come_to_think (come_to_think) wrote,

Against identity: 3

3  Some typical abuses

3.1  William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

In his introduction, he says:

With most objects of desire, physical nature restricts our choice to but one of many represented goods, and even so it is here. I am often confronted by the necessity of standing by one of my empirical selves and relinquishing the rest. Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a 'tone-poet' and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire's work would run counter to the saint's; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real. Its failures are real failures, its triumphs real triumphs, carrying shame and gladness with them. This is as strong an example as there is of that selective industry of the mind on which I insisted....  Our thought, incessantly deciding, among many things of a kind, which ones for it shall be realities, here chooses one of many possible selves or characters, and forthwith reckons it no shame to fail in any of those not adopted expressly as its own.

We are given a list of more or less incompatible physical appearances, occupations, accomplishments, and virtues, and they are called "empirical selves", "truest, strongest, deepest" selves, and things one might stake one's salvation on.  Why not just try to decide which are most important in each situation?

It is an important fact of life that desires, including virtuous desires, often conflict (see, Section 3.4), so that goodness in humans is bound to be idiosyncratic:  There has to be room for personal style in morals as in everything else.  Such choice is complicated & often difficult, and it is reasonable to call the results one's character, and to praise adherence to them as integrity.  But it is silly to call them one's self.  It is the same self whichever way the conflict comes out.

3.2  Philip Roth, "The Conversion of the Jews" (1958)

In this short story a boy in Sunday school gets in an argument with his rabbi, loses his temper, runs out of the room in tears, and escapes to the roof of the building:

A question shot through his brain. “Can this be me?” For a thirteen year old who had just labeled his religious leader a bastard, twice, it was not an improper question.

No, indeed.  Nor was it a proper_ question.  It was not, properly, a question at all; it was a rhetorical exclamation of surprise, based on stretching a common metaphor to the breaking point.  Here are the stages in the process:

  1. If I am conversing with you --- say, on the telephone --- on the supposition that you are an aquaintance named John Doe, and you say something that makes me suspect I am mistaken, then I might say "I'm sorry.  Are you actually John Doe?" and you might tell me I have gotten a wrong number.

  2. If I am conversing with you, knowing well that you are John Doe, and you do or say something that seems astonishingly out of character, then I might express my surprise by saying "Are you really John Doe?" --- feigning a suspicion of mistaken identity.

  3. I might instead put that rhetorical flourish in better humor by making it "Can this be John Doe?", as if I were talking to myself.

  4. Or, still less offensive, "Can this be you?" --- jovial nonsense, in that I cannot really be in doubt about whether the person I am talking to is the person I am talking to.

  5. Finally, we are to imagine a thirteen-year-old boy turning that bit of play-acting on himself.  I have trouble doing so, but Mr Roth does not:

Louder and louder the question came to him --- ”Is it me? It is me?” --- until he discovered himself no longer kneeling, but racing crazily towards the edge of the roof, his eyes crying, his throat screaming, and his arms flying every which way as though not his own.

“Is it me? Is it me Me ME ME ME! It has to be me --- but is it!”

It is the question a thief must ask himself the night he jimmies open his first window, and it is said to be the question with which bridegrooms quiz themselves before the altar.

In the few wild seconds it took Ozzie’s body to propel him to the edge of the roof, his self-examination began to grow fuzzy. Gazing down at the street, he became confused as to the problem beneath the question: was it, is-it-me-who-called-Binder-a-Bastard? or, is-it-me-prancing-around-on-the-roof? However, the scene below settled all, for there is an instant in any action when whether it is you or somebody else is academic. The thief crams the money in his pockets and scoots out the window. The bridegroom signs the hotel register for two. And the boy on the roof finds a streetful of people gaping at him, necks stretched backwards, faces up, as though he were the ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium. Suddenly you know it’s you.

In less pompous language:  Suddenly you know that you were, and perhaps still are, capable of something that you recently weren't sure you could do.  That discovery was somewhat frightening, but you have to make the most of it.

3.3  Douglas R. Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot (1997)

In Chapter 15, Professor Hofstadter struggles to press intellect into the service of empathy:

Probably the most common way of trying to understand someone who hates chocolate but loves liver (say) is to say to yourself, "Oh, I see --- liver is for Jill what chocolate is for me, and vice versa!  I'll just swap the concepts in my mind.  No sweat!"  This strategy whereby two related concepts are swapped, thus presumably enabling an alien viewpoint to be internalized and temporarily adopted, is what I call the symmetry argument.
. . .
Symmetry arguments may work reasonably well for non-core aspects of people's personalities, such as taste in food or sensitivities to disturbances, but try to elevate this strategy to something that matters deeply, such as key beliefs about morality, truth, or honesty --- or even to taste in music.  That is, suppose Elveena is addicted to loud rock-and-roll but detests all classical music.  Will it work if I try to "understand" her by saying to myself, "Oh, I see --- sure! --- Elveena is _exactly like me_, only with the roles of rock-and-roll and classical music swapped!  To understand her feelings, I'll just swap the concepts in my mind.  No sweat!"

No, not at all.  The way I see things, the reason this utterly fails is that your taste in music is "where you live" --- it embodies in an unimaginably profound manner just who you are.  The counterfactual act of tampering with someone's musical taste is tantamount to carrying out a partial "soul transplant" on that person, reaching in and so profoundly disturbing their core identity that they are no longer recognizable.  If I, for example, try to imagine my mother avidly listening to a Top-40 radio station and shunning the music she grew up with in the 1930's and 1940's, the moment I do so, this "she" I've conjured up is no longer my mother.  So radical a musical taste-swap simply won't take.  One can transplant hearts these days, but not heart.

Core.  Who you are.  Identity.  Heart.  Recourse to those obfuscatory expressions is a sign that Hofstadter's musical taste is extremely important to him --- perhaps, indeed, too important --- and that that possibility is making him uncomfortable.  Indeed, a few pages later he agonizes over it extensively.  He was invited to a memorial service, and he had to deal with his emotions on discovering that some rock songs, which the dead man had admired, were on the program:

To put it very bluntly, how can crude trash --- even if the dear departed loved said trash --- do honor to a person's memory?  ...  Suppose sweet little four-year-old Minniohlah, dying of leukemia, had always been cracked up by the sound of burps; would you think it appropriate to play a videotape showing little Minniolah splitting her sides at her own repeated long, loud belching?  You can dream up even more extreme cases, I'm sure.

(No, thank you.)  He takes three pages to wrestle those feelings to the ground.  I myself have somewhat similar feelings about rock and roll, but I would ignore them from the beginning, because my respect for ceremony would overwhelm them.  Rock and roll is a mechanized tantrum, wakes are raucous & vulgar & sometimes violent, and Christian prayers appeal to delusion; but they have given comfort over the centuries, so let them be.

3.4  Peter D. Kramer, Listening to Prozac (1993)

In the introduction, Dr Kramer recalls:

...I had occasion to treat an architect who was suffering from a prolonged bout of melancholy....  A central conflict in his marriage was his interest in pornographic videos.  He insisted his wsife watch hard-core sex films with him despite her distaste, which he attributed to inhibition and narrow-mindedness.

As he neared forty, Sam fell into a brooding depression set off by a reversal in his business and the death of his parents....

...[H]e agreed to try Prozac.

The change...was remarkable:  Sam not only recovered from his depression, he declared himself "better than well."...

...Here I want to focus on a solitary detail that troubled Sam: though he enjoyed sex as much as ever, he no longer had any interest in pornography.  In order to save face in the marriage, he continued to rent the videos that once titillated him, but he found it a chore to watch them.

Altogether, Sam became less bristling....  He experienced this change as a loss.  The style he had nurtured and defended for years now seemed not a part of him but an illness.  What he had touted as independence of spirit was a biological tic.  In particular, Sam was convinced that his interest in pornography had been mere physiological obsessionality....  Although he was grateful for the relief Prozac gave him from his mental anguish, this one aspect of his recovery was disconcerting, because the medication redefined what was essential and what was contingent about his own personality --- and the drug agreed with his wife when she was being critical.

Sam was under the influence of medication in more ways than one: he had allowed Prozac not only to cure the episode of depression but also to tell him how he was constituted.

"Redefined what was essential and what was contingent" --- that's ancient Greek for "weighed in on him what a stupid shmuck he was".  He had attached far too much importance to pornography, and when Prozac relieved him of that burden, he didn't say, "Honey, I have wonderful news for both of us"; no, he imposed a far viler burden on himself (& his wife!): he had to "save face in the marriage".  Nobody with an attitude like that deserves to get married or even laid.

Retreating to more dignified English, one might say that Sam was distressed by a change in his self-image that made it conflict with his ego ideal.  With those notions kept distinct, useful discussion might be possible.  With them mashed together in such pseudoconcepts as essence & identity, it is not possible.

3.5  Matched T-shirts

I saw them at a bisexual shindig in 1992:


This is a particularly blatant example of the pun on two senses of "to be" that was popularized by Erik Erikson in the 1950s under the name of "identity" and has since become a major pest.  "I am John Doe" is a statement of identity (in the logical or in the police sense); "I am (a) bisexual" is a statement of attribution or of classification, depending on one's taste in analysis.  The poetry of the pun says:  Your ability to be sexually aroused by certain persons or things is the most important (or maybe even the only important) fact about you; the class of persons who resemble you in that ability is, in some mystical fashion, identical to you.  This rhetoric clearly appeals to something deep in human nature, which is present even in me.  In my adolescence "the search for a people" was a theme I dwelt on continually.  However, I have always failed in that search --- even in deviant subcultures, I have always been on the fringe --- and so I am free to be skeptical of the notion.

The new idiom was probably facilitated by an older one: "to identify with".  To identify with X is to make X an object of one's sympathy: to respond to it with emotion appropriate to oneself.  If I say that in watching a play I identified with the villain, I mean that I admired the villain's judgments, felt proud of his accomplishments & shame at his defects, and so on.  In the case of a play, such identification is temporary & recreational, but often these days it is long-lasting & serious --- often, excessively so.

Most commonly one identifies with a set of beings with whom one shares an important attribute, the description of that attribute (or of the set) being attached to the word "identity": thus "bi identity", "gay identity", "black identity", that wonderful baloney sandwich "woman-identified woman", etc.  Erikson's book Childhood and Society, which may have started this nonsense, is at any rate full of it.  In recent propaganda, the idiom is specialized to groups that are judged to be oppressed.  Erikson's examples are mostly tho not entirely of that kind.  It is true that he allows himself to talk of "American identity", but by now that would be in bad taste, and "man-identified man" would be even worse.  By that restriction, "identity" comes to incorporate (incoherently) such political notions as allegiance, loyalty, and solidarity.  From the outside, here is what that maneuver looks like.

With good luck, different facts about yourself will be important for different purposes, but no one fact will be overwhelmingly important per se.  But if your luck is bad, some people will undertake to make one fact about you overwhelmingly important.  In the first stage of this process, they are your enemies: by insolent force they are trying to make you assign excessive importance to whatever fact about you they most deplore.  If they have enough force at their disposal, they may succeed:  If you were black in the old South, or Jewish in W.W. 2 Europe, or gay in most places & times, it would be hard to escape paying attention to that fact, almost from minute to minute.  So also in nations at war.  But then organized resistance is called for, and so, in a second stage, your fellow victims have a colorable argument for weighing the bad news in on you, with the use of such concepts as loyalty, allegiance, and treason.  Whether that argument is convincing depends on details; mere recitation of that fact that you "are" an American, etc., does not prove anything, and calling such recitations statements of "identity" is mere question-begging.  Marlene Dietrich was a patriotic German, and the Fermis were patriotic Italians, but their decisions to get the hell out are much to be commended, tho some people called them names.

It is a particular vice of traditional religions to insist that belief in them shall be, always and forever, the most important fact about the believer.  The only reasonable response to such claims is blasphemy & apostasy.  Christians & Jews have mostly been demoralized in that respect, but Hindus & Moslems are still at it.
Tags: essence, hofstadter, identity, james_w, kramer_p_d, loyalty, psychology, roth_p
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded