Am I a thing? Or, on not being your self.

We cannot “find ourselves” after all, because, it seems, there is no “self” – the self is a system, a structure of a potentially infinite number of “sub-selves”, arranged in a constellation of minute differences, a continuous palette in which no individual colour can be separately identified, nor do we know its beginning or end.

Each of these sub-selves is a product of our eternal engagement with our natural and human environments. They are regularities, repeated patterns of internalization and response to repeated patterns of stimuli. This is far from a “blank-slate” position – the genetic heritage encapsulated in our brains and bodies react and represent in subtly different ways, leading to an accumulation of substantial differences over time. And yet, there are real (if fuzzy) limits to how much stimuli originating from the same physical environment and the same social, economic, political, cultural and historical context can differ. This may be why individuals from the same class, for example, behave in systematically similar ways, and yet no two of these individuals are exactly alike.

The “gaps”, so to speak, between sub-selves, do exist, but are almost impossible to identify through introspection – our natural hard-wiring actively engages in selective remembering and forgetting, in order to provide the very necessary illusion of a consistent overarching structure – memory blurs the edges and creates a solid mass we call the self, but which is really a loosely connected crystal, made of fragments of patterns of stimulus-reaction, represented in our minds through language. To a large extent, language provides the necessary illusion by subsuming a vast set of fragments in the overarching genre of “I”.

This crystal is neither frozen, nor easily malleable. The extent to which one’s self appears to be unified and concrete is a function of how long one has been exposed to stimuli of a relatively similar sort. That is perhaps why, on one end, people belonging to socio-cultural groups not historically exposed to other environments or cultures appear to be both more rooted and stable, and relatively hostile to those who do not belong in their group. At the other extreme is the child of the postmodern world, over-exposed to a chaotic jumble of fragmented experiences without any solid center. Reactions to such experiences flowing from a longing for a solid, unified self-world may be what leads to the contemporary reactionary ideologies popping up across the globe.

Since we internalize the socio-cultural systems we float in, our internal, mental structures and our external, social structures are mirror images of each other – each one of us is a carrier of society and culture, which becomes embodied, a living breathing entity in and through us. But the mirror is not perfect, nor is the reflection. Since we do not passively accept the imposition of society, but actively interpret, represent, assign meaning, manipulate and navigate through it, the mirror is more muddy water then clear glass. The relationship between inside and outside is not a one-to-one correspondence, but a continuously evolving metaphorical one. Nevertheless, to the extent that our experiences are static, so are our minds – to the extent that our experiences are multifaceted, so are our minds. And since we seek to impose a confused mix of our interpretations of the world (and what we desire from it) back on to it, our internal and external worlds may co-evolve forever.

We are stuck then between several constraints. Our self-systems are, to a large extent, determined by our lived experiences, which in turn depend on our positions in the social structure, as well as the past, present, and future of the particular group of which we are a part, groups which are formed at the intersections of numerous economic, social, political and cultural fault lines. Our longing for a singular identity can only be fulfilled, it seems, by a violent restriction on our lived experiences – hence “identity crises” and “culture shocks” lead so often to an in-group mentality. Knowing, however, the potentially disastrous consequences of such an imposition, we may choose to go the other way, and actively seek to diversify our lived experiences (and thus our environments) as far as our mental faculties will allow, even as many who have been forced on to such a path by the contemporary, fragmented world have chosen to reject it and turn inwards again. Is there no other way?

Perhaps the problem is that we do not go far enough. Our need for unity pulls us back before we can reach the end. What, though, is the end? Only the internalization of every feasible configuration of lived experiences? And, therefore, only the exposure to every feasible configuration of physical and human environments, both spatially and temporally? That hardly seems feasible, to say the least.

Perhaps, then, by consciously creating and sustaining a social structure that is by definition all-inclusive, where every single form of categorization of people is torn apart? Perhaps we can only become someone by either becoming one – a single sub-self – or everyone. We will carry society within us as before, but no longer fragmented, no longer clumsily patched together, for our internal and external worlds will encompass the entire possible universe of human experience. For us to achieve that, we would not need merely a system that “makes room” for all experience, but one constituted by all experience. And for that, all differentiation between human experiences must be destroyed, leaving only one – the one experience of being human. And for that in turn, all differentiation between human beings themselves must be destroyed, leaving only the single category of being human. Can our capacity for imagination even grasp at such a world yet?

Inspired by Marx, Bourdieu, Victor de Munck, Katherine Ewing and Daniel Dennett.

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