Identity in Action – Posted on July 10, 2011, Author: Caroline Picard
When I think of reciprocity, I visualize a call-and-response scenario: a give and take, or the meeting of a positive action with a subsequent positive action. In order to understand reciprocity one must therefore define boundaries: to attribute one action with its source, thereby attributing the subsequent action with its subsequent source. There is a cause/effect relationship embedded in the course of movement and, at first, it seems like separate identities are necessarily contained—because one must be able to hold a single body responsible. In thinking though, about how a shared action in common can generate a greater return, I started wondering after those boundaries. For instance, what does it mean for several people to enact an airport? Who is the author of such an action? At a certain point, the boundaries of authorship get murky.
In his book, The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) Timothy Morton reassesses the individual’s relationship to nature, encouraging us to recognize a fundamental and interstitiary “mesh” of which we are all a part. He is not examining art communities. Instead he studies scientific allocations of species and how its distinctions frame humanity’s specific relationship to nature. Over the course of his book, he continues to break down the most basic categorical distinctions—pointing out the blurry line between plant and animal by examining species that occupy abutting biological kingdoms. There is such a minimal difference between an anemone, say, and a fungus that assigning one the attributes of plant and the other those of an animal becomes arbitrary. Only via farther-out consequences—for instance when comparing a palm tree and a lion—does the difference seem apparent. Each member of the “mesh” is distinct, “The mesh is…the entanglement of strangers” (p. 47). We are not so categorically different, but rather necessarily contingent. This approach disrupts ideas of hierarchical thinking. “Thinking interdependence involves dissolving the barrier between ‘over there’ and ‘over here,’ and more fundamentally, the metaphysical illusion of rigid narrow boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’”(39). Morton focuses on the idea of cooperation, arguing that the mesh consists of countless, various bodies acting independently but in congress. Its members gain from being a part of a group so that there is a built-in reciprocity. He emphasizes “cooperation,” because those individual parts are serving their own interest—what is compromised and enhanced by the additional purposes working with, against and around it. Rather than focusing on a local effort, Morton suggests we inhabit an inclusive mind-space that accounts for the whole mesh. By expanding our awareness beyond an immediate vicinity, he argues, we expand our consciousness to reflect not only other humans in other parts of the world, but also animals and—he would argue—stars. The specialness of community, therefore, lies in an apprehension of the entire, massively intricate system. Which is where the idea starts pressing into something mystical even without the personal connection that mystical experience often boasts. In tandem with this view is kind of death of self-as-center. Can our ideas of community survive such a non-center?
The other question that comes to mind for me: can we admit a degree of categorical poresness, while still being inspired to respond through action? If we are, all us, responsible for participating in the whole mesh, then where does one’s own responsibility stop? And where does this leave us with regard to “ownership?”