By Juzar Shabbir
A body, like consciousness, is at the same time personal and social. If someone is hurt, I feel an odd sensation in my body. This is a proof of a body that is more social than personal. I don’t know where my body ends and yours begins. The more dear someone or something is to me the more intense that undesirable sensation will be. We are glued to one another by a feeling of sympathy. The relation between a flower and a bee is a sympathetic one and not a symbiotic one. Life, like the body, is as much social as it is personal. Because it’s not only me who suffers death, but also the lives that surround me. The death of a squirrel is as much a cause of pain as it is of a human.
Symbiotic relation is a relation of exchange, more precisely an equal exchange; I give you a thing and you give me another in return. This sort of relation presupposes possession of objects. And a self-defined in this way will be a self-made up of objects. So a self can be larger or smaller depending on the quantity of objects under its possession. A self that is quantifiable. That depends on quantity. If there is to be an equal exchange, there will be a problem of equating very dissimilar things.
How many oranges will you give me for a wrist watch on your hand? Or how many hours of labor for a bowl of rice? And how does both the parties ensure of having carried an equal exchange. The notion of trust and distrust airses as a consequence of such a relation because there is no obvious way of comparing watches and walnuts. This is also the beginning of antagonisms and violence as there will always remain a trust deficit. This is also the beginning of ethics.
Here the state enters as an abstract intermediary power with its laws and mints and arms in order to settle antagonisms. So that there cannot exist an independent relation between two people or between humans and nature, but only as one mediated by laws of exchange. The relation of exchange dominates all other relationships and skews it. Preoccupied with exchange, we have come to perceive even nature as dependent on exchanges, either mutual or parasitic. Because the state is a product of the relation of exchange, it can neither emancipate itself nor you and me or nature.
What if someone does not possess anything to offer in return, not even one’s labor? Will that someone be left alone then, or thrown away like an unproductive cow? And being left to oneself, will one be able to live, because life is social, that is, dependent on one another ? And if the number of dispossessed ones is large, will there be anybody alive anymore, because equal exchange cannot take place anymore?
Charity or philanthropy can prolong life for a while but that too demands something in return, even more; subservience on one hand and self-aggrandisement on another. The current pandemic has only revealed the rotting body hitherto hidden beneath the edifice of exchange. So, can a state founded on the ethic of exchange ever open up its coffers and granaries for the dispossessed? The answer seems a disheartening no. And if it does, will it not wither away.
Yet the world has not come to an end nor has humanity. At least not yet. There is something else apart from the abstract relation of exchange that allows life to go on. A relation that is more direct between you and me, between nature and humans, hence more real. A sympathetic relation, a relation of feeling; I feel you in me. So that it is ever more difficult to separate myself from a flower or a bee or a squirrel. Ever more difficult to propagate the distinction of species enboxed in their own distinct worlds.
Does a bird on the tree interact with the tree or is alive with the tree, so that it’s difficult to separate the life of one from the other? The bird is tree is soil is earthworm and so on. Because language itself is a product and continuation of exchange relations, it is difficult to describe what sympathy actually is. Exchange relations works by slicing things from its context of life and turning it into objects unto itself through the use of language. So a cow is only a cow and a human is only a human.
If that is the case, then is poetry ever possible? Our experience of listening or reading a poem tells us that it is possible. It makes us feel things. It allows us to experience sympathy. So how does it do so? A simple answer will be, by melting words and categories under the fire of feeling. The experience of music is the experience of sympathy. So that music is born of sympathy and ends in sympathy. An experience of being alive, of being not-separate from the rest. An experience of belonging to the flow of life. Where the experience of the sublime, a most common modern day experience, relies on the separation of things by further objectifying the categories, the experience of beauty relies on not-separateness. While experience of the sublime ossifies the self, the experience of beauty transforms it. Personification and metaphors are proof of that becoming. A flower becomes a bee becomes honey becomes me.
Burdened with the false necessity of give and take, especially in the ever more expanding world of exchange, sympathy never finds its fullest expression in human action. It is a relation more fundamental than any other. Rather, sympathy is the absence of relationships, because any relation presupposes categories, objects or entities closed unto itself and relating to one another for a purpose of exchange. Relations are always external.
So, when we imagine a new normal, what are we really imagining? Is it the world of exchange relations or the world of sympathy? Is it the world of the sublime or the world of beauty?