Identity Confusion

This is kind of about subcultures, kind of about narratives, kind of about self-deception, and mostly about me just trying to sort through a few things. I’m still not satisfied with this. It might be the kind of thing that arises from a wrongly asked question, and so all I need to do is yell about it for a while and it will cease to trouble me, but for now, this is what I have.

I’ve written about stories a few times, now. I think of them differently than I used to, giving them less inherent value but maintaining my belief that they are a deeply important element of a certain kind of affective human existence. Both from the perspective of wanting to understand humans better and to participate in that type of existence, I find that their critical role as a nexus of much of what humans do and are pops up again and again in my thinking.

I also wrote about subcultures once or twice, and in looking back, I find it frankly astounding that I didn’t connect the two. Because I can’t think of anything more predicated on the telling, imbibing and engendering of stories than subcultures. I’m not even sure that’s the word I want anymore. What I really mean, I suppose, and this word choice makes the connections much clearer, is identities. Identity is this strange beast of notion that grips us, consciously and subconsciously, that feeds itself on our every thought and action, and in doing so becomes powerful enough to effect those of our future.

So what is identity? Not sociologically, historically, politically, academically, religiously. The thought-catalysts for this piece have come from all of those sources, and those are important, too of course, but because I’ve never heard a rationalist account, I have to assume that much of the less rigorous writing about this topic has come out of unacknowledged intuition manifesting itself in all sorts of ways.

Let’s see, then, if I can’t create a mental image of what an identity is. Small town white man. What does that make you think of? It doesn’t matter, really, except that I bet it wasn’t just a small town white man. You knew maybe what a set of possible names could be, hair color, political and religious affiliation. And that’s all fine, given that there are good statistical, rational reasons to expect all of those things to map onto each other. But the power of that image is such that it may override other rational considerations. Because this image of small-town America may be, if such is your image, a god-fearing Christian, a loving husband, maybe several kids, probably right-of-center politics. You could construct a whole story, narrative, existence out of so little information. Maybe Bobby Hunter was the varsity football player in college but his dad died so he never got to fulfill his dreams. How does he feel about his wife? Does he vote Republican? You know him as well as I do, and I bet you’d feel pretty comfortable answering those questions. You not only know him, you have feelings, positive or negative about him. You can think of songs written about him. That’s crazy. Almost as crazy as if I offered you an alternate narrative, forcing you into a gestalt shift. So maybe instead of small town white man, say, from Kansas who has a blond wife and hates immigrants, it’s small town white union man. Now, Bobby might still have xenophobic tendencies, but I’d be willing to bet your feelings about him just changed. Now he’s running with a whole different crowd, and he represents an entirely different facet of America. More than that, a different narrative, a different tone, and a different trajectory. Now you’re thinking Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. And all sorts of other identities come popping up. The first Bobby Hunter was considered perhaps on his own, or maybe in contradistinction to the urbanite Jew, an indigenous peasant farmer, a young black family. The second, existing with the help of the contrasting image of evil capitalists with aquiline features and a healthy sense of greed. And that’s not even the half of it.

I’m not talking about stereotypes and the harm they do. That’s too simple. Stereotypes aren’t just problematic because they’re untrue, but also because they’re incomplete, and moreover, have devastating power over our brains, as illustrated above. We are each composed of uncountable threads of existing archetypes. A better way to put it, perhaps, is that we all are simply ourselves (as distressingly cliche as that sounds), and archetypes, stereotypes, identities are built out of statistically relevant and/or psychologically salient facets given a life of their own and rent-free lives in our heads.

And these identities, these little nuggets of intuition generation with all their emotional power, they give us a deeply misguided sense of being whole, coherent selves. It’s actually probably more accurate to say that we create our sense of archetypal identity because our psychologies tell us we are in fact, these consistent beings, but the causality is irrelevant. The point is that we enjoy these psychological ticks so much, we derive such meaning from them, but they feel to me so arbitrary and based on such an incorrect conception of human identity.

People on twitter, tumblr and other blogging platforms have the chance to write a very short autobiography, and what many, myself included, write, is a series of identifying labels, descriptors meant not only to evoke an activity, lifestyle or set of beliefs, but an overarching sense of the ‘kind’ of person your friendly neighborhood blogger is, to be all of these things in one. People talk that way, too, and it’s at once easy to understand and empathize and on the other hugely irritating, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that those dual reactions map all too well onto how much I already like someone. But the point remains that we seem to act as if we were composed only of identities, rather than the other way around, and so to feel or feign surprise at their clashes within us is unimaginative and uninsightful at best, and actively harmful at worst, priming us to again and again think of ourselves as entirely consistent wholes.

This is where cognitive dissonance comes from, and also fashion and styles. We have senses of who we are, of these one things that we are, and we do not want to give them up. So we talk about them, and act like them, dress like them and see them in each other. When we say we want to be like some badass movie character, let’s take Trinity as an example, is that true? Is it true in any sense? Do we want her characteristics, her moves, her life? Or do we want to feel about ourselves the way we are made to feel by the entire contextual reality evoked in our brains by the limited and carefully calculated information given to us by a movie? We go shopping and buy the things we buy because they feel right, because they fit into our senses of who we’re supposed to be, according to ourselves.

I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. But these considerations have begun to make the feelings of identity ring false in my ears. especially when such grave importance is placed on tradition, on birth, in religion, in identity politics, at rock shows, I question these consistent wholes. It’s one thing to respond to power with resistance. It’s another to not change your mind in the face of evidence because what would that mean to the kind of person you imagine yourself to be. It’s one thing to spend time with those most like you and come up with a language, hand signals, an understanding of each others’ behavior. It’s another to use the immensely meaningful sensation of the weight of millenia to justify certain actions.

Far be it from me to judge or deny the power of meaning, the deep wells of happiness and intensity that can arise from an objective consideration that one’s life fits a desirable or undesirable mold, however much I may question the provenance of the mold. I think the notion that it is irrational to derive joy from things that are arbitrary is a misunderstanding both of rationality and human happiness. But I do want to problematize the questions: “Who am I?” and “What sort of person am I?” and think about what we might replace them with.



Sources of thought: Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism, Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, friends, people, the world.

I have so much more to say. What do we tell ourselves everyday? How and when do we rationalize? How much do most people define themselves out loud? How does that affect things? Does it make it better or worse? Can we have an identity, a history, without narrative? Does ideology always accompany narrative? When are these things beneficial and when not? How does this work at the group level, with collective memory? I am so confused.

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