We Unwittingly Estrange Identity From The Self

I’ve talked before about the abstraction of identity through corporate brands. That scary, scentless iteration of the self, provided instead of created, in the hope of attaining a more perfect posture in the world around us. Others’ perception, as well as our own, becomes shaped by characteristic offerings, including the self in a changing constellation of pre-digested traits. Instead of ceding to organic contradictions and developments, we become commercial portraits that reflect the zeitgeist instead of contribute to it. 

But, in a different way, how do we amass an identity based on other people’s uniqueness? Not corporations, but idols. How do we absorb the things we find admirable and pawn them off, in slightly off-kilter form, as our own personal emanation? We repudiate corporate integration for a more personal, organic-seeming identification, but is there a tipping point to even this, where opinions and mannerisms are borrowed so heavily that they form an iconography of dispositions, where we pluck and put on our heroes would-be responses instead of our own? Is there a point where we filter our own instincts only through the instincts of another? It can become a dizzying whirl of expected behavior and curated reactions. Spontaneity, even, can become one-degree considered, swiftly responsive but drained of pure, original instinct. 

Culture persists through a barter system. As interesting information flows between us, culture mutates and evolves, and the pleasure we take in others informs not only our dialogue but our self. It’s how we sustain an investment in the world around us, through the intake of interests — digesting them, forming thoughts about them, and releasing a unique, personal breath back into the air. But the alchemical process of intake and output is predicated upon one thing: reflection, deep, contradictory provocation that necessarily forges a new stream of thought. Trouble emerges when we truncate this fruitful process, or abandon it altogether in unthinking assimilation and adoption. Not only does this make one an easy, ideological mark, able to be snowed by demagogues or charlatans, but eventually, if less overtly, it forms a completely-collaged identity. It’s less sinister than numbly reciting the credo of malignant groups, but can be just as deadly, because we become an innocuous projection of our passions.

The insidious nature of this identity formation, more so than the straightforward idea of evaluating opinions before offering them, is that it comes about through our passions. Blinded by our natural proclivities, we can unconsciously elect our interests as our identity, without consideration, without even deliberate thought. I was told recently that I adopted some of Marc Maron’s cadences: his gruff, flippant quips and sardonic solicitations pair naturally with my own curt and caustic sense of humor. His style unconsciously grafted onto my personality, but it made me ponder what other assimilations led me to a similarly unthinking adoption. I admire Maron’s wit and intellect to the point of personal abdication, and that unsettles me. 

Is all this kvetching about a “pure” identity just a naïve complaint? Maybe, but if nothing else, an added amount of filtration, although it may not resist trait-taking in toto (and it shouldn’t; I am not unrealistic), it could refine the process. How else are tales told, people formed, other than by those who nurture them? It’s inevitable, but I think we can be cautious and selective, diligent about leaking into too-high a percentage of ourselves relinquished to the lives of others. 

What habits do I maintain that are mostly self-generated? It’s a difficult question to answer. What is authentic about us? Is everything a kind of skewed reflection of others’, projected into the world? I think it’s okay to gravitate, to identify, even to idolize, but to feel like a piecemealed person becomes a delusional existence. It can transcend genuine likening and become a pernicious transformation. Life as an unconscious act, interpersonal kleptomania fueling our own estrangement.  

  • Hank Wordsworth

    Kyle, one hundred and ten years ago Joseph Conrad wrote a short story on the fraught dynamic you describe titled “The Secret Sharer.” He actually ends up a more decisive captain as a result of the process, just as I might end up a better English student if I hid you in my cabin for a couple of months, though hopefully without endangering the lives of the entire crew for your sake. Excerpt:

    “I passed on with an inward shudder. I was so identified with my secret double that I did not even mention the fact in those scanty, fearful whispers we exchanged. I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable. On my suggestion he remained almost entirely in the bathroom, which, upon the whole, was the safest place. There could be really no shadow of an excuse for anyone ever wanting to go in there, once the steward had done with it. It was a very tiny place. Sometimes he reclined on the floor, his legs bent, his head sustained on one elbow. At others I would find him on the campstool, sitting in his gray sleeping suit and with his cropped dark hair like a patient, unmoved convict. At night I would smuggle him into my bed place, and we would whisper together, with the regular footfalls of the officer of the watch passing and repassing over our heads. It was an infinitely miserable time. It was lucky that some tins of fine preserves were stowed in a locker in my stateroom; hard bread I could always get hold of; and so he lived on stewed chicken, Pate de Foie Gras, asparagus, cooked oysters, sardines—on all sorts of abominable sham delicacies out of tins. My early-morning coffee he always drank; and it was all I dared do for him in that respect.”

    But I have my limits, Kyle. Unlike Conrad, I would never give you my early morning coffee to drink no matter how much I identified with you. Sorry.