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The Horror of Relations

Jonathan Beever explores the light and dark sides of interconnectedness.

As a result of the explosive growth of ecological thinking, the idea of interdependence is all around us. Fundamental to the idea is the view that, in some way, ‘we’re all connected’ – to each other, to other organisms, and to our environments, both analog and digital. And usually implicit here is the idea that this connectedness is a good and beautiful thing. Being connected makes us stronger, healthier, more engaged, and more thoughtful. Yet lurking under this positive view of our relatedness is a darker view – that being inextricably interconnected is existentially horrifying. Being connected in the strong sense of being interdependent with others, threatens what it is to be a self, and what it is to be an individual. This dark side of interdependence is revealed when we see that interdependence means more than merely interconnection.

The Light View

Many ecological and social theorists argue that relational thinking has implications for understanding the nature and moral worth of the individual self. For example, if we see individuals as interconnected, then valuing others becomes a necessary condition for valuing oneself. This thinking is at the heart of some feminist projects too, which seek to reconcile what has been seen as ‘masculinist’ projects of autonomy, identity, and individuality with the more ‘feminist’ projects of relationality and interconnectedness.

Thinking about the individual takes at least three major forms. The first of these is strong individualism. This view holds individuals as akin to billiard balls: isolated, discrete and self-contained entities, negotiating space viz-a-viz one another. This view, I think, has been especially prevalent in mainstream Western philosophy, which has tended to exalt the capacity for autonomous rational decision-making above all other human capacities. This individualism has trickled down into our understanding of other organisms, too. It has enabled us to believe we can understand any organism simply by isolating it and examining its internal functioning.

Strong individualism has also been widely and regularly challenged. Indeed, I set it up here as a bit of a straw-man, against which to juxtapose a second view. That second view of the individual, from feminist epistemologists such as Annette Baier, Anne Donchin, and John Christman, champions the constitutive role that social relationships play in framing what we are and what we know about the world. According to this view, we are as individuals somehow dependent on our social relationships. And if social relationships are constitutive of an organism’s nature, then any organism that enters into social relationships is shaped by them. Nonhuman animals, just like human ones, are formed and defined by their relationships.

Spider in Web
Spider in Web © Snapdragon66 2019 Creative Commons

We have strong evidence that like social relationships, our relationships are to our environment partly constitute. So, a third form of thinking about the individual looks beyond social interconnections to ecological interconnectedness more generally. While interdependence has initially been seen in terms of social relationships, ecological relational thinking has much longer legs.

Two examples, one external and one internal, are instructive here. The soundscape ecologist and musician Bernie Krause tells a story of a troop of elephants in Malawi, at a place called Senga Bay. A geological feature of the bay enabled them to develop a troop-specific dialect by incorporating echoes off cliff walls into their communications. According to Krause, the uniqueness of their environment means that no other group of elephants on the planet shares this dialect.

If social and environmental relationships are external, microbial relationships are internal. Human bodies are made up of human cells and microbial organisms in approximately equal quantities. The intimate relationship between each individual and their microbiome makes possible physiological capacities that are not the product of specifically human organism evolution – affecting someone’s obesity or leanness, for example.

Microbial ecologists have continued to add nuance to a symbiotic view of the human organism and its microbial communities, especially those present in the human gut. Yet even as they recognize relationships of dependence, the language of microbiologists upholds individualism in the distinction between the human body and the microbes that reside inside or upon it. Here is a view of two distinct entities, two ‘individuals’, working together toward a common end – in this case, health.

Putting this all together, we can say that the human individual is constituted by relationships between its microbiome and its own cellular structures, as well as by our external social and environmental relationships. We are dependent on our connections.

There is beauty in this positive view of ecological interdependence. It challenges the isolating individualism of Western modernity while sustaining identity and uniqueness. It reflects a deep connection to the living world around us, shaping and sustaining who we are. Thanks to this view, we can have our relations and eat them, too.

Interconnection is Not Interdependence

Although we are quite comfortable with being richly interconnected in this way, interdependence implies that we are somehow contingent. As ecological culture continues to develop through scientific inquiry and technological progress, it increasingly accepts not only the dependent relationships with which we are already comfortable, but also our interdependent relationships. And the more we recognize the difference between interconnection and interdependence, the uneasier we become. The differentiation challenges what philosopher Lorraine Code calls our social imaginary.

Dependent relationships are those that link together two otherwise distinct individuals. When feminist thinkers spoke of ‘constitutive social relationships’, they largely left implicit the assumption that the individual stands alone. Individuals interact and influence one another, true, but still much like the billiard balls of strong individualism. If an individual was in some specific relationship, for instance, they would still be, just slightly differently.

Interdependence offers a very different perspective, asking us to consider that our existence itself depends on certain relationships. This is just the concern that biologist Kriti Sharma takes up in the introduction to her brief but brilliant Interdependence (2015), arguing that although that term has been used in a myriad of ways, it is fundamentally about this ontological question – about what it is to be.

Sharma believes understanding interdependence requires two distinct shifts in our social imaginary. The first she describes as the ‘nontrivial’ move from considering things in isolation to considering things in interaction. This shift is a popular and popularized one, perhaps first taken up by feminist thinkers challenging strong individualism, and now championed by, well, nearly everyone. It’s difficult to imagine a philosopher who’s able to ignore the vast and compelling evidence of the ways we function in interaction rather than isolation. A prime example of this to me is the work of moral psychology, which has shaken up the traditional view in ethics that vastly privileges reason at the expense of emotion.

While Sharma’s first shift is a popular one, the second is the more significant. She advocates a move from considering things simply in interaction to considering things as mutually constituted. By that she means things existing at all only due to their interdependence.

The Dark View

The first shift is easy by comparison, because it doesn’t ask us to change our view of the world. We can happily say naive things like, “Whoa, dude, everything is, like, totally connected.” But the second shift? To say that strong individualism is a myth makes us uncomfortable – maybe very uncomfortable.

In fact, that second shift points us to an uncomfortable problem that is also an ancient problem: How can something’s identity depend on constitutive relationships, either inside or out? Plutarch posed a problem like this in his tale of the Ship of Theseus. According to him, after Theseus returned from slaying the Minotaur, the Athenians preserved his ship for the edification of posterity. They regularly took away old planks as they decayed and replaced them with newer, stronger timbers; or nails as they rusted; or sails as they wore out, until none of the original material of the ship remained. Was it still the original ship, or not? And if not, when did it stop being the original ship? Plutarch describes this a standing example among philosophers, some of whom believed the ship remained the same, and some who contended that it was not. (Consider that all the cellular material in our own bodies is also completely replaced every seven years or so.)

Interdependence introduces the possibility of radical change in dynamic interrelated systems in a similar way, as that with which we are interdependent itself changes. Radical shifts in our relationships – social, environmental, and even microbial – fundamentally change us. But this means that the stable isolated self might well be nothing more than a useful fiction.

There is darkness here. Relationships that we initially took to build us up, supporting our free choices and moral worth, instead make us wholly contingent, dependent completely for our identity on the shifting world around us. If we accept that we are interdependent with our relations, this weakens the concepts of self, individual, and identity that have grounded us. And then, what’s left? What if there is nothing at all in what it is to be an independent, free individual? Existentialism is grounded in this sort of horror: Sartre glimpsed it first in the chestnut tree’s roots, and felt the nausea of being de trop (‘unwelcome’).

My point is that the conceptual shift from connection to dependence shifts the ways we perceive what it is to be an individual, and therefore a self, and the result of this shift is a cascade of practical effects that we can’t quite foresee but which we can only imagine as horrific. Imagine, for instance, a world in which the idea of the individual which supports a respect for autonomy is eroded. Anyone fancy that brave new world?

The dark side of interdependence draws inspiration from emerging biology, much as its light counterpart did. If some see interrelation and symbiosis, others see the dissolution of the self and parasitology. Couple this with the concerns for individuality arising from digital technology, and the picture looks even darker. No longer is the self somehow isolated, internal, and stable, but instead dynamic, externalized, and informationalized – informed and shaped by a myriad of technologies which increasingly control us in both explicit and subtly implicit ways, epistemically and ethically. We extend our selves out in ways we don’t fully understand, through social networks that tell us we need more friends, through biobanks that make us think we need to know our genetic history, and through consumer markets that tell us what to want and when to want it.

These extensions promise (on the positive view) or threaten (on the negative view) to reshape, reform, and reconstitute us. If we see these challenges to the self as challenges of connection, then we maintain a grounding in the individual, the hub in the network of connections. But the challenge of interdependence is that the connection itself – the dependency – explains the nature of the world, with the hub and the node mere fictions which help us make sense of that shapeless rhizome of our relations. When the individual is seen as truly interdependent upon its relationships, then a rapid shift in the nature of those relationships can radically transform not only how the individual is perceived, but what the individual is. And such shifts can be horrifying.

© Jonathan Beever 2022

Jonathan Beever is an associate professor of philosophy, ethicist, and father, among other relations. You can learn more about his work at jonathan.beever.org.

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