In 1976, an extraordinary image was found in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum: an old photograph of an enslaved American, known as Papa Renty. The image has recently come back into the news because Tamara Lanier sued Harvard, claiming that to retain this photograph of her ancestor is a perpetuation of the original offense of slavery. Here, I don’t intend to comment on the ethical or legal situation, nor comment on whether Harvard, a university that boasts of being in the vanguard of progressive social values, is inconsistent with its own much-vaunted self-image.
Rather, I’m concerned more with the artistry of the portrait and the intentions of the photographer, and the “grid” in which a human being was once bound.
I’m not sure there are many finer portraits. You see lines around Papa Renty’s experienced, quiet eyes. It’s an image of a would-be Frederick Douglass, never given the tools to overcome his imposed muteness. Like Douglass, the sitter seems to exude a moral strength and composure that elicits wonder and curiosity: what had this man seen? What did he endure? How, though subjected to inhumane conditions, could he cultivate and maintain such a sense of dignity? What were his own hopes and dreams and ambitions? Did he believe in God? Did that help him, somehow someway, endure his conditions? Could I have endured his situation if I had been born in his skin?
But the portraitist, the Swiss-born scientist, Louis Agassiz, was not interested in such documentary concerns. Shortly after immigrating to the US, he established a Museum of Comparative Zoology. At Harvard. Agassiz was interested in phrenology, and thus, the would-be scientist went looking for “pure African” specimens to photograph. With enough scientific data, he hoped, he could map character traits of races onto the landscape of their physiognomy. In other words, this is not a portrait; it’s a network of datapoints. And the subject, looking out from within the grid, is of no interest to the photographer: Renty’s memories, feelings, subjectivity, hopes, fears, desires, longings, experiences, loves, family affection, sense of dignity, evident within the eyes—as Rembrandt or Titian could have seen—are not important. A living being was imprisoned within a quantifiable datagrid.
Looking back on such images, it’s hard for us now to understand how our ancestors got to the point in which they let the stories they told themselves—the external interests brought and imposed from without—blind them to the human subject behind the grid. It would be like failing to see a person behind a chain-link fence because you were only interested in the geometry of the links themselves. But although the case of Louis Agassiz is an egregious one, it is not an isolated one in modernity.
In fact, if we are to believe Edmund Husserl’s passionate plea, made in his 1935 Vienna Speech, the loss of the subject is a general condition of modernity, even if there are especially grave and humiliating outbreaks of it from time to time.
In our own time, the Japanese, British-born novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro, has become something of a spokesman for the disappearing subject, who gets lost in the midst of the grid of empirical and quantifiable measurements. In his 2021 Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro imagines a world in which fully human intelligences are implanted in lifelike, bionic, doll-like bodies, so that, rather than golden doodles, you could breed human intelligences and make them into therapy pets.
The protagonist of the story is named Klara, and in the first part we find her sitting in the store, waiting to be purchased. Ishiguro describes her experience from a kind of point-of-view shot: we feel what it feels likes to be looked at, as a product, but not seen by the customers, not seen, because, something like a horse whose mouth is being measured and teeth examined, the looker can’t see past the grid of external interest. While Klara is sitting in the storefront window, she sees a girl and her mother, two prospective buyers:
Both Josie and the Mother went on looking straight at me while they talked, and I could see Josie was impatient to come to me, but still the Mother wouldn’t release her and went on talking. I knew I should keep looking [away] but I couldn’t help stealing glances at them… At last the Mother straightened, and though she went on staring at me, altering the tilt of her head whenever a passer-by blocked her view, she took her hand away and Josie came forward… yet the Mother’s gaze, which never softened or wavered, and the very way she was standing there, arms crossed over her front, fingers clutching at the material of her coat, made me realize that there many signals I hadn’t yet learned to understand.
Later, when they have a moment alone, Josie apologizes to Klara: “Mom looks weird, I know, watching like that. It’s because I told her you’re the one I wanted. I said it had to be you, so now she’s sizing you up. Sorry.” Similarly, in his Never Let Me Go Ishiguro imagined a futuristic world in which human beings are cloned in order to create copies of themselves to serve as supplies of organs. In a temporary experiment to assuage their consciences, the government-corporate investors create an elite boarding school, so that the future donors, before having all their organs removed from them in their 20s and 30s, could have a “normal” childhood. The well-meaning teachers who serve at the school do everything they can within the limits of the system to demonstrate that these future donors are, actually, human: they create art; they sing; they love; have friendships; cherish; search for their mothers.
But the school is eventually shut down. Ultimately, even the most artistically brilliant cannot emerge into the conscious perception of others as human beings, because the ends for their lives, their purposes, were pre-determined. And just as in a machine, the function dictates the design, and every part and curve is made to submit to the pre-chosen and externally imposed end, so, too, are these human beings designated for the specific purposes of warehousing other people’s organs until they are required of them.
Of course, part of the tragedy is that the world Ishiguro imagines is, now, only barely futuristic. Last year, scientists in China and America, two great allied countries, announced that they had successfully injected pluripotent stem cells into macaque monkey. Why? Here are the words of the authors: “Interspecies chimera formation with human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) represents a necessary alternative to evaluate hPSC pluripotency in vivo and might constitute a promising strategy for various regenerative medicine applications, including the generation of organs and tissues for transplantation.”
In other words, the scientists, who allegedly destroyed the hybrid embryos, are interested in market potential of creating human-monkey chimeras, as storage tanks for future organ donations.
What if in future experiments it just so happened that we managed to embed a human soul in a monkey’s body? And what if the chimera made tried to express to us that it was human, in every possible way, but, because we had already determined its purposes, we didn’t have eyes to see its humanity? In such a situation, we would be living out an Ishiguro novel. And we would also be repeating Louis Agassiz’s objectification of Papa Renty.
And so it would seem that Husserl was right when he summed up the whole experience of modernity as when “idealized thinking conquers the infinity of the experiential world.” Beautifully said. Here’s how I translate that sentence: the loss of the subject behind the datagrid is a general condition of modernity.
Eliot said that human beings cannot endure very much reality. As we think through the wounds inflicted by our ancestors, let’s remember that identifying past evils doesn’t yet make you good. We need to make sure we continue to see beyond the datagrid.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!