If you read my last post and actually made it to the end (congratulations!), you probably noticed that my thought process tends towards the complex. In fact, complexity and all it entails is in many ways my fundamental worldview. It is no coincidence that my specialization as a physicist is biological soft matter, which encompasses the study of complex systems characterized by the interactions of the many individual parts. But that is a topic for another post which will be coming soon. The point here is that as soon as I start thinking about one topic, I immediately begin to find connections, interactions, and juxtapositions with other topics in a seemingly complex web. This is another of those stories.
It begins like this. I recently started listening to some 90s techno music, which for me is kind of ironic because this is music that not only would I have not actually listened to in the 90s, but would have even said that I very strongly disliked. Now, I am pretty picky about what kinds of this music I actually do like, but nonetheless it is significant that I listen to it at all.
What occurred to me about this change in my tastes is the realization that I had formed a type of musical identity, and assigned to this identity certain characteristics or attributes (I like this or that, I don’t like this or that, this represents who I am as a person). The identity part is essentially an emotional or psychological investment in an interest, activity, or preference that confers upon said interest a significance beyond the thing itself. At this point we cease to merely enjoy the thing for what it is, and we become emotionally attached to it and invest part of who we envision ourselves to be in it. We identify with it, and it becomes incorporated into our identities. These interests and activities come to define us rather than just occupy our time.
Having this realization over the relatively unimportant activity of listening to techno music clued me in to the fact that I form these identity constructs constantly, and that many if not all of my activities become infused with this extra meaning. At the same time, it also became clear that this aspect of identity is illusory. In some sense it does not exist outside of our heads, and is merely a psychological creation. Ultimately, as this simple example of musical choice illustrates, we limit who we are and what we do based on these illusions. For life choices and decisions far more significant than what music we are going to listen to, this can be severely limiting. Why we do or do not decide to do or be something often comes down to this underlying identification.
I should make clear that I am speaking about identity only as a basic psychological process. The issue of the social construction of identity and the power dynamics that often dictate our choices is another matter entirely. As always, these issues are complicated by the fact that we live in an oppressive society. Patriarchy always rears its ugly head and fucks things up somehow. My take on identity is informed by the privileged status I enjoy. For many, identity is a matter of life and death as some identities are not allowed or encouraged to exist. When talking about musical choices, identity is in some important sense a very voluntary process. This is not the case for those who, by virtue of being true to themselves, find that they have been made targets for oppression. I would argue that these folks must still confront the issues around identity that I am writing about now, but the game is completely different without the privileged status that I enjoy. Nonetheless, I think it is important to acknowledge and understand how we become attached to the things in our life and lose sight of our inner being.