Who is I?
At the end of the year last, in a party diverse with ethnicity and artistry, not to mention anarchists, a question was asked of me by none other than myself. And yet, as it was done in company, I credit the question as much to my companions.
You see, after I described some of my political views, mentioning the strange question of the status of the Federal Reserve as a private corporation, as well as some of the scientific anomalies surrounding the events of 9-11-2001 (See my IN ORBIT column Dangerous Ideas: Memes and the New Orwellianism.) I was told that my views pretty much matched those of members of the Tea Party. Now I knew I was against the neocons, but I had no idea that according to a helpful anarchist, that made me a fledgling member of the Tea Party.
I don’t watch TV news, and now find most of the alternative media as noxious as the mainstream kind. Which doesn’t leave me much of an informational safety net except for the Internet, which as we know is full of holes. And yet that’s where I, insofar as I am an I, swim in a roiling sea of glorified gossip and the occasional fresh tidbit of gleaming truth-like debris.
Of course that’s also where Wild River Review is and where you are, so it is at the very least convenient for this essay. But it also means I was inured from my status as a putative Tea Party nutcase (not to be confused with nutjob, nutbag, or nutbar). I had hardly known that I had metamorphosed in my sleep. But in case there was any doubt, an ex seconded the motion on Facebook, wondering since when had I developed an affinity for the extreme right wing.
Well, I never.
When I asked the anarchist if he thought Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame was a double agent (because his revelations had apparently been vetted by Israel, and because such an operation could be used as an excuse to shut down the Internet in the name of security), he assured me that he (Assange) could be a triple agent, which I found nicely to my liking. Assange could be fooling both sides.
Not to be outdone, I spent the rest of the party spicing up my conversation with the perplexing notion of the quadruple agent, a concept around which it is indeed hard to wrap one’s mind. The anarchist added that Sarah Palin, who later terrorized the country with her gunsight campaign graphics, was probably, at least financially, a creation of the neocons.
Right wing. Left wing. What?
Needless to say, I was confused. But the confusion did me good as it allowed me to muse on some of the rarefied niceties of that perplexing morass of abstract marble from which we shape ourselves into selves. I speak of identity. I can answer where I am (on the third rock from the sun, in the outskirts of the Milky Way), what I am (proteins and genes and bones and whatnot made from atoms common in the universe), how I am (okay), when I am (21st century etc.), and maybe even why I am (more on that later), more easily than I can tell you who I am.
Apparently I am not alone in this perplexing dilemma. Although it will do no justice to paraphrase the great popularizer of mysticism and expositor of world religions, Alan Watts who devoted a whole book to the subject: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Watts gave an elegantly Hindu answer to the question: you are the universe playing a game of hide-and-seek with itself.
Basically it boils down to this: Because the universe is eternal, which can get boring, it likes to pretend that it is divided into individual parts. Some of these parts not only die, they know they die. This realization may get those parts worked up, but it also keeps them from being bored.
Watts pointed out that the universe doesn’t like to show off in this regard, but rather to “show on”—as a character would show up in the pages of a book, or an actor upon the world’s rotund stage. Later in his life Watts distanced himself somewhat from this Hindu metaphysics, but The Book still stands as a brilliant testimony to one of the simplest and most enduringly convincing ideas of cross-cultural religion: we are bits of the all, the cosmos engaged in a grand game of self-play.
Watts here and elsewhere espoused a doctrine of realistic reincarnation. He looked at his red-headed grandchildren and saw himself. He opined that all organisms “think they’re human.”
And he spoke of the need to escape from the illusion of the “skin-encapsulated ego” in order to recognize the connection in each to the infinite. Turning a noun into a verb à la philosopher, Martin Heidegger, he said that when a baby is born the universe “I’s” itself. It is the same cosmos I-ing itself in a myriad of forms. We may die but the great game goes on. New beings are born but they make the same discoveries. They, in a sense, “R” us.
(And I think it’s weird how in English we ask how “are” you—as if in addressing another in the second person we are somehow secretly acknowledging their multiplicity. Shouldn’t it be, how is you? Or maybe, what you be?)
Samuel Butler, novelist and neglected philosopher, is an interesting case in the exploration of multiple identity. Butler wrote of walking down the street and noticing that every person reminded him of someone else. So this guy might look most like the Earl of Sandwich, another like Jesus, a gal like Queen Victoria. We’re familiar with this syndrome from its extreme form in the asylum. Butler just entertained a light version, Watts’s naturalistic reincarnation applied to the other rather than the self, reincarnation right out on the street.
Butler experienced other disruptions of the self. His Erewhon: Across the Range—a utopia that combined New Zealand and northern Italy, the Maori and the English into a satiric fictional blend—was originally thought by the public to have been written by Sir Thomas More. It sold briskly until its real author was divined, and sales dropped. Still, for Butler, the experience of being taken for another was not entirely displeasing.
Butler had already played at identity by arguing with himself in the Op-Ed pages of The Press in Christchurch, New Zealand (where just this February 22 there was an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale). One of Butler’s avatars (“Cellarius”) took the position that machines (of which the telegraph and train were the most advanced examples of the time, 1865) were taking over the planet, whereas another, anonymous author (writing a piece called Lucubratio Ebria, Latin for “drunken nightwork”) scathingly disagreed with Cellarius, pointing out that devices like umbrellas were extensions of our skin and that a train is only a “seven-leagued foot that five hundred may own at once.”
The author of fictions indulges in this same sane version of multiple personality syndrome; she is the outermost concentric personality who knows the true status of her characters while they, poor saps, have nary a clue, mostly, of the whimsy-driven coffee-drinking goddess controlling their fate.
Indeed, Socrates’s dialogues in Plato’s hands were arguably the earliest modern novels, as they allowed a panoply of distinct voices to transcend the limitations of isolated opinion in order to create a multipersonal philosophy beyond individual opinion. The irony here is that Plato, according to philosopher Frederick Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (great title, that), had originally planned to be a dramatist, that is, a tragic playwright.
Under the influence of Socrates’s rationalism, however, he supposedly burned all his plays as a mystical enterprise unbefitting the truth-telling agenda of the philosopher. But what the Socratic method sacrificed, according to Nietzsche, was the realization that the multipersonal realm of Attic tragedy was a sacred reenactment (a “showing on” in Watts’s lingo) of the primordial drama of human separation from the cosmos which defines us.
Euripedes, also under the influence of Socrates, started it by getting rid of the chorus. The chorus, a central part of the essentially spiritual ancient Greek tragedies, was not meant to be taken literally as representing people but was, instead, a manifestation of the cosmic realization that we are all one, illusorily separated from one another like raindrops glinting in the sun as they fall, unaware that their source and destination is the current of an indivisible river. Getting rid of the chorus paved the way to melodrama and soap opera, to simple representations of daily life obscuring the tragic truth dramatized by the ancients, that our separateness is life’s temporary illusion.
Butler’s deconstructions of identity, his divisions of the would-be indivisibility of individuality, also took a biological turn: is it not arbitrary to identify death as occurring at the transition from maternal butterfly to eggs? Is not the transition from egg to caterpillar, or caterpillar to chrysalis, or, most spectacularly, from pupa to winged form, equally as striking?
He argued also that as infants, we are more like other infants than ourselves as octogenarians. The arguments were of a piece, with one another and with Watts’s bombshell in The Book: “we” are not what we think we are, the stable identities conferred by pronouns like me, my, and mine.
Instead, in the words of the Vedic Sanskrit Hymns, the Rg Veda, “thou art that”: we are not just within but outside of our skin, like waves connected to the whole ocean. Our true identity is (to use a Butler term) extracorporaneous: it is the universe itself, glittering forth galaxies, solar systems, planets and beings.
My cowboy friend Bill Huth, long-time owner of the Willow Springs Raceway in California, is a devout reader (and sometimes publisher) of old texts on evolution and spirituality. Huth argues that what we call “life” is eternal, evolving, a restless “thing” of ever changing forms. This makes each of us eternal whether we know it or not, and generally we don’t. Huth himself, now eighty-seven but once a tireless and quite accomplished conman, was accused multiple times in his earlier years of impersonating a preacher.
Once, he laughs, the police called his mother in LA to tell her.
“Oh no, he’s not a preacher,” she corrected them. “He’s an evangelist.”
The great literary scholar and surrealist Jorge Luis Borges was a master at revealing the subtle ways we are not who we think we are.
In Borges and I he writes of the “other one, the one called Borges” whom he knows “from the mail” and whose name he sees “on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary…but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar . . . Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him. I do not know which of us has written this page.”
In The Other, Borges depicts himself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stopping to sit upon a bench on the bank of the Charles River. Already on the bench is a well-dressed man who seems to him familiar. The older and the younger man have a refreshingly literary conversation, touching upon, among other things, the use of the dopplegänger in the fiction of Poe. At some point the older man realizes why the younger man looks so familiar; it is his younger self whom he, at first, did not recognize.
I had the exact opposite experience when I recognized myself, not on a bench as another body but as a voice from another time. My mother had picked my girlfriend Natasha Myers, a professor of anthropology at York Univeristy, and me up at the airport and insisted we listen to an essay of mine, part of an anthology that had just been released as an audiobook.
The reader, Pamela Ward, was espousing views using my exact words but in prose that ran strongly contrary to some of my current opinions critical of critical theory, epistemological relativism, abstract jargon, and postmodern academic fashion.
Not only was she confidently using French philosophy to deconstruct the notion of discrete identity, I was the source of the voice and its mannered attack on the recent positions I held so dear. I shrank in my seat. Natasha, a frequent interlocutor with whom I had espoused my current opinions, was in the back seat, laughing.
The essay in question, “The Uncut Self,” appeared in the anthology Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature, published by Chelsea Green, and I called it “The Uncut Self.” I had written a draft of it over 20 years ago for Fred Tauber of Boston University who held a conference there, “Organism and the Origins of Self,” on biology and philosophy. I was under the spell of continental philosophy in a big way, quoting Foucault, thinking with Derrida, and in general making the same sort of arguments that I now objected to when Natasha made them to me, accusing me of scientism, biological reductionism, and a naïve belief in reality free of social constructions.
Dazzle Gradually comes from Emily Dickinson’s line, “The truth must dazzle gradually/or every man be blind.” Well I was dazzled all right. And all would have been well had not my mother, biologist Lynn Margulis, coauthor of the essay and lately taken by it in audio form, insisted on playing it loudly for Natasha in the back seat.
Natasha could no more control the volume than I could, as my mother told us to “shh” and listen, wondering what was so funny. My laughter was more subdued. I was being schooled by my younger self.
Natasha and I try not to make a habit of arguing, but when we do, our intellectual arguments seem to follow the script from an Ian McEwan novel, with me defending the “rational male” view of classic scientific objectivity and her assuming a more “generous” view (popular today in humanities departments) that highlights the role of culture and history in creating what we naifs consider culture-free facts.
Part of the disorienting effect of the essay is that it begins mid-sentence: full circle, not based on the rectilinear frame of reference of a painting, mirror, house, or book, and with neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ but according to the single surface of a Moebius strip. This is not the classical Cartesian model of self, with a vital ensouled res cogitans surrounded by that predictable world of Newtonian mechanisms of the res extensa; it is closer to Maturana and Varela’s conception of autopoiesis, a completely self-making, self-referring, tautologically delimited entity at the various levels of cell, organism, and cognition (Maturana and Varela 1973). It would be premature to accuse us therefore of a debilitating biomysticism, of pandering to deconstructive fashion, or, indeed, of fomenting an academic ‘lunacy‘ or ‘criminality’ that merits ostracism from scientific society, smoothly sealed by peer review and by the standards of what Fleck calls a ‘thought collective’ (Fleck 1979). Nor would it be timely to label and dismiss us as antirational or solipsist.
What was “I” thinking? Where was “I” going with this? Well, apparently back to the beginning, because the essay ends: Topologically the self has no homuncular inner self but comes . . . thereby beginning the sentence with which the essay starts.
The effect of calm intellectual self-annihilation was complete. “I” had proved to “my” own satisfaction that there are no absolute borders around the self-referring, operationally closed but multiply constituted self. If God, as Meister Eckhart said, is a being whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere, so the self was not a skin-encapsulated ego separate from the rest of the universe.
I guess this also included separate from one’s former self. I shrank from the auto-onslaught but there was nowhere to go in the auto. The effect was worsened as Natasha alternately told my mother to turn the sound down and shrieked with delight in the backseat at my anticipatory self-destruction. The irony was that the self on the CD was deconstructing the older-me listening even as it embarrassed me with its jargon bomb of jejune enthusiasm. If the old young me was right, the new old me was wrong.
I thought of Nietzsche’s comment as to how juvenile his earlier writings seemed until he got older and considered that critique juvenile. Not only did Pamela Ward’s reading of my essay embarrassingly reproduce Natasha’s side of the arguments we have over “epistemological relativism” and “postmodern jargon” but my younger self argues against the notion of stable biological identity (the “rectilinear self” in that essay’s jargon!). It was a one-two punch I gave to myself and there was nothing much I could do but stay slumped in the front seat, pummeled in part by my own embarrassed laughter. Of course my mother still wanted to know what was so funny as she thought the essay was “just great.”
So, who are we?
I believe we are distributed identities, Möbius strips (okay younger self, don’t gloat) that turn back on ourselves to see that we are not the isolated simple identities we thought we were. We are members of families, tribes, nations, age groups, sexes, trades, and classes that may and are in complex conflict with one another. Navigating these multiple assemblages is an invitation either to contradiction or denial; political coherency becomes impossible.
The multiple alliances go still further. You are not just a political animal, but a differentiated clone of nucleated cells, a collection of microbes. You are a lineal descendant of the first life, recycling a water-based chemistry full of hydrogen-rich compounds, like methane and sulfide, characteristic of the inner solar system four billion years ago at the time of life’s origin, soon after the sun turned on.
Atomically, you contain elements like carbon and oxygen, made not here but on the inside of distant stars that ultimately exploded. Your lineage escaped several serious mass extinctions, not including the global pollution crisis precipitated by the first water-using photosynthesizers who toxified the entire planet, but whose air you now breathe. Physically, you may only be a tick in time and a speck in space, but ultimately you are part of the evolving universe itself, much bigger than humanity and its current crop of madmen.
If you look on the internet you will see that Julian Assange’s last name is that of his stepfather, a theater director his mother married when he was one, and that several years later she married a musician who Assange himself says may have been part of the identity-destroying Santiniketan Park Association, a bizarre Australian cult run by Anne Hamilton-Byrne who fed her children LSD, starved them, provided them with a rigid regimen of yoga and early rising, and made them repent for their sins as well as call her God. The children’s hair was dyed platinum blonde, the boys were given bowl cuts; some of them disappeared, their names and birthdates underwent capricious changes, and they often had multiple passports. Assange’s mother was so intent on escaping her second husband that she took Julian and his half-brother into hiding, and they’d moved thirty times by the time Julian was fourteen.
It has been suggested that the cult was an MK-ULTRA operation, a covert, illegal CIA human research program, run by the Office of Scientific Intelligence and that WikiLeaks is a “limited hangout” in CIA jargon, that is, something that seems bad but is really good (for them).
I would like to suggest that the Department of Defense created a monster in helping form the internet (in the late 1950s, partly to have a decentralized communications network that could survive a nuclear war) that they can never stuff back in their Pandoran box; that our complicity with the military industrial complex, reinforced whenever we drive down the street or use a Master Card, seems to be under control of the paranoiac-conspiratorial-realistic “They”–some of whom really do fashion themselves to be in control–but that if we look further into the future complicity with THEM pales next to the power wielded over us by nature.
The biosphere has other plans for the internet, a kind of global neuronal intelligence, that even the criminalocracy can’t stop or control. Even billions of military dollars could not reproduce something as simple and lovely as Smith College’s greenhouse across from Paradise Pond because that greenhouse is a very specific growth form, produced not just by humans, but by plants in interaction with them for over 150 years.
We are complicitous with the forces we detest, but those forces are complicitous with still greater powers we may admire. The great heterobiographies of our Protean selves have yet to be written. We are all triple agents now.
Dorion Sagan is author of numerous articles and twenty-three books translated into eleven languages, including Death and Sex, co-authored with Tyler Volk; Notes from the Holocene: A Brief History of the Future and Into the Cool, coauthored with Eric D. Schneider. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, Wired, the Skeptical Inquirer, Pabular, Smithsonian, the Ecologist, Co-Evolution Quarterly, the Times Higher Education, Omni, Natural History, The Sciences, Cabinet, and Tricycle.