Being given over

Social distancing, states of nature, stakes of care

We all start by being given over, a situation both passive and animating. That's what happens when a child is born. Someone gives the child over to someone else. We are, from the start, handled against our will, in part because the will is in the process of being formed.… But there is here a larger claim that does not rely on any account of the social organization of motherhood or caregiving: our enduring dependency on social and economic forms of support for life itself is not something we grow out of; it is not a dependency that converts to independence in time. When there is nothing to depend upon, when social structures fail or are withdrawn, then life itself falters or fails. —Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence.

Yesterday, I was listening to Butler’s slim, propulsively-argued new book as I went about the house, cultivating quarantine. Our daughter, another Judith, was on her way home from a study-abroad semester, evacuating from Ecuador due to coronavirus, and I had all the dusty lumber of an attic renovation—ancient, wax-tacky skis; the cobweb-palimpsests of boxed books; grade-school projects bunched in bursting paper shopping bags—to relocate from her bedroom to other nooks.

So I’m bending and lifting as my headphone cords tug; I’m sneezing in the dust; I’m laboring in little ways, not with the courage and risk of the EMTs and ICU nurses and grocery-store employees at work in the midst of pandemic, but in the habitual, ready-to-hand ways of householding. It’s the familiar, and I’m in the trance of it. Abstracting me from this work, Butler starts talking about the state of nature, that enlightenment fiction about a time before society, before law. As I grimace and sneeze from the dust and listen to mouse turds rattling in boxes of old records, I recognize some form of the state of nature welling up—one far removed from Rousseau’s noble savage, striding through the glimmering forest; from Hobbes’s war of all against all, prosecuted by solitary brutes with no law but bellum omnium contra omnes written in fire across the sky.

What strikes Butler about our fictional founders, images of which so deeply pattern our most normative social imaginaries, is that no one ever imagines them as children. It’s not just that the noble savage is always a man: “(t)he primary and founding figure of the human is masculine,” Butler writes; “that comes as no surprise…

Masculinity is defined by its lack of dependency, and that is not exactly news, but it continues somehow to be quite startling. But what does seem interesting … is that the human is from the start an adult. In other words, the individual who is introduced to us as the first moment of the human, the outbreak of the human onto the world, is posited as if he was never a child.

Butler reminds us how those nobles savages, those stunted Hobbesian brutes, never seemed to come from anybody—they’re just there, fully formed, striding through the forest, ravening or in reverie. And yet they too would have been children—we all were children; and so it has been, all the way down. “The body is given over to others in order to persist,” Butler says. “It is given over to some other set of hands before it can make use of its own.” And then she poses a startling question: “Does metaphysics have a way to conceptualize this vital paradox?

In her book Art and Intimacy, the theorist Ellen Dissanayake argues that much that is distinctly human—in particular, language and aesthetic sensibility—arises in the context of the mother and child. The murmurs and cries, the syncopation of breath, the rocking rhythms, the vital choreography of body weight and balance—these, for Dissanayake, are the stuff out of which we build our rituals, our orders, all our elaborations. We all begin in radical dependency—and gradually or suddenly, others are given over into our hands. The society of this—this negotiation, this nurture—is our state of nature. The evolutionist trajectory to Dissanayake’s work impedes me; imagining states of nature is a fraught business, and ought to be avoided altogether. But her fundamental framing, her centering of intimacy, arrives like a cool drink of water amidst the arid hellscapes of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Co.

What has all this got to say about our global viral emergency? Viruses, I want to say, come at us from a world beyond care. Like the chicken-and-egg imponderable of dependency, viruses are paradoxical all the way down: seemingly originary and precursive to complex forms of life, they can’t exist without the cellular beings whose mechanisms they overtake. Biology doesn’t commonly talk about viruses in terms of species; radically abstracted from the organismic, they are particles, and mutation is their vital condition. It’s tempting to think of the virus as emblematic of a biologic state of nature, hailing from a primordial state before organized cells composed themselves into creatures—and yet they couldn’t exist without the conditions of care that even bare life represents. So they don’t come from before care, but arise from within it—perhaps as its shadow, opposed and ineluctable.

Here at home, the dusty boxes are all shut away; Judith arrived home to a tidy bedroom, where even now she’s sleeping off the rigors of evacuation. And so we turn from clumsy parental carpentry to cultivating a shared state of care. Thanks, coronavirus! Covid-19 is no avatar or prophet, of course; it’s an infectious disease. And yet in the mingled state of danger and intimacy it enforces, perhaps we find another conjugation of these vital paradoxes.

Before the advent of the law, Hobbes’s brutes kept their distance. We’re learning again to keep our distance—challenged to do so not for fear, but care. In his Atlantic column, my friend James Parker shared a poem about this new state of nature:

Lest this thing worsen
let’s agree to be separated by the length of a tall person.
No touch. We’ll communicate via voice and eyes and heart.
Stick together—six feet apart.

James directs the Black Seed Writers, a workshop and literary journal for the homeless in Boston, where states of nature and care come together with urgent intimacy. As James’s wife, Kristin, recounts on Instagram, social distancing has presented the mission of the Black Seed Writers with a particular challenge. “(W)orking with the homeless means building trust,” Kristin writes. “They are so used to people keeping their distance…. Over the years (James has) reduced that distance beautifully.” Butler again: We are all handled against our will; when there is nothing to depend upon, life itself falters. As James’s verse limns, we also depend upon these melancholy-beautiful distances we’re learning to share.