Dismantling the Boundaries that Deny Us to Ourselves
I want to talk about dismantling. And I want to talk about dismantling in relation to boundaries. Boundaries are interesting to me, as someone who seeks to interrogate the concept of society and social inequities because boundaries are usually a reflection of, and set by, that society’s definition of power. It is this, whatever agreed upon concept of power, that is operationalised into defining the nature and limits of the social, cultural and political norms that shape our lives.
I believe that the boundaries which today largely regulate our lives have been set by a vision of power that is authoritarian, and which has encouraged over many eras, an iterative separation of ourselves – an exile of ourselves – from our own nature.
What I mean by this, is that if you explore the trajectory of the narratives and the mythologies which have shaped human societies as we have evolved – from our infant state as hunter gatherers into increasingly more complex, agrarian and eventually industrialised, financialised and digitised societies – you will find a proportional trend towards narratives of domination and separation (over and from one another and the natural universe). As expressed in the many works of comparative mythologist and historian Joseph Campbell, human societies model themselves, their vision of power, and their leadership, upon an imitation of what they perceive as the greatest source of awe that surrounds them.
So if for our early ancestors, society was modelled upon the power seen in the animal world and in the inexplicable miracles of the cycles of regeneration in the plant world, we eventually discovered the mathematical relationship between the earth and the visible heavenly bodies. By this point, we had developed some of our earliest city states, like Mesopotamia, and it is in Mesopotamian texts from about 2000 BC that we begin to see that with this new cosmological slant, society was being modelled upon a separation of our notion of self from any incarnation of divinity, humans had become subjects to an authority lording above us in the skies far beyond our mortal reach.
By the time of the ancient Greeks, and amplified to come to define our present, as the power of knowledge and sciences compounded, almost everything has been demythologised but humans themselves. Humans are the centre of mystery, wonder and glory. The trend towards our stratification away from the natural universe, to a centralised belief in our own competency and infallibility now defines our vision of our power – and our world.
In our world today, this vision of power has been exponentially compounded by the systems of capital and technology, with globally interconnected reach, that govern our realities. This amplification of a sense of power that is inherently founded on a dissonance or a disconnection, means that ours is a world ruled by boundaries. Fundamentally, these boundaries act in a multi-layered way – by separating us from ourselves, from one another and from the full potential of the societies we can imagine into being.
The severance constructed by the weight of our systems and the boundaries they have generated within us, limits the ease with which we can experience and express the fullness of the human condition. With the norms that govern our lives denying the concept of our mortality, casting our human vulnerability as a liability and encouraging us to think of ourselves as atomised beings separate from one another and the laws of nature, we find ourselves – if not consciously, then subconsciously at least – living scrambled, dehumanised and falsified realities.
Most consequentially, we have been manoeuvred into conflating our deeper self with the outer layers of an untamed ego – an ego that consigns us to our own periphery. This type of relationship to self, challenges and minimises our capacity to relate to others and diminishes the depth of the societies and institutions we can build – as we stay stuck in a superficial layer of empathy that generates shades of tyranny by projecting our own ego upon the experience and lives of others, based on the flawed idea that we could take on another’s experience without first deeply revelling in our own.
Extrapolated from here, the nature of the boundaries set around us collectively, also reflect this same dissonance but at a broader, societal level. These boundaries are physical, emotional and usually a mix of both. An example of what is spawned through the intersection between these tangible and intangible boundaries can be seen in the sprawling refugee camps and detention centres that litter the globe. They are indeed charged with confining humans behind barbed wire and real physical fences with severe limitations of their movement, but they are in equal parts made possible because of the psycho-social boundaries first erected firmly around us through a sustained agenda of xenophobic nationalism and narratives of internal disconnection.
Key to note is the economic aspect of the trend of the boundaries that shape us, which lies close to the surface of many great inequities, that has led to the unprecedented centralisation of wealth and power – allowing an increasingly small few to benefit at the expense of the rights and dignities of many. In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, author Shoshana Zuboff, writes about the three-decade long neoliberal experiment of economic growth, founded on the principle of exclusion and on the glorification of competitive cunning and dominance. This experiment is the final push in the birth of the largely ungovernable big-tech companies with their unbridled capacity for monetisation of our private data and surveillance. So too, are they set up to further entrench inequity, through the use of algorithms that replicate our biases in ever more powerful ways.
I want to share a striking story of how I have seen these boundaries collide – the internal dissonances which make greater physical and psychological barriers possible. Late last year, I was in Jordan. I made a trip to some of the refugee camps there, housing Palestinians long displaced from their homeland, and the tens of thousands of refugees displaced from Syria and surrounds due to the ongoing violence in the Middle East. At Zataari refugee camp, one of the biggest camps in the region, I saw the weary faces of adults as they waited to be treated in makeshift hospitals – the boundaries the world had damned them within etched into their faces as permanent worry lines. I saw children who were either disproportionately craving an interaction from a stranger from the outside world, or else absent and preoccupied with seemingly a thousand thoughts beyond what was apt for their so far tiny existence.
And confoundingly, I saw big tech, right there in the centre of the impoverished camps. Google had its own caravan set up inside one of the camps. Exploring further, I saw that to be registered as a UNHCR refugee, an iris scan was necessary. Without this iris scan, refugees had no access to their money and were shut out of critical services. What happens to the troves of bio-data that are being collected, in perhaps what can be considered the new experiment of our times? Who owns this biological data and what is it used for? No one could say. It was readily apparent that this data was shared amongst different providers and that it was a short leap between service provision and the use of this information to restrict what already limited freedom of movement, civil liberties and privacy there was, through the biological profiling it enabled.
If the future is here, only unevenly distributed, as posited by American speculative fiction author William Gibson, then perhaps it is the world’s most vulnerable and cordoned who are first meeting a disproportionate share of tomorrow’s distress.
And it is in such a world, where we have already been met with visions of the future built upon our constructed ideas of power, that we must begin the urgent work of unlearning, and of conscientising the dismantling – and importantly, not just for some of us, but for all.
And as we turn towards the subject of dismantling, we do so during a time when the world is in the midst of an involuntary mass recognition of many of the boundaries long rendered unseen. Some of the dismantling is being carried out by the direct ravaging of the artificiality of the boundaries long constructed around us, by a pandemic that by its very nature, knows no borders – not even recognising borders between itself and a human cell, let alone the socially constructed boundaries of nation states or hierarchical status.
The pandemic is challenging further, what in the West, has been a deeply buried idea of our mortality – a reality at odds with the long honed notion of power that depends upon increasingly detaching us from the human propensity towards illness and death, and stratified even further by entire technological and scientific industries promising eternal youth and substantially prolonged lives. It is confirming the extent to which our nature and well-being depends upon just a simple lingering hug from a loved one, in ways insurmountable by multitudes of ‘likes’ online – revealing the irony of the isolation and loneliness felt by many in a world connected digitally on an unprecedented scale.
By drastically minimising our normally unchallenged patterns of movement, production and consumption, it is revealing with crystal clear clarity the extent of our degradation of the environment, and directly questioning the sanity of our inability to meet our basic needs locally. And, in the words of professor of history and author, Yuval Noah Harari, our current predicament is one which is accelerating history. It is forcing us to make decisions which would normally take years of extensive debate in a matter of days – prestigious universities are rapidly shifting their courses online, politicians are making quick decisions about the use of metadata in tracking illness – all decisions which will likely linger with us for years beyond the end of the current crisis.
So while this pandemic is kickstarting the dismantling – and providing human kind with the clearest mirror image of itself, blemishes unhidden – there is a great deal more of the dissolution of boundaries to see through. For as certain norms crumble, and as power is challenged, there is always a great chance of new risks emerging, such as an even more strident version of totalitarian power – based on the manipulation of fear and uncertainty that herds people even more tightly into the embrace of despotic leadership, or based on the continued irretrievable centralisation of power into the hands of big-tech companies.
Furthermore, it would be the unforgivable missed opportunity of our time to simply aim to return to “normal” – for as we have seen and as we are urgently being shown by natural forces greater than us, “normal” is based on falsifications and denial of our humanity.
As we conscientise where and how we might dismantle and shift, I think it is worth pausing to remember just a few lessons from past critical junctures in the human story – to ensure that we do not burden ourselves and future generations with the crippling effects of dogmatic systems of control once more, only in a different guise in a world that will, no doubt, be greatly shifted.
As we are buoyed forward and beyond the challenges of this present human experience, it is worth remembering the limits of our control – as expressed in the omnipresent tension between human agency and, as epitomised by the Ancient Greek tragedies, the inevitability of fate. It is worth also paying homage to the idea of multiple possibilities – an approach that neuroscientist and author David Eagleman labels ‘possibilianism’. Consistent with the methodology of scientific exploration, possibilianism acknowledges that our limits are found at the intersection of all that we do not know, and that multiple possibilities could be held at once, as we explore, with intellectual humility all of the known unknowns, and remain open to the unknown unknowns.
This leads also to the concept of ‘the unprecedented’. As we face the present pandemic, we hear the concept of it being unprecedented time and again. But there are aspects of this that we must delineate, so that we can more fully interrogate the scope of the moment before us. There are pieces of this pandemic – the grief, ruin and importantly, the resolve, it is generating – which must be honoured and recognised as having happened before.
Global pandemics have of course, previously occurred, even during times where we were not as readily interconnected by travel – the Bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, and the 1918 Spanish Flu come to mind. And there are also elements of this which have transpired in a more localised sense – as many communities globally have been exposed to eradication by disease through European colonial exploits, and many communities still today, live with seriously diminished health and lowered life-expectancies, and/or are confined to living in cramped camps, prisons or housing conditions that are reflections of an unabated and persistent adherence to a vision of power that excludes.
These delineations are important as they reveal the tension between the natural course of suffering and disease, and its exacerbation due to socially constructed boundaries such as those based on wealth, access to quality healthcare or on racial hierarchies of worth.
What is unprecedented, is that this is occurring on a global scale, and it is occurring now, in our present world – with the scope of resources, knowledge and power available to us. What this means is that the capacity for us to communicate, globally cooperate, dismantle and shift, is unprecedented. Equally, the amount of power that could continue to be centralised, to further lock our humanity out, is also unprecedented.
While multiple possibilities for our futures no doubt exist, I believe the best shift we can make will begin with acknowledging with humility our long-denied humanness. To dismantle the boundaries firmly etched around us, we must first dig under. At no time in our lived history can I recount a moment in which our true nature has been so revealed – we are being reminded on a mass scale of our mortality, our vulnerability and our interdependency. We are being coaxed into acknowledging that these are aspects of our nature, not to be exploited or denied, but to be harnessed.
And when we do so, we turn the key to the gate leading us down into our own depths, dissolving the boundaries within us to rehumanise ourselves. Here, we may with stillness reacquaint ourselves with all aspects of our nature that have long been exiled. And inevitably, when stripped bare of the scrambling effects of a power long interested in alienating us from ourselves, we unearth a concept of empathy that is rooted in our own unveiling – realising the extent to which we are each a dispersive and palpable echo of all else that lives. Not only are we one another, but each of us manifestations of the natural universe – our skin, our hair, our form, our voice, our consciousness – all gripping interplays of the slow fomenting dance between the great and primordial forces of nature.
From this space of a shifted collective consciousness, we must continue to dismantle, to create a world intent on dissolving the falsified boundaries which have, for so long and to our gross collective detriment, denied us to ourselves. If we can make this shift, the boundlessness of our horizons lies waiting to greet us.