A DNA Economy: Bodies, Violence, Inheritance

We are living through a change in change. Not merely a shift in structure from one superpower to multiple, but a far deeper one from a state-based order to a multi-actor system. The ancient world of disjointed empires gave way to the disorderly medieval world, followed by the modern order of sovereign states, and now the transition to a complex global network civilization. Structural change happens every few decades; systems change only every few centuries. Structural change makes the world complicated; systems change makes it complex. International relations among states are complicated, while today’s global network civilization is complex… Connectivity is the main cause of this complexity. – Parag Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization [1]

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it… The greatest reward of…confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment. – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me[2]

I

I drove by an alligator tail on the highway. I drove by an alligator tail on the highway, twice. The second time it was barely recognizable, but the first time it was relatively clean, a massive hulk on the shoulder just after the Morganza Spillway, the weight of it apparent in its bigness, its ancient black elegance, such a meaty contrast to the weight of the plastic-and-steel animals swifting by it in the morning at 80mph. I drove by an alligator tail on the highway with tears in my eyes as I listened to a recording of Martín Prechtel on grief and praise, the indigenous celebration of what I might call the embodied reality of emotion but which he would more likely call reality. How fitting, I thought, that our self-contained vehicles of interaction have cut off the bodies of the most ancient of feared creatures. How fitting, that I am cut off from the ancient grief muscles of my own body. There is no wilderness that can touch me unless I volunteer for it (which makes it no wilderness at all), except for the frontier of my own isolation. We don’t have a community of crying, which Martín insists means we don’t have a community of praise. We cut off our grief and thus cut off our joy. Our tails are left on the highway shoulder, with no trace of our once mighty bodies.

II

We want agency.

Underlying the elections of Trump, Brexit, Duterte, Bolsonaro, and the global cultural pattern being mis-described as “populism” is a reaction to a once-in-5,000 year paradigm shift in metaphysics. And at the heart of it is the question of the agency of the human body in the cosmos.

For millennia of documented Western history and thought, humans have had a static, fixed cosmology composed of impermeably separate subjects and objects. Be they human bodies, nation-states, or the heavenly spheres, we pictured sovereign subjects and objects bouncing off each other like billiard balls, defined by geographically perceivable control, and lorded over in “God’s economy” by the ultimate subject of an impassible, immovable divine power. Suddenly, that has shifted. Beginning with Darwinian evolution and moving through process metaphysics, relativity, quantum thinking, string theory, etc., we find our actual experience is one of deep, even overwhelming interconnectedness, in which our bodies (and all matter in the universe) are mutually participatory, dynamic occasions in time (which is matter), deeply intertwined in each other, the universe, and God. This is not all happy. It shakes everything we’ve stood on for approximately 5 millenia, and it runs deep – individually, politically, theologically – and requires the adaptation and invention of new models of living. In short, sovereignty is dead.

The world has been swirling with so much change in human living that people don’t feel in control of their own lives, let alone the lives of their communities or society-at-large. There is a deep and good human need to belong, to contribute, and as the Dalai Lama described in a NYTimes opinion piece just before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, there is a great anxiety everywhere about being “unneeded.” While it may be experienced as being out of agency, there is a complementary feeling of having so much interconnection that we are paralyzed by too much agency. Trump, etc., capitalized on that desire for agency and control, validated the perceived self-victimhood to others’ objectification of us by promising a return to the old myth of sovereignty, autonomy, localized control, and protectionism. But the same myth of sovereignty also underlies the U.S. Bill of Rights, international human rights law, and most of the world’s languages which segregate between subject, object, and verb. If “every actual entity is present in every other actual entity,” how am I a me? How do I have agency?[3] 

III

Credit: Susan Danielson

The size and spread of tree roots splaying into the earth often mirrors the size and spread of the tree splaying into the sky. It is that big. It is that deep. Song of soil and sky and sun yearning to be in sun and sky and soil.

IV

To be white is to be a tamer of bodies.

V

What’s going on is not merely a political realignment or a pendulum swinging; this is part of a once-in-5,000-years reformation of human society, perhaps unprecedented in human history. While it involves changes at every level of thought, I want to focus on three: the metaphysical/theological (the cosmos), the individual, and the political (governance). In each case, we are transitioning from frameworks of fixed, static order into a framework of dynamic, participatory relationality, in which our structures more closely align with a reality of mutual interdependence.

At the level of metaphysics and theology, this includes a new understanding of divine participation in which God is a dynamic and participant relation, a verb pressing in time without division of spirit and matter in an evolving and expanding universe.

At the level of the individual, we are transitioning from an understanding of the self (in the West) as a contained being or object, towards one that is not merely porous but an incarnate relational composition. Again, dynamic, participatory, and relational. Turns out the human stomach has ten times as many external bacteria in it than human cells; even our actual bodies are made up of more that is not us than that which is. This is a major change coming out of a Cartesian perspective of the post-enlightenment. Just as the universe is not made out of billiard balls that make contact and bounce off each other within a vacuum of space, neither are we. We (and the environment) are quite literally participating within each other’s physical, emotional, and spiritual concrescence.

At the political level, the technological revolution, the interweaving of economies, and the breakdown of traditional institutions has issued in an entirely unprecedented system of “radical connectivity.” Governance itself has transitioned from a government model based on sovereign geographic jurisdiction to a hybrid model based on function, whereby governance functions traditionally performed by government are now being performed by various overlapping bodies of governance including government, nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and market agents (e.g. multi-national corporations, social entrepreneurs, etc.). And this is the new economy, a complex pattern of simultaneous aggregation — traversing traditional geographic jurisdictions into broad, universalized interconnectedness, and devolution — identity conscious localization that demands autonomous organizing structures and authority. Agency in the whole and the particular at once. The paradigm shift is happening culturally, politically, sociologically all around the world. In his book, The End of Big, Nicco Mele admits that we don’t even “…have an adequate vocabulary to talk about what is happening…” and how “radical connectivity is altering the exercise of power faster than we can understand it.”[4]

VI

Early, I discovered that I could not make contact with my love, even inside of my love.

possess (v.) …from Latin possess-, past participle stem of possidere “to have and hold, hold in one’s control, be master of, own,” probably a compound of potis “having power, powerful, able” (from PIE root *poti- “powerful; lord”) + sedere, from PIE root *sed- (1) “to sit.”

Early, I discovered with horror a growl, an American inheritance, inside me even inside of my love: I wanted to possess her.

In English Grammar, a complete sentence requires a subject and a verb. An object, direct or indirect, is often added, a noun distinct from the subject.

e.g. Johnny kisses Jane. Jane kisses Johnny. Jane and Johnny kiss one another.

e.g. Cain kills. Cain kills Abel.

The teeth of my whole body yearned to own her.

ELEMENTARY RULES OF USAGE 1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write:

Charles’s friend

Burns’s poems

The witch’s malice

Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Achilles’ heel, Moses’ laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by the heel of Achilles, the laws of Moses, the temple of Isis. The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.

Not of me, and me. Formed into my DNA through generations of economy of generations.

VII

The word “Economy” originally comes from the Greek “oikonomia” which Aristotle used to mean the science of household management.

Adam Smith in the 18th Century defined economics as the “science of wealth.”

John Locke supposed that a man could call his own that into which he had mixed with his labor.[6] God calls me, he understood, to pour the energy of my hands into the soil in order to convert it from useless wilderness into useful fruit, and thus not only are we justified to remove the fruits of our labors from God’s Commons and claim it as our property that can exclude others from claims to it, is our very duty as stewards of the earth. Production is vocation.

VIII

I have a potato in my back. I’d like to tell you it were a yam, but I’m pretty sure it’s a natural potato. Cultivated farm potatoes with fibrous root systems are much easier to extract, but I can feel this one as tap root, much more difficult to harvest, gnarling between my shoulder blades like some rock-petrified yoke.[7] I can’t reach my fingernails back there deep enough to claw the tuber out, and its rusty feet kick into my windpipes and stiffen my lungs. Potatoes have dozens of eyes. I have a potato in my back and the alligators can smell it. They will take me under for it.

IX

If production is vocation, the attenuation is rapid and at scale. The labor of enslaved people did not convert this fruit into the property of their hands buried thick in the soil, but instead those of the plantation owner that have tasted no dirt, have not even touched the fruit, floating somewhere above all these bodies. His hands own that fruit not because they mixed their labor into the soil that grew it, but because they passed the paper that purchased both the land to be converted by the labor and the laborer to convert it (and had the guns to enforce the paper against the lie of either). Currency is by its nature attenuated from the matter itself — not even representing the matter itself but representing the word of the owner, a “negotiable instrument” that signifies the exchange of obligation and right, debt and promise. Where is the location of this promise? Not in the soil, and not even in the air above the soil, but in the pronouncement of a relationship between two men divorced from the land. This economic ordering severs the body of the earth from the body of the laborer from the fruits of the labor from the possessor of the rights to it all. Disassociated even from his own body, he dangles between earth and air clasping in vain at God’s call for him to produce, assigned to be his value and purpose on earth. He will not find it except in abstraction. He will not find it.

X

I cannot find it.

XI

Knowledge can be passed down through DNA. Animals pass down behavioral knowledge – tortoises know to go out to sea to lay their eggs and birds fly when pushed out of the nest. Humans rely on the extraordinary gift of language to such an extent that it becomes a crutch, and we forget that knowledge is incarnate, moving through and below language, passed through the very DNA of our bodies. It is itself process in constant formation, not data dumped into the empty container of a new brain. We now know this is true in intergenerational trauma, which can be passed down as if in the helix of the DNA. We (See, e.g., The Body Keeps the Score, My Grandmother’s Hands). We are forming each other’s DNA, shaping it, passing down knowledge in DNA, forming the next generation and the generation after that.

Every system of violence in history is also an economic system. Every intergenerational trauma passed down through these systems is an economic trauma. But trauma is not the only thing that can be recorded and formed into our DNA. So can love. Everything is participating. Every moment of every individual life. Life recording life like a wax record, every second forming the wax the way every second of a tree’s life forms its rings, engraving every moment into the wax. Each of us passes on the knowledge of our bodies as participation as we “re-produce”; recording / copying our DNA into the next generation. A person is not just formed at the moment of conception. A person is not an essence in a container. It is a process in constant formation. This bridges the nature v. nurture question, because nature is nurture and nurture is nature. And the body is the record. It keeps the score – keeps the record – passes on the record to the next body.

So by what structures and incentives can an economy align with the constant forming of DNA. A dynamic helix economy, in which we are entraining the bodies of our children and grandchildren, the management of the household.

It is simply more descriptive of that which is already true. Over time, an economy operates the same way that trauma operates. Economy – the way in which we structure our lives to have a fulfilling life (individually and collective) – is not an exchange of capital outside of bodies. The economy is the collective and incarnational weaving of the creation fabric in time. Forming us in the bones, in our relationships, in the air we breathe, the food we eat – actually changing the DNA of people – then it really matters. Intergenerational trauma, or intergenerational love, or intergenerational indifference. Everything is passed down. Everything is in formation.

XII

Time is relative, yes, but it is also an alligator, which is not relative. You hope it is not relative. It does not give one damn either way.

Alligators don’t sleep. They rest, their paws dangling in the warm brown. They are all puppies, with bigger teeth. And 28 feet of muscles wrapped into 6 feet of spine and 3 feet of whip jump. They are more powerful than crush. Their roots run as deep as cypress knees, also in and out of water, wide, beautiful, ancient foreign. There are no old growth cypress trees left in Louisiana except as armoires. Cypress trees can live 1500 years, they believed until last year. Now they have amended that. Cypress trees can live 2600 years.

In the West, there was always a song. There was always permission. In the west there was always a wilderness, until there was not. “Ask my permission,” our mothers and schools always insisted. Why can’t a child have permission until told otherwise? When did the default become the passive, the permissive, instead of the untamed go? I have an untamed child in me like a hurricane. The colors will whip like an alligator tail if you don’t ask my permission. I will come from under and take you back with me.

Even your alligators have no bodies, they want you to believe. Don’t let them. The alligator is still there. It rises in you to eat, and it will not be stopped. I’ve got an ugly beautiful alligator in me, it carries centuries, it birthed so many songs, it ate so many sheep, it lit houses on fire and drank more than your great grandfathers thought possible. The alligator shrinks. It dissolves into a pen. It cannot find another way to tangle. Its ink whips like smoke. You will not come up.


[1] Parag Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 8, 12.

[3] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, ed. D.R. Grifin and D.W. Sherburne  (New York: Free Press, 1978), 50.

[4] Nicco Mele, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 5.

[5] https://www.etymonline.com/word/possess

[6] “Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it, it hath by his labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.” John Locke, The Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689). https://wwnorton.com/college/history/archive/resources/documents/ch04_03.htm

[7] “Natural potato plants produce a tap root system that is difficult to harvest. Cultivated potatoes, in contrast, have fibrous root systems that are more easily removed from the soil, making potato harvesting less difficult.” https://science.jrank.org/pages/5428/Potato.html#:~:text=Natural%20potato%20plants%20produce%20a,making%20potato%20harvesting%20less%20difficult.

4 thoughts on “A DNA Economy: Bodies, Violence, Inheritance

  1. Wow Andrew, this is beautiful! Your vivid imagery and references (often just within reach of my understanding) paint a convincing picture that we are all connected, interconnected. I have some feedback to consider:
    You lay out a strong case that the Western tradition is undergoing an existential crisis of matter. I’m curious if other cultures have taken other approaches, with theories that more closely resemble the scientific understanding of interconnectivity? Is it the West’s tradition of science that has discovered the truth of interconnectivity, and/or is it the West’s exposure and growing appreciation for other cultures that has opened our eyes and turned our microscopes? Is the frontier of science someone else’s backyard? Is this a global new age, or the West finally catching up?
    You touch briefly on the implications for power structures, starting with a most intimate desire to own other bodies. I’d be curious to explore these implications in a future project, both to help us understand modern capitalist economics as a byproduct of this peculiar Western metaphysics, and alternative economics either observed in other historical metaphysical traditions or whispers of non-hierarchical relationships/distribution we see emerging today.

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  2. Andrew, this post gives me a lot to think about! Your images are visceral and poetic. I feel them. As much as my head is striving to believe we are all connected, there are many things and people I do not want to be a part of….How do we embrace it all? Do you think the issue of control is a key barrier to the change that is happening? You ask what is agency, I think it begins when we are 2 and say “let me do it”. How do we honor that which is within us while also honoring the connectivity of us, all beings and earth? What does structure mean in the fluidity you describe? Where do you see, or feel the harbingers of the new? Exploring the systems of nature has many lessons for us,as you noted in your image of the tree. How do we learn those lessons? Just a few thoughts.

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  3. RS
    First, I really appreciated @kylejohnson’s positive phrasing that my references were “often just within reach of my understanding,” a very kind contrapositive of “more than often outside the reach of understanding,” hahaha. Yes, indeed; shucks. I am working on something here in form and content that is not at all there yet — I am deliberately trying to develop something beyond linear clarity but still arriving at clarity, and know that I have not gotten there yet. I was grateful at the very fact that these two commenters read it, because this is far too much hard work for a reader to wade through. I do not want it to be such hard work, but I haven’t done the work on my end for that yet, still developing it. Eventually as I hone this form, I am determined it will read in the gut and the mind to connect dots in a way that pops with lightbulbs rather than inundates with leaps.

    As for @kylejohnson’s prudent questions, I’m noting a first internal reaction about my hiding. By adding the words “In the West” in my post, and thus only claiming to critique the West, I’m disclaiming any reference to culture beyond the West. It is not because I am an expert in the West – I feel terribly ignorant about its real thought history. But because I belong to the West, I nonetheless feel permitted to critique it. If I were to critique other cultures and histories from an equally massive scope of ignorance, my ignorance would be (justifiably) critiqued, and probably the central focus of a good reader. (I venture that even if I were actually a substantive expert in another particular culture, this would likewise be true). So inserting those three words “in the West” gives me permission to play through all sorts of thinking. It insulates me to engage stuff I’m still thinking through and making claims about, it protects me from hurting those who would otherwise aptly point out my ignorance. In that light, it is good to ask about other metaphysical traditions outside the West, but I don’t want to make claims about them. Can I admit that it is not as much out of my righteousness in refusing to judge that about which I don’t belong, but out of fear of having my ideas categorically dismissed? Because I am ignorant about the West, too, but if I add those three words my ideas are not categorically dismissed. (Perhaps dismissed, but on the basis of their weakness, not categorically).

    More substantively, Kyle is dead on – I should learn more about other traditions, and other science traditions. It is an assumption of mine that process metaphysics, relativity, string theory, quantum theory, etc., are universal advances. Part of what I would also assume is that they are only moving toward naming those truths which humans have in their guts already, across culture and language. But having studied something of this, I also do believe / assume that this really is new, as it describes a very different unified reality than I understand to have existed anywhere before. Again, admitted as assumption.

    As for @Corinne Fleck, I love this question of how to handle the desire to NOT be connected. I will write about this some in prompt 2. And yes as well to the questions of structure (stability) v. fluidity, an ancient and deeply important question to the agency dilemma. And yes, I love the questions of models in nature for agency.

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  4. Andrew – Thank you for this. You mentioned in your RS that “I am deliberately trying to develop something beyond linear clarity but still arriving at clarity, and know that I have not gotten there yet” and that “this is far too much hard work for a reader to wade through.” I just wanted to say that I really appreciated your approach. While I may have been wading through at times, the wading felt good. I felt like I was exercising muscles that wanted to be used. Maybe wading and bushwhacking are signs I’m closer the wilderness I crave. Thank you for putting it out there even if it is a work in progress. It gave me a lot to think about.

    In detailing Locke’s understanding, I couldn’t help but think of the intersections between that economic worldview, patriarchy, and sexual reproduction which I feel like you grapple with as well later in the post. We value the planter, allow them to call his own that which he has mixed with his labor. But how does that discount the value and labor of the nurturer – the mother or mother earth. You talk about DNA and passing down trauma, love, indifference and what we can learn from nature… makes me wonder how our understanding of reproduction and DNA coming together feeds into our understanding of selves as a contained beings.

    Thanks again for sharing!

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