I think we need new language to describe identity. I don’t think there are going to be any meaningful changes in this realm sans authoritarianism, a la how China is trying to institute some kind of state-mandated conception of masculinity. I do still believe a reaction is coming, but reactions won’t change the mechanics of how identities are formed and adopted—only the trending aesthetics and the narrative layer that informs the media products we consume (Netflix shows, ads, the news, etc). What we do have more control over though is the language we use to talk about identity, though. I think we should first recognize that there are two types of identities, ones that are adopted via affinity and ones that describe our experiences, or immutable qualities (e.g. you can’t change that your Mom was born in Poland and her parenting style was informed by Polish culture).It didn’t click with me until recently: affinity-based identities are how we get things like lesbians who like men. It feels like it doesn’t make sense but that’s because most of us still operate under the assumption that identity-labels should described a lived reality—experience. I see ‘affinity-based’ identities as being an expression of fandom culture. For example, you can’t actually experience being a Hufflepuff, you can only have an affinity for what Hufflepuff means to you. If you’re immersed in Harry Potter fandom—and particularly if it’s your only outlet—then that affinity feels real, and in some senses is. Especially if you’re engaged in text-based roleplaying, something that, to be honest, many of us are whenever we’re online, even if we’re not engaged in a fandom. Are you still with me here? Am I still making sense? The Internet, and that bogeyman atomization, empowers this kind of thinking. I don’t think this is a hole we can un-dig, it just is what it is. A lot of people have no opportunity to have experiences, they only have access to affinities. The problem is that because we lump affinity-based and experience-based identities in the same category, affinity-based identities feel like they threaten or dilute experience-based identities and vice versa. And in a lot of cases, they do. Here is a pretty benign example that was a departure point for a lot of fights I got into in college. Saying you’re Italian in the US says something meaningful about your lived experienced—there are shared values, cultural heritage, so on and so forth. Saying you’re Italian flags any number of things about your identity that coherently describes your experience, your background, and also acts as a bat signal to other people in your same boat. There’s variation based on things like class, but in general, there is an ‘Italianness’ that unites most Italian emigrants, at least enough to constitute the boundary. Italian-Americans proclaiming Italianness actually does dilute the meaning of that label, and can create confusion. But Italian-American is an identity in its own right, with its own set of unique experiences. It is an outgrowth of Italian identity, but not the same as Italian identity proper. It gets even dicier when you get to people who are 4 or 5 generations removed from Italy. They aren’t relating to the original article, and they’re often also not relating to the way it fragmented and grew in the United States. It’s usually a question of pure affinity at that point. Maybe they retain an Italian name or something, or it’s become family folklore. Should that part of them be erased? I don’t think it has to be denied necessarily, but we need new language to describe what this identity is. Right now, that person would very likely identify as Italian or Italian-American though, with few exceptions. These aren’t totally neat categories, either, to be fair. This hasn’t totally congealed, but I think something is here… what if we made room for affinity-based identities without invalidating them, or allowing them to invalidate experience based identities? Will we one day see ‘web-based identities’? Do we already, and just not have the words to describe it?
I think I’m coming to the conclusion that at a lack of boundaries is at the heart of every problem we have—from ghosting to work/life balance to the aforementioned questions of identity, these can all be boiled down to a lack of boundaries. I tried to write an essay about this when I was in Hawaii, but it went a little bit off the rails. I kind of wish I was able to do it.
Where does the impulse to label and catalogue everything come from? What purpose does it serve, especially as life becomes more digital? Do we live in a ‘Wiki-culture’? Do we let other people label us more than we choose labels for ourselves? Is it a combination of both? What kind of competing narratives do we all deal with?
What if we’re in a transitional period between film and internet culture? I don’t think video games will overtake film but what if internet personalities do? I know some version of this point has been made before: influencers have triumphed over celebrity. But what if really mimetic internet personalities are an art form, and the art form of the present moment, to boot? This thought started percolating after I read this excellent IM-1776 article.
More than ever, I’ve been wishing that I had a better formal education. I don’t even know what would be useful to read at this point, but I feel like I accidentally rehash a lot of ground that’s already been covered.
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