Notre Dame law professor O. Carter Snead wrote a book last year, to wide acclaim, about “the body in public bioethics,” and by extension in law and policy. But his book doesn’t mire itself in the latest bioethics debates, most of which have become dizzyingly complex in the past few years. Instead, it returns us, not a moment too soon, to a discussion of first principles, an exercise that seems more and more urgent as Americans slowly emerge from the social upheaval of the past 18 months.
Snead’s primary contention is that American law and policy operate on certain premises about the nature of human beings — and that these premises are deeply flawed, to the detriment of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing from Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor, he laments the “expressive individualism” of our day, “in which persons are conceived merely as atomized individual wills whose highest flourishing consists in interrogating the interior depths of the self in order to express and freely follow the original truths discovered therein towards one’s self-invented destiny.” This interpretation of the human person, which “privileges cognition and will in defining personal identity,” undermines the dignity of those who may not have the luxury or capacity for limitless self-exploration, including the elderly, the disabled, and the very young.
Expressive individualism, Snead writes, “equates being fully human with finding the unique truth within ourselves and freely constructing our individual lives to reflect it.” By contrast, in What It Means to Be Human, Snead draws from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre to advance an anthropological framework for understanding human beings (and for devising laws and policies) that takes birth and death, youth and age, ability and limits — essentially the embodied self — into account.
I thought about these themes as I watched Inside, the new Netflix special from Los Angeles–based comedian and songwriter Bo Burnham. Its songs are resonating with post-pandemic audiences, particularly Millennials and Gen-Zers, who find in Inside a reflection on the isolation and vague mental instability of the post-postmodern present (and the lockdown months in particular) that alternates between hilarious, poignant, delirious, and manic. Seated at a keyboard in a home studio, Burnham makes jokes about social media and the very online, discusses de rigueur social issues of the day like race and climate change, and addresses his own struggles with anxiety and depression (which seem to be at least somewhat connected to the aforementioned hyper-technological, woke nature of the present).
As one anxious 30-year-old Reddit user put it, “Inside was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life.” Indeed, there’s a whole genre of works criticizing our hyper-technological, post-postmodern age, and Burnham’s new musical is one of the most powerful and creative additions in recent memory.
At the risk of sounding like a Boomer, it seems clear that the angst Burnham captures in songs like “Content” and “Welcome to the Internet” is a direct by-product of the expressive individualism that Snead condemns, in which humans are reduced to their internal, atomized qualities and pursuits. And, as Burnham’s songs suggest, social media provide a platform on which those pursuits are amplified and celebrated, for better or for worse. But as fun as customizing an online presence and a microbrand might seem, they don’t reflect the totality of the embodied human experience. As Snead puts it, “human beings do not live as mere atomized wills and there is more to life than self-invention and the unencumbered pursuit of a destiny of our own devising.”
“The truth is that persons are embodied beings, with all the natural limits and great gifts this entails,” Snead writes. “We experience our world, ourselves, and one another as living (and dying) bodies. Because we are bodies, vulnerability, mutual dependence, and natural limits are inextricable features of our lived human reality.” Social media fail to adequately acknowledge these fundamental realities of the embodied, human experience (outside of, maybe, Bronze Age bodybuilding Twitter, which starts to seem pretty healthy in light of Snead’s contentions) — and in most cases, it actively resists them.
This precise tension is brought to bear in a way that’s surprisingly moving in Burnham’s song “White Woman’s Instagram.” In the song, Burnham skewers the types of images and slogans that have become associated with, well, white women of a certain class and age on Instagram. These include, but are not limited to, latte foam art, pumpkin patches, reminders that “not all who wander are lost,” and exhortations to “live, laugh, love” (images and slogans, I might point out, that would today be known, among Gen Z-ers on TikTok as “cheugy”).
But the song takes an unexpected turn. Sandwiched in between a sardonic montage of avocadoes, flower crowns, and driftwood coffee tables, Burnham mentions an Instagram user posting an image of her late mother and penning a heartfelt tribute. “The caption says, ‘I can’t believe it. It’s been a decade since you’ve been gone. Mama, I miss you,’” Burnham sings before returning to goat-cheese salads and vintage neon signs. Ouch. The moment is brief, but it’s enough to make the listener feel pretty guilty about judging cheugy white-girl Millennials based on their cringe-inducing posts. As one commenter on YouTube put it, “Bo Burnham does this thing where he ridicules someone and instantly challenges you for feeling superior.” Touché.
Death isn’t supposed to be part of Instagram’s hyper-stylized, perfectly filtered, rose-colored-glasses reality — but as Burnham seems to suggest, you can’t fault a grieving Millennial white girl for missing her mom, and for trying, however feebly, to situate her feelings within the faux-sepia world of White Girl Instagram. After all, people do it every day. Anyone who has spent time on Instagram or Facebook has been jarred out of their casual scrolling by similar such posts. But still, one has to wonder: If the world operated with a more holistic, anthropological framework of the type Snead is proposing, would there be healthier and more meaningful outlets for mourning?
Another song that captures the tension between expressive individualism and a culture based on more integrated, anthropological premises is “Sexting.” Over the course of the narrative, a couple exchanges emojis to escalate sexual tension. It’s as depressing as it sounds and the upshot is pretty clear: If we’re all living online, no babies will be born (not the old-fashioned way, at least). When a few babies do manage to come along, their arrival will be met with bewilderment and scorn. In a particularly caustic moment in the song “30,” perhaps inspired by postmodern theorist Lee Edelman, Burnham laments “My stupid friends are having stupid children / Stupid, f***ing, ugly, boring children.”
It’s nice that Burnham’s friends are reproducing, but, as “Sexting” implies, lots of 30-year-olds aren’t. When it comes to reproduction, the expressive individualists are winning the culture war, and it seems children aren’t part of their “self-invented destinies.” Or, if they are, obstacles are preventing their arrival in this particular portion of the hero quest. It raises the question: How many of the white women posting photos of golden retrievers on Instagram wish they were posting photos of precious newborns instead? Would a more anthropological approach to policymaking help rectify the problem?
The best song in the album is the finale, “All Eyes On Me,” which deals with Burnham’s depression as well as his love-hate relationship with his audience. And it offers a vision of a man, trapped in his interior self (and by extension, his online world), becoming baldly aware of the reality of his audience as embodied beings. “Get your f***in’ hands up, get on out of your seats,” he sings casually and lyrically throughout the song, parroting a request any performer might make at a live event. But the exhortation spirals into a disjointed, unhinged demand by the end of the song: “Get up. Get up! I’m talking to you! Get the f*** up,” he screams maniacally, in full panic, as the song ends. He comes to understand that the audience has body parts and that the action of their bodies — whether enthusiastic or listless, standing or seated, clapping or reserved — signals something about his song and performance quality. And for some strange reason — perhaps because he, too, is human, even if the virtual hellscape of the pandemic has momentarily allowed him to forget it — that prospect jars him.
“All Eyes on Me” will likely be considered someday as a cultural emblem of the quarantine era, a fresh iteration of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). Munch’s painting epitomized high modernism, serving, according to Frederic Jameson, as “a canonical expression of the great modernist thematic of alienation, anomie, solitude and social fragmentation and isolation, a virtually programmatic emblem of what used to be called the age of anxiety.” Yeah, “used to be.” Before 2020 came along, right?
As history repeats itself — this time with fresh colors, sounds, and pixels — and technology advances, both in terms of the way we socialize and communicate with each other and in terms of bioethics, Snead’s prescriptions are more important than ever, and his book is worth an urgent read.
Snead argues that in an anthropological framework that embraces the richness of human freedom and individuality on the one hand, and human vulnerability and finitude on the other, embodied humans will naturally build and depend on networks of what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “uncalculated giving and graceful receiving” to develop into a society based on caregiving, friendship, and love. By this Snead does not mean the anonymous, top-down “caregiving” of the type amorphously cited by the Biden administration as an excuse for allocating billions of dollars to the American Jobs Plan. He means voluntary, communitarian concern for neighbor of the type that is characteristic of the most vibrant civil societies, and which translates into meaningful, grassroots efforts to know, love, and serve the most vulnerable.
It’s strange that in this day and age we see the word “content” and have to stop and wonder if it refers to the adjective that describes the state of satisfaction, or if, as Burnham uses it in his song by that name, it means that which has been created for consumption across the hundreds of social-media platforms at our fingertips every day. But with a healthier and more anthropological understanding of human nature, applied in our day-to-day habits and interactions, as well as to our processes for policy- and lawmaking, maybe the two definitions can coexist peacefully. Wouldn’t it be nice to emerge from the current age of anxiety, neither as Luddites nor as bleary tech addicts, with a richer understanding of what it means to be human?