Common sympathy ⇢ for the children

Common Sympathy:

I am thinking about the feed and what social media demands of us, as I mention in my preface to this project, and also in a timestamp from just a few minutes ago. I am also thinking about the languages we use to make the future affectively comprehensible, even while it is not knowable.

In Please specify the type of media file you wish to pop up in lightbox Bruno Latour uses the tale of Frankenstein as an imperative to let go of false distinctions between human and object, nature and culture, the technological and everything else. For Latour, the figure that makes an idea of the future comprehensible is that of the child, in this case the nature-culture hybrid Frankenstein. In thinking about the anthropocene, Latour asks that we begin with the idea that humans have failed to take responsibility of that which we have created, rather than begin discursively with the idea that humans have failed to caretake the Earth, an empty claim disconnected from the actual lifeworlds we have created and that blames technology for its negative effects. His point is simple: the technological cannot be understood as an agent because “the technological” is an extension of the human. Blame habits and actions, even as our habits and actions are themselves shaped by that which we have created:

“Written at the dawn of the great technological revolutions that would define the 19th and 20th centuries, Frankenstein foresees that the gigantic sins that were to be committed would hide a much greater sin. It is not the case that we have failed to care for Creation, but that we have failed to care for our technological creations. We confuse the monster for its creator and blame our sins against Nature upon our creations. But our sin is not that we created technologies but that we failed to love and care for them. It is as if we decided that we were unable to follow through with the education of our children.”

Latour’s point is well-taken, and I see why Bethany Nowivskie, whose essay I have discussed here, includes it in her own meditation. In humanist discourse, to produce scholarship is to imagine taking responsibility for the future by shaping the course of human knowledge. This runs counter to the impulse identified in Latour’s essay, which speaks to our discomfort and at times refusal to take responsibility for our technological inventions, inventions that often come into being in ways similar to intellectual creation, and with similar claims to the future of the human world.What would it mean to resist abdicating responsibility to creations that make us uncomfortable in their own displays of being or mastery? In fearing our monsters, the hybrid children we create, we also become fearful of our own future, as we build the wheels, set them in motion, and then call ‘fate.’

vanishingIn “The Future of Time,” Toni Morrison is thinking about a similar set of issues from a different perspective, for she sees in this abdication a refusal to admit responsibility for the future, a refusal that mainly plays out as an obsession with understanding the future as an analog extension of a past still open to investigation and, by extension, revision, an obsession with making historical claims rather than setting new, future goals. The consequence of such obsession is the diminishment of time itself, a constant fear of the future:

“Time is, of course, a human concept, yet in the late twentieth century (unlike in earlier ones) it seems to have no future that can accommodate the species that organizes, employs and meditates on it. The course of time seems to be narrowing to a vanishing point beyond which humanity neither exists nor wants to. It is singular, this diminished, already withered desire for a future.”

What I hear in Morrison’s admonishment is her concern with what our fear of being outstripped by technology has wrought, namely an assumption that the future will not be determined by us, but instead by that which we create. Morrison identifies this flagging confidence in the future as a result of the atomic age, the Cold War, when the technologies of war exponentialized politics by replacing death and destruction with sudden annihilation. The future is the place of the always coming annihilation, and must thus be avoided at all costs. Presaging Latour by almost twenty years, Morrison senses in this diminishment a similar abdication to the future has beyond human intervention and control, even as it is made by humans, pointing out that in the technologically developed world, “where advance, progress and change have been signatory features,” is “where confidence in an enduring future is at its slightest.”

It cannot be denied that the issues identified by Nowivskie, Latour, and Morrison have consequences for how we conceptualize the future of human life. But insofar as all the “we’s” in this human world have not experienced the past in the same way, perhaps the question of how we might remember to imagine new futures can be broadened by thinking it differently. In this I hear my own constant concern, which comes to me in my grandfather’s voice:

What does all of this mean for black people?