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The totality of the known or supposed

Sophia Weinstein's picture

Everything that any living being does, thinks, and feels is unchangeably its own perspective. I exist only within my own reality, only able to read and interact with the world through my own senses. My perspective is the most constant factor of my existence – ever-changing and developing, but solely my own. I am always drawn back to thinking about our universe: “the totality of known or supposed objects and phenomena throughout space”. Not “the totality of all phenomena throughout space”, but the known and supposed. Humankind has ‘claimed’ the universe as its own. We have established ourselves as the focal point of existence. And just as humanity has claimed the universe, I like to believe that us people all exist within our own ‘personal universe’, for the totality of our own existence is comprised of what we know or suppose. This sounds like a very individual-centric approach to thinking about people, but it is because of this truth that our webs of porous connections and togetherness are so powerful. Everything we do is a choice, what we ourselves decide to do. And despite the fact that we exist in our ‘personal universes’, it seems to be a common link of humanity to constantly push ourselves to escape from our own singularity and choose to share, combine, connect, understand, and feel the perspectives of others. We have the choice to be selfish and self-centered. But rather than live alone in our minds, in our personal universe, humanity has chosen to discard selfishness and self-centeredness as being the basis of reality. I believe this choice to live for, with, and because of others is exactly what humanity is, and why ‘it’ exists.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

We need to help others, connect with the world of people (and animals, places, and things etc.) beyond ourselves to better understand where it is that we come from, who we are, and what it means to be alive. We group ourselves and label ourselves in order to define who we are, to find similarities and differences between all things. This human culture is beautiful. Our persistent shared consciousness brings love, creativity, learning, and purpose into an otherwise undefined existence. And yet despite the significance and wonderment that our shared existence gives our lives as individuals, we are all, in the end, just singular people. After reading and discussing “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”, an article written by Teju Cole, and Tim Burke’s Last Collection Speech to Swarthmore’s 2002 graduating, I have been overcome with many conflicting thoughts. How can I, or anyone, help the world when what we want is to ‘make the world better’? Can our empathies be effective; can we ever truly translate our compassion into something tangible, the way that society is now present in such structural, physical ways? At what point are the connections we have to and with others not real or of any significance? This White Savior Industrial Complex is outlined most prominently when Teju Cole mentions “our notions of innocence and our right to ‘help’”. He wants us to “begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations”. His message is very powerful to me, but also equally immobilizing and stifling. It makes me question the power and agency our identities and privileges allow us. I question our web of connections, because to make connections, you fuel disconnections. Like I argue in my last paper, to be porous, you must be in some way, nonporous. For example, so much of creating and discovering your own identity is about finding who you are. For me, I think the more significant part of identity is finding who you aren’t. With every community you are part of – be it a political group, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic group – you are, unfortunately and without doubt, distanced from others who are different from you. Diversity is powerful, but can also be alienating and destructive.

And here is where I find myself eternally confused. In our search for human connection and unity, we create barriers between ourselves and others, and between our communities and other seemingly contrasting communities of people. But our fabricated communal universes can only be so big, so in an effort to know, we make the vastness of totality smaller by supposing thoughts and feelings about large groups of people. In the video “The Power of Empathy”, Dr. Brené Brown claims “empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection”. But how can we fuel connections on a global, social scale when our connections are simultaneously pulling us away from understanding and empathizing with others? I’ve been thinking about how society as a whole magnifies and distorts the intentions of individuals, creating a falsified look into human behavior. So much of what our society is built upon is the calculated wants, needs, and behavior of ‘the people’. In turn, our existence is defined by these calculations. What is the true value of, say, a college education? I, as an individual, am likely to value my Bryn Mawr education differently than a dollar market value. But which is the true value anymore? How I value my education, or how the economy values it? A generalized dollar value is unlikely to reflect any individuals’ preferences, but it is very likely to influence it. Do we not affect change as a result of calculating and valuing our existence?

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” – Marilyn Strathern 

How can we depict human nature? Is there a human nature? Maybe there can’t be, apart from a biological nature (as exists with all animals). Yet we function within a society that has fabricated what it means to succeed, to fail, to be happy, to be prosperous. It has laid out a one-size-fits-all outfit for us all to strive to look good in, to conform to. No matter how many things we agree and disagree on, there is no ‘normal average’ point of view or interest of humans. An all-around ‘average’ person is extremely rare. If we are all compromised in an attempt to fit into norms that are used to predict economic and social behaviors of people, how can that mean anything about what ‘we’ want?

How could well-intentioned efforts to help people possibly be anything but positive? Here is a segment from Jonah Lehrer’s article The Paradox of Altruism:

“Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism—the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost—as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection. After all, if life was such a cruel “struggle for existence,” then how could a selfless individual ever live long enough to reproduce? Why would natural selection favor a behavior that made us less likely to survive? In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.” And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature.”

 If you think of selflessness from this perspective, it feels quite different than the lessons you are taught in elementary school. It echoes the issues that arise from how we bury our dead. How can a selfless people leave an earth for their offspring to enherit, if they so easily dedicate their earth to the dead? Something someone (I’m not sure who) said while at Laurel Hill stuck with me. I may be pulling this out of context somewhat, but they said that cemeteries are places for the people that we leave behind when we die. I found that very interesting, being how despite the fact that the entire cemetery systems (and all of society, for that matter) are built by the living, and are accessed and appreciated by the living, cemeteries are truly built for the dead. Those that are living when we die are left behind, rather than the other way around. The world exists for the living, yet so much of the ‘human experience’ is defined by how we respect and care for our dead. Our love for the dead has acquired physical space in our precious soil. It is not economically sustainable. If our altruism is ‘spent’ on the dead, how is anyone better off? What about the living? There are billions of people alive today that have less attention and care being paid to them than the care we spend preserving the memory of those we have lost. What rights should we be allowed when we are dead? Or maybe I should ask, what rights should we allow the dead? Empathy and understanding can never exist in the conversation about death. I don't mean to say we cannot empathize with those who have lost loved ones. I mean to say that we cannot empathize with the dead. We are not dead. We can only speculate; we can only suppose.

“Cemeteries operate as alternate cities—cities of the dead.” - Keith Eggener



Anne Dalke's picture

"animals as persons"?


Here are my notes from our talking today: our reflections on the writing you’ve done for this class so far, and our shared sense of what you might do for your final project.

You reported that your papers are all “re-playing the same things/going in circles” around the questions of “being an individual in a larger system,” and “how to change the program." Your first paper was a story about home not being tied to a place, but feelings of “fitting in”; it described growing up as learning to create and claim (rather than being given) a home, and was written to describe your experience, rather than to “convince anyone of anything.” Your second paper began to expand the concept of home as a “place to be porous,” to “live beyond the self.” It explored the “paradox of porosity,” as requiring separation so that connection can happen; and it looked @ Leguin’s Ogden as a “non-porous autistic.” It then considered the “economics of doing something that leaves you worse off”: is this altruism? And is such selflessness “impossible”?

I found your third paper even more “associative” than the second: it moved from a description of our “personal universes” to a belief that we can “push beyond them to connect with others,” from finding Cole’s “savior complex” immobilizing, and diversity alienating, to asking what “is the source of value? If there are “no norms or averages”? It moved next to consider Lehrer’s work on the paradox of altruism (what Darwin called an  “anomaly of nature,” before turning to consider cemeteries as sites for the people left behind when we die…and what rights do the dead have?

I said that I would like your final paper to be much more focused than these last two have been, that I’d like to see you harness your wide-ranging associations to construct a paper with an argument: one that makes a claim and backs it up….or asks a question and tries to answer it. This runs the danger of “disconnecting the pattern” in the “Persian carpet,” but I think you can think of it as using a microscope on that rich tapestry, not “disconnecting,” but “honing in."

It seems as if the topic of this paper will be the rights of animals, and that it may take as its starting point a recent TED talk you heard by an environmental scientist, about classifying dolphins as persons. Would doing so give them more rights? How does that idea operate in The Hungry Tide? How about The Lives of Animals (where they are compared to persons who are not treated as persons, who have no rights themselves)?  What is a person? Does economics not treat people as persons, when it considers them as elements in a market? Would you like to look @ one of the canonical texts in this field, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation?

It will be interesting to see where these questions take you….I look forward to seeing!