One and All Flow Together II: I Am I, Research Time, 02/01/2016

Continued from last year . . . My existence is legitimate and meaningful simply for existing. This is true for all people and all things. 

That’s a tripped-out way to start the new year, but it’s true. This is a foundational concept behind pretty much all the ethical arguments in my own book Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. The absolute value of everything that exists. 

It’s not a new idea in the history of philosophy. It shows up in Duns Scotus writing in the 800s, in William of Ockham writing in the 1400s, and in Spinoza writing in the 1600s. Modernism steamrolls this idea quite a bit, but it resurfaces in Gilles Deleuze’s writings in the 20th century, and my and Antonio Negri’s writing in the 21st.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of
Aparecida in Brazil, the largest cathedral in the world
outside Vatican City. Beautiful architecture, but we
don't need the sanction of Earthly or Heavenly
authorities to exist.
So what about modernist thinking and politics pushed this concept away from popular intellectual thought? In a word, mediation. Sounds weird, I know. But here’s how it basically goes down. 

Anything’s existence justifies and constitutes its own meaningfulness and the legitimacy of its existence. Read this concept ontologically, only in the context of asking about the nature of existence itself, and see what it implies:

Nothing needs the sanctification of a god or to participate in or instantiate some eternal concept to stand in existence. It exists. It adds to the complexity of the world, and can add to the complexity of our knowledge. Awesome.

Now read the concept morally / politically, and see what it implies: 

My life and existence needs no sanction from any authority, institution, or state to be legitimate. The ground of my rights are my existence and my demands to be recognized and participate in a community. My dignity needs no ground but my existence.

With this concept in mind, Negri offers a compelling conception of modernity in philosophy and politics as an inherently reactionary movement. That’s weird to a lot of us, because we grew of thinking of the modern era as liberation. We developed democracy, liberty, freedom, and sovereignty. 

The modern era has been to fight for these against the reactionary elements that drive oppression, slavery, and colonialism. But in the politics of Western modernity, you can only be free from all these horrors if a state recognizes you as such. A state institution has to administer your freedom, through things like your birth certificates, social insurance file, tax information, and passport.

You can’t be identified without ID. Only a state can issue valid ID. You need to be numbered, a subject of administration. The state mediates your existence, and mediates your rights. 

That’s a political expression of this concept of mediation’s necessity. Now read it in an epistemic context. Express the concept as a matter of human knowledge:

Late this year, Brazil made what was basically a
positive humanitarian gesture, offering permanent
residency to 43,000 Haitian immigrants. But we
shouldn't have to rely on a state government to have
our humanity recognized.
Our knowledge is separate from the world, because what we know is the product of the mediation of how we know the world. Perception is never of things themselves, but only of things after perception itself has worked them over. 

This is the insoluble paradox of modernity. That the progress of scientific knowledge comes only in a context of presuming that humanity’s gaining real knowledge of the world is impossible. 

In ontological, epistemological, and political contexts, the modernist movement was counter-revolutionary. The argument that mediation was necessary – for knowledge, rights, and even the legitimacy of one’s existence – amounts to, in Negri’s words, “the definitive liquidation of the humanist revolution.”

The real humanist revolution is this idea that we don’t need gods or kinds to grant legitimacy to our existence, to bestow rights upon us, to confer dignity upon us. It came out of the medieval period, and it re-emerged in the anarchist and anti-state political movements of the 20th century.

Dependence on the state to grant rights and bestow freedom is a terrible kind of oppression, because it yokes you to a system of discipline (police) and control (administration) in the name of freedom. To be continued . . .

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