Thoughts on identity

If you’ve been following along, you may have noticed my praise for Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road; *I blazed through it last week and haven’t yet stopped reflecting on certain passages. Furthermore, if you were to have spent any serious amount of time with me in the past six months, there’s a strong likelihood that I’d have given you an earful about David Foster Wallace and *Infinite Jest (humans in their 20s reading and raving about Infinite Jest is practically becoming a stereotype in its own right, but the thing is that the hype is justified, the man had a remarkable sense of foresight).

I found that I was able to draw a nice parallel between one of the lines I highlighted in *My Life on the Road *(this will be the second time I’ve cited it this week, albeit expanded here) and an often reiterated sentiment of Wallace’s. Steinem writes:

The travel writer Bruce Chatwin wrote that our nomadic past lives on in our “need for distraction, our mania for the new.” In many languages, even the word for human being is “one who goes on migrations.” Progress itself is a word rooted in a seasonal journey. Perhaps our need to escape into media is a misplaced desire for the journey.

Media and its role in American culture was debatably the single most frequently discussed topic in Dave Wallace’s work. He suggested that our consumption of media often knows no bounds, comparing our obsession to eating candy for every meal (“real pleasurable, but it doesn’t have any calories in it”, he says). During his interviews with David Lipsky in Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, also of media:

…we’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow.

Juxtaposed as such, I think there is a strong likelihood that the something Dave Wallace suggests we all seek is exactly as Gloria Steinem suggests: a desire for movement, for migration, for exploration. Chuck Palahniuk, in Fight Club, wrote that “our generation has had no Great war, no Great Depression. Our war is spiritual.” And while that observation was written before the horrific events of September 11th and the ensuing war in Iraq, the truth lies in that, on the whole, our generation does not have a just cause to give ourselves away to. Instead we turn to media, because at least that provides some basis for developing an identity; personalities we can relate to, fictional events that draw our sympathies when we see similarities in our own lives, the failures and triumphs of a stranger’s life.

The question, in my mind, is *should we be allowing media to shape our identity? *Wallace addressed this as well, suggesting that “the technology’s gonna get better and better at doing what it does, which is seduce us into being incredibly dependent on it, so that advertisers can be more confident that we will watch their advertisements. And as a technology system, it’s amoral. […] It doesn’t have a responsibility to care about us one whit more than it does: It’s got a job to do. The moral job is ours.”

There are two diametrically opposed philosophies here. On one side, travel and exploration as a way of finding and shaping our identities. On the other, letting our identities be formed by the influences of the media we consume. We all read the two options above and hope for ourselves the first, and yet, as the timeless mantra goes, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that you have one. Again, David Foster Wallace:

…probably each generation has different things that force the generation to grow up. Maybe for our grandparents it was World War Two. You know? For us, it’s gonna be that at, at a certain point, that we’re either gonna have to put away childish things and discipline ourself about how much time do I spend being passively entertained? And how much time do I spend doing stuff that actually isn’t all that fun minute by minute, but that builds certain muscles in me as a grown-up and a human being?

What forces shape your identity? Are those forces a result of travel and personal exploration? How much of your identity is shaped by things other people suggest that you care about? It is a job for each of us to answer these questions.