Monday, September 28, 2015

What is Family?

What is a family? From a linguistically fundamentalist point of view, it’s defined by parentage and bloodlines, though adoption creates a new contingency which obviates the genetic connection. Adopted children pose interesting questions regarding nature and nurture to the extent that they retain the genetic material of their biological parents. Tolstoy famously opined about families in Anna Karenina,  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And he pointed to the conflict between individuals and the families they have grown up in, that began with nineteenth  century romanticism, where individuality, self-definition and self-invention would become a dominant element in cultural evolution. There are children whose lives seem to be no reflection of their upbringing and parents who can’t understand how they have begotten criminals and sociopaths. This has been recently dramatized in HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. John Edgar Wideman, the well-known African-American writer has a brother, Robert, serving a life sentence for murder (Wideman wrote about their relationship in Brothers and Keepers) and a son, Jacob, also serving a life sentence for a murder he committed when he was only 16.  Is a successful and happy child well-brought up? Is a child who's troubled the product of a poor upbringing? The latter often can produce great chest pounding and self-flagellation. Human intentions and motives are hard to parse and parents often carry emotional wounds and baggage they themselves are not entirely aware of. But even more important where does the family end and the individual begin? In geopolitical terms this is demonstrated in the concept of states rights which is constantly tested by the federal government. The recent battles over same sex marriage are just one case in point. There are still tribal societies, but most of the Western world, at least, functions on a level where blood ties have increasingly little importance. In the modern American family parents exercise a certain degree of authority over a child as he or she is growing up. Yet by adulthood most Americans create their own identities with regard to sex, religion and politics. A biological family can exist in name only, with real family being created through membership in a  close knit society or in devotion to a cause. Veterans and survivors of life threatening diseases may have a stronger bond with their compadres than with their parents, brother or sisters, despite the famous Sister Sledge song "We Are Family." The French philosopher Giles Deleuze and analyst Felix Guattari wrote Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in which they inveighed against the family as a useful term in understanding human sexuality.You may feel uncomfortable when the leader of your organization addresses the collectivity as “family," but the linguistic slip is indicative of the degree to which the notion of family is evolving.

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