Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Possession as a web made of memes and a look at identity: How we swim in the ocean of cultural entities and understandings

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A few mornings ago for some reason I found myself pondering the idea of possession. I was looking at one of my razors — not the Fendrihan Mk II I was using but the Fine aluminum slant on the shelf — and thinking that it was nice to own it — but I realized that “being owned” is not discoverable from the razor itself. “Ownership” exists not in the natural world but only in the meme-universe of human cultural knowledge, and cultural content is not part of the natural world but instead comes from the cultural knowledge of the observer.

One example of this consists of what you see here: black markings on a white background:

이 문장에는 의미가 있습니다 (한국어를 아는 경우에만 해당).

Not matter how closely you examine those markings, they remain simply black marks (unless, of course you have the cultural knowledge to interpret them).

I then encountered the following post by Maria Popova in Brain Pickings. The post addresses how our identities are not from nature but are formed from cultural elements.

“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul“is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” And yet we are increasingly pressured to parcel ourselves out in various social contexts, lacerating the parchment of our identity in the process. As Courtney Martin observed in her insightful On Being conversation with Parker Palmer and Krista Tippett, “It’s never been more asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.” Today, as Whitman’s multitudes no longer compose an inner wholeness but are being wrested out of us fragment by fragment, what does it really mean to be a person? And how many types of personhood do we each contain?

In the variedly stimulating 1976 volume The Identities of Persons (public library), philosopher Amelie Rorty considers the seven layers of personhood, rooted in literature but extensible to life. She writes:

Humans are just the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves. This is a complicated biological fact about us.

Rorty offers a brief taxonomy of those conceptions before exploring each in turn:

Characters are delineated; their traits are sketched; they are not presumed to be strictly unified. They appear in novels by Dickens, not those by Kafka. Figures appear in cautionary tales, exemplary novels and hagiography. They present narratives of types of lives to be imitated. Selves are possessors of their properties. Individuals are centers of integrity; their rights are inalienable. Presences are descendants of souls; they are evoked rather than presented, to be found in novels by Dostoyevsky, not those by Jane Austen.

Depending on which of these we adopt, Rorty argues, we become radically different entities, with different powers and proprieties, different notions of success and failure, different freedoms and liabilities, different expectations of and relations to one another, and most of all a different orientation toward ourselves in the emotional, intellectual, and social spaces we inhabit.

And yet we ought to be able to interpolate between these various modalities of being:

Worldliness consists of [the] ability to enact, with grace and aplomb, a great variety of roles.

Rorty begins with the character, tracing its origin to Ancient Greek drama:

Since the elements out of which characters are composed are repeatable and their configurations can be reproduced, a society of characters is in principle a society of repeatable and indeed replaceable individuals.

Characters, Rorty points out, don’t have identity crises because they aren’t expected to have a core unity beneath their assemblage of traits. What defines them is which of these traits become manifested, and this warrants the question of social context:

To know what sort of character a person is, is to know what sort of life is best suited to bring out his potentialities and functions… Not all characters are suited to the same sorts of lives: there is no ideal type for them all… If one tries to force the life of a bargainer on the character of a philosopher, one is likely to encounter trouble, sorrow, and the sort of evil that comes from mismatching life and temperament. Characters formed within one society and living in circumstances where their dispositions are no longer needed — characters in time of great social change — are likely to be tragic. Their virtues lie useless or even foiled; they are no longer recognized for what they are; their motives and actions are misunderstood. The magnanimous man in a petty bourgeois society is seen as a vain fool; the energetic and industrious man in a society that prizes elegance above energy is seen as a bustling boor; the meditative person in an expansive society is seen as melancholic… Two individuals of the same character will fare differently in different polities, not because their characters will change through their experiences (though different aspects will become dominant or recessive) but simply because a good fit of character and society can conduce to well-being and happiness, while a bad fit produces misery and rejection.

Rorty’s central point about character takes it out of the realm of the literary and the philosophical, and into the realm of our everyday lives, where the perennial dramas of who we are play out: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 January 2021 at 9:33 am

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