Complex Personhood

Because I am teaching a course on dystopian literature I am re-reading 1984 and Brave New World, while also rewatching Avery Gordon’s talk on The Utopian Margins, and re-reading the parts of Ghostly Matters that deal with Complex Personhood. Here’s an excerpt:

“It has always baffled me why those most interested in understanding and changing the barbaric domination that characterizes our modernity often–not always–withhold from the very people they are most concerned with the right to complex personhood. Complex personhood is the second dimension of the theoretical statement that life is complicated. Complex personhood means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others. Complex personhood means that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves. Complex personhood means that those called ‘Other’ are never never that. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward. Complex personhood means that people get tired and some are just plain lazy. Complex personhood means that groups of people will act together, that they will vehemently disagree with and sometimes harm each other, and that they will do both at the same time and expect the rest of us to figure it out for ourselves, intervening and withdrawing as the situation requires. Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning.”

Complex personhood might be the thing that Big Brother, your enemies, totalitarian regimes, institutions might be most afraid of, and which they are working tirelessly to suppress. To accept and make space for another person’s complex personhood can be challenging as an individual, and in systems, be they software, constitutions, laws, governments, etc. it can be even more challenging, since there will almost always be someone who doesn’t have a neat space in the grid, and everyone is an exception to someone or something somewhere.

Author: Caterina Fake

Literature, Art, Poetry, Homeschooling Mother. Founder & CEO, Findery. Co-founder, Flickr & Hunch.