We no longer know what it means to be human,
July 25, 2005 10:42 AM   Subscribe

EMBO's report on Time and Aging (free access) contains an essay wherein the author, Karin Knorr Cetina, from the University of Konstanz, Germany, argues that death and aging used to be major issues that defined what it means to be human and helped us find our place in society by showing us the limits of what is possible to achieve as a human. With the advances in science, particularly biological advances in slowing aging and technological advances in extending human function, we no longer accept our fate. Instead of accepting that we all grow old and die so we should take our place in society, with the expectation that if we contribute, society will take care of us, too, we now have promises being made by science that death and aging are no longer inevitable. Where are we headed, then? If we can no longer find our place by finding the limits of achievement and accepting our place within them, how do we work as a collective?
posted by Mr. Gunn (15 comments total)
Thanks for the link--looks interesting. I'll read the article when I have time, later today or tomorrow.
posted by Prospero at 11:13 AM on July 25, 2005

Thanks for this post. Cetina's thesis deserves consideration. It's a pity that she's such a horrible writer. Perhaps there were translation troubles?

Much of what she has to say seems to come out of a reading of Giorgio Agamben's latest work on biopolitics and the rise of the purely biological as an organizing principle of political thought and law. His readings of Foucault and Heidegger seem to accord with what Cetina has to say, or rather, the other way around. Agamben's concept of homo sacer, the strictly biological man banished from society and its privleges and responsibilities is, I think, at the outer limit of what Cetina is talking about.

Cetina does a great job of quickly pulling together a wide set of cultural changes and linking them with her central thesis. I would like to see her reading of 'welfare reform' [sic] expanded. The section in which she talks about the loss of social imagination is smart, and I was struck by two things. One, she traces the social imagination back to the Enlightenment, and that seems appropriate but perhaps limited, since I immediately began to think of tikkun olam, the Jewish belief in the need to repair the world in order to make it a fit place for the messiah to visit. Two, I was struck by the failure of politics to contain the ideals of the Enlightenment, and I wonder if that has contributed to a move away from the social imagination. For example, I see a lot more comparisons between Marxism and Nazism than I used to, based on the equation of Stalinism and Marxism. The problem with the comparison, of course, is that the Third Reich was the fulfillment of Nazi ideals, while Stalinism was the failure of Marxist ones. In other words, in the first case the premise was evil, in the second case, the result was. It's hard not to feel betrayed by Stalinism and to question the role of politics in fulfilling the ideals of the Enlightenment.

I agree with Cetina that there was a move in counseling psychology toward people concentrating on their own lives, but I actually think that that has changed substantially in the past decade or so, and that more and more counseling is focussed on helping people be responsible to the people that they love and want to love. It may be too little too late as a move, but it is certainly tied to a kind of social imagination. And I do think that death is always a sub-text in counseling, death as the very notion of finitude and an end to endless choices. I've wondered for quite a while about (some of) my generation's (born 1970) relative lateness in moving toward some of the life goals that have been prevalent concerns for much younger people in the past: coupling, kids, careers, etc. I've been fascinated with the idea lately that a show like Thirty Something...would not really work for my generation because well over half the characters would be like the irresponsible bachelor character on that show.

Finally (sorry this is so long, but the post really does raise some good issues), I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars which seems to be a kind of primer on just these issues, from life extension to individuality and the role of the social imagination. It's really quite a good book, and I'm hoping that the others in the trilogy are as good.
posted by OmieWise at 11:30 AM on July 25, 2005

"It's a pity that she's such a horrible writer."

Haven't read the article yet, but I am surprised to hear you say that. I've read some of Cetina's earlier work in Science Studies, and always found her to write quite well. She's no Latour, but she never stood out as being particularly bad either.

That said, thanks much for the link, Mr. Gunn. Curious as to what Cetina's been up to these past few years.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:38 AM on July 25, 2005

how do we work as a collective?

By becoming ants, perhaps?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:20 PM on July 25, 2005

how do we work as a collective?

We don't, there is no collective.
posted by Mick at 12:32 PM on July 25, 2005

We have no lord; we're an anarcho-syndicalist commune...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:13 PM on July 25, 2005

how do we work as a collective?

We don't, there is no collective.

So cell phones, text messaging, email, internet fora - these are not slowly turning us into borg?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 1:52 PM on July 25, 2005

Free yo' ass, and yo' mind will follow!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:09 PM on July 25, 2005

OmieWise - I get the relation to Agamben. Thanks for the link. It does sound like they both come from the same place, particularly in her distinction between life and humanity.

Additionally, I think you're right on with the relative lateness of the "generation-that-is-currently-thirtysomething". Becoming an adult used to be practically synonymous with settling down to a steady job, supporting a family, and so on, in other words, accepting your place. What are today's coming-of-age milestones if we're not ever settling down to our place in life? Are we eternally children unless and until we determine and accept our limitations?

I don't usually go in for this soft sort of social science stuff, and I wouldn't have read the essay at all had it not been mixed in with the harder science articles in the Time and Aging special report from EMBO. However, her viewpoint on how and why people are becoming more individualist helped a lot of things click into place for me.

All sorts of things make sense when you consider the world in this way, and it's too late for scientists to start poo-pooing the idea of life-extension. The secret's out and has captured popular imagination, even if everyone really knows that everyone reading this discussion will inevitably grow old and die. Where is the value proposition for today that will get people to come together for the good of their group, and just what are those groups? America is clearly no longer a self-cohesive group. Are we going to have people, as hinted in the article, coming together on the basis of genetic similarity instead of geographics? Why not? The economic principle is well-established: the wealthy take care of each other, when their group identity is threatened, and, to an extent, the very poor look after each other when threatened by an outsider, but then go back to killing each other. I think the smart people need to get on the bandwagon and look after their own as well as the wealthy do. The implication of Cetina's line of thought is that the time for acting like equality is the highest good is over with, isn't it? In today's "society" where everyone is an individual, the laws form as an emergent property of the system. There are no social structures in place teaching people their place anymore. The idea that there are no limits has replaced the idea of knowing your place, and we have no coming-of-age.

The lack of a overseer of social structure has profound implications. I've been trying to understand the rise of anti-intellectual sentiment lately (on the face of it, it doesn't make sense - you'd think you'd want the smartest people running things, right?). It seems to me to follow directly from the popularization of individualism. We're all taught that there are no limits(as opposed to everyone is equal), but people know, instinctively, when someone is more capable than they are, and that breeds resentment. The self-effacing old-school modesty of the classically trained intellectual is doing them no favors. What to do about this, because obviously, people who understand the past are the only ones who can keep us from repeating it in new and terrible ways?

I suggest that in the new emergent society, intelligent, cultured people have to start looking out for their own, get rid of the old thinking that "I'm no better than anyone else", accept the fact that social strata are self-organizing in any sufficiently large population, and lacking a overseer, the optimal solution won't be found; the most expedient solution will. The emergent society created by a chaotic mass of individuals with no guiding social structure means that there is no entitlement for anyone. The group of people who don't drive gigantic SUVs, read books, watch public broadcasting, and appreciate other forms of culture besides reality TV have to stop being ashamed and self-effacing, create and define their own group-of-individuals, and look after themselves. I'm not saying intellectuals need to prove their worth - you can't prove your worth to a group of people who harbor a latent resentment of you, and you shouldn't try - but it explains recent events to consider that that lacking the old social systems that taught people their limitations and their place, there is no way to keep the most qualified people making the decisions. It helps me understand why half the states in the US make laws outlawing gay marriage, for example. Cetina's essay helped me find the underlying principle that connects the big ass SUV driving people with the reality TV watching people with the "gay marriage should be illegal" people with the "in charge of our country" people. They're the unbeholden ones, no longer burdened with the idea of taking care of everyone, but rather just of themselves. The group associations are simply for transient, mutual benefit.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:19 PM on July 25, 2005

It's just too frigging random.

My concerns as a soon to be cut-down-in-my-prime adult are very different if I'm going to make it into my 60's, which is wildly different if I make it to 99.

Medical science has no certainty and I make no assumptions about avoiding random violence/accidents, so this doesn't change my attitude about life and death one bit.

But then, I think about life and death on almost a daily basis, so maybe I'm not usual in that regard.
posted by dreamsign at 4:06 PM on July 25, 2005

Really good post.
posted by Catfry at 5:36 PM on July 25, 2005

Death is inevitable. Second law of thermodynamics. Sorry.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:07 PM on July 25, 2005

P_G: This thread is about the delayed death of humans, not the inevitable death of the universe. Sorry.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 7:29 PM on July 25, 2005

Interesting article, though it's all over the place--that's not a knock against it, as it brings up a number of interesting points.

I'm not willing to go quite as far as Mr. Gunn's reading that the culture of life described in Cetina's article is a prime cause of the decline of intellectualism in American society (though I do agree with Mr. Gunn that the tendency of many members of the intellectual community to behave in a self-effacing manner can often act against them). But what Cetina does seem to bring up in an oblique way is the idea that an indirect casualty of the "culture of life" might be the concept of empathy as we currently understand it:

Social structures also seem to be losing some of their hold. [...] When personal service is replaced by automated electronic service, no social structures at all are required--only electronic information structures.

To say that a given society is primarily individualistic and concerned with self-improvement and life extension does not necessarily imply an absence of empathy from that same society--it is often the case that the expression of empathy is in one's best interest (as expressed by the Golden Rule--do unto others as you'd have them do unto you). But one might argue that in such a society that is both individualistic and primarily electronically mediated, empathy (which I'm thinking of as the vicarious experience of or sensitivity toward the emotions or mental states of others, without those emotions or mental states being explicitly communicated to you) could become rare, altruistic, or perhaps even unnecessary. If electronic information structures come to replace or supersede social structures, then empathy might even conceivably become a liability in an electronically-mediated society, instead of an asset--at the least, the advantage of empathy in such a society is unclear.

(On preview: I'm not yet sure I'm willing to go that far, but that seems to be one of the consequences if the scenario I've quoted above is taken to its logical extreme. I'm actively trying to resist some lovely gloom-and-doom scenarios, though, since what I liked about Cetina's writing is its objectivity.)
posted by Prospero at 8:11 AM on July 26, 2005

The previous post was a struggle for me, because on one hand, I wanted to refrain from taking things too far, but on the other hand, I didn't want to be guilty of the exact same self-effacing modesty I was advocating against.

And what the heck, this is metafilter, right?

I think the point about the increasing irrelevance of empathy is a large part of what spoke to me in the essay. Perhaps empathy only works within certain bounds? When we were a smaller country, with a larger middle class and a shared group identity, empathy was easier. It's harder today for a person who grows up wealthy in a large metropolitan area to have any conception of what it is like to be poor or rural, and vice versa. Do you live in a blue state? Do you have any idea what makes a red-stater tick? In order for empathy to work, there has to be a little toehold of understanding, doesn't there? As we're growing as a nation, and spending more time interfacing with society through electronics, it may be that empathy only extends as far as your understanding, and it's just not far enough to encompass a nation as big as ours. Perhaps this is the insight that future non-Republican politicians need to understand in order to reach voters. Find the empathic groups.

I do apologize for making everything political; it's hard not to these days.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:23 PM on July 27, 2005

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