The Accidental World

6 February 2013


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To travel is to be schooled in one’s own irrelevance — one’s dispensability (if not disposability) at home, and one’s anonymity and fungibility abroad. Life goes on, with us or without us, so that our presence is essentially indifferent to the business of the world.

So I have now come to Tokyo for a week, and am being schooled in my own irrelevance and anonymity in this, one of the largest cities in the world.

When I was walking out of the Narita Airport I saw a large sign with a stylized depiction of a map of the world — the sort of thing that one sees everywhere because familiar projections of the world map have become iconic. This particular rendering of the world map reduced the image to oversized pixels, but the image was still immediately recognizable, much like the famous image of Lincoln’s face in photo mosaic by Leon Harmon, which was then adapted by Salvador Dali in his Lincoln in Dalivision.

As I rode the Narita express train into Tokyo I thought about this iconic image of the world, and how we now identify with it so easily. This was not always the case; in fact, this recognition of the planet entire as an icon represents the confluence of many factors: the mapping of the world (which has been going on since antiquity), wide dissemination of basic scientific knowledge (which is a fairly recent historical phenomenon), space technology which has allowed us to see the world whole, a media culture that repeats particular images until they become imprinted upon us, and other developments peculiar to our industrial-technological civilization.

The particular outlines that the continents happened to have assumed during the historical period, when they have been systematically mapped by human beings, have become iconic to us, and since they are now shown to us with casual regularity, and in addition we have photographs that reveal to us the outlines of the continents as they have been mapped, we intuitively respond to these images and identify with them as readily as we identify with our faces in the mirror, which latter are equally the products of chance, i.e., accidents of history. In the case of island nation-states, like Japan, Britain, and Australia, the familiar outlines of an island, seen whole, may even evoke feelings of nationalism and patriotism.

The individual variability upon which natural selection is predicated implies the biological uniqueness of the individual, and this biological uniqueness extends to our physiognomy, our metabolism (i.e., the individual life of the individual body), and to our brain, which ultimately means the uniqueness of the individual mind emergent from the uniqueness of the body. There is a sense, then, in which it is right that we should identify with our individual faces as expressive of our individual identity. Perhaps, then, there is also a sense, mutatis mutandis, in which it is right that we should identify with the particular outlines of the landmasses of the world, upon which our existence and the shape and structure of our lives is predicated.

All of these unique, individual expressions of life — the life of the planet and the life of the individual, inter alia — we identify as being uniquely ours: our planet, our continent, our country, our people, and our body, our face. These are the accidents of history upon which natural selection acts, and in so acting generates further unique expressions of life, including entire unique species, and the worlds upon which they live. Indeed, our species expands its numbers, and therefore expands its range and the extent of its civilization, by a systematic randomizing process — sexual reproduction — that ensures children will always be unlike their parents, i.e., that they will be unique individuals in their own right.

It has become something of a contemporary commonplace to critique the egoism of individuality, and this critique of egoism is properly understood as a Copernican critique — or, contrariwise, the macroscopic Copernican critique of anthropocentrism and geocentrism and all Earth-centered thinking may be understood as an extension and an extrapolation of the critique of egocentric thinking.

Yet the individual is unique, and therefore possesses unique value — i.e., the individual possesses axiological uniqueness in virtue of ontological uniqueness. However, the unique value of the individual has primarily been conceived and expressed in terms of the individual’s exemplification of universal values and principles — this is particularly striking in the case of Enlightenment universalism. Here, the individual serves as a mere cipher for the universal (in Hegelian terms, a concrete universal, or, in the language of analytical philosophy, the token of a type).

The Foucauldian critique of the Enlightenment, which has been called “anti-humanist,” has often been implicitly cast as also anti-individualist, but it could with equal justification be called anti-anthropocentric, which is to say that the Foucauldian critique is an extension of the Copernican critique. Like most science as we have come to know it in its modern form, the Foucauldian critique (following the Copernican critique) is a denial of privileged forms of being. This ontological critique of privilege emerges not in spite of but rather because of an appreciation of individual uniqueness in all its contingency.

In a sense, this perspective is akin to contemporary object oriented ontology (OOO), which, in speaking in terms of a “democracy of objects” (as in Levi R. Bryant’s book of the same name), also denies privileged forms of being.

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A fragment of the Tokyo skyline as seen from the window of my hotel room.

A fragment of the Tokyo skyline as seen from the window of my hotel room.

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