Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities, by Hilde Lindemann (Oxford University Press), $55 £37.50
At the beginning and end of a human life, and in various hard cases in between, we find ourselves uncertain what morality requires of us – often because we are uncertain where the limits of personhood lie, and how best to respect and care for those in whom personhood takes a marginal form. Hilde Lindemann does not hand her readers anything like a simple formula for generating answers in such cases, but she does offer considerable insight into the kind of moral thought in which they call upon us to engage.
Each chapter opens with a compelling short narrative that illustrates the work of initiating, maintaining, or letting persons go in circumstances spread across the human lifespan: an expectant mother calls her foetus into personhood, a pair of small children explore the limits of parental authority, adults at midlife navigate fraught relationships with their grown children and face painful end-of-life decisions with their elders. In one moving passage, Lindemann recounts how she and her family wove an identity for her severely disabled baby sister during her short but cherished life. These stories frame a set of nuanced reflections on the nature of personhood, the difficulty of knowing when to hold and let one another go, and the difference between doing these things badly and well.
The conception of personhood that emerges from these reflections is a profoundly social one. Being a person, for Lindemann, depends not only on the presence of certain capacities, but also on the mutual engagement of individual personalities in a delicate dance of expression, recognition, and response. Moves in this dance are narrative moves, or bits of storytelling, through which we jointly construct and hold one another in identities that represent our selves. A person’s identity, Lindemann suggests, is analogous to a character in an improvisational drama, while the self is analogous to the actor who brings that character to life on the stage. When all goes well, actors “hold” one another in character by following one another’s cues and allowing a socially shared script to guide their performance. When an actor instead denies another’s cues, the repudiated character is “let go” and left to flounder without narrative support.
This analogy illuminates the idea that personal identity is a cooperative enterprise, requiring ongoing mutual responsiveness and support. Clearly, some improvisers give better uptake to their partners, and do a better job of keeping them in character, than others. Equally clearly, however, the norms that govern good holding cannot just be the aesthetic norms that govern improvisational acting: bad holding isn’t just bad theatre. (Indeed, some representations of morally bad holding make quite good theatre, just as they make good stories in Lindemann’s telling.) So how do we distinguish good holding from bad?
According to Lindemann, good holding allows persons to flourish in their (authentic) identities, while bad holding hampers such flourishing through narrative misrecognition. Members of oppressed groups, for example, are held in destructive identities enmeshed in abusive power relations. In less extreme cases, bad holding manifests an inability or reluctance to accept that a person has undergone a transformation or conversion or has simply grown up. One who holds badly persists in treating another in accordance with an identity that is not (or is no longer) a good representation of who she is.
But how can we tell whether an identity is authentic? Lindemann suggests that people’s actions are important criteria for the accuracy of our representations, since they may fit or fail to fit with the stories we tell about them. Surely there is some truth in this idea. Nonetheless, actions are subject to multiple interpretations, and identity work is, in important part, the work of negotiating and resolving contested questions of meaning. It will be especially difficult to resolve such questions when changes are precipitated by sharply declining mental or physical health, as some of Lindemann’s stories show. Lindemann argues that, in cases of diminished autonomy, holding someone in personhood may require holding her in an identity that she herself has let go. But such cases are sufficiently difficult to assess, and the line between good and bad holding sufficiently difficult to discern, that a significant measure of humility about our ability to get it right would seem to be in order.
Careful readers will no doubt find themselves disagreeing with this or that detail of Lindemann’s account. Some might wish for an argument that yields more precise, or more easily applied, guidelines. But perhaps it would be a mistake to seek greater precision in these matters. As Aristotle noted long ago, we should be satisfied with the degree of clarity appropriate to our subject matter. Lindemann writes with great sensitivity to the complexities of everyday identity work, and, one suspects, with no more and no less precision than the practice of personhood allows.