Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Myth of Identity

Over the past thirty years or so, western civilization, and especially the U.S., has evolved from what Guy Debord called the "society of the spectacle" to what may instead be called society of the sociopath.

These days, one often finds paraded around the network news celebrities and those who have attained instant celebrity solely by virtue of having committed acts that are so removed from societal norms, and truly antisocial, as to be considered sociopathic. The attention given not merely to the crime, victims of the crime, but to the criminal often renders the psychological carnage, and damage to the rest of society invisible.

From O.J. Simpson to Scott Peterson to Casey Anthony, the culture of narcissism is now deeply enmeshed in the collective psyche. Scott Peterson, husband of a lovely young woman in Northern California and father-to-be is heard on his cell phone lying to his girlfriend about his whereabouts during his wife's funeral. The complete irrationality of his behavior, and his aloofness stimulates curiosity as much as contempt as does the horrific shooting of Gabriel Giffords, and murder of her colleagues in Arizona, yet another example of sociopathic behavior.

Again, TV cameras capture a clearly crazed individual, Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter, whose paranoia is part and parcel of a major disconnect with reality. His delusional acting out is part of a cultural identity crisis, one suffered, though less egregiously, even by former presidents who profess to take marching orders from the Almighty, and who go so far as to claim to be "born again." Identity delusions are not restricted to criminals. There are many high functioning sociopaths, and more than a few to be found in boardrooms of all Fortune 500 companies.

But, whether it manifests in crime or not, most psychopathology stems from a twisted sense of identity that has as its foundation in the underlying notion that "I," the objectivized self, is a fixed entity, and not fluid, or something subject to change. Identity isn't the core issue; attachment to identity is.

Arguably, many of the world's problems today are caused by disputes that involve one identity clashing with another. For instance, in the Middle East, Arabs fight Jews, Christians fight Muslims; during the Civil War, the North fought the South. Each side must be invested in their individual identity in order to be an effective warrior. The recognition that underneath we are all human beings, thus we share humanity is antithetical to the state of mind necessary for effective combat. One must be invested in being a confederate to wave the confederate flag. Essentially, the universal sense of self is always at war with the public sense of self, or identity. But, while all conflict may be said to begin within the self, it seldom ends there.

In many instances, as Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning has implied, suicidal ideation arises from hopelessness, and hopelessness from the idea that one is trapped in a situation, or a self from which one can never escape.

It is often the societal compulsion to see oneself as a named entity, "Joe," "Mary," "Mike," "Mary," and one with a fixed identity, "architect," "nurse," "attorney," "doctor" that obstructs self-development. A more fluid notion of oneself as a work in progress, something perpetually growing, might not coexist with an accomplishment, goal-directed, free market mentality. We see where the free market mentality has gotten us.

People who are driven to succeed are often identity-driven, and at war with death. For them, finding one's identity, thus, becomes like taking out an insurance policy for mortality, but the more one clings to "who" one is, the closer one is to one's mortality.

As soon as you say "I," you're talking about someone else. Poet Walt Whitman understood this. In his "Song of Myself," he was using the pronoun "I" as narrational, objective. Whitman was instead speaking of the universal self, the self that is, in fact, everyman.

Of course, the critics of his day didn't quite agree with Whitman, and accused him of being an egotist. To the contrary, Whitman was wisely acknowledging that when one uses the pronoun "I," one is objectivizing oneself.

Another nineteenth century poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote: "Je est un autre," ("I is another") which essentially means that "I" is a narrational device.

Why is this important? In modern, and post-modern times, we've become more obsessed with who we are, and the more we try to confine who we are, or the larger self, into a thing that can be named, the more antisocial this culture becomes.

Identity is a mask; Nietzsche saw that. When, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argued that we're never really alone, not even when we're by ourselves, he meant that we wear masks even when there is no one else around. A deeper understanding of the self can be best hidden from the self by the mask of identity, or effectively becoming what one is in the eyes of others. As George Orwell observes in Shooting an Elephant, "He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it."

What happens to those whose face doesn't grow to fit their mask? Or, when the mask is somehow defaced by life choices? What happens when the truth of who one really is shows through?

This objectivization of the self under the facade of fixed identity doesn't allow for any options, but to play the same role over and over endlessly, or for as long as one possibly can. Sociopathology comes about when the agent is no longer identifiable by the mask, or assignation given him by society. O.J. Simpson is no longer identifiable as the star athlete, role model, but is instead some monster who is not only dissociated from the world around him, but his own actions. The same is true of the young mother in Florida, Casey Anthony, whose identity is shattered by the death of her child, and a bloodlessness, lack of emotion, manifests showing a deep disconnect, or dissociation, from her daughter's death.

A young violinist, in New England, videotaped by his roommate in a same sex act of intimacy, takes his own life. His identity as a young violinist is compromised by someone else's sick attempt to forcibly expose the young man him when, in fact, loving another man is not his identity any more than playing the violin is. They are both acts. The acts are not the agent. What one does, or with whom, is not who one is.

Until we encourage exploration of identity, and recognize that who we are, what we believe, what we do, where we live, and everything else that gets factored into what others see us, is something ultimately much larger than any category we could ever invent, we will undergo one global identity crisis after another. War is a global identity crisis. Nationalism is the logical extension of a pathological need to be identified with something that is, more often than not, an accident of birth.

Identity that is not subject to change is an illusion, and a dangerous one. It will destroy the planet much faster than climate change as there is nothing more corrosive than a shared illusion.