On Resisting Simplicity, and Defending Complexity—in Culture and Language

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byJohn Freeman

A nation is a woodworker. A nation is a woodworker that often thinks it’s carving a grand sculpture called Nation, wielding the blade of its laws. The mallet of its electioneering. The gouge of war. In fact, the figurine a nation often makes with these chisels is a figurine called the citizen.
In times of extreme nationalism, the citizen gets smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower. Until only a very tiny group can recognize themselves in this miniature puppet. The Nation professes its love for this creation—we love you oh citizen, we are made by and for you—as a kind of trick, encouraging its actual living breathing residents into worshipping an effigy. The essential citizen. Sacrifices must always be made to protect this citizen. Those sacrifices always identify the people who want to take things from that citizen. And so a population is turned into a mob or a group of tribes, those who are for the citizen, and in turn, the Nation, and those who are against them.
There is a second far more expansive definition of citizen waiting for us in our language. We only have to claim it. Not the citizen defined by the wedges of policy, as in people recognized by a state or nation. But the citizen as defined by who lives in a nation. Whose bodies are there. Who occupy its territory and drink its water and make their homes on its land and breathe its air. Think briefly about how many fewer knives it requires to make this figurine. In fact, if you set out to make such a citizen—with all the wood in the world and all the tools—you couldn’t; instead, you would make a giant sculpture of unwieldy proportions. The armature would have to be sturdy, it might have to be made with a material as strong as love. And there would be floor upon floor, wing upon wing. The sculpture would have to include every kind of person who actually lives in the place claimed by the nation.
Instead of there being a gap between nation and Nation, the two would be the same.
When the gap between nation and Nation no longer exists, there has either been a genocide or a radical expansion of the idea of citizenship. The reason we tremble in times of nationalism is that we know that the blades of nation-carving lead us to those terrible reductions. Human history is littered with them—camps, death fields, ghettos. The logical extension, however, of an expanded definition of citizenship has never been achieved. The mythologies of a few countries have imagined it, but few have lived it. What would happen if we allowed all living bodies on our border to be citizens? How would it feel to live there? Is it not possible that when we were asked to mimic the kingdom of heaven on earth, this is what God meant? What if our main job as citizens is to try and make this possible? What kind of nation would that be?


Somehow we’ve come to think of the environment as a thing outside us. As if it were a place, or a monument built out of a rock face, or a lonely mammal swimming in the sea. When people confess among friends to care about the environment, their voice often adopts a wistful tone. Their friends stand back to give that emotion room, and then conversation will eddy back to more earthbound topics. As if we are not mostly made of water, or can live without clean air. As if it does not take years of determined social conditioning to teach the animal out of us. As if that animal part does not die, but merely recedes into submission, watching without language as we molest and poison its home. The part of us that learns language must develop an intense form of apathy in order to not hear this animal part of us screaming. If that noise escaped from just a few more of us, it would be cacophonous. The sound would be unbearable. It is the sound of a body being tortured.
Just as the powers that be subdue the body to rule, so must they put their boot on the earth’s neck to obtain and sustain that power. Would we see this abuse better if we called it a body, rather than the environment? We know much of it is alive. From the trees we grow as decoration to the animals we breed like slaves. Ever make eye contact with a cow standing in a foot of its own shit? You cannot say for sure it does not have some form of consciousness akin to ours. It would be hard, too, to say it does not also understand its subjugation is a form of torture. And yet we that we can eat meat far more than we need to, and the cattle give us their protest in the form of gases heating up the planet.
We are beyond the point where this is a mere character flaw. Our needs as humans have for so long superseded the needs of any species on earth that we are using up the resource that has sustained us all, and it is fighting back. Heating up, breeding super viruses, throwing up catastrophic weather events. Meantime, most of the species that have ever lived are dead. We have murdered them for tidier cup holders, plastic straws, the ability to drive a two-ton vehicle by ourselves a distance we could walk so we can drink a beverage harvested from beans grown 6,000 miles away out of a cup that will take three lifetimes to deteriorate. Pause to appreciate the astonishing gluttony of this act and its costs. The part of us that is animal is still screaming, but we push it down, we get back in our vehicle the size of animals that used to live freely on African savannas, and drive another mile back to a temperature controlled home powered by endless water and light.
We have lost the ability to conceptualize the indecency of this condition, the small but powerful few who live amidst it. So we must redefine what the environment is to us. As rational thinkers, we know inequality to be created by a consolidation of power and resources. You do not need to take an economics class in order to understand that unchecked inequalities reach a critical mass and lead to tyranny. In the world of humans, we have reached the tipping point for this inequality. Just sixty-two people are worth the collective labor of over three billion people. Think of all the waking and lifting and sweating and weeping and breaking and healing and waking again that simple statistic means. Bottle the sound of all that work. Hear its keening. Now think of the earth. Humans are just one of its approximately 8.7 million species. Yet we consume all of its biocapacity and then some. In ten years, we will need a whole other planet to support ourselves.
Our relationship to the environment is an indecency, it is not sustainable. And yet we have made a silent pact with the powers that be which makes this condition far worse: it says, I will turn my face from this gluttony in my name, and you can continue to enrich yourselves beyond all imagining. Enormous fortunes are not made from thin air. They are produced by seizing the resources and labor belonging to many and putting them in the hands of a very, very few. If we are to become ethical citizens in the places where we live, we need to recognize this cycle and its costs. That inequality among humans depends very often upon the inequality among species where we are like those sixty-two mega-billionaires. We must learn to listen to the animal inside us, and those all around us, and reengineer our lives away from the activities we know depend on torture.of animals, of land, of the sea, of the air. We know which activities to cut back on. We know where we can scrimp and save. Our bodies have been telling us in all the languages but the ones we speak.


by Jhon Freeman


*The essay presented here was written for a special event Korean Literature Now hosted as part of its tenth anniversary celebrations on September 15, 2018 at the Brooklyn Book Festival, one of America’s biggest book festivals and the largest free literary event in New York City.

Author's Profile

John Freeman has authored several books, including How to Read a Novelist, and Maps, a collection of poetry. He was the editor of Granta until 2013 and is the founding editor of Freeman’s and executive editor at Literary Hub.