“Is our identity a real and definite thing, or just another model that is useful to describe the complex contradictory web of things that find some locus around us?” —bambamramfan, 2/20/2017
It’s neither of those. Not on the most fundamental level, anyway.
People who talk about the role of identity-narrative in the human psyche, these days, tend to characterize it primarily as an artifact of knowledge — as a sort of map to the territory-that-is-the-real-self, meant to serve as a guide to uncovering or understanding the empirical truths of that domain. Rationalists are especially prone to this, which is understandable, given that rationalist philosophy in general is obsessively focused on acquiring empirical truths. So you get a lot of discussion about how identity narratives maybe aren’t very good maps, how they’re prone to leading you into certain kinds of distortion and error, etc. You end up with exhortations to “keep your identity small” for the sake of not getting wedded to falsehoods, and suchlike.
Which is all very reasonable, as far as it goes. It is true that people sometimes turn to identity-narratives for predictive power, both their own narratives and those of others, and that this can yield some painfully stupid results. (E.g., a self-identified libertarian asking “can a libertarian believe X?” rather than just figuring out whether X is a reasonable thing to believe.) It is true that having a strong identity-narrative sometimes puts you in the position of really wanting to double down on empirical wrongness because that’s the only way to avoid a narcissistic injury. It is true that in actual fact people are very complicated and multifaceted and messy, often much more so than their personal narratives would suggest, and that you lose a bunch of potentially-important detail if you try to use their constructed identities as perfect maps of reality. These things matter, and if you don’t take them into account, bad outcomes lie in wait.
But this is all somewhat missing the point. An identity narrative is not primarily designed to be an artifact of knowledge. Insofar as it offers any predictive power, that’s a tertiary benefit at most. All these very real costs of the “narcissism” technology need to be weighed against its legitimate primary benefits, which generally don’t even show up in the conversation at all. So…it may be worth taking a few moments to spell out, in slightly more detail, what those benefits are.
Identity is not about Truth, but about Beauty.
Maintaining a narrative-of-yourself gives you the power to appreciate your life in the way that you appreciate stories.
Which is fortunate, because it turns out that humans appreciate stories in a different way — often a more robust, satisfying way — than they appreciate actual things in the actual world.
Let’s step back for a bit and talk about “narratives” in a more normal sense.
In the West, for close to a century now, the dominant prestige form of literature has been the “literary novel” (along with its made-for-the-stage close cousin, the “literary drama.”) This is usually a relentlessly grounded narrative, constrained by genre convention to be close-to-maximally realistic and close-to-maximally relatable, in which Basically Normal People who are embedded in a Basically Normal Situation have Basically Normal Feelings and Reactions which are explored in exhaustive detail. The mean, only-kinda-unfair stereotype is that the genre centers on “stories about middle-aged adulterous English professors who endlessly contemplate the petty frustrations of their lives,” and that every literary novel is only a step or two away from that archetype.
It took the artistic world by storm. All the Serious-About-Literature people got really, really, really into this kind of thing.
There was, of course, all kinds of popular resistance. The literary novel wasn’t splashy and wasn’t fun and often wasn’t especially easy to consume. It didn’t really speak to your imagination, your sensawunda, your desire for grand and romantic and numinous things. Lots of people thought that prestige fiction was fundamentally boring and stupid. My own notional culture-tribe, the geeks, were especially vehement about this. They were so goddamn adamant that stories should be about exciting and cool things! Like spaceships and wizards and dragons and heroic last stands! They would not be shamed or bullied by the intellectual popular kids! They would follow their own star, away from the muck and the mire of sordid realism!
Which is why I find it so hilarious that…in their own roundabout fashion…the geeks ended up finding ways to chuck all the exciting and cool stuff out of their fiction, and ultimately reinventing the literary novel. In their circles, such works are called “coffeeshop AUs” and “high school AUs.”
…I mean, yes, the exact nature of the content tends to be a bit different. Which is no surprise; compared to your average published lit-fic author, your average A03 writer is a lot less likely to be obsessed with adultery and academic politics and ennui, and a lot more likely to be obsessed with adolescent yearnings and crushes. But, allowing for expected personal differences between the creators and the target audiences of these genres, the narrative tactics involved are remarkably parallel. You take your characters and stick them in the most basic and typical circumstances you can find, deliberately rooting out any possibility of plot-driven suspense and any stakes beyond the personal and emotional. You have them go through ordinary, everyday interactions with each other and with the world. And you chronicle their thoughts about those things on a very very very fine-grained level, trusting that your readers will relate and therefore care.
As fan literature has become a well-established phenomenon subject to its own natural laws, it’s become increasingly clear that the highest-entropy state for any fandom is an endless sea of coffeeshop AUs and the like. Eventually all the cool worldbuilding bits and bobs will cease to be exciting, and then they’ll wither away in the consciousness of the fans, but hashing out the emotional realities of the characters (or of fannish reinterpretations of those characters) can remain compelling pretty much indefinitely.
Stories like this are not the best at getting people invested in them. Which should not be any kind of surprise; there are all sorts of obvious reasons to find them dull and samey and pointlessly indulgent. But for those who are already prepared to be invested, whether they’re Big-Name Authors who Take Literature seriously or teenage Tumblrinas in a fan community, such narratives have immense power. They have enough power to crowd out everything else, in the end, including the cool shit with spaceships and wizards and heroic last stands.
Do you find that weird? You should. I sure find it weird. I spent years trying to figure out what the hell was up with this phenomenon, including during periods when it was actively playing out inside my own psyche.
A literary novel, or a coffeeshop AU for that matter, is basically a low-fidelity reproduction of normal life. Why the hell do we find it more interesting than actual for-realsies normal life, which is the same thing with much richer detail and fewer auctorial screw-ups?
I have literally sat at a party, listening to someone talk about the mind-numbing tedious detail of her emotional drama, and thought: God almighty, shut up shut up shut up, I can’t believe you think anyone would be interested in this shit. I don’t want to be here at all. I want to go home, and curl up with my nice Philip Roth book, and…read about the mind-numbing tedious detail of someone’s emotional drama. Huh.
(And you can say that Philip Roth is at least an abnormally effective prose stylist, which is true, but…apparently the exact same thing happens when the author in question is a random teenage Tumblrina writing about Homestuck characters working as baristas.)
The short-short-short version of the answer is:
A story, simply by virtue of being told as a story — if it is acknowledged, by the audience, as a story worth the telling — performs a strange psychological alchemy upon the events that it relates. They come to matter, in a way that mere material happenings do not matter. We become able to find beauty and meaning within them.
If you will permit me a moment of poetic metaphor: we perceive stories with the distantly appreciative eyes of God, who looked upon His creation and found it good, and not only with the pragmatic advantage-seeking eyes of men.
I am not going to try to explain exactly what causes this to be true. At the very least, that’s a project for a very big book, not for a blog post. Probably I couldn’t do it even if I were willing to devote years to the task. I’m pretty sure it involves complicated psychological truths, having to do with the mental structures that allow for classical conditioning and suchlike, and I am not any kind of psychologist. I’m reasonably confident that it also involves the basic constitutive structure of the brain, by which I mean the fact that neurons are linked in an anagogic-associative fashion rather than in any more logic-driven way, and I am definitely not a neurologist. I will leave these questions to the people competent to address them.
But even on a purely humanistic level, there is understanding to be gained here. Stories are rituals. On a basic functional level, narrative is a tool that we developed to allow us to process events in a more-detached, more-contemplative, and more-emotionally-responsive way. “Once upon a time” translates to “you should shut up and listen to this, not because it contains nuggets of information that will help you find food or defeat your Hated Rival or whatever, but because considering it in its entirety will touch your heart and guide you to wisdom.” Someone being the main character of a tale is a universal signal that his story is worth caring about, because if it weren’t, there would be no point in telling the tale at all. Even if none of this stuff is hard-wired into the human brain — which strikes me as deeply implausible, but whatever — narrative is a technology that we’re all taught to use from earliest childhood, and by the time we’re adults we are extremely good at consuming it properly.
The boring person at a party is…just a boring person. My instinctive praxis with her is to scan her anecdotes for information that looks obviously worthwhile or relevant, come up with nothing, and become irritated. I could engage with her on a narrative level, and if I did I would probably be a lot more interested, but it’s not a natural thing to do; she’s not speaking the right language or giving off the right signals, I have no reason to trust her as a tale-teller. When I go home and pick up Goodbye Columbus, I’m walking into that experience planning to be Philip Roth’s narratively-receptive audience, and so it becomes engaging and compelling to listen to some shmuck telling his own really-not-that-different quotidian anecdotes. Of course it matters what happens to this guy! He’s the fucking protagonist! If there’s going to be any kind of artistic soul-firing payout here, I have to care! And it’s silly to imagine that there wouldn’t be an artistic soul-firing payout — this is literature, isn’t it?
(I should clarify, because it’s important: this mechanism does not require prestige to function, although prestige can help. You can watch an episode of Digimon and pretty much the same thing will happen, so long as you’re minimally prepared to invest in the narrative, which is why the world contains Digimon fanfic. There may not be a sense that you’re consuming Great Art that Speaks to the Human Condition, but there is a sense that you’re consuming a story-worth-the-telling whose truths and revelations will affect you somehow.)
It is really, really, really awesome that humans are capable of perceiving themselves in this narrative-powered sort of way. It makes our experience of the world less mundane, less rooted in the eternal scramble for small successes, more defined by symbolic and (potentially) mythic concepts. It can make us happy in moments when the world does not align towards our happiness. It makes us a little less like beasts, a little more like gods, in the way we perceive things. It helps to turn us into art.
Occasionally you’ll run into a positivity meme saying something like the following:
When you find yourself fixating on your flaws and failures, remember that if you were a character in a book or a TV show, the audience would love you for those weird quirks.
You can laugh at the Hallmark-ish sentimentality there, if you like, but there’s a real wisdom buried in it. When you examine your life in a normal “worldly” operational-logic-driven mode, the only things you can really perceive are desire and fulfillment and loss, pleasure and pain, success and failure. When you examine your life (ahem) narcissistically, you gain a new evaluative and appreciative dimension. You can look at things, not as someone inside the system trying to satisfy goals, but as someone outside the system looking at it as an artifact whose value is potentially inherent. Is this person the person he should be? Is there something enlightening, or touching, or just-plain-awesome about this story? Am I beholding a form of beauty?
The utility of this mindset really does not come out of its predictive-modeling power.
Because narrative identities are ultimately disconnected from any kind of truth-finding purpose, they can easily incorporate elements that are not empirically valid propositions at all. This turns out to be critical, if you want to understand how identity-building works, and especially if you want to be able to help others construct identities in a practical way.
Consider: I am affiliated with the element of fire.
On a propositional level, this is a meaningless non-statement in several different ways. It is, as they say, “not even wrong.” If you’re trying to translate it into falsifiable statements about the speaker’s personality, you will fail; at best you can treat it purely as a metaphor, give it some clunky more-propositional meaning whose nuances are likely to be importantly different, and then evaluate that.
But it’s nonetheless the sort of thing that goes into people’s identities all the time. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t. It’s not meaningful as a claim about a person, but it is meaningful as a claim about a story, and the whole point of having an identity is that you can perceive yourself in narrative terms. We all know what it means to say “in this tale, fire is a symbol representing Character X.” If you’re affiliated with the element of fire, it probably means that you consider yourself to partake in the traits of fire in some not-very-tightly-defined way, such that you recognize the truth of your narrative when you act in a discernibly “fiery” manner. It probably means that, when you perceive fire being awesome (as in a pretty picture or whatever) — or anti-awesome (as when it burns down your friend’s house) — there is a resonance that shades over onto the meaning of your own personal existence. Such relationships and correspondences often serve to define and connect literary constructs, even if they cannot exist with reference to physical objects or logical propositions.