There are many who focus on life’s precariousness or its intrinsic vulnerability for good reason. They want to protect us from the many threats that we face. It is, however, quite a precarious thing to highlight our intrinsic vulnerability to extrinsic threats. Indeed, as soon as we feel vulnerable we feel alone. And when we feel alone we get our defenses up to the extent we do not want to let anyone in. This much is clear from our reaction to the various immigration crises around the world. Focusing on a first person’s precariousness creates the third person’s threat; me and him, us and them.
What the feeling of precariousness does is create the feeling of a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world. We may then have good intentions, even be convinced with Rousseau that man or nature unspoiled is intrinsically good, but the result is the same: the struggle to retrieve a long lost freedom is our essence. As Derrida deconstructed it, the arrow points backward instead of forward. And that’s not good because whatever way you look at it, we will live our lives predominantly in the future.
The question is: ‘Can we do better?’. My answer is: ‘Yes, we can!’ Here’s why.
There are two reasons to seriously doubt life is precarious. One is: science, and the other is: our immediate experience. I’ll start with the second and then discuss the first because the whole idea behind this precariousness-thinking is to discredit our own experience as naïve with respect to our beastly nature, as blind to the facts of oppression and so on.
What is our immediate experience?
We come into life helpless and we are helped. We are lost and we get directions. We feel deserted and we are consoled. If there is one constant background factor in experience it is that we are not alone. Is this always true? No, it isn’t; but it’s true nevertheless that as a rule most of the time someone’s got your back. It’s so true that we barely notice it and are acutely aware when the rule is violated. Our heart sinks, our hairs stand on end. We feel such precarious moments viscerally in our bodies as moments of acute vulnerability. It’s clearly not what we were cut out for as we are clearly not cut out for it. The case does not rest there as we are a restless species but more on that later.
Doesn’t science prove life is, when push comes to shove, just a struggle for survival?
Science does no such thing. It could not for the simple reason science presupposes life for its emergence. More than this, science requires collaboration. Even more than more than this, science is antithetical to ‘life just being a struggle for survival’. Science requires free time, as Aristotle had it: without free time no schools (even etymologically speaking). The problem is that science forgets this experience – and thereby itself – trying to explain life without premises. What is certain – life – becomes a question mark in need of an ultimate answer and that answer is precariousness which in turn becomes the exclamation mark of struggle for survival. And so we don’t see it literally requires energy to kill the planet.
The truth is that life is self-reenforcing. Life is abundant. Life breeds life. For every little struggle between living beings there are infinitely many cases of living beings sustaining other living beings. The question is what we focus on. As said above, what draws out our attention is the unusual experience of being vulnerable. But this isn’t our experience, it is just what we focus on in our experience. The reality of our experience is that we console and are consoled, that we have free time in which we can feel safe, that we collaborate, … It is as nonsensical to conceive of isolated non-collaborating life forms as it is nonsensical to conceive of a private language. There is nothing at all precarious about it.
All of this leaves one piece missing: why is there good reason to focus on precariousness and vulnerability? The good reason is that status quo stifles life. Dullness is a vice. Some, think Steven Pinker, want us to believe that progress is unavoidable, and thereby dull us into accepting that what is should be. They are dead wrong. Chance creates surprise, and surprise vulnerability, and vulnerability a sense of precariousness that invites evolution of nature and culture to be creative in finding new solutions. The difference between the creativity of nature and that of culture is that the latter is built through individual traces.
Action is a choice of participatory sense-making of traces left by individual vulnerability. Knowing that, even in the most precarious oppressive moments one is not alone, there’s – always – the possibility of consolation. Because: that’s life, folks.