in Philosophy ~ read.

On Self-Definition

Who am I?

This is the question you more-or-less consciously ask yourself in moments of depersonalization, alienation, or mere whimsical introspection. On this angle my current answer, take it for what it is, is: there is no you.

Am I?
No.

More practically, it's the question you're asked when you fill in your About Me section on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, or any sort of collaborative social platform. This practice falls into the category of signaling, in the same sense that birds sing and crickets chirp to alert their environment that "I am here." Another bird, hearing these cues, might fly to the singing bird to mate or towards the cricket to eat; different signals will be perceived differently depending on who's receiving them. Our species just happens to have the unique ability to guess how others might react and tailor our descriptions accordingly. Yet if you're like me, you've felt disappointment at anything you end up putting in the box. A common reaction:

OKCupid

Friends, as you have no doubt intuited, there's a reason it doesn't work; the sky is blue and bears do, in fact, crap in the woods; you as a human being possess too many edges to be contained in a short profile box. The above profile is an example of poor signaling; it shows nothing aside from the fact that this person is the type to use such a description (and not someone who at least attempts something more original). To define yourself as undefinable is ironic, for it is the very opposite of escaping definition.

In fact, to join any platform is to define yourself as a user; to leave your description blank defines you as descriptionless (versus being undefined). The only way to escape the dialectic, to be an amorphous, undefined entity, is nonexistence. You (the individual you) choose not to participate in a given system and therefore cannot be thought of within its context. Unless you are a pure spectator, you participate; you've a priori decided to put skin in the game. So, what are your goals? Who is your audience? Who do you want to be?

The marketer's answer is to portray yourself as you wish to be seen by others, which is in turn mediated by your ability to anticipate others' knowledge space. Believe it or not, that second clause is our access point into the nature of identity, which the majority of this essay will be spent exploring. Before we get there, let's break down a popular colloquialism:

Personal branding

The concept existed long before business writer Tom Peters codified it back in 1997. Since the birth of history, people have been defined by their actions. But not until recently has the practice of active self-definition been given a name, personal branding, a meme which like wildfire spread through the corporate community and now, exacerbated by the social media boom, is taught not only in business schools but de rigueur to all undergraduates who seek some semblance of a career. It is also inherently painful, as you shall soon discover when you learn that...

The word "brand" derives from the Old Norse "brandr" meaning "to burn."
-Wikipedia

That's right, by developing your "personal brand," you are performing the moral equivalent of taking a haphazardly shaped piece of iron, heating it red in a furnace, and searing your flesh with its insignia.

Branding

There are people who relish in this activity (masochists). They build entire careers out of it. They believe, without irony, that the majority of problems in our lives are the result of personal branding gaffes. Of course this isn't the case, but for better or worse, online platform or not, we are always performing the act of self-definition, always signaling.

Here's another example. Contributors to the subreddit r/iamverysmart experience schadenfreude by mocking those who publicly declare their superior (but not actually) intelligence as a fallacious argumentative tactic:

iamverysmart

Obviously this case represents ineffective and counterintentional signaling. On the other hand, the person who found this image saw it could fit r/iamverysmart, posted it, and was rewarded with karma (reddit's imaginary internet points), effectively signaling his understanding of the schema and the type of content its users demand. But what of the users? Contexts exist beyond simple reddit karma-farming. I, to come clean, do enjoy browsing the posts from time to time, but observe: the moral implications aren't the best.

  • "Look at this snooty tooty. He thinks it's fun to look down on poor people who don't know any better. Maybe it's his way of coping with his inferiority complex. Which makes him even more deplorable."

So you see, you cannot escape the reality of being branded. Whether you approach this fact with resignation or with gusto is up to you. But the larger point: self-definition, inherently a telling act, is therefore fraught with all the implications of the act of telling. And when we tell, we invite ourselves to be evaluated or, as it were, measured.

Wittgenstein's Ruler

German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that deceased maestro of linguistic reduction, had a fascinating theory about the nature of definitive accuracy. It's pretty complex, so take instead this paraphrase from antiquity-loving prop trader Nassim Taleb:

According to Wittgenstein's ruler: Unless you have confidence in the ruler's reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table you may also be using the table to measure the ruler. The less you trust the ruler's reliability, the more information you are getting about the ruler and the less about the table.

A practical example of Wittgenstein's ruler is: The information from an anonymous reader on Amazon.com is all about the person, while that of a qualified person, is going to be all about the book.

"Husband, father, Steelers fan." If you interpret this (or any) bio on a descriptive level (face value), it was probably written for you; self-definition at its purest amounts to in-group signaling. Otherwise, more telling is that this is the type of person to write "Husband, father, Steelers fan" and not "April 20th kombucha goddess," "Growth hacker. Author. Entrepreneur.," or "2 complex 4 140 char." We all want to say something, we all want to be someone, yet the common wish to appear internally consistent to all external eyes creates the worst fallacy in the world. If we want effective signals, we need to examine how in-groups (such as r/iamverysmart) are structured.

To be part of a group means to exhibit at least some characteristics of that group. When someone describes themselves as an "entrepreneur," you might compare him against Mark Zuckerberg as the archetypal entrepreneur. If the person exhibits no mutual qualities, then according to you, he isn't actually an entrepreneur and is merely posturing as one. We have a word for such people: frauds. More precisely, the criteria we evaluate against are personal but not arbitrary. While everyone has a functioning idea of what an "entrepreneur" is, our definitions will vary, and there isn't one single correct answer.

Entrepreneur table

Mercurio the elitist thinks only Zuckerberg-like people can be rightfully called entrepreneurs whereas the far more lenient Adam is okay with any run-of-the-mill college student who's filed some legal forms for the sole purpose of being able to call himself a CEO. It is in this sense that our criteria are personal. However, only a delusional person would propose "has auctioned a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild" as a criterion for being an entrepreneur. It is in this sense that criteria are not arbitrary.

Leading us to the question: how is the reliability of the ruler determined? Taleb doesn't address that here, but my intuition is it's based on an agreed set of assumptions. In the Middle Ages, a "foot" corresponded to the length of any adult's foot, but nowadays it's defined by the metric meter, which is in turn defined by the speed of light (an interesting history). I will also propose that the degree to which a field can be objective corresponds to the degree to which its participants agree with its assumptions, which explains the qualitative difference between mathematics and art criticism.

An in-group with common criteria is fertile ground for the development of an aesthetic hierarchy. This thread is currently #1 on r/iamverysmart, and, for better or worse, this thread is basically the Platonic Ideal of the Reddit égrégore. But if you don't know what the criteria are, signals are noise. Personally, I'm oblivious to decent vs. good vs. great makeup jobs, but to the more perceptive, distinguishing is simple. In economics, the best I can do is model supply and demand curves while Nassim Taleb calls out famous academics much the same way an art critic distinguishes great works of abstract expressionism from amateur attempts.

So with regards to personal branding, it's on you to figure out the different rulers people are using so that you can be measured how you want to be measured (too bad real life isn't as simple as reddit karma). A tall order, but as a reader of mine, you are expected to be already, implicitly doing this. You know exactly what's meant when they say:

  • Show, don't tell.
  • He talks the talk, but can he walk the walk?

You grok that the more authority you have—the greater your ethos—the less you have to tell in order to be; Zuckerberg doesn't have to prove to anyone that he's an entrepreneur, he's just Mark Zuckerberg; his meme is infectious enough to be a ruler in itself.

A note on frauds. There are people who lie on their resumes and get in high positions and perform perfectly well. Marilee Jones was Dean of Admissions at uber-prestigious MIT for nine years, writing books and winning several service awards during her tenure before people found out she lied about her degrees and forced her resignation. Such individuals are like skilled art forgeries, eluding even the rulers of experts—but when one person discovers a flaw, everyone does. I won't discuss the ethical implications here—and there are many—just understand that "fake it 'till you make it" is also deadly serious (and not necessarily in a bad way).

As you have seen, Mercurio's conception of entrepreneur differs dramatically from Adam's.
As you will see, who you are follows the same schema.

The construction of identity

Even if you’re trying not to be yourself, you’re revealing yourself by how you hide. Everything is autobiographical.
-Charlie Kaufman

What do you suppose the master screenwriter was trying to convey with this odd little quote? To reiterate, the only way to remain undefined is to choose not to participate in a given system. Find the system, identify the ruler.

You should understand that the first act of your life, to be born, is not a choice; we are thrust into this world by whim and are thus defined by the system of life. From the moment you emerge from the womb—and indeed even before then—you are defined by your actions. You're the kid who was born three weeks early. Who burned his fingers on his birthday candles. Paul who quit his accounting job to be a digital nomad. Betty who died at age 56 from metastatic pancreatic cancer. It is in this sense that everything is autobiographical.

To clarify, my working definition of action refers to anything that creates a socially measurable fact. "Yes, that happened." My internal monologue lives with me and dies with me; a thought is not an action unless it is shared in some way—spoken, written, posted—with another person. As the absence of action is also an action, the nature of action is paradoxical—much like the nature of identity; the accumulation of said facts leads to the creation of a self, accessed through the minds of others. The key word in that sentence: "a."

A self. Each individual you encounter along the arc of your life can only ever see a cross-section of the facts you present to them. They are also limited by their own ways of perceiving, as they come from different backgrounds and hold different assumptions about the facts they see; a ruler is not a ruler is not a ruler. To three individuals, one pop singer might be "God's gift to rock," "a populist imitator," and "a personal inspiration." The same goes for archetypes; the angel investor can represent either the paragon of innovation and progress or a capitalist megalomaniac toying with peoples' futures. Indeed, Sally's Richard is not Andrew's Richard is not Richard's Richard.

The idea of being known and accepted in your totality is, e(r)go, impossible. It is in this sense that "we're born alone, we live alone, we die alone"; no one can experience your existence exactly like you do; phenomenology is essentially individual. The desire for such an integration, however, seems fundamentally human, and on this I have two comments: that true empathy can be approached asymptotically, and that love is its manifestation.

Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.
-Orson Welles

When we feel loved, it is in part a vindication of this existential solitude, a comforting blindfold to the searing light of reality (mediated through dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other such alchemy). And when it ends, our dilated pupils are once again exposed, and it hurts (but in most cases they eventually contract).

As it happens, there is a form of love which is just as illusory with none of the benefits.

Narcissism

Every morning we look in the mirror to examine our reflections. Yet, we forget where the true reflection lies: in others' eyes. Indeed, not only is it the case that the light bouncing off our skin creates our physical representations, but our social interactions—part of which is our personal branding—create our mental representations. It is not ourselves for whom we tidy our appearance in our literal mirrors, it is for others, specifically for our reflections in their mental mirrors. To rephrase: we seek to ensure, as much as possible, that others' mental perceptions of us reflect how we would like to be perceived. Which, ironically, tellingly, hinges to some extent on our physical reflections seen through physical mirrors: reflective glass or retinas & optic nerves.

Just as there are social costs to posting negative content on Facebook, there are social benefits to maintaining a positive veneer. This is so self-evident to digital natives that we abide by it on every platform without even realizing. The safest strategy, given that your goal is to accumulate social capital (likes, upvotes, mutatis mutandis) while maintaining your friendships (connections, followers, mutatis mutandis), is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Among my techie white-collar information worker millennial demographic, this amounts to vacation photos, pictures of food, concert videos, and neoliberal media thinkpieces. Understandably (but to my dismay), sneaking past Lord Overton is rare, risky, and garners few likes.

How does any of this relate to personal identity? My friend—let's call him John—can tell me he wants to be a writer, after which point I'll know that he wants to be a writer. He can call himself a writer, but I won't consider him one until he's written something, anything, such is the measure of my rule. Someone with a more flexible ruler might consider him a writer if he calls himself one, but not me, I need to see the additional action of written work. Furthermore, John may want me to see him as a writer, but he might want others to see him as an informed social commentator, or maybe a sporty guy. What if these identities come into conflict? How can he reconcile being a party-head to his friends, a Momma's boy at home, and a hardworking teetotaler at his day job?

Consider: this constant desire to rectify (reify) the facts and others' perceptions of them, taken to its logical extreme, is equivalent to standing at the mirror and continually applying makeup, never leaving the house. This state of active change resistance is frighteningly easy to fall into, given the increasingly numerous selves we feel more-or-less compelled to maintain and integrate not only through our in-the-flesh interactions but also our data-identities on multifarious digital platforms. Yet change is inevitable; the myth of Narcissus, if you recall, is not a static photo but a moving story, one in which he withers away as he stares, unwilling to tear his gaze from the pool.

Narcissus

How did we get here?

Schizophrenia

[skit-suh-FREH-nee-uh]
from Ancient Greek σχίζω ‎(skhízō, “to split”) + φρήν ‎(phrḗn, “mind, heart, diaphragm”)

In the clinical sense, schizophrenia is a mental disorder in which humans hear voices and lose touch with reality. More relevant is its sociological definition, which in psychological terms is roughly: a state of negative affect caused by excessive code-switching. Why is this more relevant? For one, it's more likely than not, dear reader, that you don't suffer from clinical schizophrenia, but it is quite probable that you experience some degree of sociological schizophrenia.

We have more reflections (identities) to manage than ever, and because some of them pull in different directions, we may experience cognitive dissonance, unaware of which is the "true self" or if such a thing even exists, and the affective effect of this identity-dissonance is often anxiety. Psychobabble? Think again. A clever man by the name of Jonah Peretti predicted thirty years ago that this would happen and is now capitalizing on his theory with a company I'm sure you're all intimately familiar with: Buzzfeed.

Again, identity reconciliation seems like a basic human desire. Back in the old days you'd be a member of a tribe and you knew your place and function in the tribe; everything was decided for you by the social order. You didn't question your identity because you didn't need to: you were the fruit gatherer, the hunter, the shaman, and everyone else knew it too. No schizophrenia. Nowadays, you are freer than ever to determine who you are, but this freedom, predicated on your predetermined cultural milieu, is not and was never true. More-or-less forced to negotiate and re-negotiate your identity, you soon realize that schizophrenia is the price of agency. Spend a minute watching Rick and Morty:

.

It's great. Makes you laugh while hinting at some deep philosophical quandary. If your reaction was "Gee, that's quite depressing," then you are normal, because it means you've correctly interpreted the evidence: the robot looks down in dejection and emits a defeated "Oh my god." If you discovered the purpose of your existence was merely "to pass butter" or something equally vapid, it would be normal to become sad, downcast, or mortified, right?

Yes, yes it would. But normality is overrated, and I propose you have it backwards. What's important in my eyes is the fact that you discovered the purpose of your existence, which, yes, means your existence has a purpose. In a way, that's a profoundly comforting thought. To know: my existence has a purpose. So the robot, instead, should say: "Oh my God!" Because the serf, the blacksmith, the tradesman, the noble, and the king all knew who they and what their roles were while schizophrenic you has no clue whatsoever, and any time you think you're close to finding out, you crash.

Solution

This is simply how it works in digitally mediated 2016. You cannot change reality. You can, however, change your reaction to it. Accept on a fundamental level, accept on an emotional level your manifold selves and your schizophrenia—do not reject it, do not lament it—instead of labeling yourself a "chameleon," believing you have multiple personality disorder, or selling yourself short in other ways. This is the new normal. Dissociate the negative connotations from these words and accept reality. A fully integrated, unified self is now as much a myth as Zeus and Hera. It didn't used to be that way, but that's just how it is now; Gott is tot; accept it. And slowly, the anxiety will disappear.

Disclaimer: I never said it was easy.

Death

Because we started our discourse with a theory of identity genesis, it's not insensible to end it by thinking about when and how identity ceases. So, here we go.

Content warning: If you're not comfortable with discussing death, or if any of the above made you uncomfortable, you may want to avoid this section and skip straight to the bottom. If you're fine or willing to push through the discomfort, I (as the author, of course, duh) recommend being like Neo and seeing where this rabbit hole leads...

They say every man dies two deaths: once when he stops breathing, and the second, later on, when someone utters his name for the very last time.
-African Proverb

If you've been following along, you can easily deduce that this statement is true within the context of my identity framework. A no-name serf that died in the Middle Ages has as much comport to us as someone who never existed. Isaac Newton, on the other hand, is a bit different. Though he no longer lives, his reflection lives, in the sense that we in our minds each hold a construction/hologram/model of whom he was. A physicist has a much fuller picture of the man than the high school physics student, and a science historian might have a fuller picture still.

It is no surprise, then, why fame is so attractive to so many: it is a chance at maintaining an identity, at staying alive. The opposite, ignominy, can be to some unthinkable. But memento mori, physically and socially; remember what happened to Ozymandias.

But there is more complexity to be explored. You will note that the proverb above categorizes two kinds of death: a physical death and a social death. Just as physical death can be construed in various ways—when you stop breathing (per the proverb), when your heart stops beating, when your neurons stop firing, etc.—so can social death. And it isn't necessarily the case that physical death must precede social death.

To be ignored and rejected by others is indeed the worst punishment and the worst of all sufferings.
-Philippe Rochat

Indeed, ostracism and rejection, the tarnishing of reputation, and being forgotten in collective memory (per proverb) are examples of social parallels to the physical. The Roman Senate understood this so well that it meted out a specific punishment, damnatio memoriae, to those it wished to extirpate from the annals of historia. Exile? Death? But one and the same. Following this instinct, prisons even today put unruly inmates in solitary confinement, abandoned by everything except their own minds. If you are like I was, you may imagine this being a calm and easy state, but rest assured, it is not.

Or: imagine how horrible it would be to be almost universally hated, as Justine Sacco was for one single tone-deaf tweet. Vile as Donald Trump is, hated by millions (with very good reason, and yes for the record I lean towards this side), you must, absolutely must accept that he is also loved by millions (also with very good reason). Sacco's situation was thus inconceivably worse. Netflix's Black Mirror has two episodes—White Christmas and Hated in the Nation—that take this concept to its endpoint; if you wish to learn more about yourself, observe your emotional reactions as you watch them.

What is bullying if not social violence? Consider: what if the you reflected in the mirrors of others' minds were not a mere case of lackluster makeup skills but a monster, a grotesque pustulant homunculus with fingers for eyes and holes for fingers, skin rotting off the flesh, flesh rotting off the bone, a twitching deformity, ugliness personified. Virulent hatred, sanctioned disgust; the worst of human emotions fly towards you like iron filings to a magnet—and there are so, so many filings.

Could you bear that weight?

Well, in spite of my horrific depiction above, it is not the case that being seen as a homunculus necessitates bearing any weight at all. If it is impossible for you to imagine a case where you wouldn't feel significant negative affect after exposure to public hatred or humiliation, that is because you are normal. From a purely affective standpoint, psychopaths and sociopaths (in the clinical sense) wouldn't notice a difference; this does not mean they're oblivious to the social consequences, in fact they're often hyperaware. But there is, I dare venture, a third category of individuals who can, with none of the (deserved) negative connotations of the prior two, achieve this level of perhaps not ignorance but indifference: the enlightened.

How you get there is up in the air and seems to be distinctly individual. In any case, I prefer the proverb's definition of social death; social torture (as perceived by neurotypical individuals) better fits the other construals. It's important to remember that our favorite homunculus is, nevertheless, a homunculus, and more broadly that what it is—homunculus (you're goddamn right I love the word homunculus), Tim who predicted the election results, Jesus, whatever—is not as important as that it is; that, physically dead or not, our latent object is (vs. is not), that it participates in our social system and by dint is defined, has an identity, exists. The ceasing of identity is the true social death: being forgotten in collective memory, systemic non-participation, oblivion.

Respite

What should we call me? is an internet blog that's been around forever. Posed as a rhetorical question, but it isn't. The answer: whatever you want. More precisely, a tumblr blog authored by two women who try to capture and/or evoke particular context-dependent human emotions through internet memes. It perfectly exemplifies this quote:

We are increasingly fluent in images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments.
-Roberto Bolaño

See? It's not that hard to map it out. And by doing so, I've just described to you my necessarily unique reflection of that blog's self. It defines itself by its actions—which I'll say is its content—and I am presenting to you my personal reflection/cross-section/examination of it: Richard's WSWCM.

  • Oh, looks like Richard's a literalist.
  • For me, it's...
    • my home away from home
    • perfect for texting my friends how I feel
    • Meme
    • ... and other such poetic things

But then you ask... is a blog a self? Is a person a self? Is a blog a person?

Let's not get into that.

If you've read this far, it's safe to say you now have an idea as to how identity is constructed. But we never discussed what identity you should construct. That's because I haven't the faintest idea, and I'm not even sure if that's a valid question in the general sense (the only sense that really matters). I will say that the world has plenty of ready-made identities for you. Republican. Democrat. Husband. Mother. Steelers Fan. Mormon. MBA. Growth Hacker. And that if you want, all you have to do is take a few whose core values don't conflict too much, live by them, and you have a perfectly sustainable life-in-a-box. And that this seems to work for a surprisingly large segment of the population.

Nothing wrong with that!

Trying to build your own, on the other hand, is no more valid either. Both paths have consequences. The latter, for example, can involve a lot of emotional turmoil and usually you have to believe (I do) that it'll be worth it in the end. My case for this will have to wait for another post, but if I had to summarize, it'd be: make your life a new art genre because I'm goddamn tired of the walking reposts.

Curious reader,

You may still be wondering about yours truly. Who am I? Truth is, it's all there; you just have to read between the lines. Just keep in mind that what I don't say and what I exclude can be far more important than what I do say. And when I do say something, how I say it is often much more revealing than what I'm saying. And the best part—and what makes it genuinely awesome—is, in every possible sense: I don't even know. It's on you. It's on you to decide: what should we call me?

But if that's still confusing, you can ignore every word I wrote above and run with this:

About Me

  1. One who writes a lengthy blog post to paste as standard response for social media About Me sections
  2. One who is defined by you: your interpretation(s) of his actions; your familiarity with the ideas he purports and purports to understand.

Are you not entertained?