Monday, May 30, 2011

On the Self as a Collection

            I’ve been reading some biology that reminds me that my body is a collection of things that once existed on their own— mostly bacteria, but also various cells that, before they became specialized, could themselves be thought of as individuals, rather than as parts. So I am forced to recognize that what I call “I” is also something that a group of life-forms could be calling “We,” if they had a voice—which they don’t. I have a voice and I can say “I,” but it doesn’t change the fact that I am just as much a location of symbiosis as I am an individual in my own standing.
            Thinking about myself as a conglomeration compels me to consider my own mortality, to consider what death will do to me as an individual. As I have said a few times before, I see death as a severe withering of the personality. At death, the truth about myself as a temporary gathering-place of smaller life-forms is revealed. After “I” am gone, they slowly dissipate. And that’s that.
            To be honest, I am bringing this topic up not because I am concerned at all about my own fate, but rather, this question: What will become of my books?
After a recent trip to Maryland, my entire book collection is under one roof for the first time since high school. My entire library, which I would estimate at about 500 or so books, is with me. As a bibliophile, who I am is intensely tied up with this library. I have lovingly organized them into their sections: fiction, profound fiction, philosophy, philosophical theology, Judaism, Christianity, non-Judeo-Christianity, politics, environmentalism, psychology, and fan literature (Simpsons, Grateful Dead, Marx Brothers). I have read a lot of these books, but I would still venture to guess that I have not read around half of the pages I own. I probably own 10x more Heidegger or Buber than I have ever read. I collect books at a faster rate than I read them. Looking at my collection, one can see who I am, but this “I” is both what I’ve read and also what I would like to have read. My book collection is a curious symbol, composed of 500 or so signs that, individually and collectively, speak about me as their owner.
            I hope that the analogy is clear by now. These books are a part of me. But, when I die, what will become of my books? Since I plan to continue reading throughout my life, I like to imagine that they will serve as a partial record of the intellectual content I have consumed. But, I wonder, what is the meaning of all this intellectual consumption? I read a lot of books, which means that some make a profound impression, some leave traces, and some leave nothing. A lot of book-reading is more like an experience than like gaining possession—once I’m done reading, I do not “have” these books any more than I “have” a concert after it’s over (for more, see my upcoming piece, “What will become of my ticket stubs?”). Even if I utterly absorb the contents of a book, what then? What does it mean? What difference does it make?
            I find explanation (though I’m not sure how much solace) in Richard Dawkins’ account of the meme, the intellectual equivalent of the gene. What I call “I” is just as much a gathering-place of memes as it is a gathering-place of genes. Perhaps “intersection” is a better word, as it signifies that I am a location at which things both gather and dissipate. My reading of my books lives on as far as the bits of conversation (and pieces of writing) I pass on about them are themselves passed on.
            And what about the books themselves—what is their life after my death? Looking at my library, I am struck by a creeping realization that they will outlive me. They existed before they were mine, and they will exist after they are mine. They are ultimately not my library; they are just books. The only remaining meaning in my having possessed them is that their new owners are likely to be people geographically close to me, and who very well might be my descendants (or their cousins). I think of how I picked through my late grandfather’s books after my grandmother finally moved out of their large house in New City into a smaller apartment in New Jersey. His collection of memes, like his collection of genes, became a part of me, became a part of my experiences and my identity. It’s a beautiful thing—although, at the same time, I have to recognize that I received his books by picking through them, rather than receiving them as a library. My books will last and might be passed on meaningfully through me. My library, my beloved collection that speaks volumes about who I am, is as temporary as “I” am.
P.S. Jesper Hoffmeyer’s “Signs of Meaning in the Universe” was the immediate inspiration for this piece.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is anything sacred? Why the Harvard Humanists should not honor Seth MacFarlane as the 2011 Humanist of the Year

1)      I have been an avid fan of Family Guy since the show began. I have watched every episode and laughed my way through almost every episode.
2)     I don’t feel like compiling a list of examples, but I think it is fair to say that a majority of Family Guy episodes have at least one gag that makes light of sexual/domestic violence, or at least makes a grievously misogynistic joke. I think any fan of the show would agree with this statement, and if not, they are not watching closely enough.
3)     In the correct entertainment context, violence is funny. Cartoon violence is even funnier.
4)     Misogynistic violence against women is not funny. I say this as a feminist and as a humanist. It should be obvious why I say this as a feminist. As a humanist, I think I am drawing on a couple of lines from the Humanist Manifesto III, including the following:

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all. (emphasis mine)
5)     The italicized line, for me, signifies the intersection between Humanism and feminism (also Humanism and anti-racism). Sexism and racism are inhumane responses to human difference, ones which strip individuals and groups of their “worth and dignity” (to quote another section of the manifesto). They are the opposite of mutual care, concern, and freedom from cruelty.
6)     I think there is a subtle line between appropriate and inappropriate tongue-in-cheek offensive humor. For me, the line is in whether or not a critique of the humor is built into the show. Consider Cartman from South Park—he’s offensive and hilarious, but he rarely says something offensive without being judged by other characters on the show. Peter Griffin, Stewie, Lois, Quagmire, and Herbert (this is just my initial list of the most offensive Family Guy characters) are almost never judged onscreen for their racism, sexism, and pedophilia. If you think everyone in the audience gets that these characters are anti-heroes, try discussing Family Guy with a middle school student.
7)     I know I haven’t connected all of my dots here, but I just wanted to respond to the announcement as soon as possible. While I love Family Guy as entertainment, I do not find it any way to be a Humanist text. Sure, it’s atheistic and proudly so. But Humanism, to me, is far, far more than atheism. Just as an out-spoken atheist is not necessarily a good human/person, an out-spoken atheist show is not necessarily a good example of Humanism.
8)    In conclusion, I do not want Seth MacFarlane to represent Humanism, and I think that if Humanism is in any way related to anti-racism, feminism, or any other forms of anti-oppression work, then honoring him is a major compromise of Humanist values.