Our humanity depends on the things we don’t sell

Earlier this year, mining company Rio Tinto dynamited a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in the Pilbara region of Australia, in pursuit of the iron ore deposits that lay beneath the sacred caves. The decision triggered outrage from Aboriginal communities and the wider world alike. Pressure from investors concerned about the resulting PR disaster eventually forced the CEO to resign.

But that’s not much of a victory for those to whom the now-destroyed site was sacred. As a place of pilgrimage, continuously inhabited since before the last Ice Age, its religious significance had accumulated over millennia of repeated visits, inhabitation and ritual. The holiness of Juukan Gorge lay in the unimaginably long-term accretion of memories, social patterns, and shared cultural maps by countless generations of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.

Strip mining, the method of resource extraction used to reach much of Pilbara’s iron ore, was the subject of a blistering 1962 Atlantic essay by Harry Caudill. Titled ‘Rape of the Appalachians,’ it describes a process as violent as the analogy suggests, in which entire mountaintops are removed in search of coal deposits. But when you consider the role played by commerce, it’s more accurate to describe the process as prostitution. 

It’s not unusual for those looking to destigmatize prostitution to argue that selling sexual access to one’s own body should be morally acceptable, precisely because it’s no worse than coal mining. So here we have two sides of a disagreement, both of whom see commonalities between prostitution and mining, even as they disagree over whether the action itself is good or bad.

How would we characterize what prostitution and mining have in common? Resource extraction, perhaps. Dynamiting Appalachian mountaintops has obvious tradeoffs, but on the upside you get to extract coal from the exposed rock, which you can then use to generate electricity. We accept the environmental destruction, deterioration in air quality, and changed landscape contours (or at least mostly choose to overlook them), because the alternative—no electricity—appears worse. 

Selling access to female bodies is also a form of resource extraction. The product may be subtler—orgasm, the illusion of intimacy, darker types of wish-fulfilment or, in the case of commercial surrogacy, a human baby—and the tradeoffs less visibly destructive than a landscape reshaped. But the dynamic is similar. In each case, a woman rents access to something that we consider to belong to each individual alone—her body—and earns money in return. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported the decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, recently argued for de-stigmatizing “those who choose to make a living based by self-governing their own bodies.” Earning money independently is good. Self-government over our own resources is good. So on what basis can we criticize people who choose to sell access to their own bodies? 

In his 1954 lecture ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Martin Heidegger argued that when we organize life under the rubric of technology, the world ceases to have a presence in its own right and is ordered instead as ‘standing-reserve’—that is, as resources to be instrumentalized. Coal and iron ore, the products of technology themselves, and even human sexual desire then come to be seen as part of the standing-reserve. It becomes increasingly difficult to see reasons why there should exist any limits on extracting such resources.

Today, it feels as though we’ve always been engaged in this inexorable onward march. From a more mainstream perspective, what Heidegger is describing is simply the process we now call economic development. It is the transition from pre-industrial societies—characterized by primitive and localised forms of exchange, low workforce mobility, and in many cases by extreme poverty—to longer and more complex supply chains, technological innovation, more trade, more stuff, more wealth, and more personal freedom. 

But as Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformationfor much of human history trade occupied a much less central place in human relations than it does today: “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships.” Polanyi showed how in Britain, economic development and the emergent market society was driven by the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860. Prior to enclosure, much of Britain comprised subsistence-farming peasants living on land held and worked in common. 

Enclosures, justified by a need for greater farming efficiency, stripped the peasantry of any right to common land in favor of a private property model. Pre-enclosure, the necessities of life might have been bare, but many of those necessities existed outside the realm of ownership and trade. A peasant might spend his or her whole life in a tied cottage, with a right to common land, working to produce food but with very little need to buy or sell anything. Enclosure reordered whole swathes of human life from the shared, social realm to that of standing-reserve: that is, the realm of private property and transactional exchange.

Post-enclosures, what had previously been held in common—whether land or labor—was now privatized as standing-reserve for exploitation by free individuals. In the process, millions of human lives were arguably made much freer. The working poor were liberated from the feudal ties often implied by subsistence farming, free to move if they pleased, and free to sell their own labor for money. 

But this development was never simply the voluntary spread of a new, enlightened way of making everyone better-off. Like mining, it came with tradeoffs: peasant resistance to the Enclosure Acts suggests that for those people, at least, something was lost. And if enclosure opened up domestic markets in goods such as housing and food, it did not rely on the consent of those British peasants forcibly displaced from subsistence lifestyles into waged factory work.

The violence involved in opening up colonial markets likewise rejected the benign invisible hand. In February 1897, for example, not long after the completion of the enclosures in Britain itself, British imperial officials responded to the Oba of Benin’s refusal to open up trade in palm oil and rubber from his thriving city-state on the Niger Delta. Their answer was the Punitive Expedition, in which 5,000 British troops armed with machine guns razed Benin, massacring its inhabitants, flattening its temples, and looting the bronzes that inscribed its most treasured cultural memories. A month after the Punitive Expedition, a golf course had been laid over the city’s site, with the ninth hole where the most sacred tree had stood.

Most histories of the present characterize the story of economic development as an upward one of human progress, that has liberated millions from indentured labour into greater agency as free individuals in market society. And there’s something in this story of freedom; I wouldn’t swap my life today for that of a medieval subsistence peasant. But, like the extraction of Appalachian coal, nothing comes without tradeoffs. And while it’s easy enough to describe historical events in our transition from a largely relational society to a largely transactional one, the cost of moving to a market society is more difficult to count. 

It’s perhaps easier to find a way into this blind spot via a more recent large-scale displacement of humans from a relational to a market existence. The migration of women from the domestic sphere to the workplace began in earnest in the 20th century, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that it gathered pace around the time the economic gains available via overseas colonial expansion began to falter. I’ve never been a subsistence peasant or Aboriginal nomad, but for a few years I did step a small distance outside the market society as a full-time mother. And what I learned there about how, and why, this form of work is invisible today helps to illuminate the tradeoffs demanded by the market society. It also offers clues as to how we might yet stand for things crucial to humans but indefensible within a transactional worldview, such as ecosystems, sacred places, or even a view of dating that isn’t a sexual marketplace.

For something to be treated as standing-reserve, it must be possible to own it. Our social norms demand that we claim ownership of a resource before exploiting it. Selling my labor in the marketplace presumes that I can dispose of my time as I see fit, that no one else has a claim on my time or my body—in short, that I’m a free individual.

But to be a mother is quintessentially to experience not entirely belonging to yourself. It begins in pregnancy, with the realization that what you eat or drink affects your unborn child; it continues with breastfeeding, as you make the food that nourishes your child with your own body; it goes on far beyond infancy, in the need your children have to be physically close to you. When you see how powerfully your small child craves your presence, it’s very difficult to sustain the illusion of belonging only to yourself.

To the extent that something belongs to others as well as to ourselves—such as common land in 18th century Britain—it will resist being privatized for use as standing-reserve. So caring for my child can’t easily be viewed as a transaction, because it’s a relationship in which we aren’t exactly individuals. That is, we don’t belong only to ourselves, but to each other as well. And when you don’t belong solely to yourself, work can be understood not as a transaction—my labor exchanged for your money—but as relational. In other words, it is less oriented toward resource extraction and exchange than sustaining interdependent patterns of life. 

This in turn helps explain why the politics of our market society has such a blind spot where motherhood is concerned: the market society’s notion of liberation into the standing-reserve is deeply at odds with the work of caring. Sustaining interdependency isn’t about fleeting transactional logic. It’s about maintaining a valuable relationship. I don’t care for my child or my partner because I have a utilitarian goal in mind, but because we belong to each other and that makes caring for them a necessity for my existence too. 

Despite being in a sense repetitive and goal-less, caring is also pregnant with meaning. As the pioneering biosemioticist Wendy Wheeler puts it in Information and Meaning, repetition and pattern are central to communication throughout the organic and even the inorganic world. Organisms and natural systems don’t just respond to one-off signals, but rather exist in emergent, interdependent dialogue with the signals sent by other organisms and environmental factors around them—what Jakob von Uexküll calls an organism’s Umwelt. Thus, information in the natural world does not exist in some abstract sense, but only in the context of how it’s received within larger feedback loops. From the smallest microbiota to complex human civilisations, meanings are fundamentally relational, contextual, and pattern-based. 

Seen this way, it’s easier to understand why non-transactional, relational spheres of life and particularly family, remain Americans’ most potent sources of meaning. For individuals, meaning is to be found less in peak experiences, one-offs, the exceptional or abstractit hides in the repetitive, the everyday, and the relational. At a collective level, meaning coils through those pattern-languages transmitted via tradition, whether in vernacular architecture, folk music or oral histories. It lies thick in sacred places: humans have long used pattern, repetition, and the expected as the core of ritual religious and spiritual practices. 

The philosopher Adam Robbert connects meaning-making with askēsis, a Greek term that refers to the act of practice and discipline as itself a form of extended cognition, that enables the expansion of meaning-making beyond the rational sphere via the bringing-together of attention and repetition. We can understand motherhood as a kind of relational askēsis, whose core is the attentive, attuned pattern-work of sustaining a child’s Umwelt while they are too young to do it themselves. This is a central reason why many women are willing to sacrifice social status and earning power to work part-time or stay at home with young children: it’s as satisfyingly rich in meaning-as-pattern as it is starved of social status and pecuniary reward.

But the central concern of mothering with pattern, sameness, and contextual meaning as opposed to information devalues it in the order of standing-reserve, even as it delivers untold riches on its own terms. Information theory, a core science underpinning much of our technology, explicitly excludes the realm of pattern and sameness as ‘redundancy,’ preferring to focus on the unexpected. Our contemporary culture is quintessentially one of information theory: we celebrate the new, the innovative, the individual who doesn’t follow the rules. I can’t think of many movies where the hero defies calls to go his own way and instead saves the world by embracing convention.

And yet meaning, as Wheeler emphasizes, “is made up of pattern, repetition, the expected.” Information theory is thus blind to it, as she further points out: “What information engineers count as redundancy, living organisms in their systems count as meaning.” In this worldview, the tradeoff between motherhood and the workplace is a brutal one. No matter how meaningful life with a baby seems in its relational context, we have no vocabulary for understanding that, save as redundancy. It’s no surprise to discover that market society frames caring for children as a punishment: “the motherhood penalty.” 

The transactional world has little facility for repetition, pattern, or the expected; this is ‘redundancy’ to be dismissed in pursuit of the special, the distinct, the signal. This blindness to meaning-as-pattern, visible in the devaluation of motherhood and trust relationships, is similarly evident in contemporary architecture’s indifference to those vernacular pattern-languages in local built environments, that encode ways of life specific to different places. You can see it again in the treatment of folk music as second-class and unoriginal, the dismissal of religious practice as dogma, or the indifference to accumulated sacredness that allowed the destruction of Juukan Gorge. 

Within the worldview that reads motherhood as a punishment, ecologies of meaning accumulated via everyday pattern, human relationship, or religious ritual are at best yet-to-be-monetized resources. If they resist this transformation, they are obstacles to be ignored or dynamited. Bringing these pieces together, it’s now easier to see what’s lost under the rubric of information theory and standing-reserve. To see the world in terms of standing-reserve means seeing it as transactions rather than relationships, and information rather than meaning: as Heidegger puts it, “shattered,” and confined to a “circuit of orderability.” 

This shattered world is the same one the market society mindset calls ‘open’: openness to new forms, after all, means weak adherence to existing ones. To borrow Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase, then, seeing the price of everything by definition means seeing the value of nothing. Reframing the world in transactional terms, as ‘open’ resources that can be instrumentalized, necessitates the destruction of its meanings. Strip-mining self-evidently degrades the environment being mined. After demutualization, it took less than two decades for Britain’s building societies to go from embedded, localized community micro-lenders to casino-banking basket cases. And people who sell sexual access to their own bodies find it difficult to form and maintain intimate partner relationships

Likewise, treating human gestation as a service in commercial surrogacy interrupts the biologically-based symbiosis between mother and child that makes such relationships resistant to marketization. Instead, surrogacy contracts treat the baby as separate from its mother, a product that can be commissioned. Humans are thus shattered and reordered as objects, as in this case of a disabled child rejected both by her commissioning ‘parents’ and also by her Ukrainian gestational mother, as though she were a faulty smartphone.

Here we begin to see more clearly who pays when we replace meaning with information and relationship with transaction: anyone in need of care, and anyone leading an ordinary life. The winners in the information world are those whose lives are oriented toward peak experiences, agency, variety, surprise, and control. To the extent that you find fulfilment in pattern, repetition, and the quotidian, a technological and economic order blind to meaning-as-pattern and hyperfocused on the unexpected will be, by definition, unable to see you. 

But we’re running out of relational resources to convert and consume. Much as on current trends many key natural resources will be exhausted within a few decades, there are signs that in our civilization, the relational commons that underpins ordinary human life is approaching a point so shattered that the capacity of society to function is increasingly compromised. Certainly where I live in Britain, the weak institutional response to COVID-19 has revealed a nation in which social solidarity may be present on a local level, but is increasingly, acrimoniously, absent at scale. 

Pursuing resilience in this context means seeking out the relational, and looking to strengthen it: that means standing up for the interests of women, babies, the everyday, the natural world—and the value of norms, custom, and religious faith. From this, it follows that defending women and the environment means not embracing but resisting the logic of transaction. In that case, communities with some religious basis for sustaining relational resources as a sacred domain will prove more resilient than the ‘liberatory’ vision of market society and standing-reserve—precisely because they reject the appetitive logic of transaction. 

From a transactional point of view, this is at best a romanticization of some imaginary lost Eden, and likely a manifesto for ending innovation and demand to return to pre-industrial society. But a defense of ordinary-ness, pattern and repetition does not imply turning back the clock, or levelling all humans to identical cellular automata. Nor is it a case against extraordinary people: the natural world, after all, has megafauna as well as microbiota. 

Making the case for meaning as well as information is not to claim that we should revert to Tudor times, all be the same, or all spend our lives raising children. But it’s to defend pattern, repetition, and ordinariness as valuable in their own right, whether as the medium for future rituals and sacred places to emerge, as the domain of social life, or simply as bulwarks against the voracity of a transactional worldview that would commodify even our deepest social instincts. It’s to argue for our radical interdependence with our Umwelt. And it’s to affirm that in order for a society to thrive, sacred things must not just be defended as exempt from standing-reserve, or moved to a museum like the looted Benin bronzes, but continually and actively re-consecrated. 

Originally published at Palladium

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