Although the concept of “selfish gene” has been all but scientifically abandoned, the basic concept of “survival” underlying it remains firmly entrenched in naturalistic narratives. This is a problem for this simple reason: it blocks us from increasing our understanding of (our) nature.
Part of the myth of survival is the myth that it is an inescapable consequence of going for a naturalistic narrative in the first place. That it is not is something Deleuze tells us based on a thorough reading of Hume (in his Empiricism and Subjectivity) where he says: “And, above all, Hume centers his critique on the theory of egoism.” The myth of survival is, of course, also the myth that, when push literally comes to shove, we choose based on self-interest. Hume was not Hobbes.
The other part of the myth of survival is that we need a unifying concept of life to which all else can be reduced. Survival seems to be the only concept that survives the struggle for narrating nature and culture alike. But, as Deleuze says, this falsifies both as: “Nature and culture form a complex. Hume refuses theories that reduce everything to nature (..) just like those reducing everything to nurture. The first, in forgetting culture, give a false impression of nature; the others, in forgetting nature, deform culture.”
The question then is: do we need the concept of survival at all? And if we do, what needs to be put alongside it such that we get a naturalism doing justice to all the facts (included those related to notions like solidarity, friendship, love, and self-sacrifice)?
“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.