Sunday, January 11, 2009

Who Are You?

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter --
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life --
A past of Plank and Nail
And slowness -- then the Scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul.

Emily Dickinson

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.
T. S. Eliot

A few links to identity today. Blogs are buzzing over Steven Pinker's typically bravura piece in the Times about "personal genomics." Early in the essay, he notes how, in trying to determine how we got to be who we are, we concoct stories of meaningful connection that may in fact be fictions cloaking our deep ignorance (the controversy over this phenomenon pretty much comprises the history of psychoanalysis).

Pinker is plenty modest about the very limited accuracy and reliability of current genetic tests (and of course the fact that identity goes well beyond the nucleotide sequence). But even when, at some point in the future, we have much more sophisticated genetic testing, that is, when we supposedly will "know" ourselves far better than we do now, there will always be the question of what to do with that information. How to live, what to do? Science does not answer existential questions.

Once we have as much data as, realistically, it is possible to have, it will be necessary to tell new stories of identity. That meaning-making narrative is the realm of freedom, which may be metaphysically illusory, but it's the best we've got, which is quite a lot I think. That's what psychotherapy is about, not pinning down how things are, but deciding how they could be. Naturally, you have to have some general notion of where you're starting from, but you're like an electron--you can never know your position absolutely.

What is most crucial to personal identity, the content of one's history, relationships, and consciousness, or the form of one's dispositions to think, feel, and behave in certain ways? When I think of who I am, what automatically comes to mind is the unique experiences I have had: the family I grew up in, the friends I have had, the places I have seen, the work I have done, the books and music I have absorbed, the family I have now. "Psychological testing" would show none of these things, but rather my impersonal propensities of intelligence, sociability, and neuroticism or the lack thereof. Which is more truly me, the subjective or objective, or is this trying to distinguish the mind from the brain when what is inside the skull is really a unitary phenomenon?

Similarly, when most people think of human history they think of the parade of nation-states, of conquests, of charismatic leaders (biography is a popular genre). When we think of the identity of the United States we think of Presidents, of wars, of assassinations. But arguably all this is quite superficial compared to the deeper currents that drive history.

I've been reading Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 B.C. to 1000 A.D., by Barry Cunliffe, an Oxford archeologist. It is fascinating to me to think of all the now nameless people whose migrations, joys and sufferings, works and deaths over millenia shaped who we are today. Just as they chipped stones for long hours to make tools, so human identity was being very slowly but inexorably chipped by the vagaries of climate and human interaction. The gene pool was being stirred and strained in ways too complex to fathom. For evolutionary psychologists, our identity is shaped more by the experiences of deep antiquity than by, say, the events of the past few decades (as social and cultural psychologists would maintain). But maybe the question is what kind of identity we mean.

Tolstoy infamously ended War and Peace with long disquisitions advocating this deep and impersonal view of history, arguing that while we fasten on a figure like Napoleon as supposedly shaping an age, in truth he himself was merely shaped by wider influences. This was a supreme irony insofar as he had just, in the preceding 1000 pages, constructed fictional individuals as lifelike and convincing as could possibly be done, individuals for whom one could only care and grieve as if they had really lived, only to argue that for the purposes of history their actions, indeed their decisions, had no significant force. If that were true, one would be tempted to say history be damned. But of course it isn't wholly true, and it is a matter of perspective--we are not interested in individuals because of their putative world-historical importance.

I'll end with whimsy here--Christopher Hitchens has an uncharacteristically light-footed piece in The Atlantic that points out the various feline characteristics of Barack Obama. He sees this as generally a good thing, although he laments that, unlike more substantial animals presumably, cats don't generally leave much trace of their passing (apparent message: Obama as lightweight). But I would point out that they're impressively clean, they leap tall fences in a single bound, they resist herding, and--they have claws.

Think of the endless dichotomies we use to sort identity: young/old, boy/girl, extrovert/introvert, secular/religious, conservative/liberal, canine/feline.

Feline. Except when canine.


Anonymous said...

Bravo on your insights about Pinker's article. You just gave me more to consider, even on top of his 8-web page tome. Indeed, is it the structure of "me" or the narrative of "me" that matters more? Is trying to identify a distinction between these imaginary poles just another futile exercise in dualism? Or, paraphrasing T.S.Eliott, "where is the knowledge in information? Where is the wisdom in knowledge?"

Anonymous said...

No gene is an island.

Genes are buffeted by the weather of life: some bruise, others rebel, some mutate, while others fiendishly cling to rockfaces like stubborn limpets, defying the odds of modification.

Most people don't read instruction manuals from beginning to end, but selectively dip into relevant parts to fill in empirical knowledge gaps left by random tinkering --I think that's what the life lived attempts to do. As Pinker mentioned in the article, some genes like those for Huntington's, are a blanket yes to a preoradained doom; while others are just probabalistic.

There are tracks, but there is also leeway on either side where you can choose (or circumstance/chance chooses) to stumble along, perchance to live the undetermined.

Life would be an ugly and uninspired work of pathetic derivative art if it were painted by numbers.

Love Emily's prop and soul poem -- she said it so perfectly and succinctly. Truly transcendent.