By: Doron Levine  | 

What I Be: That is the Question

What, indeed, am I? Steve Rosenfield’s photographic social experiment, entitled “What I Be,” proposes this elemental inquiry. Granted, Rosenfield is not the first in the history of the human race to confront this dilemma. The ancient Greek maxim framed the issue, imploring each arrival at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to “know thyself.” Philosophers throughout the ages—from Plato to Descartes, from Locke to Hume—offered nuanced solutions. But Rosenfield’s project is unique in two significant ways. Its presentation is unique and unprecedented—the pensive subjects of its stark portraits are provocatively portrayed staring, daring the viewer to grapple with life’s most perplexing predicaments. And his project is also unique in the solution it offers to this time-honored question. Though Rosenfield leads the viewer to believe that he has a perspective on the philosophy of the self, when the dust has settled and the ink has dried, the viewer is left with nothing. That is, Rosenfield offers no solution.

On my first visit to the project’s website, I took note of its title, “What I Be,” and expected the project to present a position, or range of positions, touching the question of what constitutes the self. But as I scrolled through the pictures and accompanying statements, I was surprised to find all of the assertions about the self formulated in the negative: “I am not my arrogance,” “I am not my degree,” “I am not my personality.” The website’s home page banner boldly bids the reader to “Be You,” but leaves the reader wondering what, in fact, he or she is.

Steve Rosenfield explains that he named the project after Michael Franti’s song by the same title. “Michael’s song, ‘What I Be’,” explains Rosenfield, “is basically all about being who you are and being the best you that you can be.” But who am I? The project’s assorted participants assert that “I am not my consciousness,” “I am not my ideals,” “I am not my ethics,” “I am not my priorities,” “I   am not my choices,” “I am not my thoughts,” “I am not my life” (?), and, most strikingly, “I am not my identity” (whereas one would think that an assertion to the contrary would be tautological). Paradoxically, the reader who is exhorted to be himself is himself stripped of his very self. The project seems to allow anyone to claim to not be defined by any conceivable experience, trait, decision, or belief. This may be true to a degree. But at some point, a person, despite his heated protestations, cannot avoid being characterized by something. For example, I would argue that Rosenfield’s belief that a person has the right to deny elements of his identity is part of Rosenfield’s identity. Where does “I am not” end, and “I am” begin?

Rosenfield continues, “By stating ‘I am not my_____,’ they are claiming that they do in fact struggle with these issues, but they do not define who they are as a person.” These insecurities, claims Rosenfield, can and should be overlooked by a diverse, accepting society. “I am not my religion.” “I am not my atheism.” “I am not my motherhood.” “I am not my sincerity.” “I am not my music.” “I am not my passion.” By giving participants the opportunity to downplay any human quality, Rosenfield comes dangerously close to negating much of the complexity, the beauty, and the romance of the human experience. What could possibly be more definitional to a person than his outlook on everything, namely his religion or atheism? Can we even imagine a world without motherhood? A world without music? A world without passion? How can we take these elements seriously if we are free to devalue them with the stroke of a pen? Certainly, no single characteristic is expansive enough to define a person in toto. But the amalgam of an individual’s specific attitudes towards each of these critical elements forms a significant facet of his self. Psychologically speaking, perhaps acknowledging and confronting our less appealing characteristics would be more effective and more honest than the flat-out denial of “I am not.” If these categories aren’t intrinsic to a person’s identity, what is?

Some will contend that the project only claims that each specific characteristic doesn’t define its possessor in his or her entirety. Admittedly, many of the personal statements merely make this reasonable claim. But after reading through Rosenfield’s description of the project and many of the personal statements, my impression is that the project goes a step further. It provides a forum for a person to artificially downplay characteristics that he is not proud of, to claim that they don’t matter. Variants of the claim “I am who I want to be” appear throughout. In Rosenfield’s description of the project, he criticizes society’s “standards,” and resents being “told to look or act in a certain way.” He urges us to “accept diversity,” and explains that after his “fresh start” on life, he “saw no ‘flaws’” (apostrophizing the words “standards” and “flaws,” as if to question the very concepts). Though the description is quite vague and difficult to pin down, the upshot seems to be that What I Be rejects “standards” and denies the concept of “flaws.” This might not have been Rosenfield’s specific intention, but his art speaks for itself, betraying the underlying belief that no objective standard of reality or morality has the right to tell you who you are or what you ought to be. The goal of life is “being who you are.” The self is not shaped by external assessment based on objective realities. It is artificially constructed by pure will. So it looks like our original assertion needs revisiting. Rosenfield does indeed offer a definition of the self, an answer to the nagging question of “What I Be”: I be what I claim to be.

And this is the critical caveat. To the extent that the project encourages the community to support and deal sensitively with people experiencing genuine struggles, it is laudable. But by framing the project in terms of What I Be and formulating the personal statements in terms of “I am not,” Rosenfield catapults himself out of the realm of the interpersonal and into the realm of the philosophical. Instead of being told not to judge our struggling neighbors, we are told not to judge their activities. Instead of being told to sympathize even with people whose activities we strongly condemn, we are asked to withhold dissent. After all, if we may not attribute the disputed activity to the perpetrator, with whom shall we disagree? To borrow from C.S. Lewis, we have got the work of amateur philosophers where we expected the work of professional photographers.

Many of the personal stories feature factors outside of the subject’s control, whether an eating disorder, a bout of depression, or a physical assault. Of course, the subjects of these stories can only command our deep sympathy and unwavering support. The terminology of agreement is evidently inapplicable in the context of an ineluctable force majeur. Some of the subjects’ stories involve decisions, but of little ethical moment. But a small number of the stories describe morally charged dilemmas that people confronted, and the ensuing decisions are often open to fierce ethical scrutiny. So if the project asks me to indiscriminately support people’s decisions, I must respectfully refuse. I can offer profound sympathy even to those with whom I most vehemently disagree. But sympathy does not entail assent.

That is not to say that being forgiving is not a value. On the contrary—forgiveness is only possible if the recipient has actually committed an offense. If a person’s activities cannot be attributed to him, there can be no forgiveness.

Indeed, a functioning society cannot avoid labeling certain decisions as unacceptable. To be sure, not every society subscribes to the same moral code, but from time immemorial down to the present day, activities like rape and murder have been almost universally condemned. Do these activities also fall within the purview of What I Be? Presumably not. Can a murderer claim that the murderous act, while carried out by his own hands, was not performed by him? “I am not my murder.” Dare we face the family of the victim and assert that their loved one’s killer is not really a killer, that bloodshed is just one of his regrettable insecurities? Dare we face the violated victim of a sexual assault and assert that her attacker is not really a rapist, based on his sworn testimony that “I am not my rape”? Presumably, Rosenfield views activities such as murder and rape as too abhorrent to be simply labeled insecurities. These activities may be subject to forgiveness, but their perpetrators are not welcome in Rosenfield’s viewfinder. And this leads me to my final point.

A line must be drawn, and Rosenfield’s choice of where to draw it is often philosophically grounded. For example, his decision to categorize abortion as an insecurity implies a position on the biological-philosophical question of what defines life. If an unborn fetus can in some sense be considered a living person, it follows that abortion is not merely an insecurity. It is a crime. In light of this, it is not surprising that Yeshiva University decided to distance itself from What I Be. As a Jewish institution, YU can sensibly argue that it can’t conscionably endorse a movement that implies legitimation of counter-halachic positions and endorses diversity with no clear limitations. I can understand this decision irrespective of my position on the abortion debate; I simply want to make it clear that What I Be is not without its philosophical implications.

Let this piece not be construed as categorically opposed to What I Be. A creative method of helping people to overcome physical or psychological setbacks can hardly be criticized as ill intentioned. In many, if not all, cases, the method has proved a smashing success. It has soothed many a suffering mind and united countless communities through care and compassion. In this respect, I consider myself an ardent supporter. But, whether intentionally or otherwise, the project raises complex questions that have no simple answers. The What I Be terminology, and some of the insecurities included, can be reasonably disputed. I’m sure Steve Rosenfield and the What I Be community can tolerate some honest dissent.