Sorry. I know it’s a trite title. Or tritle, if you will. It’s just that existential crises are all the rage this AW16 season, like bomber jackets and off-the-shoulder dresses and feminism, and I don’t want to miss out.
We all love a bit of soul-searching. It’s why we read books and go travelling and watch films and wear certain clothes and do our hair and take photos and post stuff on social media. We’re all trying to establish a sense of who the actual fuck we are.
I (whatever THAT is) believe this obsessive questioning of the self is a symptom of capitalism. Insecurity is great for the economy. It’s why advertising perpetuates body and beauty ideals, and it’s why we actually buy the crap they sell.
Take spiralizers for instance. They’re really having a moment, aren’t they?
A spiralizer doesn’t JUST transform your vegetables into tasty ribbons of goodness. No. The spiralizer is the Ralph Lauren polo shirt of the kitchen appliance world. Having a spiralizer in your cupboard is a subtle affirmation of your own self-worth. It means you’re health-conscious. It means you’re clean and conscientious and you’ve got your shit together. That’s why Lakeland sells about 10 different kinds of spiralizer starting from £11 going up to about £40. And the terrible thing is that I have one in my kitchen, and I have nothing but pure love for it. When I bought my spiralizer it was as though a puzzle-piece of my identity fell into place. In gaining the ability to make heaps of courgetti on cue, I rose to a new level in my personal quest to be a healthier person. I’m brainwashed. I’m completely brainwashed.
This whole idea is brilliantly portrayed in the Mitchell and Webb sketch below:
We are who we are not
There’s this linguistic theory I studied at University called structuralism (unlike feminism, it’s not in vogue right now. It’s sooo last Century dahling). It started with a Frenchman called Ferdinand de Saussure, who asked this question (but in French and in far more detail): ‘How do we interpret the world?’
Imagine now that everything you’ve ever learnt in your life has gone from your mind. You’re stripped back down to your former baby-self. You’re in the same room, looking at the same stuff, but now all the stuff has lost its meaning. There are colourful shapes. There are different textures, different smells. But you don’t have words for them. You don’t know what they do, or why they’re there, or how they’re related to one another.
Your computer screen is a rectangular glowing thing with squiggles on it. These words are just black shapes.
How do we go about getting that meaning back?
According to Saussure, we must look at everything as a network of things. Our understanding of the world is a structure made up of underlying abstract parts. Like language for instance. Language is a structure. Words are abstract. More often than not the phonetic arrangement of words bear no relation to the actual thing they signify. The word ‘sheep’ has no tangible connection to the fluffy omnivore we all know and love. Until we link it up in our metaphorical network of other words and meanings, it is just a weird noise. To understand what a sheep is, we must first link the sound ‘sheep’ with an actual real-life sheep. Then we can go further and associate things with other things. If I call you a sheep, you probably know I’m not making a reference to your physical appearance. Through association and general use, we know that to call someone a sheep is to insinuate that they follow the crowd, and it’s probably not a good thing.
My (very convoluted) point is that when it comes to our sense of ‘self’ we must try to first place ourselves in this huge network of things. When we ask ‘who am I?’ we are really asking ‘where do I fit?’ Where exactly in this complicated network of things and meanings am I placed?
I’m better than you
This leads me nicely onto comparison. We all do it. We all judge ourselves in relation to others. Social media is notoriously bad for this. Social media gives us unprecedented access to other people’s (carefully edited) lives. The photos of their holidays, their perfect relationships, their gym-honed bodies, their healthy dinners, their high-flying careers. It’s easy to sit back and think ‘I am shit. I am a shit person with a shit life. Why don’t I have nice abs and a bowl full of hand-spiralized courgetti? Aren’t I good enough? Should I buy a spiralizer? Will it make all my dreams come true?’
A study by the University of Salford recently reported that half of the 298 people they questioned thought their lives were made worse by using social networks.
If your Facebook friends are making you feel bitter and jealous, get off Facebook. Or just take a photo of your porridge and hashtag it #lovelife. That’ll give off the right impression.
Personally, I see social media as a positive thing. It means I can stay in touch with my friends and family, snoop on what they’re doing and be pleasantly nosy about other people’s lives. I don’t enjoy being bitchily judgemental – although, like everyone (except the Dalai Lama and maybe the Pope) I have my moments.
I’m fortunate to have a fairly laid-back temperament and a life I’m happy with right now, and I genuinely genuinely genuinely wouldn’t swap it for anyone else’s. Although sometimes on my way to work in the mornings I do gaze out over the fields and wish I could be a horse.
So who actually am i?
I haven’t answered my question yet. I wonder how fixed identity is, and how easily is can be influenced by external factors (like advertising). How do we even go about defining ourselves?
We tend to start with the big ones, like:
Then we go into details like:
- physical appearance
- relationship status.
Then bigger details like:
- interests and hobbies
- likes and dislikes
- personality type.
But that’s all paperwork. Our biology shapes us, our experiences shape us, our surroundings shape us. I’m starting to think that ‘Who am I?’ is a question that can never truly be answered, because as life goes on we all change and in fact it’s probably bad to be too fixed. It makes us stubborn and unhappy and unforgiving.
We’d all be better off just finding the things that make us happy, and save the deep thinking for French philosophers with made-up-sounding names.
Also I’ve bored myself and just want to go to bed now. If you got this far, thank you! And please impart your own wisdom about identity and who you think you are, and if it even matters, in the comments below.