Pride Goeth After the Fall? (On mistaking the ‘what’ for the ‘who’)
In Western cosmogony, Adam and Eve discover what they are, and this leads to their expulsion from the timeless scene of paradise. Whatness is not something compatible outside of the historical, and history itself begins with the outcome of the expulsion. Within this newly human history, what one is becomes paramount, at least until our own times. It may be a member of a marginal semi-nomadic ethnicity, such as the ‘pariah community’, to use Weber’s description, like the ancient Hebrews. Or it might be more basically, male or female, man or woman, as the two naïfs in the Garden abruptly uncovered. Yet more primordially, either child or adult, as the original division of labor was that of age, not gender. Whatever one was, given the complete absence of the concept of the individual – something much of the world yet today fails to recognize – it was this what that defined one’s very being. What one was, was the same as who one was.
Because there was no ‘who’, there was no danger of self-misrecognition. Indeed, one could suggest that Satan’s guise in Eden, that of the serpent, was an attempt on the part of the already fallen archangel to gain a new identity. Not for the purpose of subterfuge, but rather for self-understanding. In this sense, there is a double expulsion at work in Genesis. The ‘Fall of Man’ is actually an echo, or better, a resonance, of the prior fall from the firmament of God’s darker brother, so to speak. Satan has lost his identity, his whatness, and is now in search of himself. Along the way, he encounters two beings, his niece and nephew perhaps, who know not what they are. In a singular act of compassion, he helps them reveal this to themselves. Since Satan himself didn’t expect to be flung from the Garden either, we cannot presume that his act was in essence a plot against Being. It did turn out, however, that it was the first proto-historical act.
If there was a brief moment of pride in the recognition of what the apical humans were, followed by shame, it was of course a false pride, a kind of bravado in the face of a novel and unexpected fate. Satan no doubt felt nothing of the sort. For him, pride was more simply an after-effect of certain actions in the world, now suddenly set in temporal motion. Over this new kind of time, pride then became a commodity of sorts, something to be bargained for the spiritual fellowship selling one’s soul would provide both parties. Apparently, it’s lonely at the bottom as well. In the meanwhile, pride itself took on its unashamed sensibility only after the fall, not before it. And it is this pride, equally misrecognized as magnanimity, that continues its shady career to this day.
We find it in all places, exuded by all comers. But its essential character is that the person displaying it has mistaken the ‘what’ for the ‘who’. Unlike in antiquity and long before, this actually matters today because we do have a clear conception of the individual, even though this idea is not yet three centuries old. Today, authenticity means being a ‘who’, not a what. Certainly, the confluence of what social scientists call structural variables, some of these also referred to as life-chance variables, goes some way in forming not just what we are, but as well our personal identities, an aspect of the ‘who-ness’ of Dasein. But they are like primer, an undercoat of social circumscriptions and fraternal framings that allow us to be recognized within the odd confines of a mass and anonymous social organization. The very use of nametags at conferences or other like events is an attempt to personalize the impersonal, to allow strangers to behave more like kindred, though still in a very formal and, as is said, ‘professional’ manner. Such a thing would not have been necessary in smaller scale societies, and certainly never within this or that community, where all were necessarily kin.
To hang one’s personal hat up on whatness is to have internalized the very anonymity from which one desperately seeks egress. To state that ‘I am’ this or that in an ever-lengthening list of impersonal pronouns and descriptors – a cisgendered white male, for instance, to cut things short for myself – is to obviate the historical essence of who I am as a person and as a being-in-the-world. It is both an ethical and a phenomenological error, and one that has profound implications for one’s own humanity. One possible reason for the burgeoning fashion to ignore one’s personhood is simply the idea that commodification has belatedly caught up with the self. Individuals are messy, even chaotic. Their singular alchemy is momentary, like the absent presence of the philosopher’s stone itself. I am, at the end of the day, only myself after all. To at once take pride in this fleeting flotsam seems both vain and in vain. Far easier would it not be to join with other ‘whats’ and thence and therefore be proud of this false identity. And yet this is the entire point: it is a lie in the face of one’s existential project to identify only and fully with the whatness of being. Only the non-historical deity, left behind after the fall – His attempt to reunite with His own children was also a failure and ended in His death – can claim to be both a what and a who in pure syncretism.
One the one hand then, a commodification of the self, and on the other, a bravado in the face of a gnawing anonymity that questions one’s ability to actually know who I am. So, for all of those who take such pride in ‘being’ this or that without either accepting, or through avoiding, their singular humanity, Satan, who could not help but blink at our ready-mades, must as well have given up hope. Only the individual, in fullest knowledge of who he is, can gift her soul to another. And this is the further downfall of using social variables to define oneself; we cannot even begin to love one another as cardboard cut-outs taken from a sociology textbook. And if the lesson of the Garden was love at all costs, then our self-commodification desires a different kind of value; one in which I am costed out along structural debits and credits. What is the most valuable persona today, we then might ask, and thus what is the least?
Pending context, the biracial lesbian professional female might be a fair guess at the top marque of the new humanity. She, or perhaps they, are child free, wealthy, well-educated, and yet as well somehow knowing of suffering, of bigotry, of shame. Their garden is full of haute herbs and perhaps haughty herbals as well. Certainly, in culture producing institutions such a persona would carry some cachet, the university, the publishing and entertainment media, fashion, even some political arenas. None of this is sour grapes, for after all, ‘my kind’ of persona held the top spot for overlong it appears. The first shall certainly be last. Even so, any kind of ranking of types of anonymous souls misses both the existential and ethical points. Unless we are also to believe that the very concept of the individual itself is but a DWEM conspiracy! Hadn’t thought of that. Once again, Satan blinks, his eyes widening. What next, he might well wonder. How serpentine can these humans get? Evolve a sense that selfhood should not at all be predefined by caste, labor category, family pedigree, bloodline, biological sex and the rest of it, well, that sounds like a radical freedom to me. Indeed, the Enlightenment conception of the sovereign self could well be understood as the belated outcome of exposing the what just before the fall. At long last, the what has become a who, only in a short historical period, to fall backwards into the what again! Perhaps this trend is actually more like the end of modernity itself, not at all moving into the postmodern, but rather regressing into the premodern. All of this must give any being who imagined that he could play the indefinite role of trickster-cum-devil conniptions. ‘They don’t need me’, Satan was overheard murmuring to himself, ‘Just as they don’t need a me.’
Poor devil, we may empathize. Just proves you don’t have to be red, replete with tail and hooves, to be demonized. Just ask me. And while a popular pundit like Jordan Peterson seems not to recognize the basic historical fact that language use changes over time, and indeed does so through its usage, he does maintain an essential caveat, if I understand his work correctly: that by abandoning singularity we lose the essential link to our thrownness. As a phenomenologist, I take this most seriously, even if I am translating somewhat. And if I am critical of defining oneself in terms of social variables which are shared by millions or billions, it is because it truly is a regression to do so. It has nothing to do with awkwardness, the blinking of the eye in the face of the ‘theyness’ of these persons who abide yet in one body, or the seemingly more and more picayune distinctions made by insiders amongst versions of queerness, no, but rather to do with the question of fallen humanity. We know, at least mythopoetically, how it fell. But today, the question is rather, where did it fall? Just where is that other to self, who, in her ownmost project, will also face a most personal death as will I myself? Where is the fallen whatness that has of late been resurrected to tend its collective farm in lieu of its lost private garden? Where is the otherness that can only present itself as radical to me as a singular self, a sole soul who confronts me as she is?
For now, at least, it appears that she is She alone, along with whatever else She imagines She is, or they are, or this could be. And if I am the only one who mourns this loss, then at once I can put it down to simply being part of my job to mourn it, as well as wonder what was missing in all of the would-have-been whos which have not waited to be elbowed out of paradise, preferring to instead, arm in arm and with a great pride and a bravado since shared, charms itself as if it were courage, stride out the front gates of their own accidental accord.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.