Being Alive Tim Ingold
Reading this was tough, and I’m not sure how much I got out of it. Ingold says he is an anthropologist not a philosopher, but there was an awful lot of post-phenomenological explanation in it, and though I like some of its assumptions, a lot of it felt like verbal games, played by someone who mostly restricts his vocabulary to the academic.
I like the basic premise that ‘being’ is a verb as much as a noun, and that being alive needs to be seen as a constantly evolving process, not a yes/no question. I like the reminder that we are immersed in the material world, not apart from it, and the detached viewpoint espoused by science is a narrative fiction. I like the reminder that we are as much acted upon as actors in the ‘weave of the world’ (p9), and that our decisions are inherently responsive to the way the world is, rather than self-started.
To perceive and act in the weather-world is to align one’s own conduct to the celestial movements of sun moon and stars, to the rhythmic alternations of night and day and of the seasons, to rain and shine, sunlight and shade. (p132)
Life is a conversation, even at an intra-cellular level (an idea I paraphrase from Colin Tudge’s Secret Life of Trees).
But this book does not touch on the experience of individuality, of boundaries, filters, permissions, preferences, differences, disputes and reconciliations which make up not only our psychology, but even our physical life. Our skins are waterproof. Breathing in requires reflexes. We have to swallow to take in food, and we would rather have the orange than the peel. Marking personal boundaries is common to many living things – plants have prickles and stings, some beetles secrete a vile tasting oil to keep themselves from being eaten, and gulls on a roof ward off other birds getting too close with screaming, lifted wings and menacing lunges. Tim Ingold seems to see naming, the recognition of individual identity, as possessiveness and the desire to dominate. (p160), which seems to me to be a statement of enormous privilege.
Identity can be a fraught issue, just now, and I don’t want to disappear down any of the tempting rabbit holes, but it matters enormously. To belittle ‘identity politics’ is to reduce a person’s arguments to the inconvenience of their demands to be respected as an individual. A black person demanding an end to racism does not want everything to be about being black, he wants to prevent his blackness being the only thing anyone notices. A feminist doesn’t want to spend her life discussing women’s issues, she wants women’s issues to be a factor in the normal functioning of society just as men’s are. Disabled people want accessible venues, not because everything has to be about their disability, but so they like the able-bodied, can think about the rest of their life.
It is fairly difficult for me to acknowledge this, but individual identity is a multi-faceted, rich and complex gift. I come from a tradition where self-sacrifice and self-giving is considered to be noble and generous, and self-assertion is arrogant and really rather vulgar, but often this isn’t how it works. In theory you should be generously poured out in the service of your fellows, in practice you just feel you’ve been laid waste. Thomas Merton wrote in Contemplation in a World of Action – a book clearly influenced by the Nuremberg trials which were happening at the time:
Let us not imagine that this “existing for another” is compatible with perfect love. The alienated man cannot love. He has nothing to give. Nothing is his. The lover is able to give himself completely to another precisely because he is his own to give. He is not alienated. He has an identity. He knows what is his to surrender. The alienated man has no chance to surrender. He has simply been taken over by total control.
(Note the male pronouns. I forgive him because he was living in an all-male community, and with a bitter experience of how it worked but —–).
It isn’t just about exploitation. If you don’t have any sense of yourself as an individual, you can’t get any satisfaction from your activity, and you burn out. You have no realistic assessment whether what you are doing is effective, or whether you are just ticking boxes, so your performance is haphazard at best. You don’t give yourself time to consider whether there is a better way of doing things, or a better person to do it, or if your particular gifts make it more appropriate for you to do something entirely different. Your contribution to community life gets compromised. There is no conversation in entropy.
Identity is important. Boundaries are important. I was thinking a bit about this on the InterlitQ blog last week. Claiming and understanding one’s own identity is vital not just for your own survival, but for the integrity of what you have to share. Barriers are something else, as we see personally and politically. Since I wrote Haggards I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of places in between, edgelands where beings from two adjoining zones can meet, blend, adapt to each other and thrive, listening places, places for translation and transformation. They are places of reciprocity and connection rather than containment and separation. They are places where individuality can become communal, where the weave of the world holds together.
As we come out of lockdown, a three steps forward, two steps back process here in Scotland, I’ll be taking this insight with me.