulator.
At this point, I was ready to give up. I enjoyed the show (I mean, the last episode genuinely made me cry), and maybe that was all it needed to be. I didn’t know how to analyze it, anyways. It seemed all over the place. But re-watching it that second time, one line in particular stood out. It happened at the end of episode seven, and in it, Clancy goes, “Even though your life is out of tune, you can still sing along with it.” I doubt this is some sort of meta-commentary on the show itself, but it works nonetheless.
The Midnight Gospel is not a perfect show, and mostly because no show can ever be perfect. But it is a show that is, at times, beautifully out of tune. It is a show that, intentionally or not, strikes at the core inconsistencies in my own life, and my own philosophies (perhaps all of ours). It is, really, fundamentally about a person trying to understand, to come to terms, with their world, without always having all the right tools to do so, and without ever knowing whether they might come to have such tools. This isn’t to say the show advocates some mindless intellectual modesty; quite the opposite. The show tries to grapple with big questions, tries so so hard, and sometimes even comes close (episode seven, for me, comes the closest), but it ultimately falls short. The limits of its creators, and perhaps the format of a Netflix show that must appeal to audiences, are on full display. Still, in its mess of inconsistencies, inconsistencies that I, too, have always and will forever be guilty of, what can we do but keep moving? Isn’t that what I’m doing? I mean, this blog post itself is not entirely off the hook: I criticize the combative stance of mainstream analytic philosophy but also take my time to complain about the cowardly and not altogether honest tolerance of liberalism. So what is it? What am I saying? Who knows? And yet, here I am, publishing this unfinished, inconsistent, honestly kind of lackluster piece of writing. Well, the flow, whatever it is, carries us all.
In the slew of celebrity self-help videos, in which they “help” us through this corona-virus pandemic together, it may be tempting to make fun of the fact that, firstly, no one buys it, secondly, yeah I bet everything’s fine in your secluded mansion, and thirdly, why do all your houses look the same anyways?
I won’t recount the exact history of this FLW-style modernist design, but it’s worth asking, I think, how these modernist buildings came to symbolize a certain modernist form of power, especially, if you’ll notice, given the liberal use of glass. These brittle boxes are a far cry from the medieval castles from our collective imagination, whose brutal strength was demonstrated quite literally in their harsh, stony builds. Castles radiate their power; their strength was physical.
Of course, this sort of brutalist design is not limited to some mythical and romantic pre-modernity; they exist in plenty of government buildings and military facilities to this day. And yet, it seems that at least with respect to the economic elites, your celebrity homes and financial districts and gentrified downtown neighborhoods have a certain fetishism for glass. Bullet-proof glass in some cases perhaps, but glass nonetheless.
There are two quite simple suggestions here. From the inside, glass represents freedom. It opens the enclosure to the world without losing its inherent exclusivity. You can be outdoors indoors. In this sense, nature is thoroughly conquered, the aim of modernity finally achieved. To take all that one can get without giving any back. So this is one suggestion. Conversely, from the perspective of those on the outside, what is inside the glass takes on a commodified existence. The glassy exterior mirrors the storefront. The plastic hetero-normative family or the buzzing life of a Wall Street banker, it doesn’t matter. You can have it too, the glass says. They might as well be mannequins. All is for sale, if only you could pay.
But there is something more here, something even more pernicious. It may seem weird to phrase it this way, but in a sense, glass is parasitic. What I mean here is that its aesthetics is derived, at least in part, from its background, its context. Of course, the aesthetics of anything cannot be totally isolated, but glass is different. It holds minimal aesthetic appeal, if any, by itself. It exists only in complementation. A window looking only into pure darkness is, after all, no window at all.
Bong Joon Ho’s recent Parasite is a great example of this in action. Take the two central window-images of the film, the window from the Kim family’s semi-basement and the cinematic backyard facing one from the Park family’s modernist home.
One looks over a landscaped backyard, while the other into a grimy alley, whose meager view is further obstructed by prison-like bars. Both windows, yet vastly different from one another. The windows are parasitic on the material conditions of each family’s financial context. What is so luxurious about windows? Nothing for the Kim’s, apparently.
The glass’s aesthetics rests on a presupposed material condition, and so it is with its power. Glass itself is brittle, and yet it exerts power because it has come to display the invisible, all-encompassing power of modern social democratic liberalism: you will never get to the point of making contact (and breaking) the glass because the iron front gates, the patrolling security guards, and the implicit threat of a police call would have stopped you well before that point.
Where before, the brutal structures challenges violence with its own violent rigidity, glass can now welcome it. It makes itself vulnerable, and in its vulnerability, the challenger to the status quo becomes the perpetrator, the illiberal, undemocratic, backwards, unreasonable, violent individual, and the comfortable becomes the well-meaning victim.
Glass dares to be brittle because the game has already been won. It is like making a bet in poker after having seen everyone’s hand, which is to say it is no bet at all. To move forward then, takes much more than breaking just the glass ceiling. We have to tear down the whole house.
The connection between glass and the storefront is taken from chapter 3 of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964).
During a summer camp before the start of middle school, I had to participate in a swimming class (to my protest). I did like swimming back then, but not so much the goggles that we had to wear. My hair frequently got caught in it and I lost a fair share of strands throughout my childhood years. Rather than deal with that, I decided for that lesson that I was going to get by without the goggles, which meant I needed some way to stay straight without being able to see (I also did not like opening my eyes while swimming).
My plan was this: Rather than struggling to see and slowing my swim down, I would focus on calibrating the strength of my freestyle strokes between my two arms so perfectly that it would simply propel me straight forward without me worrying. In essence, I had delegated, or reduced, the goal of staying straight to the task of keeping the strength of my strokes consistent rather than to my vision. It wasn’t until my arm struck the pool buoys that I realized my mistake.
Historically, the task of philosophy (and later, science) has been about a similar sort of reduction. We reduce morality to utility, the world to a collection of logical propositions, or thoughts and emotions to neuronal patterns. Our favorite phrases usually take the form of “X is really just Y.”
And there is a reason for this reduction. Concepts like morality, the world, and emotions are fuzzy, hard to define, so reducing them to more concrete concepts help us analyze them more rigorously. It would be hard to imagine getting anything done without these mental crutches. It would be like talking to Socrates 24/7.
The problem occurs when philosophers and scientists insist that this reduction is actually an equation. X is not simply reduced to Y for heuristic purposes, no, X just is Y. Once this equation takes hold, our attention shifts to Y, we strive for Y, rather than X. The irony here is that our means of attaining Y become the very thing that pulls apart the contingent identity between Y and X.
The profit motive of a business, for example, is meant to be a substitute for product quality, or consumer demand. The better the product, the more the demand, and thus, the higher the profit. And so to chase after profit is to produce superior products to better humanity with. Yet, we see that the more efficiently businesses start to chase this “profit-quality” double-concept, the more the two concepts are pulled apart; at the extreme, the two can no longer stick together.
But the initial equation is not abandoned at the sight of this separation, it lingers around as a sort of circular logic. Businesses must be producing better products, because their profits are growing ever higher, even if the material reality contradicts the claim. Because equations are atemporal, their decisions are thereby final. They cannot be overturned, and so they, like Frankenstein’s monster, take on a life of their own.
The problem here is actually nothing new, but a rehash of the problem of translation that most of us are already familiar with. For us bilinguals, this is especially salient: something is always lost in the act of translation, between languages, and all the more so between entirely different mediums.
David Lynch’s entire history of work straddles this perpetual difficulty (impossibility?) of translation. His piece called Fish Kit (1979) depicts a fish severed in three parts with the instructions on how to handle the “fish kit” underneath in an ominously matter-of-fact tone. In essence, the fish has been translated, reduced, to the language of an assembly kit, a victim of the mechanical deconstruction of our modern scientific mind.
Of course, it is not the same. The translation is unsuccessful. It is not a fish we see, but a grotesque mutilation of one. In picking this specific work of art, I am making a conscious allusion to the violence of our own mis-translations in philosophy and science. Each time we insist on the reduction of mental illnesses to biochemical factors, morality to mathematical utility, and human wellness to growth in GDP, real people suffer. Our closed-door debates on metaphysical realities have decidedly physical effects, and we must remember that.
I never learned to wear goggles, even after my failed attempt at staying in a straight line. And I still do use my strokes as a guide to where I’m headed. But I’ve also learned to surface once in a while and look, to check whether my convenient reduction is really helping. I do not lose sight of the initial aim, that of staying straight. In the process of checking, I may end up slowing down a little. But philosophy was never a race anyways. I learned to take my time.
Toronto city declared a state of emergency a few days ago, and if it wasn’t already obvious before then, things are now definitely not normal. President Trump, yes Trump, has now implemented what amounts to a UBI package for the vulnerable, even as the Republicans have also somehow managed to screw that up. Over here in Canada, something else is brewing. “Supply booths” have begun to pop up around neighborhoods where people can freely take useful items like gloves, masks, and (I never understood this) toilet paper.
All that is solid melts into air. all that is sacred is profaned…
Pandemics have an odd way of turning everything solid again. The fluid, ephemeral quality of money, which we so treasure, must now—at a moment’s notice—be turned into what can actually be used. Some of us (the lucky ones who have the money to go out and spend) now realize, as we’re browsing frantically for that last batch of toilet paper with our credit cards firmly in hand: wait a minute, I think I got bamboozled.
In this state, the state of visceral material need, the world draws us back in from our flights of fancy. We turn away from the Platonic world of abstract Justice, Equality, and Freedom in the same way we turn away from the TV when life calls, and for the first time we notice bodies and we begin to treat people as, well, people, who, like us, are doggedly embodied. Those supply booths are a testament to that. We are living more communally than most of us young people have ever lived.
It is not uncommon, and certainly we are seeing this now, for some leftists to see potential in these developments. Even the relief packages by the government are evidence of the fact that we can, should we choose to, live in a better world. I want to believe that all this will last, but that does not seem to be how things go.
If anything, the transitory nature of events like these are built into our very Western vocabulary; it is narrativity par excellence. An event thrusts our contemporary heroic figure into action, we struggle at first, we fall to our lowest low, at which point we look ourselves in the eyes and somehow, just somehow, manage to pull through. And where do we arrive? Where we began. Different, but same. The prototypical Western narrative, in all its change, only ever pushes towards the final Return. The viral curve mimics the act-structures of Hollywood. We just can’t wait for everything to return to “normal.”
Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so we say. And perhaps this is all the present communism will ever be, just a desperate measure. It is okay to beg for food and shelter when a virus threatens us all, yes, that is understandable, but as soon as the smoke clears, it becomes once again criminal. We forget the people on whose blood we fed and will feed, not just during these global crises but every moment in between. Equilibrium is restored, the hero returns. The story ends. And who reads the Afterword anyways?
Like the Marvel movie-goers, we gawk at a series of momentary spectacles, between which we sit and wait for the sequel. Even Bill Gates acknowledges this point, though he does not see his own actions as those that produce it. We ebb and flow, in and out, like lulling waves, trapped in a sitcom-style limbo where nothing real ever happens.
Can we turn away from the TV, and this time for good? Well…
We are all one. It sounds almost cliche at this point. When the corona-virus hit, my parents were audibly shocked (our conversation was done over the phone) at my refusal to keep a stack of masks around. “Why do you insist on being so selfless,” they complained. My dad went on to give a speech about how airlines tell you to put the mask on yourself before putting it on someone else (I couldn’t help but think, “why does it matter what airlines tell you to do? Airlines tell you to take unnecessary flights, and we all know every trip you go on takes a couple precious days away from Earth’s very finite lifetime). My mom decides to send me a couple hundred masks anyways.
What I couldn’t explain then, and what I will try to explain here, is that my refusal to buy more masks than I need isn’t an act of selflessness, at least not in the sense I think they were implying. It isn’t that I decided I was not as important as everyone else. But neither is it some romantic, “we are all one” sort of radical equivalence. A dog is a dog. A cat is a cat. They do not melt away into each other, into some abstract value through which we can calculate an optimal spread of utility.
I am me. I am not anything else. But who and what I am is inextricably entangled with everything else. It is my being in the world, in relation to other things, that make up the person here typing. I am not everything, but I am everywhere. I act, the world responds, and in so doing, I am affected no matter where my action points. I print out a ticket to New York; in a year, a hurricane hits the south of California; all the way in Alberta tar sands, workers are losing their jobs as the economy shifts into renewable energy sources. In all this economic craze, I decide to take the bus more. There is no such a thing as a selfless act, not if we see that the self was never only here to begin with. This is what “we are all one” really means.
We often like to pretend there is a magical place called Away. We flush the toilet, the poop goes Away. We launch Netflix, our assignments go Away. We do an action, and in an instant, the action goes Away. We are wrong. There is no Away. When the toilet flushes, someone, somewhere, must take on the coprophagous duties for us. The same goes for our actions. They are not events, a flash of activity and then nothing. They are objects. They persist, in space and in time. They linger on obstinately, for better or worse, and often in ways that are invisible or “distant.” We don’t draw the connection between the plane ticket and the hurricane and the workers and me, not until it’s too late anyways.
It is our persistence, our obstinance, and our refusal to accept it, that is horrifying to me. At the end of J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, our protagonist Elizabeth (a vegetarian, I should mention), offers a pithy summary:
“Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them [the meat-eaters] are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidence. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me…Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down…This is life.
J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals
My parents tells me it is out of love that they send me those masks at the expense of those who need it. It is out of love that those flights which take them from business meeting to business meeting were made. It is out of love, all is out of love. And how can I argue against love? There is nothing wrong with love, not even the ostensibly “selfish” kind.
But the world is responding, and it demands us to take another look. The atomic bomb imprints the human against the wood in Hiroshima, and so too, I am imprinted repeatedly, infinitely, into all that there is. There is no selfless act, so there is no selfless love. At the end of the day, we can all love, but we must learn how to. As much as the love is real, so is the hurricane. Like Elizabeth, all I see is kindness, all I see is love. But all I feel is horror and sadness.
“Everyone else comes to terms with it, you can’t you? Why can’t you?”
I have quite a fond memory of one particular high school maths class (an odd juxtaposition for most, I’ll admit). We were all handing in our latest assignment at the beginning of the class. My friend went last. His dog had just died, and he was understandably too upset over the weekend to finish it off. The teacher, not in much of a negotiating mood, told my friend he was going to fail the assignment, to which my friend, without really much of an expression at all, shrugged and left the class (I must remind you that this was at the beginning of class).
Anthropologist Kath Weston identifies the shrug as a gesture of resignation, and it is, for sure. But resignation of what? A shrug is as much an act of negation as it is a positive decision. After all, a shrug is to say, “hey, it’s not really worth the fuss.” Barring the nihilists among us, a shrug is not actually a retreat from the world (as the word “resignation” might suggest) but a focusing in on it. In that moment, what mattered to my friend, he decided, was not the assignment. Whatever he went off to do that day (I never asked), he was better off doing that. A shrug is an acknowledgement of our finiteness, the finiteness of everything. Our shrugs places us in the hyper-specificity of the moment; action extends neither forwards into consequence and explanation nor backwards into reason and motivation, it stays obstinately where it is, in the moment when it happens. It revels in its smallness. We are all finite, and to force us to be in-finite is an act of violence.
But is this not what normative ethics forces us to do (those that try to change the world at least)? To account for all our inconsistencies and contradictions, and to show that this somehow makes our actions “ethically nullifying?” This, for Naisargi Dave, is the “tyranny of consistency.” We are pulled outwards by our limbs, expanding from our finite bodies into the infinite ideal, and somewhere along the way there just isn’t enough of us to fill up infinity. Expansion is futile. We give out and we give up.
Yet we shouldn’t mistake the shrug as merely the act of giving up in the face of futility. Often it is a call to do something else, something different. It is what Roy Scranton calls learning how to die. In a sense, consistency is a sort of death. In a fully consistent world, much of what we take to be life has no more meaning: no more thought, no more love, no more choice. And in the face of this death (which for some have already arrived; it is almost 30 years ago that Fukuyama declared the death of history), hope is found in that ostensibly negative gesture of a shrug, of not caring. Ironically, ethics appears where we least expected.
Naisargi Dave, “Something, Everything, Nothing; or, Cows, Dogs, and Maggots,” Social Text 130, vol. 35, no. 1 (March 2017): 37-56.
Kath Weston, “Political Ecologies of the Precarious,” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 429-455.