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Understanding Ourselves: Personal Identity is Mostly Performance
January 31, 2014 5:01 PM   Subscribe

"Without external props, even our personal identity fades and goes out of focus. The self is a fragile construction of the mind."
posted by rcraniac (33 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
This reminds me of a book I read a few years ago, Snoop. Dorm rooms are full of signifiers...
posted by limeonaire at 5:16 PM on January 31


This is interesting. First she teaches us what identity claims and feeling regulators are, and then she tells the story of Nick. The story of Nick is completely off topic, but takes up the middle third of the column (six paragraphs beginning 7 paragraphs in and ending 8 paragraphs before the end) (roughly) and is, in fact, the most interesting and heartfelt part of the piece.

I don't think this is a story about personal identity. I think it's the story of Nick. And that's fine with me.
posted by janey47 at 5:21 PM on January 31 [5 favorites]


limonaire, the book you cite is written by the psychologist quoted in the column.
posted by janey47 at 5:22 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


I think you could understand the strength of the token without so much of Nick's story, yeah. But it is the strongest part of the article.
posted by immlass at 5:33 PM on January 31


Is this really either/or? Because by telling us the story of Nick, she transformed the keychain from a feeling regulator to an identity claim.
posted by nixt at 5:34 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Cultural historian Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

...cultural historian?!
posted by Miko at 5:39 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]


THe most interesting thing about this, to me, was Csikszentmilhalyi talking about the role of objects in maintaining identity.
posted by Miko at 5:47 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Heh, I actually thought that might be the case. I was feeling too lazy to look and see! It's been a loooong week.
posted by limeonaire at 5:49 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


However, Gosling cautions that this is an imprecise method; we can misread those cues. We may realize a given item is significant in some way to the owner, but we may not infer correctly the statement that it is making

This is so true, and a mistake readily made. I would argue it goes further in that sometimes people will talk a lot about things that are very important to them, but sometimes they won't talk about those things at all, won't even be able to articulate them or perhaps be aware of them - especially if it's a negative Important Thing.

When I started to talk about something that had happened to me, I knew that I was on the way to processing it (and then, I just wanted to talk about it all the time, until I settled into a happy medium.)
posted by smoke at 6:19 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Additionally:

Cultural historian Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued that we are attached to old photographs, family heirlooms, or seemingly insignificant trinkets precisely because they keep us grounded in the present, and help us remember the past.

I have been watching a UK show on telly lately about hoarding (it's not sensationalistic). The psychologist who sort of functions as a host believes very firmly that the roots of hoarding lie in trauma associated with loss - which often seems to be the case in the people the come on the show, having lost family members most usually, they seem determined not to let anything else go.
posted by smoke at 6:23 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Increasingly, our Facebook pages are where we keep our stuff, and our profiles have become gigantic identity claims.

Back in the day when it was MySpace versus Facebook, the assumption was that MySpace was for high schoolers and Facebook for college students. And this played out metaphorically in the way the two sites worked.

1. Teens treat their bedrooms at home as, literally, "MY SPACE." That's a place you customize with posters and pictures and your favorite music and all kinds of accumulated stuff to make it reflect who you are. And that's just how MySpace worked -- it was endlessly changeable, and often kind of garish as a result. (Yes, it would play music as soon as someone came in, too!) When you come home as a young adult, and your parents haven't changed your bedroom, the place looks like an insanely detailed museum about a person who doesn't exist anymore.

2. College students live in dorm rooms, which are standardized and bare. Typically residents will put up a poster or two, and move in their possessions, but the creation of an identity at college is social; it lives in the friend-group rather than in the personal living space, which is just a spot for social connection to take place. Facebook pages were like dorm rooms. You could customize them by putting up a picture of yourself and filling in your data: birthday, major, class schedule, favorite book, etc., but in the end it was a website design decision to keep them standardized and bare; their purpose was just to give you a page for providing your classmates with information.

Facebook has been moving away from the College Dorm model now that they've gone on to conquer the world, in exactly the way the quoted sentence suggests.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 6:49 PM on January 31 [20 favorites]


This article confirms something I've long assumed as a middle-class white first-worlder: that people who have no stuff have no identity to speak of.
posted by XMLicious at 7:59 PM on January 31 [12 favorites]


I hate Csiksdpiou;wzentmidoulhafjdasuiyelyi so much. Hyperbole, unqualified generalizations, and borderline New Age self-help panacea are his stock-in-trade.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:10 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


About ten years ago I put everything in storage so I could go wander around and find out who I was.

One thing that is clear to me from that is that the central thesis is lacking: we reinforce our own identity with stuff, yes, but more importantly we do it with people and to some degree even geographic locations ("I'm Californian").

When it comes to freeing yourself up to discover your basic identity, people are the big one. They're the ones who became friends with a particular person and may or may not like what you discover about your self. As you explore these half-baked versions of you, you are constantly informed by the opinions of people who like you just the way you are.

Above and beyond that, freeing yourself entirely from identity is extremely interesting if you can pull it off. I managed it for about 20 seconds during that trip and it is definitely a before and after moment in my life.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:41 PM on January 31 [8 favorites]


I have been watching a UK show on telly lately about hoarding (it's not sensationalistic). The psychologist who sort of functions as a host believes very firmly that the roots of hoarding lie in trauma associated with loss - which often seems to be the case in the people the come on the show, having lost family members most usually, they seem determined not to let anything else go.

When my mum died, I had to decide what I wanted to keep from her house before we got it cleared. My dad had died three years earlier, and mum had kept most of his things too. There was an attic stuffed with memories - bin bags full of greetings cards, for example, from their engagement through to their golden wedding fifty years later, every Mother's Day card we had ever sent them. The house was filled with furniture I didn't need, but I had grown up crawling under sideboards and making bases under tables. Kitchen cupboards full of china I'd never use.

I found it so, so hard to let most of it go, even though I knew if I kept it, it would go in a box in our attic, or in our garage, never to see the light of day again. Thinking of it all disappearing hurt and upset me. With a little bit of distance it's so clear that it wasn't about the things. It was never about the things.
posted by reynir at 2:07 AM on February 1 [11 favorites]


Rubbish shallow article.
- That seems to fail at the heart to understand what is meant by slef-identity being a performance. (ie in claiming that it is not fragile).

Even the Gosling book sounds like a shallow investigation of identity.
posted by mary8nne at 4:19 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Our mind and bodies continually reinvent and rebuild themselves moment to moment, that's the nature of the universe. So it's not surprising that we grasp onto tokens to carry us over from one moment to the next.
posted by absentian at 5:18 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


I hate Csiksdpiou;wzentmidoulhafjdasuiyelyi so much. Hyperbole, unqualified generalizations, and borderline New Age self-help panacea are his stock-in-trade.

Have you read any of his books or journal articles, or are you just basing this on the way he is quoted in pop-science pieces like this one? Because that is not truly representative of his work. It's hard to square your accusation of "unqualified generalizations" with his abundant citations and notes. I suppose any synthesist is open to this charge, but his work in distilling the findings of positive psychology into a usable theoretical framework that has shifted practice across a number of fields is pretty darn important.
posted by Miko at 5:51 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


I can't agree with the author's belief that identify is incredibly robust.

I joined the Peace Corps after college, leaving behind everyone I knew to live in a foreign culture where I couldn't express myself properly in the language, was constantly unsure of how I came across to other people, and didn't have the ability to continue many of my hobbies and interests. I was a conspicuous outsider, and I could feel the weight of everyone's (mostly false) assumptions about my identity and personality.

We see identity as this innate thing inside ourselves. But if you remove most of the things you base your identity on - your cleverness with words, your habit of buying strawberry smoothies and visiting the local library, your ability to be independent and navigate your local world, your social circle and reputation, all the little things that bind together your sense of self - it's obvious how much of your identity is dependent on your surroundings. We get so good at building up our identities with all these social markers, but when you remove yourself from them, you realize how fragile identity really is.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:52 AM on February 1 [10 favorites]


> Above and beyond that, freeing yourself entirely from identity is extremely interesting if you can pull it off.

I forget who I am--forget that I am anybody--often, most often when totally absorbed in some kind of work. Doesn't seem to matter what kind of work, job/professional (grovelling through fsdb output), personal (drawing), or even just sweeping or raking or washing dishes, as long as it's work done willingly. Work is the great refuge from the damnable self. And as Tell Me No Lies says it is almost always other people who drag me back to being consciously myself by expecting me to be Me, the person they know. Being called by name is especially powerful.

This makes me think the self is mostly interpersonal. Lost on a desert island where there are no Others, what need is there for a Self? Excess baggage. With no need to constantly play the role of Me I'm certain I would soon forget how.
posted by jfuller at 6:14 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


This makes me think the self is mostly interpersonal.

There's been a lot of discussion about this in neuropsychology over the last decade - the understanding of how mirror neurons work and that basically we are not really wired to work as a single, independent organism, but within networks. And yet we do have a fairly strong sense of distinctness (more or less varying with culture).

The other interesting piece is that narrative - the story we tell ourselves about who we are - has a lot to do with the way we experience ourselves as an identity. In some sense, what we are is a continuing story that we keep tuning in for. We experience things related to us with special relevance, so we are cast as the main character in the story, and as things happen to us we integrate them (more or less) into our experience of being something/someone. This is one of the saddest things about severe memory loss/loss of identity - when others remember your story, but you can no longer tell it to yourself, it is enormously confusing, and very easy to lose one's sense of place in society. We've had MeFi threads about this discussion of the centrality of narrative, the idea that our identity basically comes down to the story we tell ourselves, though not recently.

If that's true, then the Peace Corps example above is a really good. When the story from one cultural context doesn't make sense, the way to achieve continuity of identity is to consciously enter a new chapter, to cast oneself in a new role: "I was an American [or whatever], now I am an outsider/stranger in a strange land, and I am the same individual identity experiencing these different roles."
posted by Miko at 6:21 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]


There's been a lot of discussion about this in neuropsychology over the last decade - the understanding of how mirror neurons work and that basically we are not really wired to work as a single, independent organism, but within networks.

I would LOVE to hear more about this.
posted by gauche at 6:44 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Another aspect to this is how many westerners take an interest in things like Zen, whose purpose seems to be to learn how to let go of some/most/all of the trappings of identity, while remaining comfortable and conscious of what's going on around you. Someone called it "learning to tolerate the inconceivable".

Tim Burkett, a Zen teacher in Minneapolis (and also a psychologist) draws quite a bit of inspiration from Csíkszentmihályi.
posted by sneebler at 7:23 AM on February 1


The article also reminds me about an article that was in the Whole Earth Review many years ago about "Neuro-Tarot". The basic idea is that you can create your own personalized Tarot deck which might give you a different perspective on the elements of identity you use to interpret reality. (Link to the original article, as there's lots of woo associated with this idea and I haven't bothered to keep up.)
posted by sneebler at 7:41 AM on February 1


For someone interested in fiction on the topic of identity, I highly recommend all the work of Gene Wolfe. In particular, the 3-volume Book of the Short Sun, which is the sequel to the 4-volume Book of the Long Sun, is a fantastic novel about identity crisis told from the unreliable first person. It is written as a memoir/diary that jumps between the story being retold in the past tense, and the one being recorded in the present, as the main character attempts to integrate the events that have caused him to reject his identity.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 9:23 AM on February 1


I found it so, so hard to let most of it go, even though I knew if I kept it, it would go in a box in our attic, or in our garage, never to see the light of day again. Thinking of it all disappearing hurt and upset me. With a little bit of distance it's so clear that it wasn't about the things. It was never about the things.

My mother moved into a retirement home not quite a year and a half ago and she and I both had a lot of grief about all the things she sold and/or got rid of. She couldn't take all of her things and certainly not all of the childhood things of mine she had in storage. It still took ages to get over it, for both of us. (Even though there's no way I could have taken more than a few things and a bit of the jewelry she forgot to take with her that was sold in the estate sale, and most of that I wouldn't wear.)

She also bought me a bunch of antiques when I was a teenager and every time I've given one of them up, it's felt awful--though most of them are things I don't care for, don't fit in my lifestyle any more, and don't have room for. The problem with giving them up is never about the actual objects.
posted by immlass at 9:43 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


There's been a lot of discussion about this in neuropsychology over the last decade - the understanding of how mirror neurons work and that basically we are not really wired to work as a single, independent organism, but within networks. And yet we do have a fairly strong sense of distinctness (more or less varying with culture).


Take that, Avril Lavigne.
posted by clavicle at 10:26 AM on February 1


A more interesting treatment of self and identity is Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick
posted by jason's_planet at 11:24 AM on February 1


Joseph Gurl: "I hate Csiksdpiou;wzentmidoulhafjdasuiyelyi so much. Hyperbole, unqualified generalizations, and borderline New Age self-help panacea are his stock-in-trade."

Whatever you think about his work, dismissively (xenophobically?) refusing to spell his name correctly makes you look immature and petty.
posted by Lexica at 6:33 PM on February 1 [5 favorites]


If you walk into someone’s office and there is a wedding photo on the desk facing outward, so it can be clearly seen by visitors, that is likely an identity claim. However, if the same photo is turned instead to face the owner, then it likely functions as a feeling regulator, to remind him or her of a loved one.

Interesting. I immediately thought of how the (arguably) most famous, and most consequential, office family photo in film history, the one Holly Gennero (McClane) keeps in Die Hard. It's on the credenza behind her. She obviously has mixed feelings about John so doesn't want it facing her, but still wants it to e.g. fend off the advances of Harry Ellis despite using her maiden name, and its social implications are key to the turn in the plot when Gruber realizes who "Roy" really is. In every apparent way it complies with the Gosling analysis.

Dissolve editors, await my 3000 word essay shortly.
posted by dhartung at 12:57 AM on February 2 [4 favorites]


This whole concept hits very close to home for me; I've never really been able to formulate a lasting personal identity (hallmark of BPD).

Need to go do some thinking.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:08 PM on February 2


Have you read any of his books or journal articles, or are you just basing this on the way he is quoted in pop-science pieces like this one? Because that is not truly representative of his work. It's hard to square your accusation of "unqualified generalizations" with his abundant citations and notes. I suppose any synthesist is open to this charge, but his work in distilling the findings of positive psychology into a usable theoretical framework that has shifted practice across a number of fields is pretty darn important.

"Unqualified generalizations" means generalizations without limitations, sweeping claims without acknowledging the limits of those claims.

Whatever you think about his work, dismissively (xenophobically?) refusing to spell his name correctly makes you look immature and petty.

True. I won't do that anymore. I just couldn't remember how to spell it. Didn't mean it like an "Amerika" or "Shrub" thing at all, just man it's hard to spell. I can spell Krzyewski and Przybilla, though. I hope I didn't offend anyone, and I'm sorry for writing something that could have.

As for some pop-psych identity stuff that I like better, there's this:
First Person Plural.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:25 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


Some more pointed criticisms I agree with:

"It's just tautology," British psychologist Oliver James told Maurice Chittenden of the Times of London, England. "If people are very absorbed in something it stands to reason that they are going to be happier - a drug addict would be absorbed with pursuing cocaine."

Note that he then retroactively defined "flow" to make it categorically positive, pulling off the remarkable mental yoga of going from a not-quite-tautology to an explicit one AS A RESULT of being criticized for tautological reasoning!

And then there's this, both a flabbergastingly hubristic and new age title AND an attempt at greater legitimacy by appealing to--wait for it--evolutionary psychology!:

Csikszentmihalyi tried to join the idea of "flow" with that of evolutionary progress in his book The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium (1993).

and, least surprising but maybe most damning to me:

Csikszentmihalyi's greatest appeal, perhaps, was to the business community, which tried to apply his ideas toward the goal of maximizing employee productivity. In 2000, Csikszentmihalyi left Chicago for the position of professor of psychology and management...at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management in Claremont, California.

(BTW, I got all this stuff here

Oh, and, sorry about the delay. I haven't had a ton of Mefi time the last couple days. Been busy at work LOSING MY SENSE OF SELF AND BECOMING PART OF THE TASK, DUDEBROS!)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:42 AM on February 3


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