The Dogma of Survival

“We think that in this the human being extends, more or less consciously, the spontaneous effort, common to life, of fighting against that which forms the obstacle to her maintenance and development taken as norms.” Canguilhem, On the Normal and the Pathological, PUF 1966, p. 102 (in my own translation, original below)

Canguilhem marks an important split in philosophy in attacking the ‘objective’ notions of health and disease that come with the dominance the empirical/mathematical method of the exact sciences. As a teacher of Foucault he made a first but decisive step against a last push of the exact sciences to explain away the most human of experiences: that of feeling not quite right. Decisive but not final because to this day the positivistic look, on the back of our neoliberal society and value system, dominates to the point of mocking those who speak from disability studies, cultural studies and feminism. It is not, though, this debate which I’m here interested in. I take it for granted that the truth here as elsewhere mostly lies somewhere in the middle. The truth I want to try to speak here is against that which, I believe, is still a common dogma in both traditions: that of survival as an inevitable and enduring norm inherent in life.

Longevity is, I submit, a global pandemic threatening all life, and specifically human life, as it misunderstands and devalues life to something that is to be had instead of lived. The outcome of the normality of survival is pathological: more life, but less worth living. The quote has all of that so let’s turn to it.

Canguilhem has good reason to attack objective, scientific, notions of health. They tend to conserve a status quo where the average of what was becomes the norm of what is to be. We forget science has not won us women’s rights, gay rights or, for that matter, any other rights. People have won those rights against the received opinion that men were stronger and gays were sick (both ideas that could be objectified scientifically given the conditions of the societies which held – or still hold – those views). He also has good reason to find a new norm. We know what a society without norms leads to. We also know what despair of universal norms leads to. It leads to the strange mix of science and pseudo-science that characterizes a society where everybody is struggling for survival, because survival is, in the end, when push comes to shove, the only thing that ‘matters’. Then we are just pawns in a game and game theory dictates we have to eat or be eaten as we are obstacles to one another’s maintenance and development. We can soften that a bit by pulling together out of reason (or whatever fluffy feeling we might want to add to that) but if an enlightened society is under threat we’ll have no option but to strike back (and strike first!). If there is anything universal it is probably this: every society can feel enlightened this way. There’s simply no alternative, or so we’re told.

And yet, as Canguilhem himself notes, there is a tension between mere maintenance and development of life that cannot be so easily resolved and that, in fact, is resolved in very diverse ways in different societies. The easy solution is to equate survival with life in the Darwinian way. This has become dogmatic in the enlightened society we in the West take as self-evident. Canguilhem says (ibid., p. 137): “Everything happens as if a society had ‘the mortality fitting to it’, the number of deaths and their distribution over different age groups translates the importance that is given by a society to longevity.” (own translation, original below). Now, in the West, if anything is still holy it is life itself and this translates directly in longevity. As the West absorbs cultures and cultures are absorbed in the dominance of this Western outlook, longevity spreads so as to seem the universal human aspiration.  It does so to the extent that the dogma of survival is installed to the point of being equated with life itself. Canguilhem, for all the insight he brings, already thinks this so obvious he accepts survival as the final norm of life, as something inherent to it. Whilst he’s far from an evolutionary view looking at genes as selfish replicators, he shares with such view the Darwinian dogma of survival extending from the most rudimentary forms of life up to & including human life.

The key to reassessing this dogma is, I think, seeing that survival is just one extreme end of the conjunction “maintenance and development of life”. Humans in their societies do and did make choices where the good life, its quality of life, is weighed against the length of it. In fact, the neoliberal consensus on individual life and its extension usually regards other cultures as inferior insofar they normatively take a collective outlook on the good life as more valuable as each individual life. This does not mean that neoliberal societies do not experience this tension anymore. Typically, they will run into a paradox in which individual life is so holy that – if it can’t be maintained to a certain standard – it should be allowed to self-terminate. The debate on euthanasia, the right to die or assisted suicide as it is conducted in the West is to be seen within the dogma of survival even if it seems – at first glance – to be a challenge to it. Indeed, typically euthanasia is restricted to conscious decisions of living human beings that set individual bounds as to what still counts as life, for them (within limits that are societally fixed!). What is not challenged is this idea that one has to survive as long as possible and that all medical means have to be exhausted in order for an individual to have access to a “quality of life” choice.

So, in the end, there is no real right to die but still first the duty to live. The quality of life, the quality of living as development, is only secondary to the maintenance of it, to a bare bones reflex of life to ensure its own survival. And this is the fatal flaw of the dogma that is shared between the neoliberal scientific and objective normativity and the criticism of Canguilhem: they see survival as basic to life because it is basic to a society considering it as the only holy element surviving both criticisms of the exact and human sciences. They both project the norm of such a society back to life itself and such projection is – first and foremost – a projection of all science to (Darwinian) biology. Where their appreciation of the individual and the environmental is fundamentally different they share adherence to the dogma of survival as the final norm of differentiating health and disease. Whilst it is understandable to draw the line here, given the way pathological ideologies have treated individual life as subordinate to higher goals, it still is wholly arbitrary to do so. It is also everything but innocent as can already be glanced from the above: by stressing survival as the norm of life, its development – the quality of living – becomes secondary. No middle can be found anymore and people are de facto sentenced to “go on” regardless of context.

The consequence of this commitment to survival – to the holiness of individual life – is the pandemic of longevity where people feel stuck in life even if they find their death would (if it could be planned as a part of their life) have a meaning (would give sense to living). We then have hoards of people who consider their survival to always outweigh what life might possibly mean: life literally becomes meaningless as it is its own last stand. This is the original problem the dogma of survival puts us in because life itself, clearly, does not entail longevity. If there is one thing all life has in common is that it is fragile and that, in its fragility, it is assured of death. Life’s meaning therefore cannot be in survival but in it creating opportunities for better life; in creating opportunities for development of better environments for future life. The quality of life, of living, is intimately tied to it meaning something to other life.  Sure, in order for it to mean something, it has to be lived, but if it is merely about living for itself it becomes empty (and a burden to creating something of significance as can be glanced from the current situation where low mortality is drawing the life out of our societies, to the point of old people accusing high natality to be a cause of all our modern woes). Life without risking death is dead.

A new stand is therefore needed where – as life has always done – a good middle is found between maintenance and development of life. Human life has to be seen as the result of an evolution in which this middle was first unconsciously sought in creating forms of life that were intrinsically social, where life was intersubjective instead of individual (or just collective). Human life is then saddled with the result of this evolution: conscious choices are required to find the trade-off between maintenance and development of life. We are, as I tried to argue, not doing well in this regard. We are destroying life by looking at each of our own lives as individually holy. The point is not that we are just destroying a planet (although for sure the result of the norm of survival is the destruction of a planet where such a norm is consciously enforced) but that we are destroying the point of all life in not seeing ourselves as the culmination of an evolution wherein each death was creation of a possibility of progress. Human life has gone viral on this earth not because it reproduces too quickly but because the virus is becoming both interminable and self re-enforcing. In current times, money is spent on not dying in amounts vastly outweighing those spent on living well. Rather then giving individuals choices as to what gives sense to them it is just saddles them with the made (up) sense that they need to see themselves as ends in their own right. This, I submit, is a deeply irrational thought because where it makes sense to treat others (including those as yet unborn) as “ends in themselves” it defies any possible purpose if everybody would think themselves to be an end in themselves.

I am not saying this new norm, of finding the good middle between the maintenance and development of life, is easy. If it would be easy, it would not be life worth living. What I’m saying though is simple: consider living only to the point of where your life makes sense, and understand that such making sense always implies others.

Quote 1: Nous pensons qu’en cela le vivant humain prolonge, de façon plus ou moins lucide, un effort spontané, propre à la vie, pour lutter contre ce qui fait obstacle à son maintien et à son développement pris pour normes.

Quote 2: Tout se passe comme si une société avait ‘la mortalité qui lui convient’, le nombre des morts et leur répartition aux différents âges traduisant l’importance que donne ou non une société à la prolongation de la vie.”


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