"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Mountains and rivers, skyscrapers and dams – the world is filled with objects and structures that appear sturdy. Glancing upwards at a skyscraper, or mountain, a person may know that these obelisks will not remain eternally unchanged, but in the moment of the glance we maintain a certain casual confidence that they are not about to crumble suddenly. Yet skyscrapers collapse, mountains erode, rivers run dry or change course, and dams crack under the pressure of the waters they hold. Even equipped with this knowledge it is still tempting to view such structures as enduringly solid. Perhaps the residents of Lisbon, in November of 1755, had a similar faith in the sturdiness of the city they had built, a faith that was shattered in an earthquake – and aftershocks – that demonstrated all too terribly the fragility at the core of all physical things.
The Lisbon earthquake, along with its cultural reverberations, provides the point of entry for William E. Connolly’s discussion of neoliberalism, ecology, activism, and the deceptive solidness of the world in his book The Fragility of Things. Beyond its relevance as an example of the natural tremors that can reduce the built world into rubble, the Lisbon earthquake provides Connolly (the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University), a vantage point from which to mark out and critique a Panglossian worldview he sees as prominent in contemporary society. No doubt, were Voltaire’s Pangloss alive today, he could find ready employment as an apologist for neoliberalism (perhaps as one of Silicon Valley’s evangelists). Like Panglossian philosophy, neoliberalism “acknowledges many evils and treats them as necessary effects” (6).
Though the world has changed significantly since the mid-18th century during which Voltaire wrote, humanity remains assaulted by events that demonstrate the world’s fragility. Connolly councils against the withdrawal to which the protagonists of Candide finally consign themselves while taking up the famous trope Voltaire develops for that withdrawal; today we “cultivate our gardens” in a world in which the future of all gardens is uncertain. Under the specter of climate catastrophe, “to cultivate our gardens today means to engage the multiform relations late capitalism bears to the entire planet” (6). Connolly argues for an “ethic of cultivation” that can show “both how fragile the ethical life is and how important it is to cultivate it” (17). “Cultivation,” as developed in The Fragility of Things, stands in opposition to withdrawal. Instead it entails serious, ethically guided, activist engagement with the world – for us to recognize the fragility of natural, and human-made, systems (Connolly uses the term “force-fields”) and to act to protect this “fragility” instead of celebrating neoliberal risks that render the already precarious all the more tenuous.
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