Ouellette and Identity

Jennifer Oulette offers some interesting thoughts in Atlantic Magazine about identity.

From my perspective these are the most interesting (btw, they form a thread)

  • identity evolves from the inside out
  • we use identity signals for various social purposes
  • identity is part of a performance

The first of these three ideas is pretty well accepted these days. BTW, it was more controversial for much of human history. For much of our time on the planet, “we were” who people told us to be. It is fairly recent that one could “become someone new”, for example, via religious inspiration (as the early Christians and later on the puritans proclaimed), or through education (like getting a medical degree). And it is a distinctly 20th century belief that I can assert that “I am what I know”.

Yes, good old Rene Descartes said “I think therefore I am”. But it was only in the 20th century western world where it became the norm that people would be encouraged to choose and construct life long identities based on what educational degree they would pursue. So one might say, I am an astrophysicist or a lawyer or a doctor. In other words, we demand that “I create me”. That is our norm, but it is a relatively new one.

If this interests you, you might consider the odd stories of people who refused like Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and perhaps Goncharov’s “Oblamov“. It is at the root of the problem in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well.

Here is a pretty interesting image of Mr. Bartleby

The second idea is more controversial. I am because I want something from others? Well, there is no doubt that we do lots of things for social purposes. But do we go so far as build an identity for ourselves for those reasons? Isn’t that being phony?

It is and it is not. It is phony when we take on an identity that we don’t really believe in and do so for gain. Indeed, this is considered a lowly path to take. Like joining the Nazi party for individual advancement. Our instincts are that people who do this give up identity in the end. They debase themselves. BTW, this was a story that the romantics loved to tell. Rousseau delighted in unmasking the ambitions of those who have gained social position. Better to be an innocent! Voltaire thought this was nonsense. We might compare Batleby with Voltaire

It is not phony when we take over a symbol from the outside that connects us with something we want to believe in or just to remember. A badge, so to speak. Or perhaps a uniform. Or a keepsake. We merge identity and belief in the value of something outside ourselves. Ms Ouellette rightly describes how important these tokens are in giving us a “comfort zone”. This is why we can feel most comfortable at home, where our tokens are on full display for ourselves and for our invested guests. And I think it is a character trait that we admire. Men who wear the uniform of their country and go in “harm’s way” are patriots, right? Though, there is a dark side as well. Flannery O’Connor and other US southern writers bring this out frequently. We can get trapped in the homes that we have built.

And what about identity as performance? The suggestion is that we are nothing at all. We just do things. Well, this makes sense only if you accept one of Czikszentmihalyi’s basic ideas – that life has no meaning other than what we create as we do it. This is why getting into “flow” is so important. In other words, at the end of the day, life is performance and nothing else. If you accept this, of course, identity is part of this performance. There is nothing else anyway.

But is Czikszentmihalyi right? To answer that, you need to address the question, what is the meaning of meaning? If meaning is external to us, what we create may be marginal in relation to “other things”. We may identity ourselves strictly as a bystander or part of the audience. Indeed, that was the title of Peter Drucker’s fascinating series of biographical sketches, “Adventures of a Bystander“.  It is an odd title, don’t you think? It suggests that one can have “adventures” without having participated in them.

But on the other hand, if meaning is internal to us (as Czikszentmihalyi and others assert), creating stuff is the only thing we actually do. One may call himself or herself a bystander, but in itself that does not confer significance on the outside world. It merely justifies non-action as a prerequisite for reflection. So a smart guy like Drucker who calls himself a bystander is still compelled not just to watch inertly, but to tell us what he thinks (and indeed, that is at least part of the identity that he created).

So, which do you believe?

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