The pandemic is compelling us to think fresh thoughts about bodies in space—about new acceptable social distances, unseen and now dangerous interactions, the array of physical barriers people are erecting in the form of masks, glass screens, and virtual versions of themselves.
I want to reflect on where the thoughts lead. What is the pandemic teaching us about ourselves? What is the relation between an individual body and the body politic as a whole? And what relevance do these questions have for our politics?
By ‘body’ I mean anything made of matter and existing in space. So a human being is (though maybe not only) a body. Face masks, coronavirus, and the planet as a whole are all bodies. Bodies tend to be composed of other bodies. Examples are your heart, hair, and fingernails. (We might even call them ‘body parts’.) The planet is composed of many bodies, including you and me, oceans, storm systems, and viruses. It is a system with many parts.
What relevance does this abstract sense of ‘body’ have? I suspect one of the positives of this unpleasant affair is its implications for individualism, a central component of American ideology. The term has various connected senses, but it is loosely the idea that the individual—a singular human body as a ‘person’—is the fundamental piece of the world. Morally and politically, everyone is on their own. Responsibility is personal. We each own ourselves. Don’t tread on my body!
The face mask is now being framed as an issue of individual choice. Concern about the good of a whole, if there is such a thing, cannot transgress the interests of the individual.
Leftists commonly object to individualism by pointing out the broader social factors that make each individual who they are. You didn’t choose your parents, where you were born, or what mental and physical abilities you have. Families exist in communities, each bound in a state. The wellbeing of a state is closely tied to the wellbeing of a nation, which in turn requires a global network of allies, trade partners, and environmentally conscious nations. “It is clear here that individuals certainly make one another, physically and mentally, but do not make themselves.”
It is plausible that a dispute between ‘individualists’ and ‘collectivists’ sits under the surface of seemingly straightforward political issues, like wearing masks. But it can be a challenge to see how exactly the logic of the leftist objection is meant to work. An individualist need not deny that people are caught in vast systems.
I take a different tack. Instead of critiquing individualism or conservatism in general, we can take the pandemic as cause to consider a deeper individualism that might motivate the moral and political forms.
Let us start with a seemingly simple question: what is a human body? What is its relation to the other bodies, human and otherwise, macroscopic and microscopic? Is a body a mere aggregate of fundamental parts? Are the parts—their existence, nature, and perhaps value—grounded in a more fundamental whole? Is the human body itself a part of a greater whole?
In daily life we feel substantial and self-sufficient, like we are the locus of action and agency. Larger structures and systems are visible only through their manifestations in individuals. We seem like the basic units of the world. Individualism has a strong intuitive pull.
But the coronavirus has given us a visceral demonstration that individuals are not the foundations of collectives, even if we act like they are. The common leftist argument that focuses on political institutions, economic systems, and the inertia of history is based on the systematic relations to other humans. The pandemic pushes us even further to consider nature in the most general sense. It is obvious that you and I are dependent on our environment, but we should meditate on the implications.
External stuff is entering and exiting our bodies all the time—air, food, water, bacteria, viruses. We are not hermetically sealed from the external world. If we were, even for a moment, we’d immediately cease to exist. You cannot truly be ‘on your own’. Consider also if you took a naked human body, nothing but the individual, and deposited it on Mars or in the vacuum of space, what would happen? The individual wouldn’t last long. The body would interact with the environment in a deeply unpleasant way.
The point is that the experience of autonomy is only possible through a constant interchange and interaction of bodies. The interaction involves external bodies, photosynthesizing to produce oxygen or holding together to prevent you from falling to the center of the earth. It happens inside your body, as blood oxygenates muscles and bacteria live out their lives. “He is such a hive and swarm of parasites that it is doubtful whether his body is not more theirs than his, and whether he is anything but another kind of antheap after all.” As is most salient now, the interaction involves bodies entering and exiting, as you eat, drink, and breathe. What is inside and outside a human body is in constant flux. What is in your body could be in someone else a minute later. After all, the interchange is what makes a pandemic possible. Our relationship with each other is, in a way, rather intimate.
What it means to understand yourself is to understand your status as radically dependent. The body would be nothing without a particular stable system of bodies in nature. It is true not only in terms of other humans, but in terms of all the microscopic bodies surrounding us all the time, floating in the air, imperceptible but enabling and containing life.
The permeability of the body means survival. It also leaves us open, quite literally, to harm. We protect ourselves by wearing seatbelts, sunscreen, and taking vaccines. But for our actions to be most effective, they should be based on an accurate picture of the world. The picture requires the broader context: a system of interactions among all types of bodies. “You should bear in mind, my friend, that in nature everything is intertwined, everything runs through circular courses which are interlaced with one another.”
The concept of individual health is only intelligible within something bigger. Your body, with all its systematic complexity, is constituted by a body in which you and I are parts. We—along with face masks, coronavirus, and hand sanitizers—comprise a single systematic whole, the body politic, whose internal relations determine the quality of existence for all the parts. The choice to take a vaccine or wear a mask involves an implicit understanding of one’s place within an integrated physical whole.
I wager that the political discussion surrounding coronavirus recognizes this fact, even if the recognition is inchoate or partial at times. People are pointing out that public health is not an individual affair. It is not a mere aggregate of healthy individuals. The implicit becomes explicit. They say we are only as strong as the weakest among us. They say, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We might quibble with the phrasing, and slogans aren’t always meant as philosophical theses, but many people are circling around a deep and ancient metaphysical truth. The virus is teaching us the extent to which our bodies are not our own. The borders are not fundamental. Everything we do to ourselves, we do to others, and vice versa.
We might feel independent, substantial, and self-sufficient, but how reliable is the feeling? In an honest moment of reflection, perhaps sparked by a pandemic, we discover how misleading it can be. The desire to assert one’s autonomy or self-sufficiency is like trying to dry oneself with water. One cannot fight a war with nature. Winning and losing are one and the same.
What perspective do the reflections yield? Examining an individual human body—its susceptibility to viruses, dependence on others, and place in nature generally—reveals that the body politic can be conceived not as an organization of humans alone but as the world itself—a systematic whole that includes a vast diversity of bodies. It is what makes politics (in the narrow anthropocentric sense in which we typically speak) possible. Humans are impressive indeed, and nobody as yet knows all that a body can do, but with this broader perspective on the body politic we lose the impulse to place ourselves on top of hierarchies. The bright line between humans and ‘nature’ is seen as an outgrowth of the same individualism that so easily leads to public health and environmental calamity. There is no line. By abandoning individualism our politics can come from a healthier place.