A rarer spirit never did steer humanity


Okay, here’s a seemingly obvious and probably self-evident question: What constitutes personhood? I mean I assume that, until recently, it was something only bestowed on us -humans, that is- but what, exactly, is a person? And does the reason we were its exclusive possessors have anything to do with the fact that we are the bestowers? In United States law at any rate, a corporation -in that it has certain privileges, legal responsibilities, and is able to enter into contracts- may be considered a legal person. But even so, it is us that have granted it that status. We, alone, seem to be the arbiters of who gets into our club.

That we are both enamoured of our rank, and also the adjudicators of the contestants is a fine point, perhaps, And yet, there you have it: it’s our ball, so we get to decide who plays. We have decided it has to be a thing that can interact (with us), that has a sense of identity (as a self or as an entity), and that, presumably, can assume and accept responsibility for its actions.

Fair enough, I suppose, although I continue to wonder if those criteria are not a little too restrictive, their legal usefulness notwithstanding. I continue to suspect things like corporations and their vested interests getting the nod, whereas trees, or dogs, say, do not. I think it’s reasonable that some entities that seem to have some personal interest to me, and with which I interact, however indirectly, should qualify as something close to personhood at times: a tree that I pass each day and whose leaves I enjoy seeing dance in the wind, perhaps, or the peak of a mountain that I use to reference my location.

Okay, I realize those examples might be over-stretching the idea of personhood and diluting the whole purpose of the concept, but what if I have named each of them -given them an identity that draws them out of the background, and allows them to interact with me by fulfilling some need, however mundane or whimsical? And no, I don’t imagine the mountain peak whose position is guiding me out of the woods has any consciousness of itself or its purpose any more than an inuksuk in the barrens of northern Canada; it remains what it is: many things -or nothing- to whoever sees it. But, a potentially useful entity nonetheless. And for that matter, so is a corporation with which I have no dealings in another country, I suppose…

They are, each of them, metaphors in a way: things regarded as representatives or symbols of other things. Beneficial items whenever we might need them. And yet, are they persons?

The etymology of ‘person’, although complicated and disputed, is revealing, I think: the Online Etymology Dictionary describes person asa mask, a false face, such as those of wood or clay worn by the actors in later Roman theater. OED offers the general explanation of persona as “related to” Latin personare “to sound through” (i.e. the mask as something spoken through and perhaps amplifying the voice).’ Non-living entities, in other words, that in some situations pretend to be us.

I don’t mean to go overboard in my assignations of personhood, though -I suppose I only wish to defend my penchant for seeing agency in Nature. I recognize that I am inextricably entangled in its web and point out that it is me as much as I am it… So it was with some considerable relief that I discovered that I may not be sufficiently unique to necessitate a mention in the psychiatric DSM-5 bible. Thank you Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/a-rock-a-human-a-tree-all-were-persons-to-the-classic-maya

In an article for the online magazine, Sarah Jackson, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University  of Cincinnati in Ohio, wrote that ‘For the Maya of the Classic period, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America between 250 and 900 CE, the category of ‘persons’ was not coincident with human beings, as it is for us. That is, human beings were persons – but other, nonhuman entities could be persons, too… the ancient Maya experienced a world peopled by a variety of types of beings, who figured large in stories, imagery, social and ritual obligations, and community identities.’

She asks the intriguing question, ‘Do nonhuman persons need human beings to exist?’ For the Maya, ‘the answer was no. Nonhuman persons were not tethered to specific humans, and they did not derive their personhood from a connection with a human… In a Maya way of thinking, personhood is a resource in the world… The Maya saw personhood as ‘activated’ by experiencing certain bodily needs and through participation in certain social activities.’

But Jackson is careful to point out that for the Mayans it was not a magical world in which all of the things surrounding them were talking, or dispensing advice. ‘Rather, the experience would have been one of potentiality’ -rather like my mountain peak, I imagine. ‘they were prepared to recognise signs of personhood in a wide variety of places, and to respond appropriately when nonhuman entities signalled as such to them.’ Interestingly, ‘There’s one other element to consider, in blurring the boundaries of personhood. Personhood was a nonbinary proposition for the Maya. Entities were able to be persons while also being something else… they continue to be functional, doing what objects do (a stone implement continues to chop, an incense burner continues to do its smoky work). Furthermore, the Maya visually depicted many objects in ways that indicated the material category to which they belonged – drawings of the stone implement show that a person-tool is still made of stone.’

Jackson suggest that this idea is certainly of interest nowadays. ‘Challenging ourselves to illuminate assumptions about personhood (and its associated responsibilities and mutual obligations) sheds light on our own roles in constructing and deconstructing people, and the social and political consequences. Environment, race, immigration, civil discourse, gender identity, #MeToo: all of these topics link in some way to whom, or what, we value in comparison with our own experience of being a ‘person’, and our norms of what shared person-status means for action and interaction.’

Boundaries are porous -I like that; things are multifaceted, not forever confined to one identity -nothing need be either this, or that. It can shift, according to context, and perspective. According to need. My favourite mountain peak is a sleeping bear, by the way. I see it whenever I’m on the ferry and travelling from the island where I live to Vancouver. I miss it when I’m away…

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