To be in relationship is an affirmation of the essential porosity that keeps us alive, a process of becoming through reciprocity with the ‘other’.
‘Without community, there is no liberation.’
What does it mean to belong in fractured times, when the culture tears us apart, and many seek solace in rooms big enough for only one? Can we* belong when the world around us fails to nourish our aliveness on the level of thriving instead of just… surviving? Humans harbor a deep longing to belong to all that is good for us to belong to; our communities, homes, biosphere, even our own bodies. It might sound absurd to say we don’t belong to or in our own bodies, but it would not be untrue; many of us entangled in the capitalist enterprise don’t feel we belong. That’s the crux. This longing to belong is increasingly apparent against the backdrop of a culture that grants belonging on the condition of status, material wealth, individual ‘specialness’, resignation to dogma, and the sacrifice of authenticity.
These times of unrest have been described as a ‘meaning crisis’, though it’s also apt to say we’re in a crisis of belonging. When you crack meaning open, you find belonging at its core. Where there is no belonging, meaning cannot germinate - the seed is without soil, without relation to its life-giving surroundings. To belong means to be irrevocably in relationship with your environment. To be in relationship means to be witness to aliveness and to have your aliveness witnessed. It is an affirmation of the essential porosity that keeps us alive, a process of becoming through reciprocity with the ‘other’. In the words of the Irish poet John O Donohue, ‘in order to be, we need to be with’.
Amidst an atmosphere of debilitating separation, in which Twitter bots turn us against each other and many play the dehumanising game of cultivating a ‘personal brand’ to make ends meet, it is no wonder loneliness and depression are now their own pandemic. We have abandoned reciprocity and replaced it with individualism. This relational illness has led us to consume each other like products, just as we consume the more-than-human world as if it were a shopping mall stuffed full of glistening objects. ‘Being with’ in a consumer culture often means unconsciously seeking to be with those who can serve us as resources, including our lovers, children, colleagues, and social acquaintances. It’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world, we’re told, except dogs don’t really eat other dogs.
Despite this, we are always in relationship, all the time. We depend on our relationship with the trees to breathe, our gut biota to eat, the wind and the rivers to drink water, and on each other for safety, sustenance, and social bonds. Yet, our awareness of this relational codependence has atrophied. It is not that we aren’t in relationship, but that, as a culture, we ‘moderns’ tend to focus on outcomes instead of processes, i.e. relationships. When we breathe oxygen, we don’t realise (with real eyes?) it came from a tree. We don’t realise, as the German biophilosopher Andreas Weber says, that ‘we’re not individuals, we’re colonies,’ recalling our microbial lodgers and co-conspirators.
In many ways, the work of modern civilisation is remembering who and what we are, and who we are with and within. It is about recognising our porosity, and our enmeshment in a weave of biotic, abiotic, embodied, and symbolic relationships. Griefworker Stephen Jenkinson says that ‘the act of memory is a radical thing. It’s not passive. It’s not being reminded. It’s remembering. It’s something you do’. The work is not about ‘going back’, as some have warned against. It is not about nostalgically pining for ‘the good old days’; it is about recalling aliveness through relationship in the constant unfolding now. It is an act of unearthing, or perhaps more suitably, re-earthing. You do not have to hitch a ride on the arrow of progress; this is about going in, under, and among. Perhaps many of us think that sheltering in our individuality will protect us from the perils of this porosity. To acknowledge this salient ecological reality means to recognise ourselves as flesh, as matter, as organisms… as capable of dying. Soil, the omen of our mortality, cradles our every move as we inch ever closer to its embrace. Far from being fatalistic, this realisation opens us up to life, and to the reality of providing sustenance for others long after we’ve been reborn into the Earth. In the words of the ritual theorist Ron Grimes, ‘if we cannot learn to be food, our species will become a dead-end branch on the evolutionary tree’. Paradoxically, death is the key to aliveness. This is natural law. It has been since before we invented linear time, and humans are not immune to it, despite trying.
Inhabiting our relational nature with greater awareness can lead to profound liberation, deep belonging, life-affirming meaning, and a level of safety and security seemingly unknown to our neurotic individualist society - these are desirable and logical consequences. The call for connection is not a tree-hugging, romanticist fantasy - it is imperative to our continuation as a species. It is especially imperative for those living in the Global South who are disproportionately affected by the extractive impulses of modernity, as well as those beings whose intimate relatives are going extinct at an unfathomable rate. Sacrifices in the consumer lifestyle must happen. While many fear what may be lost, the retrieval of life itself is to be gained. In her delusion-shattering book, Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira says that ‘most people will not willingly let go of the enjoyments and securities afforded by modernity: they will not voluntarily part with harmful habits of being that are extremely pleasurable’. This feels overwhelmingly accurate, and at the risk of sounding preachy, the privileged (myself included) have no choice but to change, and quickly. It’s not just about the ‘consumer vs. corporation’ argument, nor is it about privileged people being ‘sinners’ - it’s more complex than that. We might not be able to overthrow Shell or Amazon by next week, but we can still make differences in the world beyond switching to paper straws. Still, I feel heaviness in response to Machado de Oliveira’s observation. It can feel impossible to unite in any sense of the word when there’s rent to pay and mouths to feed. Such is our sinister entanglement in this dire economic servitude.
Thankfully, recent shifts in the life sciences show us that the mechanistic, dualistic paradigm is not logically coherent with how the world works, i.e., how the world regenerates aliveness and sustains itself. This paradigm dictates that only humans are subjects, everything else is an object, and hence some of us have granted ourselves the liberty to extract from the natural world at our whim. Now science is learning that the world is populated by beings who experience agency, subjectivity and sensitivity. These beings are compelled into aliveness through the desire to be in contact with each other and to create diverse forms of relationship (see the work of Andreas Weber for further reading on this).
What is fascinating about the new biological paradigm is that it chimes with an animistic worldview. Once thought of as the naive projection of ‘primitive peoples,’ animism is ironically more logically coherent with reality as it is, as opposed to the dominant rational worldview(s) lauded by modern cultures (is it rational to self-cannibalise? I would argue no; still, we should be mindful of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here; rationality has and will continue to create flourishing, should we employ it wisely). If we look at animist cultures, we see that, by and large, they regenerate aliveness. They don’t destroy life. Animists recognise the ‘personhood’ of others ‘not like us’. This is not the same as projecting human-like qualities onto the world but is instead a way of recognising the agency of other beings. In animist cosmology, agency is not the sole remit of humans. It is a quality expressed by the more-than-human world as it unfolds into being in myriad creative ways. Despite the prevailing dominance of the mechanistic paradigm, shifts in perception are taking place. The Whanganui River, for example, was granted legal personhood by New Zealand in 2017. Such a shift enables life-sustaining biotic subjects/persons/beings/creatures (take your pick) to continue their course of sustaining life and also being life.
Anthropology has also taken an ‘ontological turn,’ with academics and scientists like Nurit Bird-David, Tim Ingold, and Graham Harvey rallying for a ‘relational epistemology’ (Bird-David), and the proliferation of the notion of the ‘dividual’: ‘a person constitutive of relationships’ (Marilyn Strathern). This evolution in the perception of our relatedness is promising, especially coming from the far reaches of rationalist academia. Though, as with the discovery of anything ‘new’ that is not new, it is just elsewhere, there is a danger of fetishising its ‘over-there-ness’ and ultimately falling back into colonial habits of appropriation. It is important to remember that while we in the capitalist regime have largely lost our sense of what it means to be indigenous, we have not lost our humanity. We have not lost our sensate corporeality. We are not devoid - we are profoundly lost, so it is possible that we can guide ourselves elsewhere. However, the irony in saying this is that ‘elsewhere’ really means ‘here’. The notion of ‘coming home’ rings true in the sense that our work is coming back down to Earth (note: where we already are), feeling the fertile ground beneath our feet and recognising our shared, sacred breath (note: which is already there). It is the radical remembering Stephen Jenkinson speaks of.
This shift in perception gestures towards a ‘both/and’ paradigm, one that recognises plurality and mutuality (and non-duality, if you want to go deep), not just as concepts but as biological facts of life. It calls for the enlivenment (Weber) of our creaturehood so that we might, as other creatures do, better enable the lives of others by participating in the sentient ecosystem with integrity and care. It recognises the commons as a matrix of complex, reciprocal relationships instead of an inert ‘natural resource’. As a particular form of intentional, life-giving relationship, kinship can teach us how to midwife this shift. Kinship is a way of relating that asks us to go beyond extracting value from the 'other'. It is a form of relationship that acknowledges the deeper dance of reality by operating on the same principles as the very breath which keeps us alive: reciprocity, emergence, and sensuous awareness. You do not have to be indigenous to experience kinship; however, there is much to learn from our indigenous brothers and sisters, whose life-giving cosmologies are largely centred around kinship systems. We would do well to listen without fetishising, which commodifies identity, and the ‘exotic other’, and to bear in mind the lucid musings of ‘postactivist’ scholar Bayo Akomolafe on the nature of indigeneity: ‘becoming indigenous isn’t about finding essences… It is about being sensitive and open to the world. It is about listening to the murmurings of place, sitting with the unnamed… and coming alive to a sensuousness that often resists articulation or conceptualisation.’
Kinship cannot be packaged up and sold as ‘the cure’ to our relational illness. It cannot be co-opted by the ‘conceptualisation’ Bayo refers to. It can only be embodied. It is a verb before it is a noun. While ritual plays a role in kinship relationships, it cannot be performed or mimicked. To come into kinship, you must submerge yourself in the river of reciprocity and allow yourself to flow, to be consciously moved by forces other than yourself. It is an act of letting go and, at the same time, taking decisive action towards more intentional relationships with both human and more-than-human beings. Kinship asks that we listen for the needs of others and, more importantly, respond, act. This does not mean sacrificing yourself on the altar of altruism, nor does it mean claiming moral superiority by virtue of your service. You are also an organism who is part of this web of relations. It is your ecological prerogative to keep yourself healthy so others can be too.
Why is kinship a more powerful frame through which to view relationships than simply saying ‘everything is connected’?. ‘Everything is connected’ is (partially) true, but in the words of renegade academic Donna Haraway, ‘nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something’. Kinship offers us ways to connect through the context of place. This is profoundly important in a time when the abstract notion of the ‘global village’ might challenge our capacity for care and, more crucially, action. Echoing this, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, ‘we weren’t made for that sort of constant awareness’, suggesting that efforts to contain the entire suffering of the world in our awareness as individuals are futile. Kinship asks us to come into relation through a ‘cosmolocal’ lens, one that recognises the needs of the whole while carefully attending to the parts which make up the whole. This doesn’t mean slicing the world up into bits (as is the impulse in modern thinking) but instead attending to that which is around you, and which has an embodied context, while at the same time attending to the relationships which weave your context into the fabric of others. It’s not about ‘turning a blind eye’; it’s about opening your eyes in the first place. Everyone has a role to play. Anyone who thinks they can’t make a difference unless it’s all the difference has been tricked by their ambition to ‘change the world’ at large; that’s another delusion of grandeur peddled by runaway individualism. Through kinship, we all become participants in the web of relationships. We are no longer spectators on the sidelines, but instead co-creators of ‘the conversational nature of reality’ the poet David Whyte refers to.
What does this mean in practice? As a society, we are addicted to the relationship-as-resource paradigm. As with any addiction, acceptance is the first stage of recovery. Look at your life and see where you use others as a resource. It becomes difficult to continue this inquiry when you realise you do this to your most intimate partners, friends, and even children. Ask yourself, ‘am I treating myself as a resource?’. The likelihood is disturbing - so many of us have fallen prey to the incessant productivity trap which renders us machines. This is not a slight on your moral purity - it is impossible to remove oneself entirely from the stream of extractive influence in a capitalist culture. Even the so-called oppressors are oppressed. There’s another crux. Recognising how you colonise yourself and others is harrowing… until it is freeing for everyone involved, including you. This awareness is not a stick to beat yourself with. It is a portal to genuine relationship with all that is. The clues to our liberation from the alienating morass of capitalism are immanent in our every breath. We do not need a grandiose theory of change or unifying theory of consciousness to recognise this. We do not need heroes. And so I will end with this: you won’t save the world; your relationships will.
*Note: I use ‘we’ liberally throughout this piece. It’s a habit I’m trying to kick; still, ‘we’ in this case isn’t intended to flatten everyone into anonymity and complicity. I recognise there are multiple ‘we’s’ at play in any society, even ‘Western’ or ‘modern’ civilisation, which I tend to refer to when I use ‘we’. Using the word ‘Western’ is now disputed, too. So, take these words with a pinch of salt as I figure out how to use them wisely. My use of ‘we’ very much includes myself.
Hannah has recently curated an online course, Kinship: An Exploration Into Being Together, for the transformative education platform Advaya, exploring community, relationality and belonging (15th March – 5th May 2022). Details can be found at kinshipcourse.com.
Main picture: Nick Moor @Unsplash.
Words by Hannah Close
Hannah Close is a curator, writer and photographer. She is currently studying Engaged Ecology at Schumacher College, Devon, and has recently curated an online course on kinship for the transformative education platform Advaya. Her website is hannahlclose.com.