Parable of the Box
Suppose that you are inside a box. Perhaps you have been inside a box for a long time. Perhaps you have been in a box all your life. At this moment, however, you have become uncomfortably aware of being in the box. You don’t much care for it. Its exact contours are uncertain, but that it is confining is not. Moreover, you suspect it of having implicated you in some great crimes.
A step further: you’ve become increasingly convinced that this box you are in is making you help it destroy the world. The details are fuzzy, but the box itself has revealed them to you through other, authoritative box-people. Fuzzy, perhaps, but those details are undeniable.
It is hard not to suppose the box a great ill at this point, even an evil. After all, you come, you now see, from a long line of box-dwellers whose story about the box, it’s becoming clear, is how you got tangled up in its destruction of the world in the first place. They insisted they were not really in a box, not really really, and, besides, that box-dwelling was the highest form of existence.
It’s understandable that you would want, around about this time, to get out of the box. Very badly. You could be forgiven for disavowing it, abjuring it. You never signed up to be in such a box! How far beyond irksome that those before took such pains to (a) deny being in the box and (b) declare box-dwelling the highest form of life. Your being in the box at all, and the box’s pernicious effects on the world around, are it seems functions of that story. It’s not even clear where box and story each begin and leave off. Naturally, you want out of it all.
Say, though, that it happens not to be so easy to simply climb out of the box. You can’t see as to where anyone else actually has, and the few who claim they did seem charlatans or, worse, divines. Even if the box is very bad, and even if its exact contours are uncertain — you are, after all, in darkness inside — you have a sinking feeling that exiting the box may well be impossible.
You think of your forebears, who were so strident about not being actually confined to their boxes and also about the general preferability of being in a box. It’s hard to reject where you come from wholesale, and you’re at least quite certain they were wrong about the latter.
You confront a dilemma now. Will you follow your newborn box-awareness and box-skepticism to their own offspring, a sense for the possible inescapability of the box and whatever that begets? A whole heavenly host of other box-dwellers have trod that road, though none perhaps with quite the rhythm or gait your own time demands. Looking ahead to how it would be to look back from along that path, the very notion of the box as a thing to escape seems pretty much like classic box-thinking.
Or, do you double down on the one certain half of your insight? Will you become an evangelist of escape from the box, overturning the carts of your forebears who declared it sweet and proper to inhabit? Take this latter course and you will eventually (and still too soon) find yourself crying freedom, declaiming the ills of box-thinking and pronouncing the liberatory gospel of unboxing. Something else, anything but the box!
This latter is the position of an academic creed called posthumanism (though it is hardly unique). Having both run and refused to run its course as critique, it embarks upon theology.
The righteousness of the counter-box reformation is perfectly clear and knowable. The details of how the via negativa will achieve transcendence are thin on the ground. How tell the story, from within a box, of the coming escape from boxes to an unboxed realm of what the words of boxes cannot even themselves contain? The joy and the rapture of what may be, the intolerable restraint of the boxy world! How speak, from within the constraints of species-being, of the box that is — whatever precisely it may be — contoured in a shape called human such that every word about it (the agony and the ecstasy alike) echoes from one box to another across some particular span of centuries?
It being both easy and satisfying to declare freedom, especially when compared to negotiating constraints, and all the more when the sin is so certain and so clear, anyone following hard the path of posthumanist theology is sure to win converts. Far less sure whether they will usefully negotiate the box’s constraints. Doubtful in extremity the proposition that they will shed it.
Ah, well, but there’s always the afterlife! Transhumanism — the willful terraforming of the grounds of the human box — as posthumanism’s intellectual predestination (though as frequently disavowed as the box itself). The more technologically achievable the transhumanist project, the more obvious that intentionally and consciously making ourselves other to what we take our box to be is precisely the sort of project preferred by the old humanists.
The spirit of Giambattista Vico’s humanism flows through the bulging vein of the posthumanist prophet and spills out where bone is sutured to steel, where boxy thinking edits the boxy thinking of DNA. The human box must be transcended!
Or, if not in fact, then in thought. (And what aspiration could be boxier?) Not wishing to avow transhumanist tinkering, a posthumanist theology pulls hard the reins of desire. Transcend the box in how we think and talk about the box. For, after all, we really are not confined to the box.
You could be forgiven for wishing it to be so easy.
Perhaps, instead, you’d have turned orthogonal when rounding the Horn of Dilemma. My own commitment, you know, is to a chastened humanism.
You can be chastened by the realization that you are unhappily in a box, a box which is not so all-fired terrific, a box which is not readily transcended even (and especially) when it is willfully reshaped.
Still, a bold refusal to be chastened — as in willful projects of willing oneself other to projects of the will, or in loud declaration of the absolute necessity of transcending the box to meld with a world presumed similarly unboxed, thereby to regain the garden — has its appeal. How boxily satisfying, from within the box, at least to declare the box abolished!
After this cataclysm of thought, when the box is still there and you still with it, then what? Change the dates of the apocalypse, redouble scorn for the sinners, articulate new strategies of thought that surely will loose the bounds of that human box? Sure, it’s an option.
Perhaps, though, the time arrives (once more) for thoughtful reflection on and from within the box, which perhaps is not container but itself substance or at least consubstantial with what cannot but be supposed contained. If willing the box overcome avails little, perhaps it is a moment for supposing forebears wrong on both counts. The question becomes, what else can be done as and from and within the box? And in the desperate immediacy of such a question, self-conscious reflection lets out sail once more.
How know what a human box can do without some idea of its, your, contours? What might you yet miscalculate, between internal and external dimensions of the box, and how might such misfiguring carry you into doldrums?
Here humanism’s project of inventing in reflection continues, but chastened. You might lament softly the box that you are (in) and still press on with something approximating hope, a fierce optimism carried upon a single current of certainty: that the box, and with it the world, remains ever still much undiscovered.
Ira J. Allen is associate professor of rhetoric, writing, and digital media studies at Northern Arizona University. His scholarship and translations appear in such journals as Advances in the History of Rhetoric, SubStance, Modern Language Notes, College Composition and Communication, Theory & Event, and Political Research Quarterly. His book The Ethical Fantasy of Rhetorical Theory (U Pittsburgh P, 2018) explores the meanings and utility of rhetorical theory for scholars across the humanistic disciplines. He has published poetry in outlets now defunct, and unpopular essays in Jewish Journal and Common Dreams.