It’s often the case that some of the most thought-provoking observations around a particular work of literature occur after it’s been published. In the recent online fracas that has emerged over Sophie Lewis’s ‘Full Surrogacy Now: Feminists Against The Family’, Lewis took the time to reflect on the contradiction that occurred when considering that those who are so often at ease with diminution of life seem to be incredibly appalled by any conversation around any justification for actually ending life which in this case is specifically represented by the unborn.
Actually living, Lewis speculated appears to her detractors to be a secondary matter to life itself, in fact, a lived life almost appears to lose status next to the idea of life itself. So rather than focusing on life in particular which appears to be Lewis’s approach, the division appears to be between life itself and living with the former being ‘marked’ or ‘sullied’ in some way by the latter. It’s also worth mentioning however that whilst Lewis does state fetuses are human, she does not state that they are yet a person. The latter in this case is perhaps the aspect most marked by controversy being closely linked to legal and/or moral rights in ethical and philosophical frameworks.
Making this distinction is key, however, as under most moral and legal systems a person cannot generally be harmed or killed outside of very specific circumstances, although this can often by highly contingent on social and historical factors and there have indeed, as Rosi Braidotti has previously explained, been those who for various reasons have been excluded from the category of human. What I’m most interested in however is this stated the divide between life and living and the ethics implied by this, as I believe it opens up a particular set of questions inherent to many of the critiques of Lewis’s work. This ontological distinction is actually one that has plagued humans even outside of abortion and as witnessed by the backlash Lewis’s comments have received regularly sees the return of vitalisms, speculations and mystifications. To be clear it is a difficult area marked in fact by frequent contradictions, life at various times is claimed of almost everything yet is frequently treated as less than nothing. It’s absence regularly a source of horror yet its presence, in the form of the living, is often treated with indifference or contempt.
Consider for example the recent EU ruling to stop patrols for migrant boats despite the fact that 2,262 people drowned at sea trying to enter the EU last year. Similarly, child poverty, a condition of the living has risen sharply in recent years in the UK with 4.1 million children living in poverty. Whilst life is vociferously fought over, actually, living recedes into the background. In other areas advances in biomedical science have begun to unravel the idea that life is inherently natural or biological. Additionally, the existential risk posed by certain planetary phenomena such as climate change and global pandemics suggests that life is something can be both human-centred and somewhat strangely inhuman in its orientation. As whilst humans are involved in such matters there’s a persistent feeling that they are not necessarily for humans at all. Our common conception of life is typically marked by modernism and the various conceptual stratifications that begin with grounding any understanding of life in biology before considering political, ethical and social life. This, is born largely from Aristotelian philosophy and its ascendant pyramid of plant, animal and man.
In his 2016 text After Life Eugene Thacker, presses us to ask, against this Aristotelian construction what if life is not reducible to biology but also not reducible to the more ephemeral notion of spirit or consciousness or intellect? What if life is never self-evident within lived experience or does not reach its pinnacle in human life? More pressingly what if life is only partially rather than fundamentally an anthropogenic phenomenon at all? The question however that I believe bears particular consideration when considering the work of Lewis however is; what if life is itself at odds with the assumed self-evident nature of the living?
Towards a Concept of Life
If we briefly reflect on the kinds of organisms that are referred to as being alive, the human body is itself an assemblage of life forms fungi and bacteria, archeae and viruses. The latter is perhaps one of the most controversial categories of non-human life as whilst they can carry genetic material, evolve and reproduce through a process of natural selection they are not composed of cells. Instead a single virus particle, a virion, is composed of a set of genes bundled within a protective protein shell called a capsid. They lack nuclei, organelles and cytoplasm responsible for regulating their internal environment which is seen by some biologists as an important aspect of life and they appear to expend little energy relying primarily on their host. Rybicki described viruses as an “organism at the edge of life”. So whilst they are definitely not dead, which in terms of biology is when a living organism stops performing the functions of life, they also appear not, by common conceptions to be alive. Life then when looked at in terms of these conceptions appears considerably more complex than initially appears as just by looking at some of the categories commonly ascribed to the living, many of the requirements for being alive are potentialities rather than observable behaviours.
Life is something constantly under revision the discovery of extremophiles, lifeforms that appear to thrive under conditions that would be fatal or at the very least extremely detrimental to most creatures on earth has historically lead to difficulty when attempting to develop a concrete categorization of life and leaves us with a conception of life, that’s incredibly elastic and amorphous, this only becomes more difficult when we begin to consider socio-economic life, political life and a philosophy of life. The idea of a philosophy of life can in its simplest form be framed as the split between subject and object however as Thacker states philosophy of life can also be “That which is proper to a thinking subject”, what is your philosophy of life? What are your guidelines for how to live? The life worth living and the life that’s not. To provide a good standard of living and so on.
Life appears to take on so many different characteristics and measurements that at any point it seems to lack a stable basis at all, The relativistic consequence then being if life can encapsulate every meaning life has no meaning or rather life’s meaning is defined by life itself. However, by examining social norms and institutional discourse it’s clear some concepts of life are more dominant than others. The hegemony of scientific discourse often places the behavioural characteristics I mentioned earlier at the centre of modern conversations about life however this has implications that go well beyond science and lead into the formulation of a synchronic definition that to some extent binds the concept of life within specific parameters.
The everyday usage of the term life has a somewhat different effect when we speak of “having a nice life”, “a lifestyle” and “a quality of life” to name a few popularised expressions. We move away from the idea of an experience of life into life itself being experience or rather the act of experiencing. Life becomes commensurate with the experience of living. Life becomes anything and everything that can be experienced. However, the universalism that we’re moving towards embracing comes with caveats, life becomes something projected from the subject to the object, life is no longer life in itself but rather life for us. Life is as it is defined by subject.
This is important when considering the political implications of such an approach, if life becomes the privilege of being able to designate, the status granted by that designation and in some circumstances becomes the ability to rescind that designation rather than life being something which merely exists in itself. Life becomes something that is placed within specific classifications, is granted rights or as the case might be not granted rights. That there exist contradictions within the concept of life is perhaps not a surprise neither I’m sure is it surprising that subsequently, such a contradiction appears within the pro-life argument however what I think is perhaps an interesting question to consider is the status of living.
“The trolldeluge is forcing me to think harder about how/why it is that people so committed to the diminution of life (through military activity, ecocidal economics, antimaternal and anti-child austerity measures etc) vindicate “Life Itself,” and make the fetus its ultimate avatar”
“Perhaps it’s fair to say the life-enforcement brigade espouse a kind of “quantity against quality” approach? I guess this is what Haraway is getting at with her term The Born (and “forced birth”). No embryo “wasted”, but every lived life laid waste.”
“It’s as tho actually *living* ruins the substance “Life Itself” they’re so het up about. Lived lives lose the status of Life Itself. So, the fetus fetishists, like me, in the end, stand for life in particular: they want more life and less living of it. I just want more living.”
Perhaps my question to her critics would be if, rather than a position which appears entirely focused on the formulation and propagation of life we refocused and rethought the potentialities of the living.