Sebastian Smee has written a wonderfully rich and complex essay. It’s hard to engage with it in a short response. That’s not his fault. We are, he says, becoming estranged from concepts we need as we try to understand ourselves. In part, he thinks, along with Zadie Smith, that’s because we have been shameless accomplices to the ways Facebook and other social media have undermined the conditions for their application. Those concepts defined what he fears is now “an exhausted and tattered humanism.” They enabled us to explore, in ways that went deep, our inner life and who we are. Now, he believes, we have acquiesced in the diminishment of both in ways that serve the financial interests of social media and those who benefit from its unprincipled data-sharing. If he’s right, then we don’t know whether we are lost in a new conceptual landscape, looking back nostalgically at the one in which we grew up but to which we cannot return, or are still in the old one, also lost, because so much of it is in tatters.
Other forces play their part in eroding the conceptual ground from under us. Many people speak now of post- and trans-humanism. They tell us that the ethically inflected ways in which we speak of humanity (“Be a human being for once in your life,” “Treat me like a human being,” “He’s a human being, not a monster,” for example) are suspect and mislead us about what carries the ethical load. It’s not humanity, they say, it’s the concept of a person, or even more abstractly and therefore potentially more universally, the concept of a rational agent. We are reminded to speak of human beings and other animals rather than of human beings and animals. We are invited to welcome the future in which we join in full ethical companionship with robots. Instead of wondering nervously when robots will become like us, we should ask when we will become like them – when, for example, will we be able to replace damaged limbs and body tissue, including brain tissue, with whatever we make robots out of? Who does not hope for the day when a brain-damaged person will be able to recover fully with manufactured brain matter?
“Matter” is the operative concept rather than “flesh and blood,” with all the resonances that has had for us (“You’re my own flesh and blood” doesn’t mean, though of course it doesn’t deny, that you’re a biological relative of the same animal species). Smee refers to a friend who said to him, “We are all just basically algorithms.” It’s hard to know what that means other than being a gesture towards the kind of materialism that looks upon our embodiment as inessential to whatever ethical and other attributes we need to treat some robots as our friends, fully our moral equals. Smee says he is also materialist, which doesn’t seem to come to much more than denying that we possess immaterial souls or minds, but he is ambivalent towards what his friend said. He says it bores him, even when he thinks only a little about it (a short paragraph in the essay), and with deflationary irony he reports that he doesn’t feel like an algorithm. Nonetheless, anxiety about and resistance to the reductionist implication of his friend’s remark keep resurfacing in the essay. He asks, “Is the resistance I feel [to thinking of himself as an algorithm] an old, sentimental and deluded way of seeing things … That old idea of ‘nature,’ those paintings.” But when you read his wonderful description of the faces of the teacher and her pupil in Chardin’s painting, it’s hard to believe he is uncertain about how important it is that we are beings with faces to look into. “Does a bird have a face?” a philosopher used to ask students who were being interviewed for places in a philosophy department. It was a good question. The human body, Wittgenstein said, is the best picture of the human soul. He wasn’t referring to an immaterial substance, no more than we are when we speak of soul-destroying work.
Who belongs to the “we” to which he and I refer? It doesn’t express an empirical generalisation: it’s an invitation. Smee makes that explicit: “Every day I spend hours on my phone. We are all doing it, aren’t we?”
He cites no empirical studies, though there are plenty, many of them depressing. I don’t think that’s a failing. Nothing important that he says is vulnerable to empirical refutation, not because he is thoroughly on top of the empirical studies, but because his is a reflection in a different cognitive realm. The task he has set himself is conceptual, though not as it was for philosophers in the heyday of conceptual analysis (and now for that matter). For philosophers (for the most part) and empirical psychologists (for the most part), art is extrinsic to the cognitive character of what they do. They sometimes find it helpful, providing examples (usually ethical) to the former and hypotheses to the latter. But when one reads Smee’s discussions of Chekhov, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo, Munro, Chardin and Cézanne, all of them a joy, it becomes evident that they (the artists and the kind of discussion he offers of them) are essential to the kind of understanding he seeks. Smee writes beautifully. He writes English “at full stretch,” to take an expression from the philosopher Cora Diamond. In that kind of writing, style and content are inseparable. It’s writing that can be seductive, and can move us to consent to things we realise later, after reflection, that we shouldn’t have consented to, perhaps because our ear for tone or for what rings false is undeveloped, or perhaps because we were sentimental, as he fears he may be when he reflects on how he thought of nature. The need to overcome such failings defines and disciplines a distinctive sensibility. To render oneself answerable to it is to be engaged in one kind of “trying to see things as they are.”
That’s not how Ryan Trecartin and Lissie Fitch see things. I agree with Smee that they are brilliant filmmakers, but I could not find my feet with them (another metaphor from the humanism that tells us we have to find solid ground if we are to have any hope of being critically sober). In the comment thread of I-Be Area, someone wrote, “This is the best thing I’ve never understood.” I found that interesting: the person who wrote it might let the work flow slowly and subconsciously in his mind, allowing it to resurface now and then. Eventually – it could take years – he might say, “Now I understand,” which, of course, might not be true. That’s how it is with much of our thinking about life. Sometimes, when we do not understand everything that others say at the time they say it, we trust what they say enough to allow it to enter our lives, to find, in its own time, ways to engage with what we already know and with our capacities – emotional, intellectual and spiritual – for understanding. A number of times in his essay, Smee reminds us that we often learn most deeply when we are moved by what people say or do, in life or in art.
When I was a student, a teacher, Martin Winkler, said something to me that shook me, to the core it turned out. I was defending a friend who expressed a prissy, condescending conception of social responsibility, disdainful of what he called the “mass hysteria” of kids at a Beatles concerts in the 1960s. Winkler detested what I was defending. He listened for a long time. Just past midnight, he placed his hands on the table, leant forward, holding me fast in a look I could not avoid, and said, “Gaita. Do you know what the core of responsibility is? It is responsiveness to the needs of another in a lived encounter.” (I’m quoting from memory.) I didn’t understand what he meant, but was profoundly moved. He said I should read Martin Buber’s I and Thou. I didn’t understand that either. Almost thirty years later I dedicated my first book to Winkler. I could have subtitled it, “Responsiveness to need.” I’m still grateful for his loving severity.
Winkler probably knew I didn’t understand, but he trusted that one day I might. To do that, he had to trust that I wasn’t seduced by his charismatic personality, powerfully expressed in his dramatic demeanour that evening. He cared for me and wanted me to learn to think for myself. He called me, as I have put it elsewhere, to “an individuating responsiveness,” to be wholly alive and alert, to answer and, later, to reflect critically on what he told me, allowing it to be informed by and to inform experiences that were my history and had made me who I was. That presupposes a collectedness in the present moment and over time that is not consistent with experimenting with multiple selves.
Smee quotes Mark Trade in the Trecartin and Fitch film that carries his name, saying, “The human era went like that, like a sweatshirt on a camp fire.” Later Smee says, “Other truths emerge from these films like bats in the night.” They speak, he says, to a sense that many people, especially teenagers, have that “no one is listening.” Then he goes on to say that “the film proposes that no one need listen.” If that were true, then Mark Trade would be right. Does that sound like a new idea of humanity, one that transcends all ethically defining ways of speaking of our humanity, as post-humanists claim theirs does? Or does it sound like old-fashioned dehumanisation?
In a fine essay called “Human Personality,” Simone Weil asks, “What is sacred in every human being?” She rejects a number of suggestions and says:
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being … Every time there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry, “Why am I being hurt?” then there is certainly injustice. Many people do not hear it. For it is a silent cry that sounds only in the secret heart.
Later in the same essay, she says of those who “have suffered too many blows” that “the place in the heart from which the infliction of evil evokes a cry of surprise may seem dead. But it is never quite dead; it is simply unable to cry out anymore. It has sunk into a state of dumb and ceaseless lamentation.” That is hard-headed, truthful description of how it is for many asylum seekers and others who suffer severe and degrading affliction because we have found no need, or decided not, to listen.
Smee quotes Galen Strawson summarising Iris Murdoch’s argument in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:
We are limited, imperfect, unfinished and full of blankness and jumble … We are divided creatures, distracted creatures, extended, layered, pulled apart, our minds are like ragbags … We cannot see things as they are.
Maybe we human beings are mostly a mess. After Freud, we can hardly think that is not true to a considerable degree. But Murdoch did not believe that we have lost the concepts that enable us to see the mess as a mess and to aspire to something better, even if often we don’t have the desire to. Though she believed we are incorrigibly resistant to seeing things as they are, she did not think that there is no such thing as seeing things as they are rather than as they appear from the many false perspectives into which we are seduced or bullied by the “fat relentless ego.” But, of course, what it is to see things as they are will be different for different domains of inquiry and reflection. In physics, it is one kind of thing. In literature, it is another. To see the reality of another person, she says, is a work of love, justice and pity. Obviously, reality is an ethically loaded term for her. So it is for Smee when he speaks of moments when reality becomes “really real” for us.
Often we ask ourselves, “Who am I really?” Or, “What would people think if they knew me as I really am, if they knew some things I think, feel and desire?” Or, “Do I really love this person, or is my passion one of love’s many counterfeits?” On such occasions, we know more or less how to go on thinking further about these questions, how to sharpen them and how to look for answers, perhaps alone or in conversation with someone close to us. But whether we are doing it well or badly, we don’t come to a point where we think we have to ask “What is the self?” in order to go further. If we do, we will not get further. The questions we ask on such occasions, what we do to try to understand what we are asking and what would count as an answer – all that gives sense to our talk of “the self,” “selfhood,” the “true self,” and so on. To put the point in a way that engages more explicitly with Smee’s essay: it is the elaborations of the forms of our inner life and the questions they pose that give sense to talk of “the self,” rather than the other way about. There is no object that is the self; no thing with properties whose discovery could provide answers to any deep questions about ourselves and our relationships to others.
We are elusive to ourselves for different kinds of reasons. There are almost infinitely many ways we lovingly give ourselves up as victims to the fat relentless ego. At other times, it is because we do not fully understand the concepts that inform our most important beliefs and commitments, because they go deep in our tradition, whose influence on us is far from transparent. How many people, for example, realise the role that Kant has played in their belief that people possess inalienable dignity, or the role the Socratic idea that it’s better to suffer evil than to do it plays in their suspicion that morality and politics are at critical times irreconcilably in conflict? Then, the question “Who am I?” has a different point, prompted by intimations that our beliefs may be informed by concepts richer or poorer than we presently know. When it turns out to be richer, we are grateful. When we realise that it’s poorer, we may come to see that concepts to which we appeal can no longer have, or have only a muffled, speaking voice in our life with language. I often hear discussions of academic freedom that presuppose a concept of the university that has been defunct for many years. On this, as Smee says of concepts he fears we have lost, there appears to be no going back.
But there is also something different and deeper at issue in his discussion of the elusiveness of the self, although “elusive” is probably not the word with which to try to capture it. It is the wonder – I’d say mystery if I didn’t fear to be misunderstood – of what it is to be a human being. Pablo Casals wrote in his autobiography that every morning for eighty years he went to the piano and played two preludes and fugues of Bach. He said it was “a sort of benediction on the house” – “a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part.” It filled him “with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being … I do not think that a day has passed in my life in which I have failed to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature.”
Few things I know are written more wonderfully in the key of gratitude. Casals’ love of the world strikes me as the expression of a humanism that Smee would like to celebrate (and actually does). I don’t believe our culture is dead to it. Certainly young people in their late teens whom I teach are not, though they are all on their smartphones when I walk into the lecture theatre. Nourished by Bach (though not only by him), Casals speaks of “the miracle of nature” as Smee would like to speak of nature enriched for him by his love of paintings. He is more anxious than he needs to be. He has written his humanism into a language he has helped to flourish rather than struggle to remain alive.
Despite the talk of post- and trans-humanism, people speak more often now than even ten years ago, I think, of humanity in ethically inflected ways. Certainly one hears people speak more often of our need to recognise the full humanity of all the peoples of the earth. Even the expression “Be a human being for once in your life,” spoken as a rebuke or a plea, suggests that our humanity is something we are called upon to rise to, that it is not something given once and for all, as species membership is, nor can some of us finish the task of becoming human by the time we are, say, fifty. The call to rise to our humanity would not cease if we lived a thousand years.
There is more than one form of love of the world that is important to Smee’s essay. To illustrate what it is, I’ll finish by quoting Hannah Arendt. She also helps me to place the significance of the extraordinary last lines of Smee’s essay. He quotes Chekov:
“All that I now write,” he continued, “displeases and bores me, but what sits in my head interests, excites and moves me.” Chekov was talking, of course, of his inner life. And in these simple, unforced statements, he showed how dearly he wanted to protect it.
Now Arendt. The quote is from “On Humanity in Dark Times,” published in her book Men in Dark Times:
[The] world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become so just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of human discourse. However much we are affected by things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse – the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny – may find a human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanise what is going on in the world in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.
Raimond Gaita is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne and emeritus professor of moral philosophy at King’s College London. His books include Romulus, My Father, Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, A Common Humanity, The Philosopher’s Dog and After Romulus.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 73, Australia Fair.
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