Living in Our New Village

It can be great fun to discover connections among the different little sections of one’s life.  For several weeks I have been acting as an editorial “mid-wife” as a friend writes a paper that he will present at a scholarly conference in Serbia this week.   The conference is put on by the Ecclesiological Investigations Network and the paper discusses the work of a number of contemporary philosophers and social critics.

I now know infinitely more than I did before about the works of Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt, Antoni Negri, Jacob Taubes, and others.  It’s heady stuff.  Agamben in particular is hard to read.  But the ideas are fascinating and many of the issues swirl around the relationship between the individual and society and what happens when individuals associate with one another–to what extent are their individual characteristics erased or subsumed in a crowd? What authority does the crowd have?  How is it constituted?

The paper itself deals mostly with how a number of atheistic thinkers have made use of theological texts and examples, particularly those of St. Paul and St. Francis, to help them construct their political critiques.  The communities envisioned by both Paul and Francis have characteristics that appeal to radical and Marxist thinkers today, and those thinkers’ ideas, in turn, have relevance for ecclesiologists as they imagine the sort of community to which we are called in Christ.

Anyhow, the paper is pretty well “birthed” now, and it and its author are on their way to Belgrade.  So this morning I turned to another project, that of re-upping my certification as an IRB member.  I need to review and be re-tested on issues of confidentiality, privacy, regulations, and ethics in medical research involving human subjects.

The re-certification material is mostly pretty dry stuff, paragraphs of bureaucratese tested with little multiple-choice quizzes.  But the section on genetic research in human populations caught my attention.  The last few weeks spent with Agamben’s concerns about how the state inappropriately asserts authority over issues of “bare life” suddenly gave life and color to the issue of valid consent for tissue-banking.

Before now I had more or less despaired of the idea of valid consent in these issues and had felt that the concerns raised so stridently by privacy advocates were quaint and probably correct, but basically unaddressable.  They were not quite in the same category as lining your hat with tin foil so that Big Brother couldn’t direct your thoughts, but close.

I do not think that we will hold back the tide of information about individuals that is now available through genomics.  There are similar issues surrounding surveillance and image profiling techniques. Even if we could “unlearn” what we have learned, I believe the potential therapeutic and public safety “benefits” of these technologies will be judged by society to out-weigh the privacy and confidentiality concerns.

I find a useful corrective to some these concerns in a consideration of the correlations between our situation today and that pertaining in the small village communities of an admittedly fictionalized pre-industrial past.  A lot of our genetic information is already out there in the social field.  Some of it we wear on our sleeves, as it were–our skin color, obesity, eyesight, etc.  In those communities other people would have known a fair bit about our family history, too.  They would have known that we came from a family of drunks, or of people who tended to “go crazy,” or to die young, or whatever.  Of course, one difference from our situation today is that you could theoretically escape from the fictionalized village–you could run away to become anonymous or to reinvent yourself.  But the idea of real anonymity seems to me to be an invention of a brief moment in time, confined to and dependent upon the modern urban environment.

We are each of us more unavoidably social constucts than we have been at any time since the days of that village, and “our village” is now global in scope.  The broad and ultimately unsecureable availability of all this information about our genetic and physical characteristics means that we need to imagine a new relationship to the concepts of privacy and individuality.

Here the ideas I was exposed to over the last few weeks illuminate my thoughts.   Perhaps these concerns would be less daunting, less oppressive, if viewed from a perspective where life is something to be shared, not owned or hoarded.    If it turned out we could live as though it was not a zero-sum game, with my use of life and resources meaning an unavoidable depletion of your life and resources.  Here are two contemporary atheistic commentators writing on this very subject.  Are they perhaps describing the very community that the body of Christ is meant to be?

[The] most precious legacy of Franciscanism, to which the West must return ever anew to contend with it as its undeferrable task [is] how to think a form-of-life, a human life entirely removed from the grasp of the law and a use of bodies and of the world that would never be substantiated into an appropriation. That is to say again: to think life as that which is never given as property but only as a common use.

Such a task will demand the elaboration of a theory of use—of which Western philosophy lacks even the most elementary principles—and, moving forward from that a critique of the operative and governmental ontology that continues, under various disguises, to determine the destiny of the human species.

–Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty

There is an ancient legend that might serve to illuminate the future life of communist militancy: that of Saint Francis of Assisi, Consider his work. To denounce the poverty of the multitude he adopted that common condition and discovered there the ontological power of a new society. The communist militant does the same, identifying in the common condition of the multitude its enormous wealth. Francis in opposition to nascent capitalism refused every instrumental discipline, and in opposition to the mortification of the flesh (in poverty and in the constituted order) he posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother sun, the birds of the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will of power an corruption.  Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis’s situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being.

–Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire.