I’m old enough to have come of age intellectually when Hardt and Negri were making a splash with their Empire. Sitting close to the heart of that book was a call for new virtue rooted in poverty. I remember more than a few folks I knew at the time feeling like this was some sort of romantic claptrap and, having been poor, I was inclined to agree with them.
But…well, there is something to that idea of poverty as a virtue. It isn’t right, exactly, but it is in the neighborhood of something interesting and potentially right. It was akin to the way I felt about some of Alphonso Lingis’s writings (e.g., The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common), that they weren’t exactly wrong, but that they were too romantic and abstract.
When I call them romantic and abstract, I mean something fairly specific. They are looking out on other communities, other people, and using them to think through their own feelings. It’s strange to call some of this abstract, because they often go about this by dwelling upon the visceral lives of these people, but they do so with no intention of participating in life along with them. As a cranky grad student, I once called Lingis a philosophical tourist and that accusation revolves around this.
There isn’t anything wrong with tourism, exactly, but there is something wrong about mistaking that tourism for something else, for a deeper experience of your own life. This is the problem I have with most forms of appropriation, by the way. It is not that they borrow, it is that they borrow without any sense of context, either the context from which the practices are drawn, nor the context to which they will be applied.
“Your own life”…what does that mean, though? Let’s get back to poverty for a moment. When Hardt and Negri wrote about poverty, it didn’t feel quite as abrasive to me as Lingis’s reflections. One of the reasons for that is that did feel like they were trying to cultivate an other way of being, an other way of living in the world that would transform our relationship to it. Poverty, though not in the abject sense of starvation, disfranchisement, and marginalization, but as a form of disintermediation (see what happens when I start talking about philosophers?).
This puts the discussion of poverty back in line with an older tradition the enfolded within itself an appreciation for poverty as a spiritual value. This is poverty as the willful effort to shed whatever allows us to ignore others. It is the effort to release the sorts of power and wealth which makes it easier to forget or ignore the world around us. This is an opening into the richness of the world. That we have managed to mangle the two experiences into the term poverty is probably part and parcel of the corruption of the modern world.
It is the reason, I think, why so much initiatory work begins with stripping you down. It’s dangerous, but that is part of what it means to be alive, to be in danger, to be vulnerable, to be susceptible. Part, not all, because that is the other side of the initiatory work, which is building back up from that to engage with the world you find yourself in, to make yourself strong by binding yourself to the world better.
(It also suggests that you can only undertake so many genuine initiatory encounters, though the work of initiation itself can and should constitute a lifetime.)
That applies on all kinds of levels. It ought to be the foundation for our community with other people (i.e., our social world), but it is also the basis for our community with other beings in the visible world (i.e., our ecological community) and our basis for our community with other beings in the invisible world (i.e., our spiritual community). None of that is safe, but when it works, it is negotiated, which allows us to mitigate the dangers and acquire a region of workable agency.
In other words, a sense of community isn’t necessarily about being nice or kind, but about being aware, and making use of that awareness. It can be merciful, but it can also be severe.
It’s a workable agency, though, that manifests in the confluence of all these worlds as one world, as a world in which there is more to negotiate, not less. The tree becomes part of the negotiation, so, too, do the spirits that circulate through it, so too, do the other trees in the forest and the dead man buried beneath it. Every shortcut you take in that process removes you from this workable agency, forecloses on some part of what you are capable of doing, because it shuts out one point along which negotiation can occur.
(Which doesn’t make shortcuts wrong.)
Workable agency also requires relearning what it means to be afraid, to be vulnerable, to know real need, as the basis for what we can achieve. Real need, that’s frightening in and of itself, but in the right doses can go some way to burning out the petty pleasures and distractions that animate so much of our late capitalist economy.
(Which doesn’t make petty pleasures wrong.)