AUTUMN 2020: WHAT IS WE?
Publication Date: 30th October 2020
As actress Gal Gadot found out to her cost in assuming that “we’re all in this together” during her pre-amble to the widely ridiculed celebrity rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” early in the pandemic, there is a certain recklessness in harbouring any great ambitions for the first-person plural.
Back in spring, this journal published a short essay by Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan called “What is ‘We’?” In it, she outlines the aspirations and ambiguities that lie at the heart of this question:
“We” is an epistemology. “We” is an assumption of shared subjectivity, perspective, or experience. “We” is an invitation to affiliate. “We” is a promise and a threat... [W]e is a “towering inferno of universalism” and “monstrous display of self-infatuation” – an error, an excess – that we can nevertheless not want, a “tantalizing hallucination” we cannot help but desire. “We” is what we write toward. Equally, “we” is what we must never reach.
“All articulations of collectivity”, Srinivasan goes on to write, “are provisional, conditional, unstable, fabricated”, and yet the desire for something more robust, stable, and universal (the “tantalizing hallucination”) persists. The UK’s former chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks built his recent book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times around the idea that many of today’s crises can be traced “to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and our elevation of self-interest over the common good”. The shared “we” that operates in service of the common good has shattered into innumerable little fragments of atomised self-interest.
But such grand narratives hold little water on closer inspection. Rather, our aspirations for collectivity must be negotiated without losing sight of how inherently ambiguous, improvised, and difficult this process must be if it is to hold any real value. The nine essays (including an updated version of Srinivasan’s essay) that address the main topic of this issue all navigate these treacherous waters with great skill and sensitivity. And with contributions from a diverse range of philosophers (Dan Zahavi, Serene Khader, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Thomas Szanto, and Donovan Irven) alongside two historians (Brooke Holmes and Fay Bound Alberti), an English scholar (Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan) and a film scholar (Todd McGowan), such an interdisciplinary focus serves to increase the scope of perspectives through which to try and understand what “we” has been, is, and may still be.
Other highlights in this issue include: leading Spinoza scholar Steven Nadler explore questions of mortality and immortality in Spinoza’s Ethics; fellow leading Spinoza scholar Michael Della Rocca defends a view that he considers to be “quite literally, unbelievable”; and Alexandre Leskanich offers a devastating critique of the value of historical knowledge. Finally, the topics under discussion are complemented by the entrancing artwork of Melody Overstreet and Nora C. Grant.