Flourishing in an Impure World
“The delineation of theoretical purity, purity of classification, is always imbricated with the forever-failing attempt to delineate material purity–of race, ability, sexuality, or, increasingly, illness.”
–Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, p. 4.
Health has recently been on everyone’s mind for all the wrong reasons. The dismantling of the few health protections available to American citizens is a catastrophic outcome, another heavy link in a long chain of misery that has cast a pall over my mind for some time now. Nevertheless, it’s important to maintain a wider perspective. Our situation as human beings is now urgent and complex enough that moderate and “sensible” answers are now nothing but. Climate change and other impending crises transform caution and conciliation into forms of delirium. Meanwhile, hallucinatory and seductive visions of a new world seem more solid and attainable than ever before. If we have fallen so far, it stands to reason there are heights untold to which we can rise, or else something beautiful and precious in the depths we are now exploring.
And, unfortunately, the legacies of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and other persistent forms of oppression and exploitation are built not just into ordinances and constitutions but into bridges, roads, and tunnels. Our electricity grids, water systems, and food production systems are “dripping head to toe in blood” as Marx would have it. Consequentially, even if we could end capitalism tomorrow with no resistance, we would be coexisting with the ruins of the old world for generations. So although utopian thinking is often associated with purity or cleansing–especially but not only when that utopia implies genocidal practices–the reality of anarchism, communism, and other yearnings for a new world is that they require grappling with an awful mess. This mess overruns the global and the personal, making our planet, our towns, our food, our bodies impossible to purify.
On a material level, we have to grasp the fact that our bodies can’t be purged of chemicals and artificial substances that are omnipresent in our world. Air, water, and other people carry these substances in their bodies, and no one born today is exempt from them. People’s endocrine and immune systems might be affected in unique ways by this–and I’m quite familiar with the consequences of endocrine disruption–and our response can either be purgative or productive. One’s politics, I think, have a lot to do with how one formulates the problem and, therefore, what kind of solution it requires. For someone consumed by an obsession with material purity, the problem of pollution and low-dosage chemical intake might be to purge all those who are most obviously affected. After all, they are such a burden, they might reason, and the healthy people should not be responsible for them. This is a purgative response, common to juice cleansers and neo-Nazis alike, albeit with much different levels of ethical and political gravity.
Meanwhile, the productive response is, quite simply, to see that the world as a whole is compromised and complex and to remake that world into a better one. When we realize that our problems cannot be subtracted from the world like arithmetic, that we have to build a better world if we want to live in a better world, we can start to wrestle with the more detailed ethical and political questions that impinge on us. Coexistence and acceptance might look like a form of nihilism, and some have adopted nihilism as a name for their attempts to prefigure a better world and cope with this one. But for me, I think it implies a commitment to flourishing, a commitment to a set of norms and ethics that are qualitatively different from the negative, purgative ones we so often encounter.
And unfortunately, our own movements are often host to attitudes of self-righteousness and purging. There are healthy forms of purging–removing ourselves from blatantly unsafe situations, excising abusive people from our lives–but our constant attempts to police our own purity of thought often come at the expense of others’ flourishing and health. Recognizing ourselves as fundamentally compromised and the problems we are collectively working on as inescapably complex takes an active life. Intervening in the world, seeing it shift and give you feedback, being attentive–these are the ways we can build viable movements and worthwhile relationships with each other. Call-out culture, which is intensely purgative and purity-obsessed, can prevent us from moving past recognizing the potential for a new world. Gnosis and language become the ultimate arbiters of someone’s worth, which generates bitterness and resentment. These feelings can infect and demoralize many while actively hurting others in more serious ways.
To paraphrase Jennifer Wells, when we look at the world we increasingly see that all the things we once saw as passive are in fact part of active and dynamic systems. Every particle, bacterium, animal, building, storm, and so on push on the world in their own ways. Various other systems, then, push back. In this constant and evolving loop of actions and feedback, we can find the meaningful connections. Having done so, we can imagine new connections. These virtual worlds, these possible places where there is room and time enough for our free development, are already coming into existence. Only time can tell if they will find a permanent foothold here, or if they will remain just glimmers. But there is no escape into purity. And the sooner we act in accordance with the real complexity of our situation, the sooner we can remake our environments instead of resenting them.*
Note: I struggle with depression and anxiety and certain self-destructive habits and tendencies. I do not mean to invalidate real anger or harm, only a sense of resigned bitterness and complacency. Feeling paralyzed and broken is not bad, and indeed is also inescapable for most. My point is that we should do what we can to remake the world around us, to make it so its complexity is no longer oppressive and toxic. Everyone can do this in tiny ways even if our capacities are limited for whatever reason.