UNITY: Coherence of the manifold self (5)

Third Person Narrative

Experts now don’t deny the importance of memory in maintaining our personal identity over time, but they do not find memory to be any more sufficient for the purpose than is the mere persistence of the body, the human organism itself. Philosophers and neuroscientists alike find it necessary to fill the gap by joining the social scientists, who have long asserted, while pounding their lecterns, that identity is a social construct. We can skip their theories about the social origin of identity. It’s enough just to look at the external facts.

Take the above-mentioned interruptions in memory. If we get any help at all in filling the gaps, it will come from other people (”You should have seen what you did just before you passed out” “I remember when you were just two and a half and you looked up at me and said …”).

Culture surrounds us with reminders, talismans, and even enforcement of our identity. This starts very early. We all know the bitter fight about when in the period prior to birth that a nascent human becomes a person. The usual pattern is that a family prepares the way for a baby, both in setting up material possessions for its care, and announcing to their social circle that the new person is coming, and possibly its sex and name. Then birth certificates nail down who we are, who our parents are, and where we entered the world. We become a recognized person with legal rights. This document is drawn on throughout life to validate our identity in new contexts. It is also common for hospitals to store a part of a newborn, in the form of cells from a cheek swab or blood from a heel prick. DNA findings at this time can reveal health conditions, knowledge of which might need to be retained for life. Parents might decide to store umbilical cord blood for stem cells that can be used to repair the body of this new person indefinitely into the future.

The end of life is interesting because it is not the end of identity, although for most people, at least up until now, identity gradually gets unwound, making a smaller and smaller cultural footprint. Other people may memorialize us shortly after death, and collect memories and artifacts that demonstrate the continuity of our identity over time. A few more accomplished or notorious people have their lives and deeds more or less immortalized. An open question today is whether digital culture might grant a longer post-mortality to the non-famous, particularly people who are active on social media. Certainly those media are starting to move in that direction as more of their patrons die.

As we play our different roles in life — parent, student, customer, worker, boss, citizen — each of the corresponding  constituencies want to mold us, often pulling us in conflicting directions. But none of them want our continuity as a person to change, and indeed they reinforce it over and over. We are always showing up, wearing the badge, signing our work. If we go away on vacation, those identities will be waiting for us, eagerly wagging their tails in greeting, or cracking the whip to catch up and meet deadlines. When he was inventing the modern theory of identity, John Locke said that it was “a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit” as well as “all the right and justice of reward and punishment”. In other words, our identity grounds our accountability to society. Social science now would add that it also goes the other way: our accountability to others is a big contributor to our identity.

Society (at its whim, of course) punishes falseness of identity. Mistaken and stolen identities were a big thing in Elizabethan times, amid a historical rise in individualism. Think of all the mistaken identities in Shakespeare’s plays. Only 10 years before Elizabeth I became queen, the culture of the time was rocked with an archetypal case of identity theft.

Martin Guerre disappeared from his Pyrenees home in 1548. Years later another man showed up and took Martin’s place, living with his wife and family as if he were Martin. Eventually suspicions mounted and his validity was questioned in the legal system. Suddenly the real Martin Guerre showed up. The impostor, who was actually from a neighboring village (it was a small world back then) was hanged. So much of this story intrigues that it has been re-hashed many times as fact and in fiction. We wonder — how could his wife and kids not know? This is a puzzle because we know, down to our bones, how embedded our continuing identity is in the minds of those close to us.

Society still enforces its interest in our identity with occasional harshness. Some impersonations can be felonies, others, if they fail, just prevent you from buying booze. Every time you are arrested, the cops do their best to nail down who you really are. These days it’s woe to you if your faked passport is detected.

Turning back to the inward Self, what circumstances of social isolation would cause drift that is significant enough to erase identity? We may not know enough to predict this, but we are fascinated by stories of hermits in the woods, being washed up on a desert island, chained in a dungeon, and the like. The common belief is that people have to exert extreme mental discipline to come out the same person at the other end. This at least reflects our conviction, often implicit, that our identity is maintained by contact with others.

Unlike the Self, which is internal by definition, identity is two-faced. There’s your social identity, visible to the outside world, and tagged by various markers, like debit cards and diplomas; artifacts, like your clothes and your money, and your narratives, spoken and written . Other people see you as friend, mate, rival, voter, and you internalize this, owning it or resisting it as you struggle to build and harmonize your internal identity. The Self reflects identity back to the outside as you attempt to reinforce the identity that you want others to believe. This was a big emphasis in twentieth century social science: people had “identity crises”. Then the postmodernists said that it was all out of control, that the pressures were too great, the influences too pervasive, so that identity was “fractured.”

Technology has given us new channels through which we can project our image. For all too many, the channel flows inward as “celebrities” fight to capture their attention. Celebrity worship now has a new name, parasocial relationships, used by the marketers to normalize the practice and its cynical manipulation. The rest of us are encouraged to seize the same social media channels and promote ourselves. It’s an antidote to twentieth century dependence on one’s employer/job for identity. But these days not only is there no bad publicity, there is also no bad attention, so drivel and shock multiply like maggots in meat. The best teachers to counter this trend will be those who show how to use the medium to present yourself with authenticity, which allows genuine reinvigoration and reinforcement of identity.

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