Aug 3, 2023

birth, against cynical realism

Thank goodness for Jennifer Banks’s very timely Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth. I’ll be using at least its introduction in my course readings this fall:

I clung particularly to this insight of [Hannah Arendt’s]: that it is not enlightened wisdom to doubt human natality, or to argue against birth’s crucial role in human life. It’s a sign, rather, that one is ripe for totalitarian control. In the world today, celebrating birth can seem like an obvious denial of just how dire our political, social, and ecological reality is. But Arendt saw birth and our engagement with it as a deep, direct encounter with reality in all its materiality and brutality, rather than an evasion of it. What she detected in various totalitarian movements was people’s belief in their own “cynical realism,” a conviction that their vague, expansive hatred — of the world, and of other people — was based on a realist reckoning with the world, when in fact it merely expressed their complete alienation from reality. It’s a stupid cynicism, she believed, that denies birth’s creative capacities — a cynicism that suggests one knows less, not more, about reality and that tries to mask a deeper bafflement. Totalitarian leaders, she wrote, know neither birth nor death and “do not care whether they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or never were born.” They take power when their subjects have stopped caring too.

Totalitarianism thrives, she continued, in conditions where people are profoundly isolated from one another and “when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed.” Each new thing we add to the world is another birth; our having been born is what guarantees us the ability to act, to work as agents in our societies. Once that creativity, as she defined it — birth, politics, action, people coming together to create new lives and new realities — had been completely extinguished, you had a mass society of atomized individuals who could be completely coerced into doing anything their leaders ordered. They had lost touch with reality, a reality that included the fact that they had all once been born and that this birth was evidence of their inherent, miraculous creativity. “Ideologies,” she wrote, “are never interested in the miracle of being.”