“Don’t forget, summer is still on for a month. You can do it for your bucket list. Because of the heatwave. Or because there is no heatwave. For your family. Friends. Or to treat yourself. To do nothing, to do absolutely everything.”
Tapping into the deep melancholy associated with the end of summer, these words reached my inbox at the beginning of August 2020. A ‘gentle reminder’ coupled with the threat of inevitable death and decay, the promotional email from budget airline WizzAir both terrified me and thrilled me. It terrified me because of its denial of the strenuous circumstances of this particular year with the coronavirus, its utter disregard for the climate crisis, and its refusal to admit defeat as an industry dependent on regular movement across borders at a time when travel is restricted. It unapologetically expresses capitalist logic at its worst. The gist of the message is: even if you don’t know why you might possibly want to travel, you should do it anyway (we are desperate for your business). But this text thrilled me too, for more nuanced reasons. It thrilled me because of the escapism it offers and how it feeds the imagination. It excited me because it promises freedom of movement in a world without consequences – unlike the one in which we actually live.
But the poetry of its inner contradictions thrilled me most of all
– “Because of the heatwave. Or because there is no heatwave. […] To do nothing, to do absolutely everything.” Like any memorable slogan, it says so much without saying anything at all, finding strength in ambiguity. What the ambiguous yet vaguely threatening email from WizzAir shares with the broader topic of public life in the time of the pandemic are internal contradictions that overwhelm and complicate them. Both are surprisingly poetic as well in the sense that they offer something that cannot be realized.
Particular slogans come to mind – Nike’s “Just do it” or AirBNB’s “Belong Anywhere”. Even the sports drink Gatorade starts to sound philosophical with its soul-searching question “Is it in you?”
I am asked where I am from on an almost daily basis in informal and formal situations, from the person cutting my hair to the person standing in line next to me at the bus stop, to my new colleague or somebody I just met at a party. Over the years – having been asked it even as a child in the place where I grew up – I have come to find the question maddening. It triggers a response in me that instantly turns me against the person asking, as though a wall had been erected then and there. I realize it is a feeling not everyone shares. Nevertheless it’s a question I have been eager to dismantle for a long time, not only for myself, but also on behalf of others who have an even harder time answering it than I do. Like many people, my place of birth and personal background are rich with contradictions that surface through the question of origin,
a question that makes me feel like I have to justify my existence. Identity politics have a place in the conversation, but offer inadequate and outdated navigational tools with which to position myself. I hope to connect claims of identity that answer the question of being from somewhere with the idea of the individual situated in a specific time or moment. But in general, what I most urgently want to express is the need to approach the idea of the individual from a different framework.
Throughout the pandemic of 2019-2020, the sovereignty of the individual in the Western philosophical tradition has been thrown into a stark light, highlighting how individual actions have obvious and far-reaching consequences for the human population (and other planetary inhabitants).
In response to confusing news reports and conflicting interests, many have (re)turned to identity politics, either looking for consolation, an explanation, or an excuse for current events. Their doubt about themselves and their position as individuals within a broader social and political structure can never be eased however, because identity politics are centered on the individual political subject, which cannot account for the complexity of multiplicity, overlap and entanglement. As Asad Haider writes in Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018):
Clearly “identity” is a real phenomenon: it corresponds to the way the state parcels us out into individuals, and the way we form our selfhood in response to a wide range of social relations. But it is nevertheless an abstraction, one that doesn’t tell us about the specific social relations that have constituted it.
Identity constructs soon start sounding like slogans, saying something without really saying anything. In that sense, answering the question of where I am from does not say much at all.
In the introduction to the book, Haider tells his readers a little about his background: where he was born (central Pennsylvania, US) and how he spoke another language at home and took summer trips to Karachi, and how these things, along with his appearance and accent seemed to give him an identity projected upon him by external factors, by other voices and agencies, not his own. Ultimately his exploration of what identity could be, and what claims he could make on it left him unsatisfied, and in the book he repeatedly affirms the need to set aside the “consolations of identity” and have a different discussion.
I admire his argument because it pivots on the quality of the conversations we might have with each other.
I too, want to have a discussion that will stop starting with the single question I hear all the time: where are you from?
I reject the idea of the individual as a cohesive and fixed organism independent of changes taking place over time.
I cannot claim a fixed identity that can be broken down into discrete parts (born in this place, live in that one, speak these languages, moved because we had to/wanted to/were forced to). Instead I embrace a more fluid, time-dependent, and contradictory self, a poetic self that cannot be so easily pinned down. I want this to be something that anyone could claim.
Social relations have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new conditions include guidelines for spatial distancing, contact tracing, isolation, and separation. Some of the reactions to these conditions include conspiracy theories, rejection of the guidelines, and protests and demonstrations against them.
One problem biologists still have to deal with is something that is generally taken for granted: the question of what constitutes a biological individual. We are now asked to relearn how to live together in an epidemiological situation where our individual actions have clear and tangible effects on the wider human population, therefore the question of individuality (both in terms of social relations and biology) cannot be brushed aside any longer. This question has a prominent place in discussions of mass immunity and human rights. And it’s something that scientists still argue about, both from a philosophical standpoint and a methodological approach.
Recent developments in immunology are challenging accepted thinking about the question of biological individuality. Though I am most certainly making an oversimplification, in immunological terms the notion of the biological individual has been defined by what one’s immune system will tolerate over the course of a life. The self-nonself theory was part of Sir F. Macfarlane Burnet and Peter B. Medawar’s Nobel Prize winning theory of immunological tolerance accomplishments back in 1960. Think of prostheses, implants, skin grafts, organ transplants, vaccines, cancer cells, bacteria and viruses as things one might not be born with that come from the ‘outside’, that the body (the biological individual) would either accept or reject.
In his 2019 book Philosophy of Immunology, Thomas Pradeu points out some inadequacies within the self-nonself theory, but nevertheless maintains that defining biological individuality through the framework of the immune system is valid.
What the immune system tolerates over time tends to change. And host-microbe relations also change and transform over time.
When our microbial genes number between two and 20 million (the microbes living inside ‘us’ - a term that is becoming increasingly difficult to define), and the human genome is about 20,000 genes, isn’t it difficult to say what exactly constitutes us at any given time?
The question of time is very important for both sociology and biology:
when are you yourself? At what time are you an individual? Is it possible that the notion of the individual at one time might shift and you will become more or less of an individual than you are at another time?
In an article in The Atlantic from August 5, 2020, Ed Yong wrote, “immunity is usually a matter of degrees, not absolutes.” Can we extend this thought from an immunological perspective to the notion of the social individual too, where at certain times, one might be considered more or less of an individual depending on the moment?
Biology and politics share vocabulary such as tolerance and immunity.
Every living thing!
While we are still trying to figure out what we are, we are living in a time of heightened awareness of what we share. Usually when an artist says this kind of thing, it means we are exchanging eye-opening knowledge, joining ‘creative communities’, or doing interdisciplinary work that could contribute to the art discourse. But saying this now sounds more ominous. I have always maintained that 21st century art rhetoric – the idea that art creates close-knit communities, offers a space to think, or creates a sense of belonging – could equally be spoken by terrorist organizations, cult leaders, or religious zealots. But now because of a certain awareness brought to light by the pandemic, the focus on ‘what we share’ means something else, and is perhaps less ideologically slanted.
Globally, we have started to understand how we share our biological selves, and ourselves as hosts to many so-called external elements through the porous borders of our skin. This awareness may eventually help us understand just how fluid and permeable internal/external boundaries are. As microbiological content seeps in, leaks out, and even has mysterious symbiotic relationships within us, it becomes more and more difficult for me to make claims about my situatedness. I cannot locate my origins in a geographical sense because it is unclear what I started with – and when that changed.
Biological material does not respect national borders: having lived in many places at different times in my life means that I have picked up and abandoned different microbial material along the way, much like the way one picks up languages or gestures.
In a poetic sense, I can grasp the notion of having become myself at a certain place or time, or that I have momentarily lost myself or are still looking.
But, when I am continually asked where I am from, I have an extremely difficult time answering.
Social and technological conditions are changing quickly and influencing one another, as they always have. We are voluntarily and involuntarily taking part in multiple levels of biometric surveillance based on smart technology that tracks our vital signs and movements. Many countries are considering or have already adopted contact-tracing apps to follow our social lives as a preventative measure to stop the spread of the virus. Many people are willing to submit their data, while others are opposed to the practice. What does participation in these schemes imply for the notion of the individual when data such as body temperature, fertility, blood alcohol level, or heart rate are held by private or governmental agencies, supposedly in the name of the community? What does this mean for what we share? And what do we actually want? Time to decide is running out but at least right now we can still talk about it.
“Where are you from?” is an innocent sounding question that is a proxy for other deeply political questions, including questions of identity and agency. It betrays a way of thinking that is modeled on an inside-outside opposition, as well as the idea that we are frozen in time, with selves that don’t change and transform. Where am I from? How to answer this when it’s hard to even say what I am right now? If only I could steal a line from the copywriters at WizzAir for some help answering, I could say I am from nowhere and everywhere. Unfortunately, most people I meet won’t entertain such answers.
In unraveling the question of origin, what I want is not just a semantic shift or some kind of provisional rulebook about how to talk to each other, but something more ambitious. I’ve tried in the past to come up with different questions and answers, but it doesn’t improve the conversation. (I’m from the Internet / I’m from this planet / I don’t answer that question anymore). As you would expect, it produces awkward encounters and unhelpful antagonisms. What I really want is to provoke a conceptual shift in modes of conversation from the transactional to the translational: to carry something across (together), not only to exchange information. If anything productive has come out of the pandemic it is this recently redefined awareness of what we share. I hope to keep that alive.
Hold your breath –
A conceptual shift in thinking about individuality and origin won’t happen overnight. But in the absence of other common ground, we can start by rethinking the prominence of the question ‘where are you from?’ in every first conversation. We learned it in our first languages, and then again in our second, third, or fourth languages. And even though it has been criticized because of its negative connotations, it keeps coming back. What the question doesn’t take into account are the elements of time and transformation. Even though I was born somewhere, that place no longer exists. I am not now who I was then. It also overlooks where we are at the moment – namely, together, here, right now, on this temporarily shared ‘common ground’ – the third party in our conversation. For me, this is the most fascinating thing about our meeting right now. The very possibility of our encounter seems more relevant than the geographical location, where, by the biggest coincidence of our lives, we were born.
In specific contexts, such as border crossings, a ‘wrong’ answer to the origin question may result in dire consequences – a chance for political life, visibility, and citizenship denied. Question and answer both stack up layers of history, hardship, displacement, and privilege. Philosopher and theorist Achille Mbembe illuminates the violence of the question in Necropolitics (Trans. Steven Corcoran, Duke University Press, 2019):
“[… ] it is now clear that on this European ice floe of a continent – as well as in America, South Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and elsewhere – those who suffer daily racist injuries must today be counted in the hundreds of thousands. They constantly run the risk of letting themselves be cut to the quick by someone, by an institution, a voice, or a public or private authority, that asks them to justify who they are, why they are here, where they have come from, where they are going, why they do not go back to where they came from, that is, a voice or an authority that deliberately seeks to occasion them in a large or small jolt, to irritate them, to upset them, to insult them, to get them to lose their cool precisely so as to have a pretext to violate them, to unceremoniously undermine that which is most private, most intimate, and vulnerable in them.”
Since the end of 2019, when restrictions on human movement were put into place across the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘innocent’ question acquired additional meaning: to come from certain places could result in social stigmatization and discrimination. In short, to be from a place really could imply that you carry the biological material of a place (and its population) along with you. Of course it may be useful to understand how a novel virus entered the human population at a specific location and how the activity there may have initiated that outbreak (i.e. human contact with wild animals). A virus may emerge in a specific locale at a specific time, but it is a combination of global environmental factors that made the event of that emergence possible. Weirdly enough, I find some overlap there with the emergence of a living being (a person, for example) who comes into the world under the same terms.
Thinking along these lines, how can a person truly be from somewhere?
When people can’t guess where I’m from, they play a guessing game where they try to identify my origin and say things like, “You’re half this or that, right? Your English is fluent. What kind of accent is that? What are you?” I don’t think I will ever be able to answer.
If AirBNB’s copywriters had advised me on how to answer this question I would have said I am here but I belong everywhere.
When it comes to my reluctance to talk about my origins, I have to ask what it means to participate in the performance of this unrelenting interrogation – at a party, for example, or in professional life? What is the effect of going to a social gathering and asking the same question that is asked by border police, or by officials issuing ‘immunity passports’? Will you or I be forced again, by the impossibility of answering this question, to begin every conversation with a lie? If the question had only been about where I pay taxes and visit doctors, I could have answered. Let us instead start more interesting conversations with the question of
how much we are or aren’t ourselves at this moment.
Marianna Maruyama, 2020