On Identity

The question of identity is one that philosophers, poets, science fiction authors, neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, and theologians have mused over for centuries. What is identity? Who are we, as a species, a kind, an organism that is but one of many—part and parcel? Then, also, who am I, the individual, the subjective being that experiences life uniqely and singularly according to not only the nature of my genetic origins, but also the influence of my environment, all the moments, conflicts, discoveries, and feelings that modify the interior self according to external stimuli—culture, language, socioeconomics, political influence, family, city—nurture. For someone like Descartes, the answer to both questions may be represented as a single sentence: “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). For someone like Kant, perhaps the answer is represented as something like, what I am is what I perceive, which is a reflection of what I have experienced and a product of mind, and this is my reality. For Nietzsche, identity might be described as what he calls the will to power which is, for the individual, an aesthetic experience of what is already fated for each person as an organism bound to its body and world and mode of being, which is largely dissimulation and aesthetic experience, not reality as such. While for Socrates, the self is something metaphysical that emanates from a transcendent Form of the Good—the Psyche (mind-soul), which can only be liberated by returning to its source. In the 1980s film by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, identity is represented as a collection of memories, meaning that even artificial life has identity if given the life narrative of an individual’s memory.

These questions and answers are attempts at defining and classifying the universal concept of identity, and while their postulates or theorems might have some resonance or relevance on my definition of identity if I choose to take the time to expose myself to them, really, my identity is something that evolves uniquely on its own, as each and every individual life tends to do. Thus, the question of who I am can perhaps only be answered by my own musing, and is arguably something that I must constantly determine for myself each and every moment. My definition of self, which here follows, then, is but one definition that represents the me that is present now and may not be present even an hour from now if ever again. As a person who is, clearly, influenced by philosophy, storytelling, and brain science, I will approach this problem of identity and self through a kind of question and answer self-dialogue, supposing that the goal of such an inquiry is greater self-awareness, even in a social environment like this one where everyone part of this learning environment can ready what I write.

The question, then, is who am I? Am I my name? Am I a collection of adjectives, attributes, features that are externally observable, behaviors? Most people respond to this question by claiming first the word that represents them, then by describing qualities they want to possess or those that they believe represent them. Rarely do people respond by showing who they are through active demonstration, although a passive description could be said to reveal much about its author as a kind of mental illustration. Even what I currently write implies a great deal about how I think and what I believe.

I am of the mind that I am not my name, though my name can be used to refer to me as a kind of function of my given identity. It is but a symbol; I am not it. Shakespeare mused on this very notion in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet asks, “What’s in a name?” Neither am I a bunch of descriptive adjectives like those introductions so often seen on social media sites or dating sites, e.g. “I am an easy going, laid back, funny, creative, smart, curious, girl-next-door type.” This kind of self-description may be more for the describer than for those who might come across such a description; it is a grocery list of wishful thinking, something I am guilty of having done often in my adolescence. Somewhere out there in cyberspace, there is a MySpace page that says something probably very similar. Perhaps the me of that time was a pool of descriptions, which I was still selecting from or testing out to see if they were accurate descriptions at all. That me, though, is gone, and that page was but a picture, a still frame, not the living thing that writes you now.

If I am not a name, nor a list of featural attributes, what am I? The question remains. As of yet, I haven’t really said anything of what I am, giving only what I am not. This, however, I implicitly (and now explicitly) argue very much represents who and what I am. What I am doing is drawing the negative space by ruling out what is not me, thereby allowing the positive space to emerge through a kind of process of elimination. This procedure is very much a product of my relationship with Socrates. My questions and negations are a type of scientific testing of what descriptions belong to me and which do not, something that is very active and involved, curious, and predicated upon the grounds of the foundational axiom that I know that I do not know. This notion, Socrates claims, is wisdom, something I long to find, not merely knowledge or information, but wisdom. That will be a life pursuit, which my occupation and this discourse also reflect.

Having mused over the concept of selfhood, let’s examine some of the historical experiences that belong only to me, which as part of my memory, phenomenology, existential will + amor fati. What verbs, rather than nouns or adjectives—those static things—fit this creature, or as American culture is so inclined to ask, what do I do or have I done? The only way to show such a thing is to offer a little narrative.

I served in the U.S. Army as a broadcast journalist in both Asia and Europe through my early twenties. Following that period, I remained in Germany for a time, living as an ex-patriot (foreigner; Auslander). Upon returning stateside, I enrolled in university to study literature and fell in love with language, thought, inquiry. Finding that I enjoyed my studies, when I neared the end of my Bachelor’s degree, I went straight into a graduate program at UT Dallas, only my areas of interest expanded beyond the boundary of literature into philosophy, anthropology, cognitive science, creative writing, and linguistics. You might say I wanted to know everything, and still do. Ergo, remaining at university seemed logical, after all, it is a kind of micro universe that revolves around better understanding the world; that is why it is called what it is called: univers | ity. Being at school felt like being plugged into the secret knowledge of human discovery that hid behind the veil of existence. The more I read and wrote, the more I found in the language I studied, the ideas I encountered, and the minds of the great masters I formed relationships. Eventually, however, language studies from the arts and humanities (top down) culture seemed incomplete, so when I finished my Master’s, I started a second in cognitive neuroscience to find out how language developed out of and within the brain (bottom up). Through the course of these pursuits, I taught the medium all of my studies revolved around: language. As a professor of English, what I had been given and what I found in my academics I could then bestow upon others, just as each of the authors I read gave me the wealth of their findings. This path is the one I still walk and thus the one I share with you now.

Here, we have half a story, less than half really, but one that starts in the middle. What comes before it I have elected not to delve into, suggesting that I no longer muse over that aspect of my life as the most influential period of identity. Before the story you have here, only what came before could have been shared, and thus would perhaps have been more important, but times have come and gone. The me that is here, now, is most defined by these happenings. What we are given by an author tells us what he values or how she sees the world–who that person is. However, to see that, we have to read into what is given based on the context of the situation and what probabilistically would be the goal that person has in mind, dependent on what we cannot about him or her. If a writer is conscious of the audience and how to frame the message to get it to the audience as he wants it appear, we can infer quite a lot about that person’s identity in the still frame of language we are given. This, too, I hope to have shown you; this too is me as I labor to be.

Before we know what we are, we know, at least what we are not. Ergo, I am not my title (professor); I am not my education (degrees); I am not the disciplines I read into (arts/sciences); I am not the things I own or where I live. If I am not things or words, then I am actions. I am whatever or wherever (topoi) I dwell in. I am the interpretations I read into the world by the way that I live them. I am the growing collections of memories that I write and rewrite and revise and remember, the grand narrative where I am protagonist, author, reader, and critic. I am the world where I give rise to the literal and the metaphorical values of what I can body forth from imagination, but only those things that bare weight in this world, which if worth anything, give value to whatever other worlds mine belongs to or has impact upon. The story that I want to be my future history, were I reading about a character who I wish I were, that is what I will script as this living, experiencing thing. I am only that which I actively perform authentically. I am not a noun; I consciously will, verb—I am human being.

About thepoetsglass

Professor, poet, philosophical dilettante, plus some other impressively heady alliterations. Instructional designer and copywriter. Cognitive neuroscientist by night. Self-diagnosed coffee addict, sometime dancer, brooding bibliophile, and an always salty sailor.
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