What does it mean to be human in the 21st century? An introduction to an overwhelming inquiry

Earlier this year, a very nice woman told me that not everybody got to be human. A few months before this, I read a woman who wrote that we were all cyborgs now. And then I read an essay online that said we were living in an age of early divinity. We had transcended.

What does it mean to be human in the 21st century? An introduction to an overwhelming inquiry
Photo by Ilkka Kärkkäinen / Unsplash

Earlier this year, a very nice woman told me that not everybody got to be human.  A few months before this, I read a woman who wrote that we were all cyborgs now.  And then I read an essay online that said we were living in an age of early divinity.  We had transcended.

For quite a lot of this time, I didn’t feel as though I had transcended.  In the shower one morning the water sliding down my skin made me more aware of said skin than I think I’d ever been in my life.  I stood and waited for my skin to peel away, as though what pattered from the shower-head were acid.  Dry, I looked at the back of my hand, at the winking scar I got when I was four, having come asprawl fist-first into school concrete.  My body kept a record of the damage that was done.   And, looking back at myself, I see the slight drooping of the right eyelid, scarred from childhood conjunctivitis.  Pan out: see the sun’s scars, the pockmarks, the slashed silk of stretchmarks.  No, I had not transcended.

And yet, maybe the problem was that I was too privileged to notice.  My (female partner) told me that when she walks home she holds her keys between her fingers, in case she’s attacked.  When she’s not with me, she says, men shout at her in the street, even if she’s with our daughter.  And, as a teacher, I’ve seen (though it took me a while to really see) how male students treat female staff differently to male staff.  How I’ll get a nod and a ‘Yes, sir’, when they’ll get a curled lip, folded arms and an ‘I’m not going back into her classroom.’  Not too long ago, too, we discussing how to diversify our English curriculum.  I looked at my face tiled against the others on the Teams call: all white, all earnest, and I didn’t know what I was doing.

I needed, I felt, to have decentering conversations with myself.  I’d had a few on Twitter.  But I did not know where to start.

That’s not strictly accurate.  I knew to start from a place of listening, of openness to the words and experiences of others.  But there is listening as a performative act — the posturing of listening, a process by which one is busy congratulating oneself on listening while someone else is talking — and actual listening.  And, once I had listened, then what?  Was I supposed to do something with what I had listened to?

I tried to do my listening on Twitter; in some senses I was successful.  But there’s something about the combination of anonymity, immediacy and anomie Twitter affords that made it hard to hear myself think.  I felt like a dazed lobster tossed into a pot.  Besides, I was busy feeling sorry for myself a lot of the time, carrying greying sacs of depression about with me for weeks, sometimes months on end.  One of depressions many curses is its tendency towards solipsism.  It is a disease wholly of the self.  It comes from ruptures of self-image, with catalyse self-loathing.  It is the inverse and yet the same as narcissism.  It is the studying of the worse portrait of yourself you ever painted.  It is a disease of centring oneself within the boundless universe and wanting to scream into the expansive dark — if only one had the energy.  It pulls one in with its own leaden gravity.

We were all talking about mental health, too.  We were talking about it a lot.  We were talking about how the hidden cost of the pandemic was the trench warfare of the mind, a kind of psychic stalemate.   So we talked about it.  We talked about our feelings.  We talked about how it was important to talk about it.  I got the feeling, though, that by talking about my ‘mental health’ I wasn’t getting better.  I wasn’t even sure ‘better’ existed.  This epistemic crisis was the start of a new way of thinking.

After all, Deleuze and Guattari look to the schizophrenic in Capitalism and Schizophrenia more positively than most would dare: ‘A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch. A breath of fresh air, a relationship with the outside world.’  I presumed that I was always destined to lie upon the analyst’s couch, but the realisation that there might be an alternative gave me a burst of hope.

Hope.  Hope never lasts long. The trouble with hope is that it’s a tacit reminder of what’s not there.  To hope for happiness is to admit that one is not happy.  It defines one by lack.  Hope is the worst part of the depressive disease.  I could always live with depression, but the hope that it would get better, only to crash back in: that was what killed me.

But hope, nonetheless.  I wanted — I want — to find out what it means to be a human being in the 21st century, in all its mad, contradictory plurality.  I don’t have that many answers yet.  I’m not even sure that my questiuoins are good.  But the posts that follow will attempt to ask some good questions.

That’s all I can promise, for now.


I intend this post to mark the start of a series in which I explore the question 'What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?'  Who knows where I'll end up?