Umair Haque

Thrownness. There are three aspects to it that I’m always struck by. The first is mortality. We’re born, we die. But human mortality is special. We know we’re going to die. And so our whole lives, as Freud pointed out — and then tried to forget, ironically, himself — are prefigured on an escape from this knowledge of our mortality.
The second is our loneliness. We’re alone. Each and every one of us. There is a uncrossable river between us. I will never know you in the most intimate way — no matter how close our bodies touch — because your “interiority”, as Derrida would later put it, your inner world, is yours and yours alone. The most that we can do is to use art, literature, song, fashion — all the many forms of self-expression — to communicate it.
And third is our helplessness. We’re powerless, in even the most basic ways, to not be who we are. Consider that we have these strange things called emotions. We don’t often like them — we try our best to block and stop and ignore them. But there they are, simmering, boiling, surging, just beneath the surface of our rational minds. Things make us feel. Everything makes us feel. Have you ever noticed? Every single things makes us feel. A river. A tree. A mountain. An empty and desolate parking lot. The ashes of a fire. We call ourselves “homo sapiens” — but that’s a grossly inaccurate description. We feel before we think, and we feel constantly. Feeling is a beautiful ache that we either learn to appreciate and love — or hate and run away from.

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1 Response to Umair Haque

  1. shinichi says:

    Why The 21st Century Needs (an Existential) Revolution

    We Need to Build Systems, Organizations, and Institutions That Exist for a Reason That Matters Again. Here’s How.

    by umair haque

    https://eand.co/why-the-21st-century-needs-an-existential-revolution-c3068a10b689

    Watching the catastrophic, historic meltdown the world is currently in — extremism sweeping the globe, America and Britain turning into laughingstocks, fanaticism rising, economies stagnating, societies fracturing, planet melting…and you and I traumatized by it all, perhaps not quite knowing it yet…I’ve been reflecting. On what the bases for the next set of institutions — countries, companies, social contracts, towns, cities — are. Should be. Weren’t. Call it the basis of the next sociopoltical order, if you want a mouthful.

    The 21st century needs a revolution. When I reflect on that on the world we should have, but didn’t, I’m struck, over and over again, by an idea. The idea of “thrownness.” Heidegger coined the phrase, to encapsulate the human condition. We’re thrown into this — what Camus would later call absurd, and Sartre call sickening — situation, plight, existence.

    Thrownness. There are three aspects to it that I’m always struck by. The first is mortality. We’re born, we die. But human mortality is special. We know we’re going to die. And so our whole lives, as Freud pointed out — and then tried to forget, ironically, himself — are prefigured on an escape from this knowledge of our mortality.

    The second is our loneliness. We’re alone. Each and every one of us. There is a uncrossable river between us. I will never know you in the most intimate way — no matter how close our bodies touch — because your “interiority”, as Derrida would later put it, your inner world, is yours and yours alone. The most that we can do is to use art, literature, song, fashion — all the many forms of self-expression — to communicate it.

    And third is our helplessness. We’re powerless, in even the most basic ways, to not be who we are. Consider that we have these strange things called emotions. We don’t often like them — we try our best to block and stop and ignore them. But there they are, simmering, boiling, surging, just beneath the surface of our rational minds. Things make us feel. Everything makes us feel. Have you ever noticed? Every single things makes us feel. A river. A tree. A mountain. An empty and desolate parking lot. The ashes of a fire. We call ourselves “homo sapiens” — but that’s a grossly inaccurate description. We feel before we think, and we feel constantly. Feeling is a beautiful ache that we either learn to appreciate and love — or hate and run away from.

    Now. My definition of “thrownness” certainly diverges from Heidegger’s a little bit. But that’s besides the point. The point is this. We are thrown into our plight. My three conditions are inescapable. Nobody in the world — not a single person, ever — has found any means of recourse or salvation from them. Hence, Sartre’s “No Exit.” We’re thrown into this existence — whether we like it or not.

    What, you might ask, does all that have to do with the question of foundations for the next sociopolitical order? Everything, in fact. This delicate, subtle, nuanced understanding of the human condition is of course what the existentialists wrote about, discovered, revealed. And it was later to become the moral basis of modern social democracy.

    If I am thrown into this existence, unwilling, helpless, alone — then what am I to do? Now, you can skip the next three or four paragraphs if you just want the answer — they’re a counterexample. (And the answer goes like this: if we’re thrown into existence, then the purpose of our systems and institutions, not to mention ourselves, should be to catch each other when we fall, and lift each and every one of us up.)

    American thinking offers us one answer to the question of how to treat each other. I am to prey on you. I am to exploit you. I am to rack up as much profit as I can off you — whatever the cost. The strong should survive — and the weak should perish. The weak are a burden, and the strong ensure the fitness of the tribe. It is the strong’s moral duty, therefore, to subjugate the weak. Whether that means enslaving them (as it did a century ago), abusing them (as it did half a century ago), or exploiting them (as it does now).

    This answer is the nihilistic answer. It is the selfish and superficial and shallow answer to the great and terrible question of human existence. It isn’t really an answer at all. Yet precisely because it’s relied on this non-answer, American society is falling apart. The average person lives in a new kind of poverty — at the razor’s edge, dying in debt, never able to earn, save, or own anything in net terms their whole lives long. A tiny number of predators have grown ultra rich, taking more than 100% of society’s gains over the last few decades. They became the Nietzschean ubermen — and the rest, 99% of American society, became the untermen, the undermen, the nobodies, that the ubermen stood upon.

    Yet the great question of human existence is also the great question of human coexistence. How am I to live with myself? How are we to live with each other? These are really the same question — and America got the answer dead wrong. Its answer was: we are here to relentlessly compete with one another, for the very things we could have just given one another. This answer — we now have hard, stark evidence, leads to collapse. To real and hard social collapse, like America’s having.

    You see, what this answer provides are largely meaningless solutions. I am here to dominate you. I am here to control you. I am here to own as much as I can, including you. I am here to be violent, greedy, and selfish, so that my appetites are satisfied, so that I feel superior to you. So what? None of that has led to happiness, meaning, purpose, trust, grace — only the precise opposite, as so perfectly exemplified by the Trumps.

    Now, if we use this answer, like America, we will fail the test of coexistence, and our society will collapse. And using this answer is why America has failed to coexist for so long, with, well, anyone — why it’s bombed and invaded and drone missiled half the world or more (that’s not an exaggeration: America’s made war on something like 80 countries, and there are 150 or so in the world.) And it’s why Americans can’t coexist with one another now — hence, society is imploding into a fascist spectacle, replete with camps, aspiring dictator, and budding Gestapo.

    If we are really going to build better societies, countries, companies, a world, then we need a far, far better answer than the American one, to the deepest question of all: why are we here? Is it just to get the most rich and powerful, at anyone and everyone else’s expense? By being the most brutal, selfish, narcissistic, and stupid? To rack up millions and billions we’ll never spend? Or are we here to be something much deeper, truer, and more beautiful than that? But how do we become that us?

    I think we need to take begin with this idea of thrownness, the solitude, helplessness, and tragedy that it implies. And take them seriously. Because they are the deepest parts of us. If we did take them seriously, what design principles would we come up with?

    We’d begin to see that the purpose of institutions and systems is to catch us when we fall, and lift us up — since we are thrown into existence in the first place.

    The first principle all that implies is empathy. Real, true, abiding empathy. The kind that moves to tears, insight, transformation, a newness of self. Not reality TV pity. Our systems today promote envy — not empathy. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. We’re glued to our screens. But our screens are envy machines. Hard research suggests the more time we spend on them, the less empathic we become — because, most likely, other research suggests we grow dumber, meaner, lonelier, and angrier. That’s the small picutre. The big picture is that capitalism relies on envy to make it go. I have to envy your car, bag, house, to want to outdo you, and thus dedicate my life to some probably pretty pointless job. I know, I’ll be a lobbyist — that’ll buy me that McMansion.

    Empathy means: I’m thrown into this existence, just like you. I understand that you are powerless, alone, and mortal, just like me. I feel what you do, too. Anxiety, despair, grief. Just over being alive. Just being here is an ache. Just existing is a tragedy. I empathize deeply with you. I feel this terrible, beautiful pain in you.

    If we felt genuine empathy for one another, as beings thrown into an unwanted existence, what would our next principle be? We would want do no harm to one another. Existing — just being here — is tragic enough already. It is a thing of grief, pain, and mourning — from which there is no exit, save the final one. Why would I want to add to the suffering you already feel, from simply being thrown into a powerless, lonely, mortal existence? Let’s call that care, or concern, which is my second principle.

    Note how different all this already is from the American answer. The American answer is: envy instead of empathy, and exploitation instead of doing no harm. Americans don’t care about not harming one another — their entire society is premised on denying each other healthcare, retirement, gun control, at this point, even school lunches, drinking water, and democracy. See how closely existential questions and social collapse are linked?

    What then would our third principle be? If I wanted to do you no harm, because I empathized deeply with the ache of just existing, of being thrown into a tragic condition — then I would also need to care about you. I would want you to realize your possibilities. Maybe you would write a beautiful song, that would express how I feel. A film, a book, a poem, a painting. Maybe you would discover something out there in the universe, that would shed light on the absurdity of the human condition. Maybe you would cure cancer — so that there is less suffering in this thrown condition we find ourselves in already so marred by grief and tragedy. Let’s call that dignity, my third principle.

    I would want you to have dignity. Genuinely and deeply. To become your highest self. That would mean investing in you. And that would mean great public institutions, because they are what happens when people invest in each other. I would invest in your education, healthcare, retirement, income, savings — and you would invest in mine. We would coexist. Instead of trying to perpetually annihilate each other — and finally succeeding — like Americans.

    What do my three principles add up to? Systems and institutions that do the polar opposite of the ones we have today, which fuel envy, greed, seflishness, rage, meaningless, ignorance, bigotry…an endless list of human moral and social and intellectual implosion.

    We would have built systems and institutions that catch us when we fall. And lift us up. Because we are thrown into this existence in the first place. Each just as helpless, just as alone, just as mortal — just as afraid, desperate, and frightened by it all too.

    There’s a certain strange and terrible and desperate beauty in that, isn’t there? Catching each other when we fall, because we are thrown, in the first place? And yet these ideas — which I’ve put much less elegantly than the Sartres and Camuses who discovered them — were to become to the foundation of European social democracy. The deep morality underlying history’s greatest and quietest revolution. People coexisting for the first time, by investing in one another — because beneath all that sat a beautiful, powerful, revelatory, revolutionary understanding of the human condition, and all its fragility and grace.

    It’s true that Europe is itself forgetting all that. All of it. The line from philosophy to politics, from existentialism to social democracy. That its leaders — many of them — admire tacky, loud, greedy American capitalists and billionaires and oligarchs more than…it’s own greatest thinkers, like Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Freud. It’s also true that many Europeans scorn them for just that — when they’re not raging at them.

    Europe may well choose to become another America. Britain has. But we know what lies at the end of that road: America does. A place where people can’t coexist, because they can’t invest, because a society, they have profound deficits of empathy, care, and dignity. Or at least they have less of those, collectively, than they envy each other, they exploit each other, and they harm one another. Such a society collapses — it eats itself — just like America’s doing now. Have we really learned the lesson yet? How deep it goes?

    So there are my three design principles for better everythings — countries, cities, towns, companies. They sound pretty trivial, it’s true — empathy, concern, and dignity. But I mean them in a precise way. A radical way. A transformational way. A way that has to do with what it means to be human, and the ache we feel just existing. We don’t talk often enough about such things these days. We have forgotten the truth in ourselves, my friends. The great questions beating in our tiny, fragile hearts. And the answers we once had to the strange, beautiful, terrible, brief things called lives, existences, we find ourselves thrown, all too helplessly, alone, mortal, into.

    So let us begin there. Even if it means beginning all over again.

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