Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: identity (page 1 of 1)

What We Owe Our Fellow Animals | Martha C. Nussbaum | The New York Review of Books:

Behind these biases lies a more general failing, which the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial”: the denial that we are animals of a certain type (the anthropoid type), and the tendency to imagine ourselves, instead, as pure spirits, “barely connected to biology.” This mistaken way of thinking has a long history in most human cultures; it remains stubbornly lodged in people’s psyches even when they think they are examining the evidence fairly. Anthropodenial has led, until recently, to a reluctance to credit research findings that show that animals use tools, solve problems, communicate through complex systems, interact socially with intricate forms of organization, and even have emotions such as fear, grief, and envy. (This is a bait-and-switch: emotions have long been denigrated on the grounds that they are not pure spirit, and yet humans also want to claim a monopoly on what they despise.) 

The same idea — that we are “barely connected to biology” — underlies the idea that one can be born into “the wrong body.” 


Sheila Fitzpatrick:

‘Man lives in the real world; but there’s also a parallel world: a paper one, a bureaucratic one. So the passport is the person’s double in this parallel world.’ The comment comes from a Russian woman in her thirties interviewed as part of a study in St Petersburg in 2008. She might have been channelling the philosopher Rom Harré, who called these bureaucratic doubles ‘file-selves’. It mattered a lot to Soviet citizens what their file-selves looked like: the wrong social class or nationality entered in an internal passport, or a notation restricting movement, could be a disaster. But file-selves matter elsewhere too. The Anglosphere – the UK, Canada, the US, Australia – may have eschewed the Russian/Soviet path of a compulsory internal passport, distinct from the passport required for foreign travel, but drivers’ licences and credit records often serve the same functions, and electronic identity cards may not be too far away. The British, while skittish about mandatory ID cards, have the largest number of surveillance cameras per capita of any country except China.

This is good … but maybe not as good as my essay on passports?

writing a Life

Over at the Hog Blog, I’ve written about Herman Hesse — more specifically, about a passage from The Glass Bead Game, his novel about an archipelago of quasi-monastic institutions of learning: 

When a member of the Castalian community completes his formal schooling, he (and yes, it’s always “he”) becomes free to pursue any course of study that he desires to pursue. Only one requirement is imposed upon him: Each year he must write a Life.

A what? A Life — an autobiography, and yet not an autobiography. The scholar must write a narrative of his life as it would have been if he had been born in another time and place. Some of the Castalian scholars enter into this task with great verve, deciding, for instance, that a Life of oneself as a medieval Dominican requires a composition in scholastic Latin. Some of the scholars who wrote such lives were led, in the end, to a belief in reincarnation — surely they had indeed lived the Life they had just written. But these were in the minority. For most “it was an exercise, a game for the imaginative faculties.” […]

The question I want to ask is simply this: Is the writing of a Life a game that, in our current moment, can be played? Hesse described each imagined Life as an “entelechy,” that is, the realization of a potential — but perhaps that assumes something like the pre-existence of souls, an Identity that somehow exists before it is embodied in, realized in, a particular culture, a particular gender, a particular ethnicity. In other words, it may be that the very concept of writing a life presupposes a humanism, an idea of the human spirit that precedes any particular embedding. Can we, dare we, think this? 

I think belief in the social construction of the self is like denial of free will: these are positions that a skilled disputant can make a strong case for, but they remain outside the scope of lived experience. As Cardinal Newman might say, I may give nominal assent to the claim that my very self is wholly constructed by my social environment or that my every thought and act is determined, but I cannot give real assent to either claim. 

But if you try — well, then, you absolve yourself from multiple human responsibilities. If you hold your actions to be predetermined, then you will never repent, and if you never repent you will never amend your life. And if you believe that your identity is wholly socially constructed, then you are unlikely be curious about, much less empathetic towards, those whose lives are constructed otherwise than yours. Their story is not and cannot be your story. 

Of course, that selves are wholly social constructed is not a universally held view. As I note in the essay, our society is at the moment very confused about such matters: in general, educated people tend to think that even if race is a social construct the effects of one’s race are fundamental and unchangeable, while sex is (or in theory ought to be) infinitely malleable, but there is disagreement on both points and almost no one knows why they believe what they believe. The writing of a Life would make for a fascinating exercise in testing the limits of a belief in social construction and of a belief in total self-fashioning. I think I might write one myself.

Relatedly, I think, this powerful meditation from my friend MBD:

If people have an unmet desire for recognition, they can call attention to themselves by calling attention to their suffering. The thoughtless words, innocently ignorant slights, and verbal miscues of bystanders are reframed as a pervasive tyranny of micro-aggressions and mini-oppressions fraught with political meaning. This is the external crucible out of which identities are formed.

But as with so much else, I can’t help but see that the existential longing to become what you were meant to be, to somehow turn the sufferings you have endured into a transformative and liberating moment, is fundamentally religious. The experience of becoming what you were meant to be can only be a delusion in a materialist existence. It is the longing to discover Providence at work in one’s life, which is also the desire to discover a purpose that is given to you as a gift, but which has meaning and intelligibility in an objective universe. You find freedom in your predestined purpose precisely because the universe seems to open up to you when you discover it, fresh with new meaning, and deeper joys.

Identity politics the way we have them are the result of men and women who have been baptized into Christian longings, but who have been given only the intellectual and political tools of Whigs and Marxists for dealing with them. If political tyranny issues forth, it will only be an external reflection of the interior tyranny of lost souls, who are trying to get water to gush forth from a stone, even as they disclaim belief in the miraculous. 

acting and theory

To “act” is to go through the motions of behaviour without really feeling it, lacking the appropriate experiences…. Amateur actors, like political revolutionaries, are those who find the conventions hard to grasp and perform them badly, having never recovered from their childhood puzzlement.

Such puzzlement is perhaps what we call “theory.” The child is an incorrigible theoretician, forever urging the most impossibly fundamental questions. The form of a philosophical question, Wittgenstein remarks, is “I don’t know my way around”; and since this is literally true of the child, it is driven to pose questions which are not answerable simply in rhetorical terms (“The meaning of this action is this”) but which press perversely on to interrogate the whole form of social life which might generate such particular meanings in the first place. Theory is in this sense the logical refuge of those puzzled or naïve enough not to find simply rhetorical answers adequate, or who want to widen the boundaries of what mature minds take to be adequate rhetorical explanations.

…Theory begins to take hold once one realizes that the adults don’t know their way around either, even if they act as though they do. They act as well as they do precisely because they can no longer see, and so question, the conventions by which they behave. The task of theory is to breed bad actors.

— Terry Eagleton, “Brecht and Rhetoric” (1982)