ajnabi: my lips red out; text over: "conquer this smile" (oh yeah?)
ajnabi ([personal profile] ajnabi) wrote2010-02-22 03:59 am

philosophy paper

so, uh, somehow i managed to get this done. and yes, i know it's not very well organized, and the title sucks, but i have no heart or brainpower/energy to edit or look through this. i'm just going to submit it and hope for the best. i do have this vague sense of victory at being able to write it at all, i guess. sort of. but.

On the Need to Transcend Privilege Justification in Critiques of Civilization

The central problem of Ishmael is that it offers a critique of civilization that gives privileged people more reasons to feel justified in having their power. This would seem to be a rather paradoxical problem, since Quinn clearly wishes to dismantle all ideas about humans being justified in their power over the natural world. However, his earnest call to change is thwarted by his assumptions about how humans have come to acquire the power to change and destroy their natural environments and, ultimately, themselves. Quinn believes that although "it's true that power and wealth within the prison should be equitably redistributed... what is crucial to your survival as a race is not the redistribution of power and wealth within the prison but rather the destruction of the prison itself" (252-253). Therefore, reforms within the system are insufficient; the entire system must come crashing down, and become replaced by a new system, one that makes peace with "leaver" ideology. Although Quinn does make an important point here, in the sense that reforms may only entrench systems further; in the context of his novel, the destruction of the "prison" that he speaks of is not more crucial than, or extricable from, the destruction of systems of power inequities. Nor will it automatically lead to a destruction of the latter.

Quinn's "prison" is one that humans who subscribe to a "taker" ideology have created. "Takers" believe that the world belongs to humans and that therefore human beings have every right to take and use whatever they wish from the rest of the natural world. "Takers" believe that human beings, similarly to or instead of the gods (who are assumed to exist by default, whether literally or as metaphor), possess the knowledge of life and death. On the other hand, "leavers" understand that human beings belong to the world, are not the pinnacle of evolution, and do not have the knowledge of the gods. "Leavers," however, have become almost completely conquered or subsumed by "takers". "Taker" ideology is most apparent, if not synonymous with, western imperialism and hegemony.

Clearly, however, western civilization is suffering grave problems. The problems Quinn chooses as basic and most pressing include overpopulation, food production issues, the extinction of other natural species, and other ecological crises. Because of all these problems that are becoming more and more urgent, "takers" are becoming overwhelmed with the need to solve them. Thus, it is starting to become apparent that there could be some systemic flaws with human ("taker") civilization. These are the circumstances in which the narrator of Ishmael finds himself wanting a teacher. By the end of the book, Ishmael, the rather human gorilla, makes the narrator realize that "takers" need to stop eradicating and conquering "leavers". In keeping with the Biblical story, Ishmael (and the narrator) see this battle as the ever-continuing murder of Abel by Cain. Basically, it is up to the "takers," or those with power, to give up their power, and "relinquish the idea that [they] know who should live and who should die on this planet" (248).

Quinn focuses on the need for those in power to "give up" their power, and work with "leavers" to create a human society that is harmonious with the rest of the natural world. In this, he assumes that the privileged can indeed just "give up" their power, when the very nature of power structures makes it so that it is a privilege, or another act of power, to be able to choose to give up power. This is most tellingly obvious when the narrator finally animates and says, "This is what we need. Not just stopping things. Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for... people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty... They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them" (243-244).

However, the narrator is animated because he has discovered the loophole in what seems like the end of the reign of the "takers". He has discovered that even though humans were "not meant to be the only players on this stage," it is their destiny to "be the first to learn that creatures like [humans] have a choice: They can try to thwart the gods and perish in the attempt—or they can stand aside and make some room for all the rest. [Their] destiny is to be the father of them all... By giving all the rest their chance... [so that in a billion years, whoever is around will say that] it was within [humans'] grasp to destroy the entire world... but [they] saw the light.. [and] pulled back and gave the rest of us our chance... [They were] the role model for us all!" (242). Basically, "taker" humans can do the noble and good thing, like the "leaver" humans had started to, and then teach all other species how to live among each other in peace despite being intelligent creatures. It would seem from this conclusion that Quinn never quite dismantles the Biblical/"Mother Culture" myth that being human is somehow flawed or inherently wrong (83), because he assumes that there are the two "trees" which constitute the struggle to realize one's limits even as one becomes self-aware and intelligent. As the narrator realizes, "Some creature had to be the first to go through this, had to see that there were two trees in the garden, one that was good for gods and one that was good for creatures. Some creature had to find the way" (243).

Hence, as the above section proves, the "vision" that people ("taker" people) need in order to truly work towards a better world (as opposed to just being told to clean up after themselves or behave more ecologically) can only really be inspiring if it involves the martyrdom or thoughtful selflessness of human beings. Quinn does attempt to refute the idea that "leavers" are somehow innately noble. Ishmael cautions the narrator, saying, "And—I repeat—this is not because [the "leavers'] live close to nature or have no formal government or because they're innately noble. This is simply because they're enacting a story that works well for people" (148). This attempt is interesting because even as Quinn tries to refute the idea that "leavers" are innately disposed to living life in harmony with the natural world, he contradicts himself by continually stating throughout the novel that the "leavers" continued the tradition of living as part of the world and not as rulers of it. This "tradition," of course, remained frozen in time for centuries and centuries, passed down through the generations of "leavers," making it as good as innate.

To speak of humans vs. the natural world does not immediately implicate the problems with such a "vision" of nobility, perhaps because, as Quinn so astutely notes, we are so imbibed in "taker" ideology and therefore think of humans as absolutely superior to all other forms of life. However, this "vision" could be applied to "fixing" intra-human forms of oppression. In keeping with such a schema, white people, for example, should "pull back" from the power they have in society, and maybe if they work hard enough at "giving up" their power for the sake of everyone else, they will be considered role models and/or brilliant teachers someday! Of course, Quinn would reject this analogy, since he believes that racism, as an intra-human form of oppression, exists within the "prison," and therefore is not comparable to the "primary" ecological problem.

Ecology is a very "safe" issue to fasten upon, especially in the context of such a grand "vision" of change as proposed in Ishmael. Quinn falls into several of the traps that a lot of mainstream ecologists fall into. For example, he does not recognize the links between overpopulation and poverty, or poverty and capitalism, or capitalism and colonialism, or colonialism and racism, etc. In his picture of food production as a drive to create and sustain more and more human life at the expense of all other forms of life, he does not realize how this mode of production is linked with capitalist free market ideology.

Nor does he realize how problematic it is to paint overpopulation as a desire such as follows: "Whenever a Taker couple talk about how wonderful it would be to have a big family, ... they're saying to themselves, 'Of course it's our right to apportion life on this planet as we please. Why stop at four kids or six? We can have fifteen if we like. All we have to do is plow under another few hundred acres of rain forest—and who cares if a dozen other species disappear as a result?' " (181). This grossly oversimplifies the primary context in which families actually do have large numbers of a children. At one point, the narrator does note that overpopulation does not result directly from surplus food production, necessarily, as Ishmael has been telling him, since in more "developed" countries such as the US, population control is not a problem (139). Ishmael/Quinn responds very egregiously to this objection: he says that "Every increased in food production is answered by an increase in population somewhere. In other words, someone is consuming [the] surpluses." The narrator digests this and summarizes it as follows: "First World farmers are fueling the Third World population explosion" (139). This explanation is ridiculously ignorant because clearly, surplus food production is not helping the fact that millions of people in the Third World are still starving. Hence, they are not getting that food that the First World farmers are growing. Having more children becomes a necessity when parents and families are not sure whether or how long they or their children will survive.

It is in oversimplifications of the complex relationships between humans that lead to certain structures of civilization and society, and how those complex relationships further create problems between human beings and the rest of the natural world, that Ishmael fails. A critique of civilization cannot give leeway to those with power. It must not encourage the powerful to "give up" their power; this dismisses the weight of power. A true revolution against oppressive structures, intra-human and ecological, must come through forming alliances based on marginalization, and seizing power from the powerful. There is no "role model" to be found in the structures that the powerful enjoy, whether they "give them up" or not.

Works Cited

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam/Turner, 1992.