Digital natives are fit for their new environment but not for the old one. Coaches complain that teenagers are unable to hold a hockey stick or do pull-ups. Digital natives’ peripheral vision — required for safety in physical space — is deteriorating. With these deficits come advantages in the digital realm. The eye is adjusting to tunnel vision — a digital native can see on-screen details that a digital immigrant can’t see. When playing video games, digital immigrants still instinctively dodge bullets or blows, but digital natives do not. Their bodies don’t perceive an imaginary digital threat as a real one, which is only logical. Their sensorium has readjusted to ignore fake digital threats that simulate physical ones. No need for an instinctive fear of heights or trauma: in the digital world, even death can be overcome by re-spawning. Yet what will happen when millions of young people with poor grip strength, peripheral blindness, and no instinctive fear of collision start, say, driving cars? Will media evolution be there in time to replace drivers with autopilots in self-driving vehicles?
To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity.
There’s a fascinating early chapter in her book on human interaction with pigeons. Of course, that interaction has been conducted largely on human terms, and Haraway wants to create two-way streets where in the past these paths ran only from humans to everything else. How to get the pigeons to participate willingly in such a project is question without an obvious answer, but it’s question that Haraway feels we must ask, a because “staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all.”
But here’s the complication: Who gets included in “each other”? Besides pigeons, I mean. Haraway says explicitly that her human kin are “antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people,” and people who share her commitment to “Make Kin Not Babies.” “Pronatalism in all its powerful guises ought to be in question almost everywhere.”
I suspect that — to borrow a tripartite distinction from the psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander — most people who use that kind of language are fine with their ingroup (“antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people”) and fine with the fargroup (pigeons), but the outgroup? The outgroup that lives in your city and votes in the same elections you do? Maybe not so much. Does the project of making kin extend to that couple down the street from you who have five kids, who attend a big-box evangelical church, and who voted for the wrong person in the last presidential election? And who, moreover, are a little more likely to talk back than pigeons are? (Even assuming that they might be interested in making kin with Donna Haraway, which, let’s face it, is equally unlikely. Presumably they too would be more comfortable with the pigeons.)
I thought about these issues as I read an excerpt from James Bridle’s new book:
A system of laws and protections developed by and for humans, that places human concerns and values at its core, can never fully incorporate the needs and desires of nonhumans. These judicial efforts fall into the same category of error as the mirror test and ape sign language: the attempt to understand and account for nonhuman selfhood through the lens of our own umwelt. The fundamental otherness of the more-than-human world cannot be enfolded into such human-centric systems, any more than we can discuss jurisprudence with an oak tree.
Legal representation, reckoning, and protection are founded upon human ideas of individuality and identity. They may prove useful when we take up the case of an individual chimp or elephant, or even a whole species, but their limits are clear when we apply them to a river, an ocean, or a forest. A plant has no “identity;” it is simply alive. The waters of the earth have no bounds. This is both ecology’s meaning and its lesson. We cannot split hairs, or rocks, or mycorrhizal roots and say: This thing here is granted personhood, and this thing not. Everything is hitched to everything else.
The enactment of a more-than-human politics calls explicitly for a politics beyond the individual, and beyond the nation-state. It calls for care, rather than legislation, to guide it.
As regular readers might expect, this call for care, this ecological perspective, resonates powerfully with me. (It also resonates with something I wrote about in another book: Simone Weil’s insistence that if we need a collective declaration of human rights, we also, and perhaps more desperately, need a declaration of human obligations.)
But it is curious to me that many people are willing to entertain this line of thought, are immensely sympathetic to this line of thought, who also affirm that “in relation to the mind the body has no rights”; and that a fetus in the womb is but an insignificant “clump of cells.” I don’t think you can consistently hold all those views. If you are willing to ask, “What do we owe the more-than-human world?” then, I think, you must also be willing to ask, “What do we owe the fetus in the womb? What do we owe our own bodies?” If you’re not asking these questions, then I fear that the other affirmations are empty rhetoric — a make-believe extension of agency to things you can then safely ignore.
To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person [which is the person imagined by liberalism] who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity.
This is a strong and vital word. But genuinely to hear it we will have to dethrone the two idols that almost everyone with a political opinion worships: My People and Winning. The goal of almost every political activist and pundit is the same: My people must win, and those who are not my people must lose. Do not be deceived by talk of the “common good,” because the often quite explicit message of the common-good conservatives is: My people are the ones who know what the common good is, and that common good can only be achieved if my people win. A politics of weakness and dependence, a politics of bearing one another’s burdens, can only begin when those two idols are slain.
UPDATE: Rowan Williams, from a review of God: An Anatomy, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou:
Stavrakopoulou … takes Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous picture of the dead (and prematurely decaying) body of Christ as illustrating the way in which Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy ends up in a conspicuously unbiblical position, presenting human bodies as “repulsive” (her word), unfit to portray the divine. But – apart from the fact that in Holbein’s lifetime the glory of the human form as representing divinity was being reaffirmed by artists in southern Europe as never before – the point of a picture like this, or of any other representation of the torment and suffering of Jesus, was to say that “the divine” does not shrink from or abandon the human body when it is humiliated and tortured.
In contrast to an archaic, religious sacralising of the perfect, glowing, muscular, dominant body, there is a central strand in Jewish and Christian imagination which insists that bodies marked by weakness, failure, the violence of others, disease or disability are not somehow shut out from a share in human – and divine – significance. They have value and meaning; they may judge us and call us to action. The biblical texts are certainly not short of the mythical glorifications of male power that Stavrakopoulou discusses; but they also repeatedly explore divine solidarity with vulnerable bodies, powerless bodies. Is this a less “real” dimension of the Bible? Even a reader with no theological commitments might pause before writing it off.