Judith Butler: Creating an Inhabitable World for Humans Means Dismantling Rigid Forms of Individuality

·4 min read
A hazy view on the approach to Dubai International Airport.
A hazy view on the approach to Dubai International Airport.

A hazy view on the approach to Dubai International Airport. Credit - Thomas Prior

However differently we register this pandemic we understand it as global; it brings home the fact that we are implicated in a shared world. The capacity of living human creatures to affect one another can be a matter of life or death. Because so many resources are not equitably shared, and so many have only a small or vanished share of the world, we cannot recognize the pandemic as global without facing those inequalities.

Some people work for the common world, keep it going, but are not, for that reason, of it. They might lack property or papers, be sidelined by racism or even disdained as refuse—those who are poor, Black or brown, those with unpayable debts that preclude a sense of an open future.

The shared world is not equally shared. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to “the part of those who have no part”—those for whom participation in the commons is not possible, never was, or no longer is. For it is not just resources and companies in which a share is to be had, but a sense of the common, a sense of belonging to a world equally, a trust that the world is organized to support everyone’s flourishing.

The pandemic has illuminated and intensified racial and economic inequalities at the same time that it heightens the global sense of our obligations to one another and the earth. There is movement in a global direction, one based on a new sense of mortality and interdependency. The experience of finitude is coupled with a keen sense of inequalities: Who dies early and why, and for whom is there no infrastructural or social promise of life’s continuity?

This sense of the interdependency of the world, strengthened by a common immunological predicament, challenges the notion of ourselves as isolated individuals encased in discrete bodies, bound by established borders. Who now could deny that to be a body at all is to be bound up with other living creatures, with surfaces, and the elements, including the air that belongs to no one and everyone?

Within these pandemic times, air, water, shelter, clothing and access to health care are sites of individual and collective anxiety. But all these were already imperiled by climate change. Whether or not one is living a livable life is not only a private existential question, but an urgent economic one, incited by the life-and-death consequences of social inequality: Are there health services and shelters and clean enough water for all those who should have an equal share of this world? The question is made more urgent by conditions of heightened economic precarity during the pandemic, exposing as well the ongoing climate catastrophe for the threat to livable life that it is.

Pandemic is etymologically pandemos, all the people, or perhaps more precisely, the people everywhere, or something that spreads over or through the people. The “demos” is all the people despite the legal barriers that seek to separate them. A pandemic, then, links all the people through the potentials of infection and recovery, suffering and hope, immunity and fatality. No border stops the virus from traveling if humans travel; no social category secures absolute immunity for those
it includes.

“The political in our time must start from the imperative to reconstruct the world in common,” argues Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. If we consider the plundering of the earth’s resources for the purposes of corporate profit, privatization and colonization itself as planetary project or enterprise, then it makes sense to devise a movement that does not send us back to our egos and identities, our cut-off lives.

Such a movement will be, for Mbembe, “a decolonization [which] is by definition a planetary enterprise, a radical openness of and to the world, a deep breathing for the world as opposed to insulation.” The planetary opposition to extraction and systemic racism ought to then deliver us back to the world, or let the world arrive, as if for the first time, a shared place for “deep breathing”—a desire we all now know.

And yet, an inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.

As we dismantle the rigid forms of individuality in these interconnected times, we can imagine the smaller part that human worlds must play on this earth whose regeneration we depend upon—and which, in turn, depends upon our smaller and more mindful role.

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