A couple of years ago I wrote about a shift in my writerly focus from a decade-long inquiry into the enemies of attention to an inquiry into how we might live a human life at a human scale. Those are related themes, of course: identifying and critiquing what Tim Wu calls “the attention merchants” is indeed vital: an ethic and maybe even a theology for our time begins, as I have argued in an essay on Thomas Pynchon, with suspicion of our would-be overlords. But suspicion is only the first step, and a largely useless one unless we’re willing and able to redirect our attention to worthier objects than those being sold to us by the machinery of surveillance capitalism.

But the idea of living “a human life at a human scale” makes sense only if the human is a meaningful category, and therefore one of my related themes in recent years has been the need to recover a belief in the integrity of that category — that is, to help people believe that we have a distinctive bond with, and distinctive obligations to, our fellow humans. (N.B. This is not to say that we have no bond with or obligations to the rest of Creation: the key word in the previous sentence is “distinctive.”)

A Humanism of the Abyss,” my essay from last year on Oliver Sacks, is one contribution to this cause; my new essay in Harper’s, “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method,” is another. I’m looking to describe those moments in our experience when the various divisions of our current identity politics fade into the background and something more fundamental forces itself upon us.

Also: my mind continually returns to the Second World War, because I believe it was in that era — starting in the decade preceding the outbreak of hostilities — that our current antihumanism has its roots. That was the period when modern governments, with modern administrative structures and procedures, started building entire socio-political systems based on fundamental oppositions of race or class. That was the period in which we all became habituated to “seeing like a state.” (And, not incidentally, my writing about anarchism is an exercise in countering that panoptic gaze.) 

Another clarification: This is not to say that racism and class antagonism did not exist prior to the Second World War, but the intimate connection between race/class/sex and the administrative state is a necessary prerequisite for our identity politics today, and that began in the lead-up to the war, first in Nazi Germany and then elsewhere. I often wonder whether the internment of Japanese-Americans would have been thought of had the Nazis not provided a pre-existing playbook for such action. But then, of course, the Nazi system drew on the principles of Taylorism, which in turn drew on experiments in workplace management pioneered several decades earlier by Robert Owen — nothing in this world is wholly new, wholly without precedent, but I think the Nazis did a lot to show just how far Taylorist principles could go in organizing a whole society and especially in excreting its racial refuse. (And then, of course, in making us all self-Taylorizing, building our entire lives on principles of efficiency and productivity.) 

I often meditate on this passage from Antony Beevor’s history of the Second World War:

On 15 December [1944], Hitler and his entourage moved in his personal train to the Adlerhorst (Eagle’s Nest) Führer headquarters at Ziegenberg, near Bad Nauheim. Rundstedt’s headquarters were already in the adjacent Schloss. To the horror of the generals, Martin Bormann’s Nazi Party Chancellery came too, and Bormann complained that the facilities were insufficient for all his typists. Nazi bureaucracy, both in Berlin and at local levels, seemed only to increase as disaster threatened, no doubt to give the impression that the Party was still in control of events. Instructions, directives and regulations cascaded forth on every subject just when the transport and therefore also the postal system were collapsing under the weight of Allied bombing.

Of course, this entire system is built on maniacal hatred — I have heard historians say that the Nazis fought as long as they did in a hopeless cause because that was the only way to keep the trains going to Auschwitz — but I think it’s even more strongly built on a fantasy of perfect control, the channeling of hatred into a flawless System. And the very presence of the ovens, the need for them, is evidence of an imperfect system. 

Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face — forever” is something that will only happen when a system of control has failed. As long as it’s properly functioning it will produce — and produce via documentation — what Foucault called “docile bodies,” and what Auden, some decades earlier, had already envisioned as

An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Once the degenerates and subhumans have been exterminated, the “unintelligible multitude” remains.

I think we can all agree that such systems, even in imperfect form, are radically dehumanizing — we feel this to some degree even in our most trivial encounters with bureaucratic administrivia — but what acts, what commitments, what beliefs, what loves, are required to begin a rehumanizing movement? That’s the key question I’m asking myself these days. And I believe the answers are to be found largely in the arts, especially works of art that precede the Tayorization of the world and the self. It is not the technological futurists who will show is the way out of this iron cage; it is our artful ancestors. 

A final word: this is a question everyone should be asking, I think, but especially my fellow Christians. For what is the Gospel if not a message to human beings? It is a message that concerns the whole of Creation, but human beings are the ones to whom the Good News is addressed. And I don’t know how people can hear that News if they don’t know themselves and their neighbors as fellow humans, under the same Judgment, and offered the same Salvation.