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1941 - ON IDENTITY

Odd thing about being a private detective - you spend your time finding out little things about other people that no one else knows, but then you discover that there are all sorts of things that everybody else knows about you, which you don't.
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt, Page 209

People often say that this or that person has not yet found themselves. But the self is not something one finds, it's something one creates.
Thomas Szasz

      In 1941, Marcel Braitstein, was given a new name, a new family, a new religion - a whole new identity. To protect him from the oppression of Jews by the Nazis in occupied Belgium, he became a hidden child. A Christian family agreed to "adopt" him as their god-child. He describes his experience as a hidden child in his autobiography Five to Ten: Story of a Hidden Child [BRAITSTEIN].

      My own childhood was similar. My parents disappeared when I was 5 and my sister was 3. My sister and I were sent to different guardians. We got together in the care of an uncle and aunt for a couple of years, and then we went together to another guardian. When I was about 13, we went to live with our mother with occasional visits from our father at weekends. My situation was much less tragic than Marcel's - our parents were safe and they came back. However, from a child's point of view, the situation was no less tragic. We must have been very bad or worthless for our parents to desert us without any excuse.

      My last trip to Scotland was to visit the uncle and aunt we had lived with. He was 100 and she was 90. I had the following conversation with my uncle:

Lambert, you are very alone. That's good - it makes you strong. But it's also bad - it makes you stunted (When you are 100 years old, you can say what you like!). Do you know why you are alone?
Nooo!
When you were 5 years old, your parents left you without a decent excuse - like dying, for instance. At 5, your world revolves around your parents. Since then, you have not trusted anyone.
I don't remember them leaving.
Of course, you don't. Don't you know Freud.
(Once again, after 10 years studying psychology, 5 years teaching psychology, writing a textbook introducing others to psychology, I had never thought of it. What Douglas Adams says about private detectives applies equally to psychologists. A 100-year-old man, who had never gone to High School, told me why, despite having relationships with many wonderful women, I had never married.)

      The mention of Freud reminded me of something and the conversation continued:

Could I write when I lived with you?
Yes, that's when you learned to write.
Would you believe that I never wrote for 50 years. I recovered my cursive writing during a session with a psychologist who went beyond Freud's talking cure to a writing cure. At one point, he asked me to write a dialogue with a wise old man. I wrote it with you. I was printing your side of the dialogue but, when it came to my side, I started writing cursive. As I watched my hand move, I thought I don't know how to do this but someone in here does.
Of course, you forgot how to write - we left you too.
(Once again, unconscious motivation had determined much of my life.)

      One crime which has been facilitated by the internet is identity theft. The criminal can gather enough information about someone else from the internet to pose as that person. Marcel once got a call from his bank.

Are you Marcel Braitstein?
Yes.
There's someone here who says he is you. He was about to get a loan in your name. We became suspicious when he absentmindedly signed his own name to the document confirming the loan.
You can imagine that this is a shattering experience to anyone, but especially to someone who had to deny his own identity and assume another one.

      The internet raises other identity issues. Famous people often have identity problems because so many people pre-judge them on the basis of their record rather than of their personality. This prejudgment could be considered as a precise prejudice. That is, the person is not pre-judged because of certain superficial attributes - black skin, woman's body - but because of his/her public image. Normal Mailer attributes the long delay between his first and second books to the fact that people were communicating with his image, and it took him some time to disentangle himself from his image. The internet makes us all famous. We are all famous not so much in the manner suggested by Andy Warhol that everyone in our modern media-saturated world can be famous for fifteen minutes but in the sense that we are all potentially know-able in fifteen minutes. If I google you before I meet you, you have all the disadvantages of fame with none of the advantages. I know about you but I don't know you.

      The invention of tools for both storing and transmitting information outside our bodies - the fourth generation of multimedia and internet - can not continue the conquest of space and time by the third generation - telephone and television. There is no place on our planet which is not potentially accessible to print and film, telephone and television. Nothing moves faster than the speed of light. Some have argued that it permits us to escape the constraints - not of time and space - but of our identity [STONE, TURKLE]. Surfing around on the internet without our bodies on, we can try on other personalities. No one knows what sex we are, what colour we are, how old we are - that is, there is no basis for prejudice (sexism, racism, ageism, respectively). We can not be pre-judged.

      When I was introduced to Sandy Stone at a conference entitled Avatars in Virtual Worlds at Banff Centre for the Arts, I said "You look vaguely familiar." She replied "Yes, I taught with you at the University of California at Santa Cruz but I was a man then." She and her husband had met on the internet, where they lived together for six months in a house they had built in a Virtual World. Because there was no concern with "cheap physical stuff" during this initial stage of their courtship, they were able to get into deep conversations in which they really got to know one another. By the time they met in the real world, they were able to more easily deal with the physical side of their relationship.

      Logan Pearsall Smith pinpoints one aspect of the human predicament when he says: What a bore it is, waking up in the morning, always the same person. We are condemned to be one person in one place at one time. Media permits us to be, at least vicariously, other people in other places at other times. This is part of the explanation why there is such a huge appetite for stories. The life we lead is only one of millions of possible lives we could have led. Each decision we make cuts out many possible lives. My decision to come to Canada cut out all those lives I could have led in Scotland. The decision of the Hudson Bay Company to complete their recruitment before coming to Lochwinnoch cut out all the lives I could have led in the Canadian North. Is it any wonder then that I read many stories about life in Scotland and in the Canadian North? Of course, if you feel that the one life you happen to have led was a misspent life, then you are even more attracted to living your missed lives vicariously. That is perhaps why dedicated devotees of Star Wars and Star Trek movies are often advised to get a life.

      In 1935 ON POTENTIAL, I argued that we should not allow ourselves to be browbeaten about the potential of our minds. Except for a few unfortunate people born with some congenital limitation, we all have perfectly good equipment and merely need to acquire the operating manual. It is particularly important that we do not allow ourselves to be browbeaten about our identity. Each of us is the world's foremost authority on our self. It is indeed not easy to follow the basic advice of Socrates "Know Thyself", which is, of course, a prerequisite to "Be Thyself". We have more information about our self than anyone else but perhaps too much information. It is difficult to see the patterns buried in all that detail. We have an intensely emotional relationship with our self which may cloud our perception. Despite those difficulties, we are the best person to deal with them.

      The member of my karass who has worked most diligently on this issue of identity is Woody Allen. In his honour, let me use a film metaphor to talk about identity. At a two-day graduation party for a friend. I was taking many photographs to build a souvenir album. I ran out of colour film, borrowed some black-and-white film, and continue taking pictures with more abandon, since the film is cheaper (I am still Scottish!). I ran out of black-and-white film, but continue with even more abandon with the empty camera. (It is now the afternoon of the second day!) Since there is not any record of the shots, I decide to abandon the camera and take shots simply by blinking. Suddenly I realised that there was little point in taking stills when I had a continuous movie going and - blinking no more - I sat back to enjoy the movie.

      Every one of us is running a magnificent mobile movie studio of a mind, with wide-angle screen, stereophonic sound, Technicolor, and cast of thousands (but only one hero/heroine), in which we are producer, director, script-writer, camera person, sound engineer, stage manager and crew. This movie studio also doubles as a movie theatre, in which we can simultaneously watch the show. (We are also the movie critic who reviews the performance next morning!) The only limitation is that, in the movie theatre of the mind, there is only one seat. In order to show your home movies to other people, you have to learn to write, to speak, to play music, to make films. Some of us earn reputations for being good at showing our home movies, using a particular medium, and are thus recognised as artists. However, we are all artists in the sense that we all try, by some means or another, to invite other people in to see our home movies.

      Our identity is intimately identified with the roles we assign ourselves in our home movies. It is important to ask whether we are indeed the director. Is there someone else directing your home movies - your father or mother, your husband or wife? In his autobiography, Bruce McCall describes the long struggle to escape the script written for him by his autocratic father [MCCALL]. Are you writing your own script or simply lip-synching what someone else wrote? Dennis Potter, another member of my karass, explores this issue in Karaoke. Who do you invite in to see your home movies and how do you go about showing them?

      One central issue is whether we see our self as a discovery or an invention. In the opening quotation, Thomas Szasz argues that it is an invention. I agree. The first chapter is called 1935 ON POTENTIAL not 1935 ON FATE or 1935 ON DESTINY. There is no pre-written script which unfolds throughout our lifetimes. We have to write it ourselves. We have to create the central character in our mind movie - our self. On the other hand, what we tend to think of as inventions are often simply discoveries. "Really we create nothing. We merely plagiarise nature" (Jean Baudrillard). Time and again, we find that our "inventions" had been previously invented by nature. I look forward to the day when we invent a vehicle that can move on land, in water, and in the air only to realise that we have re-invented the lowly duck. Janine Benyus argues for biomimicry, the conscious imitation of nature's inventions [BENYUS]. We can discover our tools in nature but we have to invent our self. Nature just provided us all with a generic "human nature" and left it up to each of us to decide what specific life to carve out of it.

Return to the Table of Contents       Continue to Chapter 4.1