One of the most perverse facets of the human psyche is manifest in those individuals who aggressively proclaim, in internet forums and on social media, under announcements about lab grown meat, that they would rather die than consume a piece of meat not derived from a ‘real’ animal that has truly suffered for them. This phenomenon can no longer be neatly categorized as a simple form of traditional conservatism or distaste for technological advancement. Here, people are declaring that living beings must endure a lifetime of suffering for them because their ‘authenticity’ is deemed trustworthy: meat that has not truly suffered for us is distasteful. Real news, real meat, genuine brands, true multinationals.
The impairment in these individuals’ abilities to empathize is a self-evident fact. More intriguing is the exploration of what empathy truly is, and how one might even begin to measure it. We arrive then at the modern term ’empathy’, a word that has taken on an odd quality.
The Greek term “ἐμπάθεια” (empatheia), from which the English empathy is derived, translates directly to ‘passion’ or ’emotional suffering’. It is born from the combination of “en” (in) and “pathos” (feeling or suffering), thus creating the idea of feeling into, or deeply experiencing emotions. However, the modern concept of ’empathy’ does not originate from the ancient Greek ’empatheia’, but rather from the German term ‘Einfühlung’, which was translated as “empathy” in English in the early 20th century. “Einfühlung” quite literally means “feeling into,” and was used in a psychological context to describe the process of projecting one’s own feelings onto perceived objects or situations.
Thus, there is an origin and a modern divergence from it. The difference between the two lies in that, according to the classical Greek meaning, you truly partake in the suffering of the other, which quite often incites an unpleasant state impelling you to seek an end to the suffering. Einfühlung, on the other hand, implies distance, a choice of where to direct one’s feelings; it is the modern simulacrum of empathy, perfectly suited to a bubble-shaped perception of reality.
The trend is almost universally observable in literature: it must be “relatable” in today’s terms. And what do people mean when they say they find something relatable? Well, for instance, that the animals are real, that they have truly suffered, that things are as they have been spoon-fed to them all their lives. In a dystopia, the relatable is always dystopian, but with a hopeful message, a sort of bow, around its neck. These animals suffer, but their suffering will be ameliorated in the future. That hopeful promise is utterly lacking when you suddenly arrive with lab-grown meat. And considering that precisely such moral pornography is the addictive factor for people, its absence induces such dreadful withdrawal symptoms that a detoxing heroin addict would seem a paragon of civility in comparison.
In July 2023, the Dutch government fell due to disagreement over a plan to criminalize the rescue of asylum seekers from the sea. Astonishingly, this detail of the dramatic event received minimal attention in the mainstream media. The rescue of people in dire need was to be prosecuted as human smuggling, punishable with a maximum penalty of four years’ imprisonment. The proposal prompted outrageously fabricated scenarios, including claims that human traffickers tag refugees with GPS trackers to re-catch them from the sea. Such narratives, while manifestly ungrounded, were fed to a class of people whose capacity for true empathy had been displaced by the power of choice.
If empathy is indeed a contingent option, what does this reveal about our shared ethical topography?
As a poet, I am continuously confronted with the curious phenomenon of the modern reader’s scanning habit. This approach to reading mimics the operations of a cyborg, like Star Trek’s Data. Readers rapidly survey the textual landscape, setting markers at the familiar fragments. The merit of a text, it seems, is determined by its abundance of recognizable, thus flaggable, elements. A text is esteemed when it is relatable, when it provides instruction for Data on his quest to comprehend the human condition.
This condition suggests a type of dysphoria that, arguably, surpasses the complexity of gender dysphoria. Consider the paradigm of the woke cyborg, which acknowledges over fifty archetypal representations of gender identity. What if such individuals were to turn their attention towards the literary identity of the reader? How would one go about choosing their reader persona?
If the value of a text is contingent on the number of elements one can identify with, the ongoing modernization of language—its progression towards increasingly sterile structures—represents a subtly oppressive force. This force, which might even be called fascistic, works to constrict the vibrant tapestry of authentic identities, compressing them into bite-sized, palatable snippets of universally recognized, and hence lowest-common-denominator, language.
At its core, a fixation on relatability risks muffling the vast chorus of voices that weave together the intriguing tapestry of our shared human narrative. We must, therefore, staunchly resist creeping sterility and reinvigorate the importance of our unique voices, regardless of their oddities or eccentricities. In response to the woke-cyborg, we must retort: why attempt to confine our choices to a mere fifty? This is a notion a true human would never entertain. An authentic human would bask in the liberty of hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of options. Fifty choices embody the pinnacle of primitiveness. No human would ever want to identify with that position.
How does all this dovetail with the topic of lab-grown meat? The connection arises from the simmering aggression nestled in the dark corners of narratives surrounding this subject. The clamor for authentic animals, tangible suffering… It hurls the reader into a purgatory of choice: before the act of reading can commence, an identity-as-a-reader must be elected. And while there seems to exist only one identity in today’s reality—the Scanner—this unnerving, robotic persona must be veiled behind the guise of Choice. If we must engage in such masquerades, let them be elaborate. That is the only human way.
Before it fell, the Dutch government intended to embark on an extensive acquisition of agricultural lands in a bid to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, at least in documented terms. As a result, many farmers, rather than ceasing operations, are relocating their intensive livestock production facilities to Ukraine. This region seems to have inadvertently become Europe’s designated area for industries with higher environmental implications, as such operations are less palatable within Europe’s other areas. Consequently, these relocations result in trucks transporting inexpensive meat back into the European Union, which leads to a significant rise in carbon emissions. Yet, from a bureaucratic standpoint, the records may still portray an environmentally conscientious Europe, while indirectly indicating that Europe needed such a hidden, dirty zone.
All the cyborg-like idealities can only exist when they are compensated for in the dark, out of sight. On their Facebook timeline, everyone is a vegetarian. In reality, meat consumption has not even shrunk by 1% in the last twenty years. So, we are vegetarians in our own digital bubble, and our meat-loving part is a dark persona that emerges outside of this ‘real ideal world’, which is the world of the timeline, where our marketing persona lives in a heaven of choice. But on the edge of this ‘personal bubble’ we see transgressive outbreaks of violence, because it’s impossible to keep the real self in this fabricated prison. We curate our personas, selecting and presenting only the most palatable aspects of our identities. We are environmentally conscious, we promote fair trade, we advocate for animal rights: such selections contribute to an online presence that is politically correct, socially conscious, and morally superior. However, our Shadow self, our physical presence in the real world, experiences this heaven as a dystopian hell. It must bear the weight of the choices our digital persona makes, and the hypocrisy it embodies. It must navigate the cognitive dissonance between our virtual idealism and our real-world actions.
Have we forgot how Facebook started and what made it appealing in the first place? I remember the moment quite clearly. I was doing yoga in the basement of my house in Istanbul, where I was living at the time. I can exactly pinpoint the transgressive moment, when the site asked me if it could import my entire list of contacts, which at that time meant it was automatically made visible to the entire world. And everyone was doing so, which created a unique moment in history: you could now for the first time ever see who somebody’s friends were, making huge hidden networks suddenly accessible.
At the same time, the internet was rife with a new form of censorship—”moderation”—that to most people was probably a great way to avoid having real debates, but to the intellectuals was sheer torture. That is exactly why they fled to Facebook: it was the place where you could post your opinions without “a moderator” being present. So, it started in a transgressive mode and with massive violation of privacy: all of a sudden you could get in touch with all those unreachable celebrities…
Ten years later, the entire pyramid has been reversed. Facebook actively moderates your messages, even putting disclaimers under them, saying that factcheckers have proven you to be somewhat loopy. Can we imagine a telephone company doing something similar to its clients? It is, again, a massively transgressive violation of privacy and personal integrity. But, seeing that the current social-media environment is formal – a place where to project your marketing persona in a dystopian environment where Big Brother has the power to comment on every other post you make that reality has proven you to be an idiot –, when this transgressive persona at the edge of the Timeline is presented with the choice of lab meat, it explodes violently.
As the undercurrent of ressentiment continues to feed our collective consciousness, we find ourselves projecting this concealed suffering onto the world, creating a macabre tapestry of sublime ideological objects. One manifestation of this in literary circles is the subversive marginalization of certain authors through the labels “a Writer’s Writer” and even “a Writer’s Writer’s Writer.” This divisive categorization erects artificial barriers within the artistic community, not on the basis of skill or the quality of one’s craft, but on the extent of an author’s supposed influence within the sphere of literary discourse. These titles, shrouded in reverence, become less accolades and more restrictive monikers, reserved for those who inspire writers, thus propelling them into a realm that’s somewhat unreachable, and more pertinently, unread by the general populace. It is a literary purgatory, wherein lies the paradox of talent recognition yet limited readership.
At this point, Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality becomes unmistakably relevant. Our incessant pursuit of reality frequently ensnares us in a labyrinth of simulacra – the grandeur of representations that supplant the original. Here, the “writer,” the authentic weaver of prose and poetry, is engulfed by layers of representation, emerging as a symbol of the ‘Writer’s Writer’, an entity whose existence is inextricably linked to its influence on others in the craft. In this twisted tableau, genuine talent is reduced to a mere token, a simulacrum inhabiting the sphere of literary hyperreality. Yet, the irony is that nobody proclaims themselves to be devoted readers of ‘Writer’s Writers’. It appears that this niche serves as a convenient corner, a refuge wherein we sequester authentic talent, whilst the marketplace of literary consumerism teems with generic archetypes.
In our relentless quest for knowledge and information, we’ve inadvertently skirted the edge of a treacherous abyss. Schopenhauer once observed an oversaturated market of literature, cautioning that most books had the potential to ‘neurologically impair’ their readers. To the contemporary mind, the notion of cognitive harm via literature might appear hyperbolic, if not outright whimsical. However, Schopenhauer’s concerns were far from flippant. His reflections resonate intriguingly with today’s scientific studies on mycelial networks, highlighting the profound influence of external stimuli. Just as these intricate fungal systems respond distinctly to melodious harmonies versus abrasive cacophonies, so too might our cognitive processes be susceptible to the qualitative nature of our intellectual consumption.
What happens to the psyche when it operates under the unrelenting gaze of a dystopian surveillance state? Envision a reality where every phone conversation might be tapped by an invisible monitor, intruding on personal dialogues with jarring, demeaning interjections. Such a world doesn’t just challenge our belief; it frays the very threads of our neural being. Elon Musk’s recent declarations—that intelligence agencies could potentially have unfettered access to our most private digital conversations—heighten these disconcerting thoughts.
Yanis Varoufakis, pondering the unparalleled shifts ushered in by the pandemic, shared a profound reflection: only in these times did politics genuinely feel “real” to him. Considering his deep involvement in the whirlwind of the Greek economic crisis, it prompts us to wonder: What illusions obscured the political arena before this juncture? How could he assert that previous events didn’t ‘feel real’ to him? Yet, I grasp his sentiment with unsettling clarity. Dismissing him would be too simplistic. Does this echo the sentiment where meat “feels unreal” unless real animals endure suffering for its production? In an era where intelligence rapidly morphs into varied iterations, perhaps it’s essential to recognize that while empathy was once the hallmark of our humanity, it might now be its Achilles’ heel. I thought I remembered a Nietzsche quote at this point, something to the effect of “Experiences sit like mosquitos on their skin, but they no longer have any knowledge of it,” but I failed at locating it, so it could be just my own imagination. Squashing that mosquito might be the only way we would actually still experience the experience, as we appear too numbed to recognize that empathy confined to our personal reactions isn’t really empathy.