This is all there is. “This” is bodies that don’t work the way we want. Historical subjects who were never perfect, and whose faults aren’t interesting enough to be tragic. Political movements that are incoherent, or nearly coherently undergirded by banal hatreds. Law that mismatches its public and conjures monsters. Built environments that crumble, reject, or harm in the name of progress, or of history. Theologies that exclude and damage while promising salvation. As a scholar, I think this is all we’ve ever had—and this is all we can have.
What else could there be? Utopian visions of perfect bodies, flawless legal systems, universally beneficial political movements, and built environments that are wholly beautiful and wholly functional suggest that maybe there is an alternative this. Technology often poses as a potential savior, and the last ten years have seen its vast expansion. And yet scholars will not be saved by a new brain scan that tells us what religious experience really is. Newly possible analysis of cognitive properties, fMRI, and other neuroscience studies can tell us about what happens in the body. New media can multiply the ways people communicate, the things they think they know, and even the emotions they feel. But neither can transcend the “this” which we live. New databases, digital humanities, and new information sharing will surely create new historical, sociological, and biological knowledge.
All these technologies can generate new questions, but they are unlikely to settle old and fundamental ones. “What biological processes accompany religious experience?” but not “Why are people religious?” or “What does it all mean?” And, in the end, even these technologies are still more of this: more bodies, additional data, but never a new kind of data that assures certainty and coherence. The future promises more bodies, new bodies, and even new kinds of bodies, but they still won’t always work the way we want. The future will bring new political movements and new theologies, but they will still exclude and damage. The future will bring new laws that don’t match the lives of the people to whom they apply.
As Alexis Shotwell argues in Against Purity, there is no pure and uncontaminated body, “no Eden we have desecrated, no pretoxic body we might discover through eating enough chia seeds and kombucha.” All bodies are always already limited, at least partially out of control, and contaminated. And the hope for such things is misplaced.
There is not a preracial state we could access, erasing histories of slavery, forced labor on railroads, colonialism, genocide, and their concomitant responsibilities and requirements. There is no food we can eat, clothing we can buy, or energy we can use without deepening our ties to complex webs of suffering.
The possibility of individual purity is a lie, and not a noble one; whether we mean to or not, we are all complicit in injustice, pollution, and damage. Shotwell insists that recognizing this is the first step toward the future, if we hope to have one.
It is no accident that “utopia” means “no place.” In literature, Thomas More’s Raphael does not, as his Hebrew name would suggest, bring God’s healing. After he returns from the island of Utopia, he feels utterly alienated. When Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver comes home from his travels, he has nothing but contempt for his former “visionary scheme” of progress and reform for his home society. The otherworldly utopias they encounter do not pull or push them to try to make the world a better place. Instead their effect is to impress the vast incongruity between otherworldly utopias and the real world from which these visitors come. Even after having experienced utopias, the travelers returned with the crushing realization that—their experiences to the contrary—this is all there is.
Modern architecture also found utopia impossible and ultimately placeless. When Le Corbusier proposed his utopic “contemporary city” in 1922, he was met with “rage in some quarters and enthusiasm from others.” What he was not met with was the opportunity to build any such thing. When he explained himself in The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, he explained that he had “avoided all special cases, and all that may be accidental, and I have assumed an ideal site to begin with.” In other words, he assumed a utopic (that is to say, placeless) space in which to build his utopic city. Ebenezer Howard’s late nineteenth-century garden city plans were similarly placeless, not only in that they remained unbuilt, but also because their “magnet” space for attracting settlement was the “Town-Country,” which was neither town nor country and thus avoided the pitfalls of both. Subject neither to “Long-Hours-Low-Wages” and “No Public Spirit” of the Country nor the “Slums and Gin Palaces” and “Foul Air” of the Cities, the Town-Country would draw up to precisely 32,000 inhabitants, and then a new one would be constructed. Though some urban planning did follow some of Howard’s principles, these garden cities as he imagined them, with their promise of ideal human life, never materialized.This is all there is. There is not some purer access to data, nor some purer people whom we can study, nor some placeless place where we can all live in harmony. But this shouldn’t be a terrible disappointment to scholars since scholars aren’t in this for a religious experience. We are, in fact, in it for this. This—these faulty bodies, built environments, politics, law, and theologies—is what drew us to study what we study. I think that as scholars, it’s our job to explain this better, not to wish for revelation or redemption from it.
So if there is no purity, and there can be no utopia, what are scholars to do? The editors of this forum reminded us of Peggy Lee’s brilliant performance of “Is That All There Is.” The lyrics themselves are propositional:
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is
And yet, the lyrics and Lee’s performance are not propositional at all. They are declarative and defiant: This is all there is. In my reading, the injunction to keep dancing and drinking isn’t a command to enjoy ourselves while the Titanic sinks, or while racist America parades in Charlottesville. It’s not a recommendation to self-medicate or to ignore suffering or to grin and bear it. Nor does it push us to lose ourselves in creating imagined utopias.
Lee’s defiance can help us recognize that, for bad and for good, the faulty world we have is home. This faulty world is our scholarly home as well as our personal one. The first verse of “Is That All There Is” is about a fire burning down the singer’s childhood home: “I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames / And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire.” The way Lee sings the words, they are not a question; they are a declaration that the devastation of a fire is not otherworldly. It is precisely this-worldly: With all its destruction and suffering, it is still material, observable, and [feel-able]. Good things, too, like the later verses’ circus with its “clowns and elephants and dancing bears / And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads,” and love “with the most wonderful boy in the world” and “long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes,” also belong to the material this. They have beginnings and ends, limits and borders, mistakes and redemptions. We can observe them, though never completely; we can explain them, though never fully.
If fires and the circus and true love and even death are not revelation, and the appropriate response is not despair or denial, what is it? I read Lee’s performance as a command to keep using the imperfect bodies that we have, the imperfect data that we have, the imperfect lives that we have and that all of our subjects have. We must keep observing and explaining as best we can, even with the awareness that perfect knowledge is no more attainable than perfect subjects. These observations do not amount to a call for nihilism or abandonment of projects to better the world. Recognition that the world will always be flawed should not remove the impetus to better it.
Lee’s expression at the conclusion of her song is not the carefree smile of someone who will happily drink and dance her way through life. It is the defiance of someone who knows the temptation to think that there is something else, something revelatory, some technology that will save us, but refuses to give in to that temptation. It is the defiance of someone who has decided that her imperfect body is worth living in, worth drinking in, and worth dancing in.
That is the attitude we need as scholars: that the world is worth understanding without pretending that there is some other America without a racist past to which we might be compared, without imagining there is some other world unscarred by genocide. We cannot build garden cities that will grant “freedom,” “cooperation,” “pure air and water,” and “flow of capital” to their inhabitants; we will not have new technology that fully explains the meaning of religious ecstasy. This is all there is, my friends, so let’s keep dancing.
Beautifully said. I was reading just today, in Funkenstein’s “Collective Memory and Historical Consciousness,” about the connection between apocalypticism and historicism. What we’re beginning to face now is the frightening prospect that, quite soon, we will not even be able to tell “all there is” from “all that resembles all there is.”