Friday, 16 December 2011

Life Inhuman

A local Waitrose is currently featuring a hedgehog sanctuary among its three charities of the month, which shoppers are asked to choose between by contributing the token they pick up at the cash desk when they pay for their groceries. The hedgehogs are competing with charities dedicated to giving relief to those suffering from some kind of palsy and to children growing up under some kind of disadvantage. And the hedgehogs are winning. Amidst poverty and illness, only the hedgehog is really deserving.

To the outsider, one of the most striking features of the British is their affection for animals. Another striking feature is their lack of affection for each other. People carry dogs in their arms as they would (elsewhere, at least) a child; and they charge rent to children who remain in the "family" home as they would (and even this might not happen elsewhere) a stranger. People are strange, and animals are kin.

The imperative to consume is here and now so all-consuming, that the overlay of thought and feeling that has distinguished the human from the merely animal is being eroded. When nothing but instincts remain, hitherto-humans become endlessly manipulable by their arousal and satisfaction; so long as hopes and dreams, principles and commitments, are recast as basic needs, they can be sold and sold and sold again: this is what Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism." But the other side of this coin is that, unless something "adds value," which is to say, unless it feels like the satisfaction of a basic need, it is so excessive as to cease to mean anything, so surplus as to cease to exist. In this category are increasingly interned all of the higher, that is, human, achievements: loyalty, care, protection, patronage, love.

The only real tie that binds us now, above and beyond the quasi-instinctive consumption practices that we share so utterly and completely, is the tie between parents and their young children. But dogs too care for their young. As do hedgehogs. And only for so long. When animals come of age, the bond between adults and their offspring falls away, to be replaced by and by with an entirely new bond between the now-adult offspring and their young. Instinct will only spread so thinly. To the outsider, the absence of anything like family cohesiveness in Britain is remarkable. Parents appear, if anything, over-"invested" in their children, but the tie seems astonishingly to weaken as the children grow older, and children are finally dispatched to the world as if this were the wilderness and survival of the fittest were the best we have to hope for. Small wonder, then, that ageing parents get left behind (for the state to take care of badly). As for siblings, they are a matter of almost total indifference; and friendship is all but a myth. It turns out that instinct is a poor foundation on which to form our bonds; it would as soon set us against each other as it would appear to unite us in pursuit of the same ends. A world of consumers is a dog eat dog world. Except that, here, no-one would dream of eating a dog.

The infamous British reserve has few cracks. Rather incongruously to the outsider, however, it does give way very quickly when the opportunity arises to be naughty about private body parts, intimate sexual acts, and basic biological functions. All of a sudden, what had seemed buttoned-up fortresses of inhumanity leave down their guard wholly, light up their eyes brightly, and giggle like eager schoolgirls, as if to say, "Mummy, I'm home!". And, in the animal world, it seems indeed that they really are.

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