...we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose.– Pico della Mirandola
...a human being, for moral purposes, is largely how he or she describes himself or herself.– Richard Rorty
I and my friends have a practical theory of identity, inspired by an (implausibly) positive reading of the oddball sociologist Erving Goffman. Call it bootstrapping:
- what you like is a large part of who you are;
- you often grow to like what you choose to do;
- you can choose what you do
- so to some degree you can choose what you like (2&3);
- so you can sometimes sort of choose who you are (1&4).
Compared to the received view of identity, which holds that “Once grown, you are an essence of given things that will not change. Biology + Childhood + Peers = Self”, this approach hopes for: freedom from some of the more obvious social determinants; allophilia; psychological neoteny; and maybe less distortion of beliefs by tribal forces (or maybe just interestingly different distortions).
It seems to have worked. One friend changed from an anti-sport crumpet to a diehard Liverpool FC encyclopaedia at very short notice. In the space of two years, another took himself from deadbeat, drunken self-loather to literally the hardest-working star in his cohort, summa cum laude. I am slowly becoming a scientist, where for my whole life I have been a verbal child, in love with the figurative and the suggestive, too undisciplined to nail things down.
[Edit: this ended up taking 6 years]
With enough work, maybe there is no-one you cannot associate with. (Barring their bigotry, the ultimate divisive preference.) 2 Most cultures are permeable: there is great joy in e.g. playing football with people you share no language, religion, background, or life goals with.
What does this odd idea depend on?
- Goffman Thesis: We are dramatic creatures; we inhabit multiple roles; we gain and lose roles. If identity is a performance, then study of cultural codes and conventions should allow you to take on identities. Not as a 'fake' or 'wannabe': as a real performer. Goffman gets called cynical for saying that human interaction is the presentation of masks; bootstrapping sees him as a liberator instead.
- Gordon Thesis 1: What you like is a large part of who you are. Language, money, race aside, what divides us is not our origins or even what propositions we believe, but what we like. This applies whether the object is Jesus, Naruto, or sex with other men (or all of the above).
Preferences divide us via two reinforcing effects: because we automatically group up with people with similar interests, and because it's hard to not misunderstand people with very different preferences.
- Turing thesis: A necessary test for identity is to "fool" those who already have the identity. What passes is close enough.
- Macht Thesis: Within constraints, with enough perseverence, you can choose what you like. Among good people, that's actually the lion's share of who you are. Treat identity as fluid and performative and all that stuff: and impose it on yourself if you want. On top of your nature, metapreferences can become second nature.
Unfortunately for this sunny picture of human potential: most people treat identity as fixed, and deadly serious business. Depending on what you set out to like, bootstrapping could be seen as disloyal (when you decide not to follow your family’s faith), decadent (when you have a procession of unused musical instruments in the loft), or appropriative (when you call yourself African after buying up land there).
Also it seems possible that identity is intellectually corrosive; a risk factor for large permanent delusions. How can we balance our suspicion of identity with bootstrapping’s enthusiasm for it? Well, just note that it’s the freedom and lightness of identity that we value; the main problem with particular identities is when their essentialist-parochial character leads to moral or cognitive bias.
One way out: distinguish ascribed and achieved identities. (e.g. Being a dentist is an achieved identity, and besides an easiness with instructing others it probably doesn’t have too much bias involved.) Most of the anger seems to involve defying or stepping across ascribed ones.
[Edit, much later: or you could just drop identity from the discussion entirely, in favour of just modifying preferences.]
The human mind can barely handle important complex stuff without maths, and I should like to handle some of that stuff in my life.
Yet, despite trying for 6 months - despite strong motivation and personal affinity - I have so far failed to make myself into someone who like higher mathematics. I can do it, but I do not grok it like I do text, rhetoric, connotation, uncertainty. If you only have algorithmic ability - no proofs, no sense of dependencies, no originality - you’re a monkey driving a car.
Ad hoc explanations
- There is almost nothing quasi-real about maths. Unlike the other identities we've tried on, in maths your beliefs don't make a difference: you are always either right or wrong. (Or the answer is undecidable. Or the problem is NP-hard given P≠NP. Or worst of all, your answer is malformed: "not even wrong". But note that these para-truthvalues leave no room for human variation either.)
Consider: thinking you are in pain is to be in pain; believing certain claims about Christ makes you a Christian. But when we do maths wrong - if you think that [log_10(10) x log_10(100) = 3] - we're maybe still doing maths, but we necessarily step away from the identity proper. No amount of Lacanian ambiguity can save you from this.
- Maths is utterly internalist: it's thus unforgiving of the ambiguity or amateurism that the bootstrapper needs to get started. Some people go as far as to say that if it's ambiguous (not just fuzzy) then it's not maths. It takes a long time before one's opinion of mathematical questions counts for much, and even then it is subject to strict and clear criteria. (Can someone with severe dyscalculia be a maths fan? In an unusual and important sense, I think the answer's no.)
- One can excel at something via willpower, talent, or love. In this instance I have none of these qualifiers. Because I don't love maths, I do not really know it. The things that make people love maths - its unique apodictic thrill, its aesthetic power, its foregone intensity, its esoteric spirituality - may only be perceptible to those with a certain flair.
On a brighter note, maths may well be the limit case of our happy project, casting light on its process and boundary. It might be the area where mere algorithmic knowledge falls most short of real understanding, and thus real identification.
Is bootstrapping obvious? I don’t think so, judging by how static and crudely determined our political, recreational, and working lives generally are. Is bootstrapping empty self-help nonsense? I don’t think so, judging by how much I like the idea.
some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, with words for not being feelings. Words and images are like shells, no less integral parts of nature than are the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation. I would not say that substance exists for the sake of appearance, or faces for the sake of masks, or the passions for the sake of poetry and virtue... all these phases and products are involved in the round of existence...– George Santayana
...what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth..."
- Nick Hornby's Rob Gordon.
- I'm emphasising the preferential part of identity (over the social part): this is not to say, with the dubious American Beats, that someone who likes black culture a lot thereby becomes black. Though those of us who support other social transitions do have a puzzle to solve.