Saturday, March 29, 2014

Understanding Identity Loss

Jonathan Lear.  Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.  ISBN: 0674023293.

The following passage comes from Lear's book, a very interesting study of the collapse of the Crow culture (in the American West). Throughout the book, Lear tries to explain what the Crow chief Plenty Coups might have meant when he said, "[W]hen the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened."  This explanation of Lear's really touched me:
Imagine that pieces of a chess game had inner lives.  And imagine that each took itself to be a center of agency.  I am a knight!  I see myself in tribal terms: I am a black knight!  I am proud to be a black knight!  We shall fight a glorious battle and capture the white king!  I think strategically in terms of my possible moves: two up and one to the left.  Perhaps I should wait here quietly for several moves, and if that white rook comes my way ... I understand all the other members of my tribe in terms of the roles they play: and I understand that we are all aspiring to excellence in the sense that we are trying to win.

Unbeknownst to me, my world exists because it is protected by a group of humans.  These are the guardians of the chess world, who insist that the only acceptable moves are moves that are allowable within the game of chess.  From my point of view as a thoughtful knight, the humans are as unknowable as the transcendent gods.  But suppose these chess-guardians were one day just to give it up: as a historical phenomenon, humans got bored with playing this game, and the game of chess goes out of existence.  My problem is not simply that my way of life has come to an end.  I no longer have the concepts with which to understand myself or the world.  I understand the other pieces in terms of their roles, but there are no longer any such roles.  Perhaps I am found attractive by humans as a physical object.  I am put on a bookshelf as a curiosity, an objet d'art.  I might sit for generations on a series of bookshelves--get traded as what humans call an antique--and all this while I am in utter confusion.  I have no idea what is going on.  This isn't primarily a psychological problem.  The concepts with which I would otherwise have understood myself--indeed, the concepts with which I would otherwise have shaped my identity--have gone out of existence (Lear, pp. 48-49).
I am that knight.  Outside the various games I have played over the course of my brief life, I have no identity.  Historical circumstances have forced me beyond those games--the game of being a good family man (as I understood it), the game of being a good Mormon, the game of being a good Christian, the game of being a good academic.  I am simply a curio now, a museum piece, a disoriented bit of misshapen matter that aspires to be part of a work of art--a game that it cannot find.  I need a game, a place to identify with, a geography to occupy--to contend for with others who see things that I see as mattering in some sense.  My fellow contenders and I don't have to agree precisely on everything, of course, but we need to share a sense of value, integrity, honor, culture.  We need to value the same kind of information, and to value the intellectual process that the other uses to address it--even when that process is not our own.  It might be hostile to ours, as the Sioux were hostile to the Crow: that hostility actually gave their lives meaning, as the hostility between black and white gives meaning to the game of chess.

1 comment:

  1. Writing on William Lane Craig (later than this post) reminds me that I am still playing some games (politics, "practical" philosophy, religion). My lack of identity is mostly professional: what kind of work shall I identify with? The nature of the market is such right now that I don't see it as wise to determine too narrowly what professional game I will play. I think I will have to play several professional games (teacher, scholar, writer, helpmeet to my wife as she pursues work when I cannot find any, etc.). I have recently felt more at peace with my lack of a profession. I think I will always consider myself a humanist, by vocation, and that consideration will color the manner in which I participate in any professional activity I happen to find myself doing. When I teach, I am a humanist teacher (who introduces students to culture as its own excuse for being: we learn Latin because we love it, not because it will make us rich). When I write about my research, I am a humanist writer (who expresses honest opinions about universal and universally pressing issues, aiming first to be accurate and insightful; if I must write as a pedant, as humanists have been known to do, then I will do so playfully and without rancor--as my goal, anyway). When I help my family, I will do so with respect for them as human beings (as I am): I will not resent them or expect from them fealty to character they cannot own, integrity that is not theirs. I wish them success where they are, as they are, not as I imagine them or as they are not.

    This might be a fun adventure. It certainly won't be what I thought it would when I signed on to major in classics as an undergrad.