The winners of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XIX ‘Life’ are: Winner: Australian academic and last quarter’s runner-up Phiona Stanley for…
By Tom Chatfield
In Tino Sehgal’s installation of his artwork This Progress, each visitor walked into the bottom of The Guggenheim’s spiral rotunda and was met by a child of between seven and eleven years old, who engaged them in conversation.
“This is a work by Tino Sehgal. What is progress?” the child asked, inviting the visitor to follow. As the conversation unfolded they ascended the spiral together, until the visitor was handed over to their next ‘interpreter’: a teenager, who continued the walk and the talk. Next came an adult, then someone in old age. Then it was over.
The central question at stake was simple enough. But it’s a safe bet that it received almost as many answers as there were conversations. One person’s faith in progress is another’s evidence of decline: literally, in the case of flesh and blood. We all progress through the same time at the same rate; we all end up in the same place, yet the meanings we make along the way are bewilderingly diverse.
One thing most people would agree upon is that ‘progress’ is a concept larger than the individual human life. It demands – or, at least, it craves – consensus. Today, that every human life inherently deserves freedom and respect is a commonplace (if not universally acted upon) belief. During the age of Plato, the ‘need’ for slavery and the belief in the fundamental inferiority of those outside one’s tribe were seen as self-evident. Something has shifted within the bedrock of human belief – and it’s difficult not to label the result an improvement.
This doesn’t mean that such an improvement will ever be universally accepted, acted upon, or even preserved. Any notion of progress depends not only upon our peers, but also upon our descendants – and in this we at once wield alarming power and find ourselves extraordinarily vulnerable.
As the philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues in his 2013 book Death and the Afterlife, our beliefs about the world we leave behind after our deaths are central to how we live. If, for example, I know for certain that all life on Earth will be annihilated minutes after my own death, this will deeply affect my sense of what matters. Even though I won’t experience it myself, the prospect of humanity’s imminent extinction robs my own life of much that makes it worth living: a belief in the continuance of things that I care about, in the thriving of my and others’ descendants, in humanity itself being of consequence.
In some ways, this is illogical. How can my own life be damaged by things that, by definition, I will not and cannot experience? Why, moreover, should the notion of planetary destruction immediately following my own death matter so much, given that – in the long term – I accept that all things must pass, including the Earth and our own species?
One answer is that neither logic nor narcissism loom as large in my own life as I might think. As Scheffler put it in September 2013, writing for the New York Times, “even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.”
Here’s another question begged by Scheffler’s thought experiment: would it matter if, rather than being wiped out by catastrophe, post-me humanity simply went into a steady decline?
Imagine: my children’s existences, and their children’s, playing out on a planet steadily diminishing in its ability to sustain rich and thriving life; the seas and air toxic with pollution; the continents riven by war; resources scarce and suffering rife.
My life would be greatly damaged if I knew for certain that this was going to happen. And this is both understandable and strange – because I’m pretty confident that such a vision is what life already feels like, today, for many millions of people around the world.
Progress, for them, is not an abstract concept: it is the diminution of acute suffering, the hope that they or their children will escape the present’s pain and loss. Yet by no honest measure am I doing even half as much as I might to change this, even while I agonise over my unborn descendants’ hypothetical difficulties.
There’s no better excuse than the future for neglecting present needs. And one of our greatest mistakes is the temptation to elide progress with efficiency – as if some final destination for time’s arrow could be known and aimed at with all due haste. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, as the saying goes; and the scale on which we are able to dream worlds yet to come dwarfs any assessment of the merely living.
Yet efficiency – the impulse to accomplish certain things with as little wasted energy as possible – is a concept that begs more questions than it answers. Efficient at what, and to what end? Efficient in whose eyes? Efficient at what cost, elsewhere, and to whom? If the world were to end tomorrow, where would your precious planning be then?
Life, the universe and everything are often presented as inherently fond of efficiency: survival of the fittest and humanity’s steadily ascending alp of achievement crowning the temporal order. Something very different, however, should be read in the mad, glorious variety of organisms currently crawling, striding, flapping, gliding and inching their way across the Earth.
Life seeks to beget other life, and this superabundant superfluity has over the last few billion years proved an excellent survival strategy. It’s only the sheer variety, depth and tenacity of life’s colonisation of our planet that has seen it continue through periodic waves of mass extinction. But this also means that life is stupendously wasteful, arbitrary, flailing. It has to be, because the universal background against which it exists is as diametrically opposed to any definition of ‘progress’ as could you care to imagine: a cosmic unravelling known as entropy, in which it’s downhill all the way from the prime singularity.
The journey is not only more than a means, then – it’s also the place where any ends whatsoever must exist. If life represents an extraordinary species of organised resistance to disorder, it is also grandly inefficient. And if we humans are ‘efficient’ at anything, it’s at achieving a similar superabundance. Depending on your perspective, we are either an evolutionary miracle, an ongoing crisis for almost everything else living on this planet, or a bewildered mix of both. But in every case we are not to be explained away by final destinations or speed of transit.
Given that it doesn’t actually exist, the future matters too much to us. This, I think, is the message coded in Scheffler’s extinction scenario: that we are vertiginous with time, over-reliant upon not-yet-existent possibilities that we cannot control in order to fill our present with meaning.
The alternative? Here’s a modest proposal: look a little harder and more compassionately at the present, and at the step-by-step trudge of each of our journeys. Up the spiral we tread, ascending through our years, telling our stories. A thousand different answers to a question in the mouths of the young, old, middle-aged, asked for its own sake: this is a better and more hopeful proposition than most dreams of a future.