“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and
repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
I only recently read The Great Gatsby; this line struck me, I’d heard it in reference before but somehow reading it in context for the first time resonated: the idea of being part of community, a society and culture but never being truly synonymous. A person is within society, but can also step outside it and observe it, without.
As I am looking at how children’s literature can be inclusive and representative of the diverse cultural heritages of children living in British society today, I have been looking at how we form our perceptions of ourselves and form ideas of our own identities. Sociologist Norbert Elias rules that though humans perceive themselves to have an ‘inner self’ they are interdependent for the construction of their identities.
“The network of interdependencies among human beings is what binds them together… Since people are more or less dependent on each other first by nature, and then through social learning, through education, socialization and socially generated reciprocal needs, they exist, one might venture to say, only as pluralities, only in figurations.” (Elias, 2000:294-295)
This idea is backed up from an anthropological study by Michael Tomasello who works at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology in Leipzig, Germany. When featured on BBC television program What makes us human? Tomasello said:
“What makes us really different is our ability to put our heads together and do things that neither one of us could do alone. To create new resources that neither one of us could create alone, it’s really all about community and collaboration and working together” (BBC, 2012-13).
This is reflected in an experiment ran by Tomasello which I’ve illustrated below. The idea is that the children must work together to get the marbles from a box, but one child ends up with three, and the other, one. They immediately share their treasure, so that each one’s is equal. Children of this age, between one and four only do this when they work together for gain.
“If you raised a child on a desert island with no social contacts–so no teaching, no… any contact with humans, their intelligence as an adult would be very similar to that of other apes. It would be a little bit different but they’re evolved to learn from others and to communicate with others and to collaborate with others and if there was no one there and no culture and no tools and no language then that natural intelligence just wouldn’t develop. Fish are born expecting water, OK? They’ve got fins, they’ve got gills… they’re born expecting water. And human’s are born expecting culture.” (BBC, 2012-13).
A recent youtube video made by Acción contra el Hambre (ACF International) (Action Against Hunger)was not as scientific but highlighted the fact that the human race is inherently generous. The experiment consisted of pairs of 20 children, one was given a sandwich, the other had nothing, but the children shared every time.
So what this collection of research shows is that we are interdependent on each other for our construction of what it is to be a human being or to be self-aware and that our success as a race is our dependency on each other to pass on knowledge and collaborate. This is what makes part of society, we are within it.
The idea of being without can be found in our private thoughts that others do not see. “Every other human being is likewise seen as a homoclausus; his core, his being, his true self appears likewise as something divided within him by an invisible wall from everything outside, including every other human being” (Elias, 2000:284). However, the idea of part of a person being within and part without, is an illusion:”… Goethe once expressed the idea that nature has neither core nor shell and that in her there is neither inside or outside. This is true of human beings as well” (Elias, 2000:293).
It is also suggested that holistically, society isn’t a real thing either:
“One seems to have the choice only between theoretical approaches which present the individual as the truly existent beyond society, the truly ‘real’ (society being seen as an abstraction, something not truly existing), and other theoretical approaches which posit society as a ‘system’, a ‘social fact sui generis,’ a reality of a peculiar type beyond individuals” (Elias, 2000:287).
“Life, what is it but a dream?” (Carroll, 1871)illustrated by Sir John Tenniel.
*********** Elias, Norbert Homo Clausus and the Civilizing Process in Identity: a Reader (2000) du Gay, Paul, Evans, Jessica Evans and Redman,Peter (eds.) London:SAGE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqK6eE51Ctk Roberts, Alice (presenter) Macdonald, Toby (director and producer) (2012-2013) Horizon: What makes us Human? [television program] BBC2 http://www.accioncontraelhambre.org/acciones/experimentocomparte/#/Dona http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/thumbnail/188625/1/Tiger-Lily,-From-Through-The-Looking-Glass-By-Lewis-Carroll-1832-98.jpg Carroll, Lewis (1871) Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There McMillan:UK