By Josh Wagner
The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Rosa Parks led the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in the 1960s. All of these basic facts about the world that we were taught in school are inside all of us. Regardless of where we were educated in the U.S., the chances are that we all learned the same kinds of things, and that those things remain with us, even if they are buried in our brains.
I often reflect on the fact that I can’t remember most of what happened to me in my life. Yet, if pressed, I am full of these throwaway tidbits that I recited on standardized tests, on AP exams and to my parents. It’s far easier to remember these disassociated facts about the world – facts that have no real relevance or meaning to me – than to recall what I ate for breakfast last week or what it felt like to be in the third grade. In fact, many of my experiences are either reduced to the fact that I remember that they took place or associated with one of these factoids. I am what I remember, and what I remember is the mitochondria.
What does it mean for me to remember Columbus’ dates? On one level, it doesn’t really mean anything at all. Whether or not Columbus sailed for the West Indies in 1215 or 1483 doesn’t really have any tangible effect on my life. Why shouldn’t he have sailed on ships named after Greek goddesses? It seems like these kind of throwaway dates are whimsically, irrelevantly assembled in my head. I don’t think there is anything serious at stake in any of these memorized statements. Most of the time, I’m not even aware of what I know – it’s only when I’m pressed to produce an answer that I remember what I remember.
While I may be able to recall lots of these facts, do they actually define me? Am I reducible to what I know? Probably not. At the same time, though, they never seem to leave me. From 5 years old until now, these tidbits of knowledge have been probably the most consistent part of my life. These parts of knowledge are bubbling beneath the surface of my mind waiting to be activated – they are inside of me. Does this make them a crucial part of my being-ness?
I’m not convinced that what is inside of me (my thoughts, ideas, wishes) define me in any significant way. Rather, it’s the actions that I perform, the way that I interact with others in a shared community space, how I react to events, that comprise my human-ness. In other words, it’s the external parts of my being alive and their interaction with the external world that carve out the niche called “Josh” where I live.
Because of this, I feel that Rosa Parks and Christopher Columbus are an integral part of my brain – the neurons have long been established – yet are not a part of me in any significant sense of the word. I am not reducible to what I can remember, even though what I can remember allows me to act and live.
Yet, at the same time, the interesting thing about Chris and Rosa is that virtually everyone I know (and every American I come into contact with) also shares this lapidary knowledge. We are all bound up in knowing the same sorts of basic biology, facts about the Louisiana Purchase and the Tet Offensive. And while this kind of superficial knowledge doesn’t really give any meaning to my life on its own, it unites us in the conglomerate. Every single one of us knows these facts; we are connected by shared mental space.
While this may be the product of standardized testing, trite textbook phrasing and limited ways of determining “knowledge,” there is something unique about this kind of remembering. Growing up, my schools always valued individuality and originality, yet I’d bet we were trained in the same exact way across the nation (e.g. learning about our state’s histories, even if we are from different states). As a result of this shared canon of knowledge, what it means to be an American is tied up with knowing the years of George Washington’s presidency and where Abraham Lincoln was shot. Even – and especially when – we are not directly aware of it, this latent knowledge gives us all a common vocabulary and starting point from which to relate to others.
This kind of cultural body of knowledge also serves to divide us from our international counterparts. The Wars of the Roses and the Glorious Revolution might not be a part of my shared canon, but it sure is a part of Britain’s. When the international relations department was first founded at Stanford in the 1970s, understanding this kind of intellectual baggage was one of its core missions. Founded by three history professors, the program wanted to teach its students what a Russian or Swedish or Sudanese woman would innately know. But, today, it seems as if these cultural canons are impassable, unless you have lived or want to live in a foreign country.
So knowing particular bits of information doesn’t really define me as a self, but it is crucial to my national identity and relations with other people. I think that this speaks to our fragile hold on our culture – rather than an intrinsic or genetic identity, culture seems to be defined by what facts we know. Yet, contradictorily, those facts also don’t define our selfhood. Am I or am I not defined by what I know?
I believe that this narrative, that “we all carry around basically the same cultural canon,” is far too simple to describe the reality of living. Even if everyone does in fact know the same set of facts, they carry different valences and meanings person to person. Which facts I remember best and care about the most won’t be the same as yours, even if we are starting with the same set of knowledge.
It is in the blank space in between the sentence printed in my seventh-grade social studies textbook and my eyes where the fact comes alive. My experience of knowing things about Columbus and America will be radically different from anyone else – I make it my own. The act of remembering or misremembering is such an act of individuality and selfhood.
The mitochondria is the daydreamer of the cell.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.