“What is life?”
This question has a delicious double sense. Firstly, it seems targeted to the phenomenon of the living as one of the caches of the phenomenon of the world we may want to investigate. Here we turn our lens to those ‘vital phenomena’ that biology takes as its object. Canguilhem has argued that biology needs to assume vitalism, under pains of losing its particular area of study: if the living is just physical mechanism, if ‘life’ is not a meaningful category, then biologists are just applied chemists and physicists. But this doesn’t seem right – Canguilhem never misses the opportunity to remind us of Bichat’s formula: there is no pathological astronomy. Seen in this way, the question ‘what is life?’ is what marks the difference between living phenomena and purely inert or mechanical phenomena. Amusing that despite all of us being embodied examples of the former, this question is still a question for us.
But ‘what is life?’ obviously has a second sense. Here life is understood existentially, this thing we all have ‘one’ of. What is it and what is it for, and how is it structured, and how should it be structured? This is the old ‘central’ philosophical question, one that by its very nature is the best suited to cause us worry. There’s little to be worried about beyond it. But curiously, this second question never quite manages to separate itself completely from the first one. For underlying the assumption that our individual lives are something that are worth being considered, is the fleeting hope that there is something in those existences that is forever separated from the merely mechanical, empty, and scary universe. More often than not, the value of individual or collective life is bound to categories of separatedness from dead matter, from mere matter. It is a search for discontinuity. But the more the phenomenon of life becomes something ungrounded, unanchored, materially incomprehensible, the more fragile it becomes in a world of dead things. It appears like an outgrowth, an anomaly that, as it resists material decomposition, opposes an all-powerful enemy, because we know already, that in the long run, matter will win and devour our solar system in a ball of fire. Is that opposition so different from its negation, from the reduction of life to mere matter? If life is so fragile, wouldn’t it be better to be matter in the first place? Vitalism is all the more interesting where it seeks to surpass this impossible alternative, between an existential alienation from the cosmos, and a reduction of life to death. What if the universe itself was traversed by vital forces, by non-organic ‘habits’ and ‘heartbeats’? Here, we leap into something that is beyond our ordinary understanding, beyond ways of thinking that are all-too human.
It’s all too easy to be drawn into a vision of life battling against entropy. We struggle against the mechanical disintegrations, and so on. But nothing could be further from us. When we bring home a plastic bag of vegetables, and place them in the fridge, to delay their inevitable decay, we are not resisting entropy here at all but the vital order itself. The problem is not the decay of life but just how alive the milieu we inhabit is. The issue is most often a vitality that runs orthogonal to our own: micro-organisms and insects, an entire overwhelming concatenation of life that nips at our heels hoping to recycle us and everything we need. In fact, the tables are precisely reversed: We are probably the only species (or at least one of the few) who directly wield entropic forces to further our own vital aims, creating pockets or niches empty of life to extract a surplus: antibiotics and DDT. A hydro-electric dam or a hydrogen bomb. Perhaps wielding this fantastic power, holding the cudgel of entropy over the life we have pulled ourselves up from, is what has led us to feel we can so easily demarcate the human and the animal, the living and the inert, the real and the fictional, the true and the false. But perhaps here we kid ourselves; these distinctions might be only so easily made by a regime of life that regularly appropriates little bubbles of material disorganization to further its own vital aims in a bustling and purple and neon Leibnizian chaosmos of living forces that never sleeps.