In response to this month’s theme on “Being Yourself” I had initially written this excitingly complex article on the nature of self and identity. I set out to contradict the theme by arguing that rather than thinking of Self as a stable interior thing you can access and represent, you ought to see it as fluid, dynamic and even external.
I claimed The Self always exists in relation to The Other. So it is always a consequence of dialogue with the world around us, and sometimes internally with fractured memory, fantasy and hypothetical thought-experiments. I claimed that as individuals we should not turn inwards in times of stress or on our quest for self-actualization, but instead be for others and playfully experiment with identity as the situation might allow you.
The theory I’d written wasn’t deep or philosophical. It simply went against the truism to “be yourself.” What was complex, however, was the way in which I argued it. Instead of making straightforward, logical statements as I have above, I sought to match form with function; that is, I sought to have the structure and even grammar of my argument reflect the contention that Self is dynamic, multiple, and always a reflection of dialogue. My first draft broke the rules of good journalism and “buried the lead,” putting the point way at the end of the article, and forcing the audience to feel a bit lost along the way. I included arcane references, and unexplained hints to other texts. I even argued with myself, playing as both author and reader. It was fun, but it was convoluted.
I started the article with a reference to the rapper Kool Keith, who has taken dozens of pseudonyms over his long career. I then broke to replicate a dialogue I’d had with my brother-in-law about the new FX series called Legion, which is based on a Marvel comic book about a superhuman who has severe dissociative identity disorder.
Next, for seemingly no reason, I called Frank Ocean’s mom a liar. Listen to his last album. He includes this lengthy but cute voicemail from his mom wherein she begs he be himself. I similarly scoffed at Piano-Magic’s recent song “Living for Other People.” Then, without naming it, I lauded the television series A Young Doctor’s Notebook: And Other Stories for it’s ability to portray how through memory and nostalgia, premonition and hope we constantly converse with past and future versions of ourselves.
Of course peppered through all these examples (unexplained and non-sequitur as they were) I dropped in references to popular culture, French post-structuralist psychology, and Russian literary studies. I even payed homage to Babe, the movie where a pig learns to be a sheep-dog. And finally, after offering a short statement of my argument right before the end of the article, I concluded with a haiku. It was all purposefully disorienting.
My editor was impressed. But here we are on Draft Two.
Now, to read Draft One, you didn’t have to be smart, but you did have to be a patient, invested reader. If you didn’t know all my references, you could understand how they’re relating to one another, but only by committing them to short-term memory and reading further into the article to find “the point.” I am positive any reader could do this, because that kind of thinking is essential to any conversation, but we’re just not used to seeing it in writing.
In face-to-face interaction, stories are rarely logical. Ideas or emotions are not forthright. Instead, we bounce around, asking questions, adding parenthetical thoughts, trying to relate similar ideas or metaphors to the dialogue to better make sense of whatever is being said. But that is not how journalism works.
Within journalism we expect clean narratives and logical, step-by-step accretions of meaning. Writing can do that for us. Great authors commit to that long, thoughtful process for our enjoyment. They sit at their desk, plucking away at keys, editing and rearranging thoughts, receiving feedback from friends and editors, then again edit to better clarify their arguments. While this makes for great reading, it does not necessarily reflect consciousness, or selfhood. In fact, I think it detracts greatly from what we learn about ourselves in conversations with others.
The fact is, we are not characters from literature. We are never so complete, and we never have to be. We don’t ever have to write our stories down according to acts and scenes for the benefit of an omniscient reader. We can re-define ourselves as we encounter new ideas and new friends. We can be everything our parents, our partner, our friends (and definitely our editors) need us to be. We can be for all of them and not feel like we’re any less ourselves for being so diverse, and that’s simply because The Self is exterior. Selfhood is always a reflection of The Other.
So don’t think of uncertainty as schizophrenia. Don’t think that to be yourself you need to turn inward, or find something within you that is unique and unlike all others. Instead commit to burying the lead of Selfhood. Commit to conversation and change. Truly. This is important. Remember, you can play and improvise in life. You should never worry that some literary critic is going to complain about consistency in the final chapter.
Ruben Enrique Campos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and works in the Department of Ethnic Studies. He studies culture and society, usually with a focus on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class inequalities. He’s currently writing his dissertation on the Hip Hop scene in Mexico City, where he lived and conducted intensive fieldwork for just over a year. Aside from constantly struggling to write, read and be a serious academic, he listens to music, reads comic books and exhibits a serious waste of potential.