The self, according to Joanna Macy, is “the metaphoric construct of identity and agency, the hypothetical piece of turf on which we construct our strategies for survival, the notion around which we focus our instincts for self-preservation, our needs for self-approval, and the boundaries of our self-interest.”
The human “self” is not “real”. We have constructed it for a number of reasons, including theoretical convenience, Western imperialism, speciesism, amongst many others. Its construction has been justified by institutional science, ruled by a claimed “objective” reality (notably plauged by a replication crisis which undermines the credibility of the foundations of said “objectivity”) and dogmatic materialism: scientists say that matter is unconscious, that human minds are separate from the rest of the natural world as the only conscious ones.
Draining the realm of consciousness, experience and awareness out of the whole of nature, those of us who grew up within this Western civilisation, as Alan Watts points out, “feel “I” – ego, myself, my source of consciousness – to be a center of awareness and of a source of action that resides in the middle of a bag of skin and so we have what [Watts has] called the conception of ourselves as a skin-encapsulated ego.” Within this cultural context, the self is “a bounded, atomistic, and autonomous individual.” We see ourselves as inherently capable of making self-centred decisions, which is possible because we are not just separated from the “non-human” (in itself a speciesist method of categorisation), but also above them.
Tim Ingold rejects this hierarchical binary, proposing an ontology of dwelling (alongside a relational self and an ethics of place), through which he questions the possibility of this separation from the more-than-human world. It is an ontology that “[takes] the human condition to be that of being immersed from the start like other creatures, in an active practical and perceptual engagement with constituents of the dwelt-in world”. From the beginning, for Ingold, there is no way to conceptualise of ourselves, our behaviours, needs, desires, etc., as separate from what is around us. We have been and are constantly in engagement with the environments in which we live.
Enrique Salmón expresses this in terms of what he calls kincentric ecology, based on indigenous perceptions of the human-nature relationship. Salmón writes that the Rarámuri view themselves “as an integral part of the life and place within which they live”, and it is understood that the soul, or iwí, “sustains the body with the breath of life. Everything that breath[e]s has a soul. Plants, animals, humans, stones, the land, all share the same breath.” Within kincentric ecology we share breath with our relatives: both physically and metaphorically (philosophically, even), we are constantly in engagement with the environments in which we live. The kinship relation, the shared breath, the inherent and yet unspoken reciprocity, the “mutual survival” gives rise to the formation of a self-identity that is embedded in the environment, in the cultural understanding of the “interdependency of humans and nature”.
But what if within our “modern” Western conceptualisation of the self, we leaned into the interdependency and questioned the boundaries which we draw to define the self? As Joanna Macy points out we have chosen to limit our metaphorical self “to our skin, our person, our family, our organization, or our species”, but we can “select its boundaries in objective reality”. That is what has been happening in contemporary biology.
“We perceive only that part of nature that our technologies permit and, so too, our theories about nature are highly constrained by what our technologies enable us to observe. But theory and technology act on each other reciprocally: we construct those technologies that we think are important for examining a particular perspective of nature.”
“A symbiotic view of life: we have never been individuals”, Gilbert et al., 2012
In contemporary biology new technologies have emerged to reveal a microbial world of “complex and intermingled relationships”, discoveries that have “profoundly” challenged the “generally accepted view” of “individuals”. As “Lewis Thomas (1974) and Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (2001) have asked: What constitutes the individual organism?” The atonomistic individual is increasingly becoming challenged, the term “holobiont” was introduced, “as the anatomical term that describes the integrated organism comprised of both host elements and persistent populations of symbionts”.
Inspired by this particular term, Sophie Strand reminds us that “we live in households, but we are also households”. She says: “We’re breathing in the microbiome of our area all the time. And we are, sometimes I say, we’re swarms in suits, skin-silhouetted towers of Babel.” Similarly Andreas Weber says that “we’re not individuals, we’re colonies.” He adds: “We’re ecosystems. This microbial ecosystem inside of you is in constant dialogue with the ecosystem(s) outside of you. Your gut biota are continuously replenished by the stuff you eat because it’s full of bacteria. Your skin microbiome deposits itself on everything you touch. If you touch somebody, you exchange microbiomes. You don’t have a border. To think so is another bourgeois Western illusion. In actuality, you’re constantly blurring with the animate world around you.”
What does it mean to truly embody such scientific breakthroughs, these ways of thinking that we might not be used to? What does it mean to see the world through this lens, the lens of the permeable self? For Weber this is entering into and embracing the paradox of being an individual in this enlivened world: we don’t get to choose whether or not we are individuals; we are always both, but have never been either, alone. Dissolving the borders, rejecting the boundaries, these mean giving up control over our conception of reality, and our conception of our selves. But perhaps we never had control to begin with. This shift away from obsessing over the “self” is a welcome shift. It is what it means to truly move away from the anthropocene, to make space for a multispecies stories (perhaps what Donna Haraway offers as the Chthulucene).
“Integration and differentiation go hand in hand. “As you let life live through you,” poet Roger Keyes says, you just become “more of who you really are.””