Who Are You?

At the heart of every ‘I’ lies an infinity of longing.

The questions about identity can be posed in a thousand ways. We all know the nuances of ‘Where are you from?’ when it is accompanied by searching looks, or the despair within oneself on some days when one asks in front of the mirror ‘Who am I?’

Identity is a complicated matter.

Yet, it isn’t difficult to see that all around us, there is an expanding menu of identity choices available to more and more individuals. Who one is, can now be fine-tuned, right down to the minutest of preferences that one exercises. The increasing freedom in our choice of self-definition, allows us to be much more fluid in how we construct ourselves in each specific interaction we have with others around us; whether we face these others physically, or in ways mediated by technology, such as via Facebook.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” sounds more prescriptive than descriptive.”

Take the example of ‘status messages’: one conveys not merely one’s psycho-geographical location and state of mind through facebook, but, in many cases, what one eventually takes to be one’s decision or change of mind about something, is worked out as one posts, interacts and reacts on facebook. Similarly, the custom ‘privacy’ settings do not just give us a control of our information, but also create a matrix of ‘trust-lessness’ where we have an ability to ‘undo’ and ‘redo’ versions of ourselves for different people by manipulating their perception of us. The presentation of ourselves is, thus, not merely ‘reflected’ by our relation to identity-technology, but shaped profoundly by it.

Technology has extended the boundaries of our bodies beyond our skins and fingernails to the traces of our digital passing through the myriad worlds we inhabit. The networkedness of our lives is beyond doubt. Nonetheless, it is curious how the ‘I’ is ever more governed by, both an obsessively voyeuristic interest in other lives, and, an unending curating of one’s own self online.

Of course, gossip, rumour and desultory interest in others is an inherent aspect of human existence, from the bazaar tattles of history to Hitckcock’s ‘Rear Window’, people have always delighted in a superfluous purchase of other lives. Similarly, the attention to how one presents oneself in front of a gathering, community or kinship has always been associated with rewards, prestige, sanction or scorn.

What is different in the technological equivalent, in the networked ‘I’, is not a unique lack of depth or a false veneer, because that is part of human custom. It is rather that our time is marked by an unprecedented and ever increasing number of people who take themselves seriously; who are interested in the chronicling, the presentation, and the legacy of their lives. In the past before global modernity, everyday lives were neither subjected to as much analysis, nor to as much scrutiny, especially not by those who lived them. ‘They were born, they lived, they died’ was a good summary for most of humankind, with exceptions for kings, philosophers, the talented and the wealthy. Sure, histories were written about communities and wars, but that was a macroscopic gaze at peoples from without, as distinct from the microscopic gaze at oneself from within.

The ‘I’ did come into its own with modernity; and so, auto-biography (interpreted at its broadest) is a specifically modern artefact. But, what is interesting about the real-time updated technology-mediated autobiographies of individuals in the present, is how they have lost much of the conscious introspection that might have been seen as the autobiographical ‘substance’ of one’s self.

These fluid, fleeting and ephemeral definitions of oneself allow for a likewise treatment of others. People are ‘pausables’. And there is no great cost to remaining committed to one’s idea of oneself or to the network of others. To put it crudely, one can simply ‘deactivate’ one’s ‘fakebook’ account.

Memory becomes an epiphenomenon. You don’t like who you are, never mind, be someone else. You don’t like who you know, never mind, up and leave.

Narcissus sees not the image of his own self in the water to fall in love with, but the water turns into a high-definition plasma screen with a catalogue of images that he keeps flicking through the remote control of his mind. He feels intensely for each self he chooses to be. He is forever incomplete in his self-love, forever yearning to be complete in the love of a self.

This being so, the Vonnegut quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” sounds more prescriptive than descriptive. Who is the iconic ‘I’ in a facebook-like world where the difference between ‘liking’ someone and ‘being like’ someone is clouded by the constantly reinvented superficial selves? Everyone wants to be ‘someone’. People clamour and hush at the sight of celebrity (and will settle even for being a ‘nonebrity’: an urban neologism for someone who manages to maintain celebrity status without having done anything to merit it). As Nicole Kidman famously pouted in the movie ‘To Die For’, “You’re not anybody in America unless you are on TV.”

The recurring focus on ‘choice’ and ‘preferences’ is not accidental. Because, in some senses, this globally generous dispensation of volition – to many; for many others a brute materialism remains – is a corollary of the economic fundamentals that we live by – a neoclassical neo-liberal consumerist world of ‘choice’ and ‘preferences’.

And so, the transient frivolity and essential psychic incompleteness of this networked neo-Narcissistic ‘I’ suits the interests of contemporary capitalism best. We are exhorted to constantly consume not just objects, but also our selves, as we stand surrounded by the glassy-mirrored reflecting walls of the modern meccas, the malls. The promise is that a more upgraded version of oneself is always on the horizon; a version ‘worth’ more.

One might remark in passing that there is some pity in the paradox that capitalism as a system that created the ever-consuming ‘I’ in its image (an ‘I’ forever needing to consume objects and itself) is facing its major crises at the same time when this ‘I’ has come into such bloom. It isn’t surprising though; this ‘I’ has been built on excessive investment into a valourisation of endless consumption, and at the expense of the most properly productive aspects of capitalism. Nothing to wonder in the fact that the airy heights of speculative finance led the forefront of the crisis.

Most people who use Facebook would have heard of Shakespeare. In time, as the virtual object of Facebook comes to be as much a part of life as the reality of the television or the fridge or the ball-point pen, its creator Zuckerberg will fade from consciousness, but the aptness of the poetic phrase on life being ‘tedious as a twice-told tale’ may not fade. The ‘I’ of our times is a plotless play. It exhibits an obsession with immortalising every detail of one’s life, while doing hardly anything to immortalise one’s life. In making, marking, and curating one’s passing thoughts and transient selves into immortality (the updating of one’s status, the upgrading of one’s self, the logging in, the opting out, and so on), the ideal of achieving an immortality through a sustained focus on one’s words and deeds might seem less appealing and thus be to our own detriment.

As I pen the final words here, I wonder whether I could have titled this article ‘Who am I’; an infinitely more difficult question to answer than ‘Who are you?’ Then again, in the spirit of satire, I might add ‘follow me on twitter’ to find out!

Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmiri novelist, poet, academic, artist and economist who lives in London. Her debut novel Residue (Rupa/Rainlight, 2014) was earlier shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Aside from fiction and poetry, she comments in the media and has written in edited collections, journals and newspapers on the themes of identity, culture, economy, gender, social theory, technology, democracy, Bhutan and Kashmir. She has a joint doctorate in Economics and Philosophy, is the author of the book 'Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference' (Routledge, 2007), and has previously taught Economics, Politics, and Creative Writing in the UK and in Bhutan. She has travelled to over 55 countries across 4 continents documenting the strangeness of the everyday and the otherness of the present. More at www.nitashakaul.com

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