The alternative to ‘progress’ is not ‘regress’ — but dwelling.
Some scientists tell the story that we are all made of matter which has existed since the beginning of the universe, and which will remain after we have gone. We are literally of the world, we are the dust of the earth and we breathe in the dust of those who have been and those yet to be. This is a frightening, as well as a rather sentimental, idea. But whether it is true or mere speculation, it carries with it an important lesson: that we are all, to some extent or another, fixed. We are not just here now, but we always have been. We are part of a whole, something much bigger than ourselves.
I do not know whether what the scientists tell us is true, and I doubt that they really know either. But it is a nice idea – that we are not just in the world but are the world – and it is one that I wish to take up, to strip it of this veneer of scientific speculation and return it to the field of metaphysics where it properly belongs. We are made out of the stuff of the world. We are one with the world and not against it. We are not separated entities, or differentiated subjects, who can use the world as object. We are made up and remain of the dust of the world.
One of the defining characteristics of modernity is the belief that we are subjects distinct from the world. We are, according to Descartes,1 thinking subjects who are able to look outwards onto the world. We exist, as it were, in distinction to the external world. This separation is crucial for understanding modernity and its motive force, namely, the idea of progress. We exist to further ourselves, to progress and to achieve (substantially, if not entirely) human perfection. Human beings are perfectible – that is why we believe in the material basis of science – and they can attain perfection through their use of reason to manipulate the objective world. The world has particular attributes that we can recognize, catalogue and then exploit for our own purposes. The world is made up of discrete pieces that we see as objects available for our pleasure.
But this separation of ourselves from the world is dangerous. It forces us to look forwards and only forwards. We are focused on progress towards perfectibility and so we need not look backwards. We take for granted what we have now and use it to reach ever further into the future in the belief that this will make us happier, healthier or better. But the act of looking only forwards means that we deliberately limit our vision. There are things that we refuse to look at and which in time we may forget about entirely. The things lying behind us do not matter, and the fact that we cannot see them proves this. So we insist on progressing forwards, towards what we are sure is a better place.
But this reaching out, this stretching to attain what we feel is only just out of reach, might lead us to over-balance. We are so concerned with what is ahead of us that we forget what we are balancing on. We take for granted all those traditions, institutions, relationships that we need in order to stand where we are and reach out to begin with. We are so focused on the future we forget how much we depend on the past. We ignore that we are only standing where we are now because of what has gone before us and what has been expended in maintaining us.
The desire for progress is exploitative. It uses up what is around us and, in taking for granted our past, it uses up our inheritance without regard for the consequences. But as we are convinced we are always just on the threshold of some better future, why worry about the current cost? Whatever we sacrifice now can be more than made up when we have achieved our potential. After all, we must speculate to accumulate.
The problem, and hence the danger, is that progress, and the transgression it necessitates, is not temporary. It is not a short transition from one stable point to another. Instead progress becomes an end in itself. The whole purpose of modernity is the journey: progress is, in reality, nothing but flux and transgression. There is no agreed end point, no accepted notion of what human perfection would be, but merely a desire to be better, to reach the next step. But this step is merely the next point of departure.
What progress ignores is the importance of harmony, whether it is within ourselves, between ourselves, or between the world and ourselves. Progress stresses the separation, the apartness, of ourselves from the world. However, to recognize the need for harmony challenges the rush for progress. It makes us question the cost of our action, that what we do might pull and tear at our connections with others in the world. It forces us to look at what we are using, what we are stepping on and exploiting to achieve our pleasures.
Harmony is a concern for balance. It is where we recognize that we cannot move without affecting everyone and everything else. We are connected and our actions are consequential. What we do impinges on others and so we should factor this into our calculations. Indeed, it makes us question the very nature of our calculations: what are we seeking; why do we act; what might we achieve, and what happens if we do not achieve it? If we move so does everything else – and do we know what the consequences will be?
Of course, we might weigh up these consequences and conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs. We might consider that a change in the balance is a price worth paying for what we hope to achieve through progress. But this would be a misunderstanding of what we mean by harmony. Harmony is not merely a matter of being aware and so perhaps taking notice of the consequences of our actions. Harmony is where we question the actual process of calculation. What matters is the balance itself and not what this means to any one part of the whole. If we are part of the world then what matters is the world as a whole and not just ourselves as part of it. In other words, harmony is an end in itself.
Harmony and balance imply that we stay in place. We do not seek to move, to progress or improve on what we now inhabit. Harmony is a concern for permanence, for settlement, for what we might call dwelling.2
To focus on dwelling allows us to focus our actions in their fullness, on their complete effect and on all the levels implicated in that activity from the very idea of human settlement to our most private inner thoughts. Dwelling focuses on our relations at all levels, with loved ones, friends, neighbours, strangers, and with the world itself. Martin Heidegger, in his essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’3 equates dwelling with building: for humans to dwell means they build structures for themselves. In turn, he defines building, through its etymological roots in Old English and German, as related to the verb ‘to remain’ or ‘to stay in place’. Dwelling as building is thus more than just mere shelter, but is a reference to the settlement by human beings on the Earth. Indeed for Heidegger, dwelling is humanity’s ‘being on the Earth’.
Heidegger sees dwelling as human settlement in general: it is the house, the village, the town, the city and the nation, but it is also humanity taking root in the soil and recognizing its part in the world. We are rooted, embedded and not able to fly free of the world, seeking our interests independent of it.
Dwelling then is about balance. It is the activity that creates, maintains and sustains the permanent human presence in the world. Dwelling is about the material and non-material relations that create the capacity for human continuity. Dwelling deals with the human presence it all its complexity, in that it allows us to talk about the universal and the subjectively private: human settlement and my home.
To dwell means to live on the Earth. It is to be in place. We are at home in the world. We have a place of rest and a place that makes us. Dwelling is what we do: it is human settlement in the most general sense. To dwell is to be present in the world. We show our presence through the domestication and taming of nature, and so become tamed ourselves. We dwell through the creation of permanent social and political structures and through the private space we make for ourselves. When we dwell we mark our place in the world and so are marked ourselves as worldly creatures.
Dwelling is to be in the world and to be at one with the world. Dwelling manifests our need for permanence, stability and stasis, and our wish for things to remain as they are. Dwelling is what we do as part of the world and in doing so we become one with the world. It is where ordinary quotidian habits link to mystery, where we join with something much larger than ourselves. Dwelling shows us that the ordinary and the mysterious are not distinct but are one and the same: the mundane habits of our existence are where we make use of the world and inhabit it with meaning. In doing so, we become a mere part of the world. The world does not require us to understand it.
Dwelling is our inhabitation in the world in all its fullness. We are all one with the world; we are of the world and it is in us, and as such we act the world out and the world acts through us. How we act is determined by the world. We are not distinct from it; there is no sense of humanity being against or beside the world. Humanity is manifested as a mere part of the world. This does not, however, suggest any simple determinism, nor any prefigured pattern. We have no necessary or preordained role in the world. Instead our actions carry with them a responsibility of involvement: how we act, the decisions we take individually and collectively, can affect how the world is. Without doubt we can change the world and make it into what it currently is not. But it still remains the world, and we are still part of it. The world is changed and we are changed with it. And with change we take a risk in our lack of understanding. We throw things out of balance.
We can see the world either as a process of change or as a point of acceptance: it can be transgression or accommodation, movement or stasis, harmony or displacement. To create change is to displace, to move ourselves away from where we currently are. It is where we reject the idea of keeping ourselves in place and seek to keep moving. We forget we dwell and seek instead to transgress. We see a virtue in movement and in change and we repudiate the static point. Yet when we keep moving, when we stay in transit, we can never be sure of where we are.
But to dwell is to recognize that we are points of being rather than processes of movement. We are fixed points of the world existing within a web of relations. We are rooted and connected through well-worn ruts of meaning. And we seek to maintain these and persist with them and we do so precisely because they keep us fixed. We do not wish to be pulled away from our place, to be uprooted or to be taken out of those ruts we know so well. If we are uprooted then we become displaced and become disoriented and our connections with others become strained. So we do not seek to break new ground, but instead we relish the anchor, the foundation, the solidity of the known; we know our place and the meanings that this exerts on us are palpable and help to ground us.
This notion of being in place is threatened by modernity and the chase for progress. As we have seen, progress insists that we set ourselves apart from the world. We seek to improve our condition and we refuse to accept what have now as anything other than transient and contingent. Nothing is therefore beyond transgression. We believe in our own perfectibility and so cannot accept the boundaries of our current life. We always want better and believe that its achievement is possible. The desire – the need – for transgression inherent in modernity prevents stability. There is no one place, but a series of temporary holdouts from where we plan our next move. What we lose in this desire for transgression is our connection with the world. We forget the closeness, the openness we have to the world and which it has for us. Our loss is one of balance, the ability to remain level with what is around us.
We should see transgression as the very opposite of stability. Modernity relishes flux and this serves to separate us from the world. We can agree here with René Guénon,4 who argues that modernity has severed our traditional connection with the world. Hence instead of progress and evolution – both peculiar to Western modernity – he sees our predicament as one of inversion, of a decline from a once enlightened golden age. The idea of progress is, for Guénon, a Western aberration: the idea that we can improve, that we are capable of moving towards a better society planned and made by ourselves, is an absurdity. We are by no means capable of perfectibility and our attempts to achieve it are both naïve and hubristic.
Progress and modernity depend on the assumption that we can control the world, and that it is there for us. It is where we assert a distinction between the world and humanity, and that the world is a resource for us to exploit and use as we see fit. But this is disharmonious and destructive: it means we cannot maintain the world as it is, or as it wishes itself to be. Instead we try to make the world in our own image. We see it as ours and as a distinct object separate from us. We feel we know it, that we own it and so can use it as a resource. To be striving for change is therefore to see ourselves outside or beyond the world. We tear ourselves from the world. We uproot ourselves and breach our connection with the world in the belief that we can remake ourselves and the world as we please and relocate ourselves to a time and place of our own choosing. In doing so we become footloose and forgetful, and lose what makes us what we are. We empty ourselves out; we become hollow shells. We become separated, displaced and anonymous to the world. We become subjects capable of transformation within an imagining of transgression. And in our imagining, in our dreams of a perfect world, we become forgetful of dwelling. In our forgetfulness we seek to mould the world in the image of our dreams of perfection. And it appears that there is little that can stop us. In the moment that is now, the time we have before us, we come to see that we can remake the world. We believe that we have the power to transform what is around us.
But this leads only to destruction. We cannot sustain what we make and remake and this is because we are not capable of understanding our actions. So what we create is disharmony. We cannot remould the world and leave it harmonious. We can only remould the world on the presumption that we are distinct from it, that we are separated from it; that we are above and beyond the world and that it is ours to control and to make and remake according to our own will.
But we are not distinct from the world: we are mere parts of it. So when we tinker with the world we tinker with ourselves. We think we are in control of what we are doing and that we will stay in control. But, in reality, we cannot be trusted and we are not in any way acting responsibly. We have power but lack authority. We cannot justify what we do in any way that goes beyond ourselves, and this is because we do not properly know either the world or ourselves. The only justification we can find is that we have, at this moment, the power to hand; that, in this moment, we see ourselves as capable of acting. But what we seek to alter is not ours to change. Others have bequeathed to us what we now have, and we are beholden to those who will follow us to hold what we have in trust for them. But also we cannot alter the world without altering ourselves. And as we are a mere part of the world, and not beyond the world, we cannot properly control that change. If we alter what we are dependent upon then we change ourselves, and we will do so in a manner that we cannot properly predict.
What allows us to maintain our hubris is the fact that, being part of the world, we are well supported. We can live well because of the fecundity, diversity and resilience of what is around us. But this is not infinite and we cannot ignore our connections indefinitely. We cannot act indefinitely without the world responding. And the world will respond because of its implacability. It cannot respect our separateness. The world does not know us as things distinct from itself. And so it is impartial in its responsiveness. The world’s response to our actions depends on its nature as world and not on the power we lay claim to hold, no matter how great that power might appear to be to us. The world has its limits and once they are reached the world responds inexorably. This means the response will be unyielding and beyond our capabilities to control or understand. We need the world to sustain us and once we separate ourselves from it we lose the connection that absorbs us. Standing out alone makes us vulnerable to the world in its implacability.
We can start to remedy this when we remember how to dwell as part of the world. We then recall that we are located beings. We realize we are not beyond the world able to look at it in its totality. We cannot transcend it. Or rather, we accept that we cannot do this without losing our hold on the world, without losing our connection to it as world-giving, and without the loss of much of ourselves as part of the world. What we must do, therefore, is to regain the sense of ourselves as being within the world. We must re-accommodate ourselves as part of the world and accept our part in its wholeness. We must reject transgression and the desire for separation from the world. If our attempts at distinction and control are destructive – of the world and ourselves – then we must accept our limits. However, in doing so, we can recognize that our limits are the world itself, and so it is our very inhabitation that provides us with these limits.
1 Descartes, R. (1988): Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings (London: Penguin Books).
2 For a fuller discussion of this concept see King, P (2004): Private Dwelling (London: Routlege) and King, P (2008): In Dwelling (Aldershot: Ashgate).
3 Heidegger, M. (1993): Basic Writings (London: Routledge).
4 Guénon, R. (2001): The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times (Hillsdale, New York: Sophia Perennis).