SELF AND IDENTITY: READING MARIA DIBATTISTA’S NOVEL CHARACTERS

I’m not sure that I can do justice to Maria DiBattista’s Novel Characters: A Genealogy (2010) in this hot Mediterranean afternoon and after a mind-numbing two-week spell of marking. The case, however, is that I can’t stop thinking of her distinction between self and identity (or, rather, Self and Identity) and I’d like to add my own thoughts to that. I’m sure that much better brains than mine have discussed this issue but here’s the first lesson about self and identity: each person feels them in a different way and, so, a personal point of view must be necessarily valid. Or I’m just having my cake and eating it.

You may have come across DiBattista, a Princeton professor, because she is co-editor together with Emily Wittman of The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography and a specialist in Virginia Woolf (which explains plenty about her view of character). Her Novel Characters does not seem to have stimulated readers to leave comments in the habitual places, from Amazon.com to Goodreads, but it has gone through seven editions. This means either that it is more popular than it might seem at first sight, or that it has found its place in a rather scant line of publications about character. E.M. Forster’s venerable Aspects of the Novel (1927) still reigns supreme (DiBattista opens her own volume with the inevitable reference to flat and round characters), despite the efforts of neuroscientists to unlock literary creativity. I have managed to forget the big name behind the crass analysis of Hamlet in one of those scientific volumes, which only convinced me that scientists do not read enough literary criticism. I truly think that I have read DiBattista’s rather old-fashioned volume in rebellion against that silly, arrogant man.

Allow me to clarify that I use ‘old-fashioned’ here as a term of praise. DiBattista begins by promising to offer a new taxonomy of character but soon enough she plunges into the comfort of treating fictional constructs as if they were real people, which is what we all do (and enjoy). Her people are divided into Whole (Originals and Individuals), Fractions (Selves/Identities) and Compounds (or Native Cosmopolitans), though I’m not sure why she uses subdivisions which only include one category. She does not offer what I expected from her: a reflection on how authors view their own characters and the mechanism it takes to create them; instead, she discusses the personality of fictional characters with much gusto. That was, if not totally unexpected, quite rewarding. At points I thought I was reading a 1980s, pre-theory volume, of the kind I was asked to admire as an undergrad (by authors such as Tony Tanner and company) and I found myself enjoying DiBattista’s unembarrassed discussion of Alonso Quijano or Isabel Archer, as if these were people in our acquaintance about to have dinner with us. She still trusts that we all have read the same novels, which is a daring position to take in a book published in 2010.

DiBattista writes that one thing is personal identity (or Self, with a capital S) and quite another group identity, the basis of identity politics. “Identity’, she argues, “has come to displace Self in an age and in a culture that has become increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan, and multinational”, hence her inspection of what she calls the native cosmopolitan. I think it is only common sense to claim that a “self that is more aware of its outward rather than inward determinations may envision its contact with others somewhat more anxiously–or aggressively as the case may be”. Yet, this is a truth that needs to be repeated for it is at the core of most human tragedy: each Holocaust victim reminds us of what it is like to have a Self but be treated as an individual marked by Identity; the process of dehumanisation of the other, whether in Auschwitz or on the flimsy rubber boats loaded with migrants sinking in the Mediterranean on a daily basis, begins by denying the Self, and continues by abusing Identity. This is the great theme, DiBattista says, of for instance, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children and similar masterpieces. This is the great theme of life on Earth, I should think.

How, then, does one “preserve the rudiments of the Self in the fortress of (group) Identity”, as DiBattista puts it? This tension, DiBattista notes, is present in all hyphenated identities, such as Chinese-American and so on. The problem, I think, is that whereas racial and ethnic compound labels are acknowledged and, thus, have become useful (or relevant) to discuss the clash between Self and Identity, others are invisible, denied, or inexistent. Brigitte Vasallo’s idea of staging the first festival of ‘cultura txarnega’ a while ago in Barcelona met a barrage of negativity from those in Catalonia who believe that we, the culturally hyphenated persons, do not exist (her initiative was, though, welcome by those who needed the label ‘charnego’ to be reconfigured for our times, to express their Self). As I age, I am, like everyone else, chagrined by the growing distance between the Self I perceive in me and the Identity pushed on my body. Yesterday, a young man offered his seat to me on the metro (by no means the first time this happens to me). That was a lovely gesture, for which I thanked him, because I have learned that this is how people see me, but, still, it rankles. Imagine what it must be like to be a Self but be denigrated all the time by misogynists, racists, homophobes because of the Identity you supposedly embody.

So, here’s the great literary conundrum: fiction is supposed to express Self through its best rounded characters but, what do you do with Identity? Authors are making the point that individuals other than white, male, heterosexual, patriarchal men have a Self but in order to do that, they highlight Identity. This is what misogynists complain about when they say that in the novels by women too much attention is paid to femininity (as if men’s fiction were not essentially about masculinity). As those of us supposed to lack a Self shout to high heaven that we also have complex feelings, which is how I felt as a working-class undergrad reading privileged Virginia Woolf, we are increasingly isolated by Identity labels; meanwhile, those who should be labelled escape scot-free. Nobody ever refers to ‘White Literature’ but we have ‘African American Literature’, and we have ‘Women’s Literature’ but not ‘Men’s Literature’. Expressing the Self, in short, is not open to everyone, which is why Identity is receiving so much attention. We collectively believe that this is the best way to have everyone express their Self, but I very much suspect it is just another form of control. Those with the privilege to express their Selves without Identity labels have not really relinquished the privilege, nor do they want to do it. And why should they?

Is claiming the right to a Self a bit too much in the times of the selfie and the narcissistic display on the social media? Possibly. Yet, again, it needs to be done because even in the novel, which offers the deepest possible way to share human experience beyond our immediate circle, the Self is disappearing. I don’t read autofiction, precisely because it manages to offer the hell of narcissism without offering the heaven of understanding another Self, but I was tempted to read Manuel Vilas’s highly acclaimed Ordesa. What I found in its pages was a testimonial of the current inability to express (deep) Self, coming from someone my own age and with a similar experience of being declassed through education. As I put up with the farrago of repetitive, wearisome prose (and he is a major poet!), I told myself that it is not Identity but the Modernist invention of the inner Self that is destroying the novel. Few people are truly interesting and while Vila has been praised for making that very same point, I balk at the emptiness of his main character and possibly self-portrait. At one point, I can’t recall the exact sentence, this pathetic excuse for a man says that feelings are bourgeois, though he doesn’t really mean feelings. He really means the possession of enough sensitivity to notice that feelings must be of a specific kind–that is the Modernist Self, inherited from the 19th century novel. I think that I resent Vilas’s male protagonist because although he is in terms of Identity unlabelled, he still cannot sustain his own Self. And he doesn’t even write well. What a loser…

I’ll finish with a personal anecdote. I was last week in Valladolid and whenever people asked me where I’m from and I replied Barcelona, they had the same reaction: ‘but you don’t have an accent!’ I explained that I’m bilingual, that my accent in Catalan is the standard Barcelona accent, and that my Spanish sounds like the neutral variety spoken on the Telediarios because a) I was educated in Spanish-language Francoist schools until the age of 14 and b) my grandparents on the maternal side were Castilian from Burgos, and I did like very much my grandfather’s crystal-clear, solemn speech patterns. The puzzlement of my Valladolid colleagues, then, has to do with the lack of representation in the media and in fiction of people like me. We don’t exist as an Identity, though we are very common, which means that our Self is hard to express in any language (here I am writing in English!). Novels, by the way, have no place for bilingual people, as they (the novels) are written in one single language. A limitation hardly discussed, by the way, in Literary Theory, if ever.

So, to really finish: ask yourself what kind of fictional character you would be. Would your representation be dominated by an idea of the Self or by Identity? How does your sense of Self cope with the Identit(ies) you have chosen, or have been attached to you by others? Is the Self, as Vilas argues, the privilege of the higher classes and of the declassed educated? What’s the future of the fictional character if Identity labels continue their proliferation? And so on…

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REGARDING THE PROBLEM OF LABELS: (BIOLOGICAL) POST-HUMANISM VS. (CRITICAL) POST-HUMANISM

In my post of 6 May on the question of the post-human in relation to Frankenstein, I announced that my ranting would eventually continue, so here we go.

Mónica Calvo and Sonia Baelo, members of the research project “Trauma, Culture and Posthumanity: the Definition of Being in Contemporary North-American Fiction”, of the Universidad de Zaragoza, were the organizers of the recent conference “Representations in the Time of the Post-human: Transhuman Enhancement in 21st Century Storytelling”, which I attended (and enjoyed enormously!). You might want to download the programme, and the truly cute poster, from http://typh.unizar.es/conference/.

The three days spent there thinking about post-humanism have convinced me that we have the very bad habit in scholarship of accepting labels first and discussing what they mean later. This leads to considerable confusion. Post-human is used in such wide-ranging sense that in a recent article I reviewed, the author called the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park post-human monsters (actually, following a secondary source). The funny thing is that though I rejected this denomination as plainly wrong, depending on how you use post-human it is correct – and, also, a clear proof of how we need more specific labels.

Every discussion, then, of post-humanism begins with a lengthy list of secondary sources that give different meanings to the label, until the author offers his/her own. If the author tries to offer alternatives or be more specific in any way, this is done in vain for the curious thing is that the label is there for good, no matter how blurry it is. We have clearly not learned the lesson from the endless waste of time and energy that discussions around the word post-modernism (postmodernism?) have generated, and here we are again stuck with a problematic but absolutely central notion, once more. Even the Wikipedia page is no use! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthuman).

I don’t intend, then, to trace a genealogy of post-humanism but to explain where I think the problems lie in its definition, for those who care. I am possibly totally wrong, but this goes in favour of my argument that the label is confusing. And I might also repeat some of the ideas in the post of May 6, but, then, I have my own (human) limitations…

To begin with, then, post-human is used in two very different ways that, while interconnected, refer to two different aspects of humankind.

1) What I’ll call biological post-humanism explores the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens by another Homo species emerging from
a) natural evolution
b) applying cutting-edge technoscience to evolution (a crazy, dangerous position defended by transhumanism)
c) the merger of the flesh with A.I. (as technogeek defenders of the so-called singularity dream of).

In scenario d) Homo Sapiens disappears, and instead a new species takes our dominant position, whether this is an animal (Planet of the Apes), an A.I. (the Terminator series), or an alien (name your favourite invasion story). A possibility less often considered is the scenario in which Homo Sapiens evolves into another Homo species with genetic elements from animals or aliens (but do consider Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood). And, of course, in 2001 Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke imagined that a mysterious alien presence (remember the monolith?) had jump-started our transition from Australopithecus into the genus Homo and would again repeat the feat in the future, to turn us into something yet unknown. I offered, by the way, the label post-natural for all of this in Zaragoza but I was told that ‘nobody uses it’ and that was it!

2) Philosophical, or critical, post-humanism can be subdivided, I think, into two branches (though, again, I must warn that they tend to be mixed anyway):
a) the branch that wishes to rethink classical humanism in relation to what it means to be human in ethical or moral terms
b) the branch that shares a similar concern but also worries about how (biological) post-humanism will alter our bodies and minds, and therefore what it means to be human.

Critical post-humanism began as an intellectual project to question the way in which privileged Renaissance men had used prejudiced, limiting values for the construction of humanism. The patriarchal white man should be rejected as the source for the definition of what it is to be human, since his experience excluded basically the majority of humankind. Those so far excluded, therefore, felt called to offer a new, far more comprehensive way of understanding the human and humanism.

The problem, in my humble view, is that this meant throwing the baby away with the bathwater. Since the white patriarchs had appropriated the word human for their own interests, the alternative label chosen was post-human – an unfortunate choice, since it places the critical majority on the wrong side of human. Post-humanism was intended to define the opposition against biased classical humanism, but it has ended up making that type of humanism central, and the alternative peripheral (because of the injudicious use of the prefix post-). Besides, I personally feel aggrieved as a woman to be called a post-humanist because of my critical anti-patriarchal thinking when, last time I looked, it seemed to me I’m Homo Sapiens (well, I haven’t checked how much Home Neanderthalensis DNA is in my genes!). I reclaim, then, the right to call myself a humanist, not post-anything but the real thing, though with different values. Neo-humanist would have been cooler (particularly because everything I read Neo, I think of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix…).

On the other hand, my impression is that there are many difficulties to connect philosophical post-humanism (on the essence of the human) with thinking on biological post-humanism. Problem number one is the fact that those of us in the Humanities know too little science to make informed contributions to the debate – I’m really serious about this, though I do not mean that only scientists are entitled to offering reflections on what makes us human. No, what I mean is what I wrote in my post of May 6: Homo Sapiens is just ONE type of human, not all that is human, which means that we should brush up our paleontology, biology, genomics, etc. Typically, I got entangled in the Zaragoza conference in a loud debate with another colleague, who claimed that ‘the system’ and those who oppress us are not ‘human’. Having spent the last fifteen months of my life considering villainy, I can tell you that of course they are! Patriarchal villainy is as human as the compulsion to do good, and we will never progress unless we overcome that hurdle. In fact, I think we should do much better if we focused on ‘humane’ instead of ‘human’ to explain how some persons feel inclined to abuse their power and others to oppose this inclination.

Since 1985, when Donna Haraway published her ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’, critical post-humanism has evolved into more science-conscious intellectualism but it is still limited by a) the little awareness of technoscientific issues which I have already mentioned, b) the reluctance to acknowledge science fiction as a major aspect of speculative reflection on Homo Sapiens as a species. I know next to nothing about science but what little I know comes from first reading SF novels, and then reading essays to check whether what they speculate with makes sense. Whenever I explain to an audience of even less informed readers where the world is heading, there is usually much surprise and much incredulity. What I feel is quite different: there are days when I wonder how we can live with the knowledge that our place in the universe is absolutely insignificant, as science is showing. The dire warnings about climate change may be altering this general neglect of science but even so, look at how the deniers insist that Homo Sapiens is in control and the Earth safe (we are not, and it is not).

If you have been following my rant, then, you will see that I’m trying to make sense of post-human and post-humanism by telling myself that:
a) (biological) post-humanism considers what might happen when/if the species Homo Sapiens ends, in natural or unnatural ways
b) (philosophical) critical post-humanism is focused on what makes us humane (even though the label preferred is human)
In my view, then, any consideration of our subjectivity passes through remembering that 1) as Homo Sapiens, we are just an animal species, and we possibly did all we could to wipe out the other human species as we’re doing to animals; 2) Homo Sapiens individuals are all human though many of us are not humane; 3) we matter very little in the amazingly gigantic universe and nobody out there cares for us; 4) since we’re doing an awful job of destroying Earth it would be totally fine if we were wiped out (I’m in favour of plants conquering the planet!); 5) transhumanism (=the use of technoscience to transcend the limitations of Homo Sapiens, including death) is classic patriarchal selfish wickedness; and 6) please, can we stop using the prefix post- for everything? I fear the day when I will be called post-person!

Incidentally, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are said to be post-human because their rebirth from fossil DNA disrupts the species’ balance on Earth and announces (at least in Michael Crichton’s original novel) the end of Homo Sapiens’ dominion. In that scenario, we become either extinct –as dinosaurs are– or creatures cowering before the power of mighty predators –as we were once. The new dinosaurs are what comes after humanity is pushed off the top-rung of the animal ladder, hence it makes sense, more or less, to call them post-human. I rejected the terminology because, though they are a product of Homo Sapiens’ science, the dinosaurs are not genetically connected with us at all, and I limit my use of post-human to that sense.

The thought that sends chills down my spine is that from the point of view of all the other human species that have died out we, Homo Sapiens, are the real, most feared post-humans. Yet, here we are, hypocritically expressing our fears that our species might die and be eventually replaced. Poor things! If you ask me, we’re just a bunch of selfish, arrogant bastards and bitches that deserve never seeing how happy and relieved Earth will be in its post-Homo Sapiens future… Towards the end of Jurassic Park, mathematician Ian Malcolm notes that whereas for a human being one hundred years is the limit of life, the Earth counts its life in millions of years: ‘We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the Earth will not miss us’ (my italics). Wise words, though I hope Dr. Malcolm is also right in his perhaps naïve belief that we don’t have ‘the power to destroy the planet’, for surely the Earth deserves the chance of a post-Homo Sapiens life. Call it post-human, if you prefer, though there might be nowhere around to remember us, nor care that we once existed.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/