Because there were an awful lot of paragraphs that didn’t end up making it into that last post.
The world is full of people who really, sincerely want to be heroes. This is important.
Someone on Tumblr challenged me to provide a concise, usable definition of this “identity” term that I keep throwing around. Which is really a very reasonable sort of challenge.
Someone else pointed out that it might prove useful, later on, if my answer to that question were not buried in the trackless depths of Tumblr.
So. As best as I can define it, at the moment, identity is:
1. An abstracted mental image (or narrative) of the self, which is
2. Defined by a constellation of archetypical traits and tropes, and which
3. Allows its possessor to find both personal validation and aesthetic satisfaction in contemplating it, because
4. To some extent it simultaneously conforms to reality and to personal ideals.
It seems that people in my corner of the Great Internet Discourse have actually started talking about the Identity Thing. Some in response to my writing, some not. This is pretty excellent.
I should respond to their words.
…and perhaps clarify a few of my own thoughts while I’m at it.
I am, inter alia, a LARPer and an author of LARPs.
(This is not a metaphor. I mean it literally. I know that it’s become fashionable, in certain circles, to use “LARPing” as a slang term for “any intellectual or social activity involving an element of pretense” — e.g., neoreactionaries are urban liberals LARPing as traditionalist conservatives — but I am talking about real actual goddamn live-action roleplaying events, clearly acknowledged as such by all the participants.)
For those of you who aren’t familiar: LARPing is basically “make-believe games for adults, in which the action takes place in something-like-real-space and something-like-real-time, rather than being mediated solely through words or representational symbols.” People in costumes pretending to be other people.
The particular tradition in which I work, for those who believe in such distinctions, is usually called “theater LARP.” Theater LARPs are usually isolated one-off scenarios (suitable for being rerun many times with different groups of players), usually somewhere in the one-to-eight-hours range, and usually focused on elaborately prewritten characters and situations. The smallest theater LARPs may have as few as three or four roles, but twenty-player games are pretty standard, and some can get much larger.
Each player is assigned a character and provided with the associated “character sheet,” which may have stats or other game-mechanical information on it in the manner of a D&D character sheet, but which mostly contains narrative explaining the character’s background and psychology and goals; this story-text is supposed to help the player get into the character’s headspace and to guide roleplay choices. Unsurprisingly, the characters are usually written so as to have interesting things to say and do to each other, which is the core of the game experience. The medium has been described as “like a play without a script or an audience,” and thinking in those terms will give you at least a reasonable picture of what’s going on.
The general rule is that individual players don’t play in any given game more than once, and LARP stories are often written with this in mind. (The narrative may hinge on the revelation of secrets, etc.)
There may be game mechanics used to represent certain kinds of action — hand-to-hand combat, battlefield command, casting magic spells, conducting academic research, etc. These mechanics tend to be very abstract and bare-bones. Theater LARP rarely incorporates boffing (sport-fighting with fake weapons) or any other sort of athletic endeavor.
Here’s the thing about LARPs: they can hit really really really hard, and people tend to get really really really into them.
I don’t just mean this in the sense of “it’s a cool hobby and it draws people in, causing them to want to LARP more.” Individual LARP experiences can have profound personal effects on the players, and this happens a lot more often than you’d think. People obsess over roles that they once played, over little roleplay exchanges in which they once took part, years and years after the fact. Sometimes they’ll start to see certain facets of the real world through social or metaphysical lenses derived from the narratives of particular games. Sometimes a player will quietly shift his personality, or his outlook, to better match some particularly-resonant character. Fanfic, and other now-standard manifestations of sustained interest, crop up constantly. It’s not unknown for in-character romances or feuds to blossom into real-life romances or feuds, even when the dynamic is mostly or entirely rooted in the narrative of the game. It’s very common for LARP memories to be especially-treasured, and for people to be super-possessive of the best stories that they’ve gotten to play out.
Of course, to some extent, this sort of thing plays out with every kind of narrative experience. Anyone on the internet knows how much books and TV can grab people. But the extent to which it happens with LARPs is…surprising. In a number of ways.
Partly it’s just a matter of frequency and magnitude. With “normal media,” a lot of people will consume it and enjoy it and basically forget it, a small slice of the audience will end up caring about it enough to engage in anything that could be called fandom, and a tiny handful of folks will care so much that they go a little nuts. With LARP, those last two groups are much larger proportionally. I have no data with which to demonstrate this statistically, but…if you go hang out with LARPers, it won’t take you long to see what I mean.
This is true despite the fact that, in terms of cultivating audience obsession, LARPs have a number of obvious distinct disadvantages.
There is no massive fan-community in which the energy of interest can be cycled endlessly. There’s really not even the potential to build such a community, because there’s no easy or time-insensitive way for potential fans to consume a LARP. If you’re looking for people who would be interested in talking about a given game, you’re limited to the tiny number of people who have actually had the chance to play in that game. Organizing a LARP, like organizing any other sort of meatspace social event, takes time and effort and resources.
Also…to be totally honest…many theater LARPs kind of suck. Most of them, even. From an artistic perspective and from an experience-management game-design perspective. It’s a very young medium, and not all the kinks have yet been worked out. The LARPing world is a tiny world of fly-by-night amateurs; there simply aren’t many active authors, and there’s no real financial or editorial support available for anyone, and Sturgeon’s Law still applies. For logistical reasons, it’s often difficult for information to travel between individual LARPing communities, so there’s not the same kind of cross-pollination and ferment that you might get with some more-portable art form. Hell, only in the last decade or so have people started to believe that “making high-quality theater LARPs with serious literary merit” was even a plausible or worthwhile goal.
So yeah. There’s a lot of terrible out there. A lot of game experiences with half-baked mechanics and poorly-conceived structure. A lot of stories that are totally hackneyed, or barely coherent, or just plain badly told.
And even if a given LARP is really good, there are important ways in which it’s very unlikely to be as immersive or as compelling as your average book/movie/TV show/video game. Production values can be a killer — when you’re trying to play out your story in someone’s apartment or in a mostly-undecorated college classroom, surrounded by people wearing cheapjack not-very-convincing costumes, the experience can be a constant strain on your suspension-of-disbelief. That goes double if some of your fellow roleplayers are not the most stellar actors, as is often the case. The mechanics can often be an absolute mood-killer, if what you’re looking for is mood; watching a cool kung fu fight on film is awesome, even reading about it in text form can be pretty special if the writing is good, having it out in Tekken is fucking spectacular, but “doing kung fu” by playing rock-paper-scissors or comparing stat cards somehow lacks that same sense of elan.
And yet. As I said, this stuff grips people. More reliably than books, or movies, or TV, or video games. Even though those things are supported by unfathomable talent pools and unbelievable budgets.
It’s something about the medium itself.
The most common explanation you hear — from dedicated LARPers themselves, as well as from those trying to psychoanalyze them — is that it’s basically about escapist fantasy. “Everyone dreams of being a wizard, or an emperor, or a world-saving hero. Watching a movie or reading a book, you can watch someone else be those things, and fantasize. But by playing in a LARP, you can actually live the dream, and be one of those things yourself!”
This is true as far as it goes, but it definitely does not account for the entirety of the phenomenon.
For one thing, well, there are video games. And they also let you live the dream yourself. In some ways, as I said, they let you do so much more compellingly than LARPs do; the production values and the mechanics are generally a whole lot more compelling. But video games don’t have the power that LARPs have to engender overwhelming psychological resonance (At least, not relative to product quality, not relative to exposure time, and not on a per capita basis.)
More importantly…the parts of LARPing that stick with people, the really powerful parts, often aren’t the allegedly-escapist parts.
You don’t often hear someone, in the wake of a theater LARP, talking about how he totally crushed that other guy with a mighty blow in a swordfight — or about how he totally cast the awesome spell that did the really impressive thing — or about how everyone totally bowed to him and obeyed his orders because he was the emperor. (Such things often don’t really feel like properly memorable moments in a theater LARP, what with the assigned roles and the abstract bare-bones mechanics and all, and they certainly don’t often feel convincingly like achievements even in a fakey sort of way.) Sometimes you hear people talking about how they very cleverly wrangled all the recalcitrant people to accomplish the political thing, or about how they figured out how to assemble all the widgets and solve the plot, or some such. This is pride in successful-systems-mastery, and should be familiar to any gamer.
But mostly you hear people talking about emotions and relationships. About in-character friendships that were full of life, about in-character romantic triumphs and in-character romantic tragedies, about quiet moments of personal pathos. About touching the (fake) hearts of others, and having their own (equally fake) hearts touched in turn. About having the chance to display (fake) integrity, or to change your (fake) values and undergo (fake) personal growth.
…and, also, about slice-of-life plots and difficulties like “my character’s struggle to get (fake) tenure at her (imaginary) university job.”
Or, to put it another way: some of the stickiest parts of LARPing are the parts that are just slightly-awkward simulacra of regular life.
Which is not so surprising, when you realize that some of the stickiest and most resonant theater games are just LARP-formatted stories about regular people living regular life, with no escapist elements whatsoever.
(In before: yes, I realize that I’ve set up a very easy joke to be made here. “LARPers like games about having relationships and emotional growth, because that sure is escapist fantasy for them!” Haw haw. All I can say is no, this funny does not correspond to reality. The LARPers having these obsessions are also usually undergoing plenty of personal engagement — and personal drama — in their real lives.)
This does rather poke some holes in the escapist-fun theory. And it raises an obvious question: Why do you get so attached to fake versions of banal everyday stuff? The real thing is right there. Isn’t it richer, more substantive, more compelling?
Real life may be full of feelings and complexity and wonder and excitement, but it’s not a story, not from the inside. It’s just a mess of entities and events, and none of them are tagged as mattering. We try to convince ourselves, and others, that they matter. Sometimes we succeed, and then we feel like existence has some substance to it. But it’s always a struggle, and the exercise always feels a little hollow.
A LARP is a faked-up version of life that is a story. Your character, whoever he is and whatever he does, is ontologically important — God, in his guise as the authors and the game-masters, says so. (Were it not true, why would your character be present in the game at all?) Your crushes and flirtations and confessions and consummations, however cliche or awkward they may be, are romances. Your personal trials, and your attempts to achieve your goals, constitute a character arc. Whatever you do, be it grand or ordinary or pathetic, matters. The universe was created so that you might do it, so that others might see you do it, so that your tale could be told.
And, crucially, there is a social compact by which other actual human beings acknowledge this story that you are living. The rest of the players believe in the same narrative universe that you do, for they are embedding themselves within it just as much as you are. They will believe in your tale, they will care about it and honor it, if for no other reason than that they want you to believe in and care about and honor theirs. When you talk about the game with a fellow player, afterwards, you are speaking of things whose worth and salience is beyond dispute (as with any fandom!), except that you are also speaking of yourself. It gets even better than that, because the game provides you both with a mutual vocabulary with which to discuss this illusory story-of-self that you share — you’ve read the same documents, played by the same formal rules — so that the impossible isolation of personal experience becomes a bit easier to bridge in context. Both of you underwent the same sequence of events-that-matter, from different vantage points, and God provided you with the same set of tools by which you can process the experience!
This is distilled psychological validation. This is the thing that feeds narcissistic hunger, boiled down to a superstimulus. This is the answer to suffering, the redemption of the human condition. Of course people get really ridiculously into it.
(And, let me tell you, when by dint of bad design a LARP fails to provide that thing — when players are left feeling as though they didn’t really matter, as though their stories were not recognized and honored — there is often a sadness, and a fury, that is truly terrifying. I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it, and there is a profundity to it that is way beyond what you’d expect from the fallout of a disappointing hobby-game. Weaponized narcissistic injury is nasty shit.)
Needless to say, there is a problem: it’s all totally fake. Psychologically speaking, the rewards provided by a LARP are pure “empty calories.” The personal identity that’s up there on the altar, being honored, isn’t your identity. You can try to appreciate the feeling, in the aftermath, but that happens at a distance. You can try to cling to the feeling, lose yourself in the story, but that’s delusion and it’s not sustainable. Ultimately, the dissonance between your real self and your character will overcome everything else.
But there’s something very precious here, something worth saving.
Maybe we could turn reality into a LARP.
…it’s hard for me to talk about this without getting kind of mystical. It’s all so vague, as of yet. There’s so much that needs to be figured out.
But maybe there’s some way to take this technology and apply it outside the context of an author-created universe with author-created characters. Maybe we can create a social God who can grant the seal of ontological importance to our ordinary lives. Maybe we can forge a covenant by which we can recognize, and honor, the hard-built identities of others. Maybe we can cultivate the discipline that is seeing the stories of our lives the way we naturally see the stories we are told.
That is my grandiose dream, my world-reshaping project, my Quixote quest.
Next time, on The Baliocene Doctrine —
— or maybe not next time, who the hell knows, but probably soon-ish —
- A discussion of defunct collectible card game Legend of the Five Rings, and the secrets it holds for the psychological salvation of the world!
- A discussion of the difficult balance between “acknowledging the reality of semi-unreal identities” and “staying grounded in a reality that is accessible to others!”
- Balioc answers questions and rebukes from people who are losing patience with his pretentious messianic windbaggery!
“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.
So here’s a question: why is the state of human welfare so bad, even for those operating at the top of the Maslow hierarchy? There are lots of people in the world whose needs are being met. They have solidly reliable access to food and shelter and clothing…and, hell, let’s throw in healthcare and education and entertainment…plus affection from loved ones and respect from society. They can enjoy the many fruits of prosperity and spend their leisure pursuing whatever random things seem most interesting to them. If they fail, by and large, there are no catastrophic consequences. So why are they so very often unhappy?
If you ask them, of course, they’ll usually tell you that their needs aren’t really being met after all. They don’t have quite enough money to be secure, or their social situation is precarious and anxiety-producing, or some such. Sometimes they’re even right about that kind of thing. But as a broader explanation this is implausible on its face, just because the complaints and the worries are so disconnected from any tangible truth. Some of the richest and most materially-stable humans on earth are consumed by thoughts of financial insecurity. Some of the most popular and well-beloved people are driven mad by amorphous, unfalsifiable worries about community status. There is literally no amount of catering-to-basic-level-needs that will reliably satisfy, and so we must conclude that the real psychological problem — even if it can feel like a basic-needs problem — lies elsewhere.
There’s no shortage of answers and explanations. Every two-bit psychologist, every literary novelist who wants to ramble about the Human Condition, has his own theory. Some of them have come up with some pretty good stuff.
But before we get to any of that, here’s a better question: why would we ever expect the state of human welfare to be good?
At this point we pretty much understand the functional role of happiness in the human psyche. And that role, sadly, is not “serve as the baseline for existence because that would be awesome.” It is a much more limited, narrow-purpose thing. It exists to reward us, in a small and temporary way, for doing things that are deemed useful by the Blind Idiot God of evolution. It is a behavior-management tool, the carrot in a basic carrot-and-stick scheme. It is the pellet handed out to a lab rat who has successfully completed a task.
You successfully found a sheltered place to build a fire, and got out of the cold for the night. Ding! Have some warm fuzzy contentment!
You successfully chased and killed that gazelle, and now you’re going to be well-nourished for a while. Ding! You get to feel proud and accomplished for a little bit!
You successfully took down your Hated Rival, and now that fertile-looking cutie is giving you a smoky gaze from across the feast-table. Ding! Enjoy an ego-boost and some dreamy infatuation!
The happiness switch is not supposed to be on all the time, or most of the time, or really anytime other than “right after you’ve just done something advantageous.” What would be the point of that? It wouldn’t be a very useful behavior-management tool at all!
When all your needs are reliably and easily met, it’s like being a lab rat who gets moved into a cage where he can receive a pellet whenever he pushes the lever. The reward-system becomes disconnected from emotional reality and quickly loses its meaning, producing aimlessness and anomie. Getting your pellet no longer carries that special frisson of Suddenly-The-World-Is-Great. But, and this is important, the old system was way worse. Now that you have your pellet-lever, you spend most of your time being bored. Under the old system, in exchange for a few moments of psychic reward, you spent the rest of your time being bored AND anxious AND desperate — and you didn’t even get enough pellets!
(Also, to be sure, the conquest of obstacles can provide satisfying meaning only if the obstacles are real. If you deny people the fulfillment of their needs on the theory that they will benefit psychologically from the chase, they will quickly and rightly conclude that the only genuine obstacle they face is you. So long as we have ready-made solutions to material and social difficulties, there is really nothing to be gained by failing to employ them.)
If we’re going to build a golden age of human welfare, the first step is to abandon any notion that there has ever been a golden age of human welfare that we can use as a model. When you’re thinking about the woes of modern life, the antediluvian temptation is a constant danger, and as far as I can tell it’s ensnared most of the people who take these issues seriously. “Things are so screwed up now. Let’s try to roll things back, at least in some ways, to a time when they were less screwed-up…” No. Stop. Things are bad, but even on a purely-psychological front they’re better than they’ve ever been. In most places and times, if you weren’t actually worrying about starvation or plague, you were worrying about the life-or-death personal politics of the community in which you were inescapably embedded. Anomie has replaced (a) the terror of deprivation and (b) the soul-crushing tyranny of tightly-knit all-powerful social structures; if that’s the choice, I’ll take the anomie. Every known human society has been obsessed by its own problems. No sizeable group of people has ever believed itself to inhabit Paradise. The past holds many lessons but no solutions. The only way forward is forward.
All right. If we’re willing to oversimplify grossly, we can use this lab-rat-and-pellet metaphor as a model for the psychological/spiritual difficulty that manifest as people approach the top of the Maslow hierarchy.
Under “traditional” circumstances, humans experience life as a continual quest for small psychic rewards, which are attained by performing useful tasks that fulfill basic social and material needs. Fortunate circumstances allow certain humans to attain those rewards in such abundance, and with such reliability, that they cease to have any psychological weight. This produces an aimlessness, a lack-of-life-structure, to which those humans often respond by flailing around in various dysfunctional ways.
It’s not a new phenomenon, of course — it’s afflicted various elites as long as there have been elites — but modernity means that there are a lot more people who are affected by it, and that dealing with it intelligently has become a major cultural imperative for our civilization.
In broad terms, there are three basic solutions to this problem.
For starters, there’s enlightenment, in the Buddhist sense. You can make a project of restructuring your mind and modifying your utility function, eliminating certain native psychological needs and vulnerabilities, such that you no longer hunger after the sensation of successful reward-hunting.
(Any actual Buddhist would raise holy hell at this description of enlightenment, of course, and my impression is that the process does indeed look very different from the inside. But from a cultural engineer’s perspective, from the perspective of someone trying to explain how this kind of spiritual praxis can address widespread psychological problems, it has enough explanatory power to be useful.)
…and if you can swing this one, go to, by all means. It may be 2500 years old, but when it comes to the problem of human suffering, Buddhism (or one of its various derivatives) is still the best answer we’ve come up with. Becoming an arhat will solve all your problems, or at least render them totally irrelevant.
The downside, of course, is that this solution does not scale. Like, at all. Really, I mention it only for the sake of being comprehensive. Enlightenment is pretty much most the difficult, counterintuitive, counter-evolutionary thing you can ask a human mind to do to itself; it is entirely out of reach for 99.99+% of the population. Buddhism is the most popular religion in the most populous part of the world, and has been for a very long time, and the number of enlightened sages is nonetheless so small as to be negligible. Maybe it’s possible to help people on a mass scale by teaching them to transcend desire, but if so, someone smarter than me is going to have to figure out how.
In a more normal vein, if all your basic needs are being trivially fulfilled, you can address the ensuing anomie by creating artificial needs whose fulfillment is associated with artificial rewards. We usually call this “setting life goals.”
I’m going to write a great novel and get it published. I’m going to get promoted to Senior Vice President. I’m going to be elected to Congress. I’m going to buy a vacation house in the Hamptons. I’m going to save kids from dying of malaria. I’m going to discover a cure for cancer. And when I do, I will deem myself to have Succeeded, and there’s going to be that same little Ding! that my tribal ancestor must have felt when he speared a gazelle, and it’s going to be so great.
Let me be absolutely clear: I am not knocking this strategy. I am in favor of setting life goals. I believe that everyone who can afford them, meaning “everyone with the resources and leisure to worry about self-actualization,” should have them. It’s probably necessary for any kind of happy, healthy lifestyle. It’s definitely necessary if we want people to continue striving virtuously, breaking new barriers and reaching for the stars and so forth, even when their basic needs are being met. Figuring out how people can set the best goals for themselves, and then figuring out how to disseminate that knowledge, is going to be a key task for any would-be post-scarcity utopia.
All that said, I am going to raise a note of caution here. I think that many utopian optimists are inclined to see this kind of thing as the One Great Fundamental Solution to all the psychological problems of modernity. Climb ever higher! Reach ever farther! Life won’t seem drab or dull or empty when you’re kicking so much ass! And, in its more extreme forms, this is dangerously misguided. Life goals are important, but by themselves they won’t be and can’t be enough, and leaning on them too hard carries serious costs.
For one thing, artificial self-imposed “needs” are much weaker than basic needs when it comes to providing a structure for a human life. If you’re questing after food, or even if you’re questing after affection, you’re going to remain in the grip of that quest until it’s completed; you’re not going to sigh in despair when the going gets tough or when someone sneers at your project, wondering whether maybe you’re just wasting your time on something stupid, because you have actual fundamental human needs that aren’t being met. Self-actualization goals, which are being pursued (from the individual agent’s perspective) as much for private psychic benefit as for any intrinsic purpose, are a lot more vulnerable to being randomly undermined. Which is very bad, if people are relying entirely on those goals to provide meaning in their lives.
Also, of course, artificial needs have the same basic problem as non-artificial needs: sometimes they don’t get met, because sometimes you fail at your various tasks. Saying tsuyoku naritai! is all well and good, but humans are not possessed of infinite drive or infinite emotional resilience. If people have nothing to fall back on psychologically when they don’t succeed in their various quests, if success is the only fountainhead of that-which-is-desirable-in-life, the results will be grotesque.
…and it is also true that any project, once it has become someone’s psychological crutch, is liable to become bigger and more aggressive than it really should be. Sometimes people decide to invest themselves in things that are bad. Sometimes people decide to invest themselves in things that are good, but nonetheless drain more than their share of resources from the world. In general, it is useful to be able to point this out and act on it without having to declare total war on those who have invested in those things. I do not want the future to be an apocalyptic war between the random hobbyhorses of people whose entire egos are at stake. Which means, once again, that those people will need some foundation for their psychological well-being beyond their success at the tasks that they’ve set for themselves.
We need something more.
Fortunately, nature has supplied…
God! I hate the use of that word, in this context. Even the relatively nuance-minded thinkers cannot help framing narcissism as a disease of the psyche, to be overcome as expeditiously as possible; in the popular consciousness, of course, narcissism translates to something like “irredeemable evil.” As someone positing that it is both unavoidable and mostly-a-good-thing, I would much prefer to use some kind of less-loaded terminology. I’ve considered using a phrase like symbolic orientation or narrative orientation, and perhaps at some point I’ll try to make one of those phrases stick. But…however strongly our interpretations and conclusions differ…it’s uncomfortably clear that the theorists and I are talking about the same fundamental thing, and I’m not going to try to paper over that fact.
In simplest terms, this phenomenon can be described as follows: you tell yourself a story about who you are and why your life is worthwhile.
(…sounds pretty damn innocuous when you put it in those terms, no?)
Everyone does this to some extent, of course, but it becomes more and more important as you move farther and farther away from being in the thick of the getting-your-needs-met rat race. It’s the world’s very simplest and oldest mindhack, so convenient that most people do it unconsciously as soon as life affords them the opportunity. It lets you restructure your own psychological welfare, shifting the focus away from getting a stream of treats from the world — since the treats, which were few and far between in any event, no longer satisfy — and towards something that’s theoretically longer-lasting, more secure, and easier to control.
The mechanic is extremely straightforward. You create a narrative that explains (a) what your identity is, and (b) why it is super great and totally fulfilling for you to have that identity. This narrative, if well-crafted, will eventually become a superreal totem within your own mind — it’s not hard to make it so, narrative is an excellent tool for hacking the human psyche, basic tricks like “symbolism” and “POV focus” can make a story way more compelling than reality if you’re willing to invest in it. (If you doubt me…just think about how easy it is for a story to make you identify with anyone just by making him the protagonist for a while.) Then, whenever you start feeling hurt or worthless, you just check the circumstances of your life against the contours of the narrative. So long as they basically line up, it serves as confirmation from the universe that you still are who you think you are…which is super great, remember?…so everything is OK. No matter what events have actually just taken place in the world, everything is OK.
I am a brilliant physicist. We know this, because I got a PhD in physics from Princeton, and because I wrote that one paper that everyone thought was so amazing. And when I haven’t come up with anything great in a month, and I feel like I’m thinking through sludge, and I’m wondering whether there’s any point to my continued existence…well, it’s still true that I got my PhD and that I wrote that paper, so it must still be true that I’m a brilliant physicist, so I still have merit. And everything is OK.
I am so incredibly glad that our minds are capable of this One Weird Trick. It’s a semi-stable source of human welfare. Unlike “normal” non-narcissistic forms of well-being, it works even if the world hasn’t just handed you a shiny; you can push the button all on your own, whenever you need it. It does the thing that wireheading does, a little bit, except that it keeps people engaged with the world (through the vector of their all-important identities) instead of turning them into zombies.
In fact, it can even do a pretty OK job of helping people keep up with virtuous behavior, by making the rewards of virtue stable and reliable (in the form of continued identity confirmation) rather than stochastic and random and likely-unsatisfying-most-of-the-time.
(And, in all honesty, I should add: beyond any operational considerations, having people maintain consistent and compelling narrative identities is a strong terminal value of mine. For aesthetic/artistic reasons, basically.)
These benefits appear even when you’re operating near the top of the Maslow hierarchy. They appear even when your self-imposed tasks don’t get successfully completed. For a low low cost, they can be sustained for a long time.
Narcissism is very likely to be the thing that saves the world.
…assuming that it can be harnessed properly. Which is actually pretty difficult. It has a number of dramatic failure modes, and they’re easy to fall into.
Most obviously, you can build your identity around a bad story, a story that requires you to engage in constant destructive action if you’re going to keep it up. Y’know, something like “I am an alpha-male demigod who dominates everyone he meets,” or “no one can resist my sexual charms,” or “I am always the smartest person in the room,” or “I am a Holy Warrior who will never question the Cause.” People who are constructing narratives for themselves, unguided, do that kind of thing an awful lot. If you were wondering how narcissism got such a bad reputation, well…
For that matter, you can allow your identity-bolstering narrative to drift further and further away from reality, so long as you still have some vaguely-plausible means of confirming that it’s “true.” The exemplar here is the washed-up professor who hasn’t said or done anything worthwhile in years, but who doesn’t worry about it, because he knows that he’s a genius, because he totally has a degree from Princeton and he wrote that one paper in nineteen-dickety-two. That is a thing that can happen, if you’re using stories to hold your ego up.
And then there’s the big problem, which is the exact opposite of that: narcissistic injury.
Telling a story about yourself provides some protection from the ego-shredding vicissitudes of the world, but often it’s not enough. The narrative will always necessarily be at least somewhat in conflict with reality — at the very least, it will contain useful literary-device-type features like “you are the main character” and “things symbolize other things,” which do not correspond to real phenomena. Sometimes, the facts of the world will directly conflict with the narrative (e.g., you find yourself unable to complete a task that is central to your constructed identity). Sometimes, the facts of the world will conflict indirectly with the narrative, making it difficult to confirm that the story still applies (e.g., you go a long time without getting a chance to perform that task, and its salience to your life experience starts to feel doubtful). Very often, your interactions with other humans will result in attacks on the narrative, as they fail to respond to you in an “appropriate” way or to acknowledge your identity-critical traits.
All of these things are very psychologically damaging. At best, they render all your narcissistic defenses useless. Often it’s a lot worse than that; when you bind up your identity in a story, the story becomes a vulnerable point in your psyche, and a successful attack on it can hurt enormously and leave you not really knowing who you are. This is “narcissistic injury,” and people tend to deal with it very badly.
…there are those who believe that most of the problems of the developed world right now can be summed up as “otherwise-well-off adults flailing around in the throes of narcissistic injury,” and I’m not prepared to say that they’re totally wrong. Narcissistic narratives are fragile, and when you’re talking about people who have most of their basic social and material needs being met without much effort, there’s a lot of ego wrapped up in those narratives.
The conventional answer is “people need to learn to be less narcissistic.” You will be unsurprised to hear that I’m not on board with that. The old ways were not and are not better. Narcissism, properly constructed, is the main thing that allows us to exist at repose in the universe. It allows us to have some sense of who we are; it allows us to take a sustained comfort in that knowledge even as events jostle us around, even as worldlier pleasures pall. It gives us the wherewithal to see and appreciate ourselves, which is the necessary first step towards constructing ourselves beautifully. It’s the bedrock of any stable, happy existence where personal identity continues to be a meaningful thing.
Which means that shoring up all those weaknesses I just listed becomes a critical component of any utopian culture-engineering plan.
This is basically a three-pronged project.
People have to be taught how to build their identities around worthy stories, beautiful and virtuous stories, so that they don’t end up building themselves around crappy stories that are incompatible with utopian existence.
People have to be taught how to keep one eye on reality, so that their identity narratives don’t spiral into utter fantasy.
And — most importantly —
Human relationships and social institutions need to be constructed so as to reinforce identity narratives, rather than tearing them down, so that needless narcissistic injury may be avoided.
This is the main thing at the heart of all my utopian dreams.
We are free from our lower needs now, mostly, at least the luckiest ones amongst us. We are trying to self-actualize. We construct wonderful dream-selves, and then we try as hard as we can to live up to them. But it is hard, and often we fail, and the heartless universe gives no honor to the struggle. We ask anyone who will listen: Who am I? Am I truly the person I believe myself to be? And because we are lowly mortals, we so rarely receive an answer, and we thirst for recognition like it is water in the desert.
We can do better for each other.
As it happens, I have some more-concrete thoughts about that. I know that it is possible to help people construct narrative identities, and to shield those identities from injury, using techniques that are rarely considered by normal humans. Early in my adulthood, I was lucky enough to stumble into a hobby whose fundamental technology is a superpowered form of identity-recognition…