Friday Links – 6/2

After living off the wealth extracted from the bodies and territories of ‘others’, Western thought began to extend the category of ‘humanity’ to capture more and more of these once-excluded individuals, via abolitionism, women’s suffrage and movements to expand the franchise. In a strange way these shifts resemble the pronouncements of today’s tech billionaires, who, having extracted unimaginable amounts of value from the mechanics of global capitalism, are now calling for Universal Basic Income to offset the impacts of automation and artificial intelligence. Mastery can afford to correct itself only from a position of leisured ease, after all.

What contemporary post-apocalyptic culture fears isn’t the end of ‘the world’ so much as the end of ‘a world’ – the rich, white, leisured, affluent one. Western lifestyles are reliant on what the French philosopher Bruno Latour has referred to as a ‘slowly built set of irreversibilities’, requiring the rest of the world to live in conditions that ‘humanity’ regards as unliveable. And nothing could be more precarious than a species that contracts itself to a small portion of the Earth, draws its resources from elsewhere, transfers its waste and violence, and then declares that its mode of existence is humanity as such.

To define humanity as such by this specific form of humanity is to see the end of that humanity as the end of the world. If everything that defines ‘us’ relies upon such a complex, exploitative and appropriative mode of existence, then of course any diminution of this hyper-humanity is deemed to be an apocalyptic event. ‘We’ have lost our world of security, we seem to be telling ourselves, and will soon be living like all those peoples on whom we have relied to bear the true cost of what it means for ‘us’ to be ‘human’.

The lesson that I take from this analysis is that the ethical direction of fragility must be reversed. The more invulnerable and resilient humanity insists on trying to become, the more vulnerable it must necessarily be. But rather than looking at the apocalypse as an inhuman horror show that might befall ‘us’, we should recognise that what presents itself as ‘humanity’ has always outsourced its fragility to others.

The ‘we’ of humanity, the ‘we’ that imagines itself to be blessed with favourable conditions that ought to extend to all, is actually the most fragile of historical events. […] Rather, it reveals that the thing calling itself ‘humanity’ is better seen as a hiatus and an intensification of an essential and transcendental fragility.

Photo: Malaga, Spain May 2017


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