Thoughtscapes of Identity: What Identity Crises Taught Me About Reality, Meaning, Society, and the Self

Introduction

Throughout the last few years, I have gone through a series of psychological rebirths and identity crises. Time and time again, I have rebranded myself. Influenced by popular culture, books on philosophy and psychology, and countless conversations with my mentors and friends, at some point I felt the void within me become an unbearable weight on my shoulders.

Jumping from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other, consciously adjusting my behaviour to create a certain image of myself in the eyes of others, and digging into one philosophical dogma to the next one, nothing felt mine anymore. My sense of self seemed to be but an amalgam of other people as authenticity was narrowed down to a sort of cynical detachment. I have heard voices of encouragement: “It’s just growing up, everybody goes through this, you’ll figure it out.” Of course, none of these words were consoling enough, and I feared that I would stay in this state – which I then called depression – forever.

I identified my personal struggles with the contemporary challenges not just of the youth, but of humanity as a whole. I asked myself, why do I feel the way I do? Aren’t we all confused, some of us just settling down on pre-made, pre-cooked, and precarious answers? For generations, humans could see themselves as a part of some collective identity that distinguished them from other people. The sense of community gave their lives meaning, which according to Frankl and Kierkegaard is the primary drive behind human beings (as opposed to Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure). As long as we see ourselves as individuals that fit into a puzzle, whose daily drudgeries benefit our species, the element of our existences’ futility is not a matter of doubt.

Yet, as postmodernity kicked in and with the rise of global free-market capitalism, we have disconnected from the modernist pillars of meaning. This phenomenon has left some of us, above all, lost and confused.

Deconstruction of Past Value Systems

In the age of information, our global village is a web of interconnected religions, cultures, and nations. If one is not caught in solipsism and has the strength to question their own value systems (and/or their own identity), uncertainty takes over the steering wheel of our lives’ racing car. Why should I support my country (or, rather, my country’s government) just because I was born in it? Why should I comply with the rules of this or that religion just because I was raised to believe it? Why should I follow the commonspread idea of a good life when I see it leaves people frustrated, unhappy, and tired?

Had this not been enough, the internet and social media platforms have become a megaphone for scandals that undermine the authority of hitherto-trusted organisations and systems. As Slavoj Žižek says, the abominable individual examples of such scandals are not merely bad apples – instead, we should see the system as a breeder of inhumane and vile behaviours.1 For instance, paedophilia in the Catholic Church is not the fault of singled-out “priests who have lost their way,” but the Church as a system is a spring for such shameful horrors. Analogously, other bodies that used to be the source of moral codes no longer hold their position. Religion is not infinite love, but a root of hypocritical oppression against minorities and a system of ideological control. Nationality is not proud patriotism, but oftentimes xenophobia and prejudice. Representative democracy is not the power of the people, but in many cases corruption, populism, and blind despotism trapped in the cult of power, money, and tyranny. And lastly, global capitalism is not the no-pain-no-gain game that gives one profit in direct proportion to their input, but a trigger for monopoly, exploitation, and greed.

To Žižek, the neo-liberal belief that if we stick to the current system and try to push it slightly to the left through activism or other political action is a utopian vision. Yes, we have made progress in terms of combating world hunger, spreading education, or allowing access to electricity and clear water. But that’s not enough. Capital is gathering in the hands of fewer and fewer people as large corporations control gradually more and more of the market. What is still keeping the CEO-gods alive (i.e. not killed by a pitchfork uprising of the exploited workers2) is the image of the good guys they create. They’re philantropists who engage in charity to help humanity (though we could quickly end world hunger through redistribution of their wealth) and expansion of progress. This is the same story we’ve been told about colonialism, whose repercussions we still feel under our skin till this day. Maybe we should redefine progress.

Ergo, as the pillars of our reality crumble and our constructed worlds collapse, what remains is pure nothingness.

The Nature of Reality

When I was a child, the word philosopher was oftentimes used as an insult. “You overthink it, your contemplating won’t do any good, just get to work instead and stop wasting our time!” I admit that being a philosopher is a privilege. When one is caught up with their daily life and has to worry about feeding their children and paying their bills, there is little to no space for questioning that reality: life becomes survival. Yet, to counter the image of a deadbeat philosopher-parasite, my thesis is the following – philosophy is not a head-in-the-clouds daydreaming; it is the inspection and examination of everyday life and the intersectional ideologies that together construct our perception of reality.

It should come as no shock to claim that truth is subjective and morality is relative. Your day-to-day conflicts should be enough of an example – is this or that politician going to save or destroy the country? Is your father trying to control you and get you down with his reprimends or does he love and care for your best interest? Does your boss lack a moral backbone to have made so much money at the expense of others or did they achieve success as a natural gratification of intelligence and hard work? Every little thing depends on the individual’s point of view. I hope we could all agree that murder is wrong, or at least impractical and short-term-oriented from society’s perspective, but if you found yourself in a trench, bullets piercing the air above your head with a whistle, and the personification of your enemy on the other side of the battlefield, would you hesitate to pull the trigger and protect your family?

The existentialist movement (i.e. in some circles, especially Sartre) of the mid-20th century stemming from Nitzschean “nothing is real” has been essentialised (oh, irony!) in the statement that existence precedes essence. If we look at physical objects, we will notice that language gives us only a simplified version of the actual thing described by a word. In general terms, a thing is called a thing because we apply certain properties and/or uses to it and not because of its intrinsic meaning (its essence). If a chair was used as a table, and in fact called a table, would it no longer be a chair? And, additionally, does the intention of the object’s creator really matter or does everything lie in interpretation?

To illustrate this point more clearly, I will use the example from a video-essay Postmodernism is not identity politics by Jonas Čeika. Take soup – were one to give a definition of soup, it could be e.g a liquid dish including solid ingredients. Following this thought – is cereal a soup? If we tried to specify the definition above, we could further say that soup is a warm liquid dish including solid ingredients. Still, there are some soups, like the east-european cold beet soup (a variation of borscht) or gazpacho soup, that are specifically served cold. We could keep adding new properties to the definition, and yet no definition would ever be able to fully grasp the essence of soup. [1]

Now, let’s move on with this concept to other areas. The notion of existence precedes essence is not solely applicable to physical objects. If we think about society, there are a cornucopia of scientific approaches that try to grasp its being. Yet, whether we choose to view society through anthropology and the civilisational progress, through the dialectic process of history, or even psychoanalytic investigation of cultures, there will always be something missing. Mastering any of these branches would entail omission of other sciences’ insights. Consequently, we can conclude that the essence of society will never be grasped fully by a single individual and that the comprehension of the ways society works is beyond our reach.

Symbols are yet another instance of just how relative reality is. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari observes that a national flag is nothing but a cloth of a certain colour. It’s the idea of what the flag stands for that people are ready to kill and die for. In itself, a flag means nothing; we give it meaning. And meaning changes. The swastika had been a symbol of spirituality and divinity in Indian religions, until the National-Socialist party completely redefined it. In the West, the swastika is stricly associated with the Nazi party and their antisemitic ideology, while to Hinduists, Buddhists, or Jainist it remains a religious icon. [2]

As language becomes useless and quite incapable of describing reality, some philosophers pushed the idea of there being a meta-language capable of impeccable characterisation of an object (be it the concept of beauty, society, or a chair). But postmodern psychoanalysts such as Lacan argued that meta-language does not represent an actual thing in reality – it only symbolises a certain lack, a void around which we can infinitely circle but never quite fill it.3

The Void & Spirituality

Now let’s get back to my crippling “depression.” Though my state of mind shared many symptoms with depression, it wasn’t that per se. I felt as if my self was nothing but a white, pulsating orb, a void. Every identity I chose to present in everyday life – my style, my behaviour, my opinions – didn’t come from the inside but was imposed, learned, or constructed. It seemed to me that the “I” was non-existent and this thought was grinding me into a pulp. Since there was no intrinsic meaning to living, no essential identity to the self, why bother existing in a reality that comprised illusions? Suicidal thoughts were playing on my mind simultaneously with a strange passion for being alive. And it was a passion for creation that helped me cope with this dread. At that time I started writing my first novel and I turned my suffering into something meaningful, something that transcended my vision of the self and completely eradicated the will to even seek meaning. Travelling too was an answer – both these tasks entailed a total immersion in experience. The book, soon to be published, covers the struggle of an individual devoured by numbness and who is torn apart by intrinsic contradictions. Surely, it was inspired by my own contemplations, and I easily mistook it for my self dying. But it wasn’t the self that died; it was ego.

Transgender activists often bring about the argument that they were born in the wrong body. Yet, this approach presupposes that, before one is born, there is some fixed, predestined self, which was accidentaly brought into this world into a human of a wrong sex.4 But, as I concluded from reading Žižek’s Sublime Object of Ideology, where he refers to Lacan, the self is a void

Those with an interest in astrology claim that there is a list of traits and properties applied to us at birth, and that we can’t fight. I strongly disagree with this narrowed outlook. First of all, it acts as a major excuse not to work on one’s flaws. Second of all, it colours our vision – if we go through our birthchart, not only do we look for similarities between the prophetic chart and our life, but we also subconsciously hard-wire ourselves to follow certain behaviours so that we fit our star sign. And lastly, if a fixed self exists, it’s only an ideal around which we build our identity in the present but are never capable of reaching it. As a result, the “true self” is only an illusion which is defined retroactively. We construct our true selves by creating identities that define it in hindsight. It’s not “he is this, so he acts this way,” but “he acts this way, so he is this.” 

Another counterargument is again that of language. If one is dishonest by nature, we should ask ourselves: what is honesty? Is irony being dishonest, since it’s a conscious concealment of our true beliefs behind a veil of satire? If I act a certain way to achieve desired results, e.g. one is cynically polite to a police officer towards whom one feels deep animosity in order to avoid receiving a ticket or being arrested – does that mean one is being dishonest or manipulative?

The problem with spirituality is its post-postmodernist essentialism – instead of facing that the self is a void, it works like any other religion. Through a construction of a system of symbolism, rituals, and a mythology, it adds the element of faith to science. For LaVey, the author of the Satanic Bible, it’s crucial for humans to instill themselves emotionally in a conviction they have already accepted intellectually, but to me it’s just history repeating itself. Spirituality seems to lack the courage to accept the paradox of the self and instead pushes for a religious collectivisation with easy answers that remind me of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (or as Camus would put it, philosophical suicide).

One of the greatest criticisms of postmodern thought is that it is paradoxical: “Nothing is true except for the fact that nothing is true.” Here, language is no longer a useful medium of wisdom. Isn’t the very nature of reality a paradox? Isn’t the concept that reality (so the self, physical objects, society, etc.) is described retroactively a negation of itself? Isn’t it just our human language that’s incapable of grasping the paradox? It might seem scary to think that our view of the world is relative and subjective, and no doubt it might lead you to the dark corners of your mind – the dark night of the soul – but what comes after ego death is absolute freedom as Camus’ hero of the absurd, as the buddha without desire, as the second coming of Christ whence one is one’s own personal Jesus.

My answer would be to accept that the meaning of life is to seek the subjective meaning of life but never settle on one answer, to face the idea that we will never fully grasp the nature of reality, and to embrace the void within, accept it.

A Way Forward

If we take a look at the capitalist society of today, we can see that we are now going through a cultural schizophrenia. In the past, objects of veneration were intertwined with a certain place, a particular culture, a value system. Now, the world is like a museum: a collection of meaningless things torn out of their background that don’t mean anything in itself. Our sense of identity and our perception of reality become blurred. As I mentioned above, this leads to the overall feeling of disconnection and spreads the epidemic of bad mental health for we no longer see ourselves as a part of history, a nation, etc. [3]

Yet, I would argue that this is not something that we should particularly oppose. As we could see time and time again, each attempt to fight the system ended in the rebel’s being integrated into the system. Misfits made tonnes of money by screaming “Fuck the system,” while being a part of the very system they resisted. Instead, we should accelerate the disintegration of culture. 

Expanding the idea of individual identity and the self being but a void, a certain lack, to a societal level, we could say that we are now all going through the dark night of the soul. It feels like we don’t belong anywhere, like no identity is truly ours, like nothing makes sense anymore. But it’s always darkest before dawn. What is ahead of us is infinite freedom.

Capitalism is a bubble whose very limit is capital in itself. For this reason, as thinkers like Goudilliard argued, it has a revolutionary potential in it. Furthermore, in a book by Deleuze and Gauttari, the French thinkers form the concept of Anti-Oedipus, an individual who has rid themself of complexes through schizoanalysis. This idea can be extended to a societal level. So, if we want to finish capitalism off with a glorious blow we shouldn’t resist it; we should accelerate this hopelessness by advancing these three traits:

  • Orphan – a detachment from generational traumas and transcending parent-child relations into mutually-respecting yet independent relationships;
  • Nomad – a detachment from national, ethnical, cultural identities;
  • Atheist – a detachment from past (and present) religious value systems and mythologies.

Some sources also highlight that Anti-Oedipus must also be an anti-nihilist, creating their own meaning in a hopeless world instead of being devoured by despair. (Once again we can see similarities to Camus.) [4]

Viva la Muerte!

The key to fight the spreading mental health epidemic then, I think, is to accelerate the cultural schizophrenia of late capitalism in the spirit of Fischer’s Capitalist Realism. As national, ethnical, or cultural identities die, it’s not humanity that is going through a crisis – we are now in society’s dark night of the soul as collective egos die and the void, the nothingness that seems so heavy now, will soon be the very liberation of our species from illusory identities, traumas, and prejudices that have divided humanity for centuries.

Contradictions don’t oppose one another but form a complementary relationship which is real only on the spiritual, imaginary, metaphysical level, for its realness is a lack and its being is nothingness. They are not a binary system but a spectrum, and instead of seeing ourselves as being this or that, we ought to perceive ourselves like newborns whose only nature is infinite potential.3 By accepting the paradoxical void of the self and giving up on our ego-identities, we can give humanity a new start and fundamentally restructure society.6


Footnotes:

1 – Inhumane and vile behaviours depend on the value system we choose, of course, and are a question of means and ends. Yet, if we choose to agree that cruelty, violence, and abuse are reprehensible and that human nature is that of infinite potential beyond duality, then a system that allows individuals to shamelessly engage in barbaric behaviours is to blame over the individual put in a position whence such actions are permitted (nota bene, not leaving the individual completely blameless).

2 – Another thing worth mentioning is that the working class may just not have the energy to take up their torches. After hours of work a day, there’s little mental and physical capacity left to take up a draining task, even such as questioning the validity of their everyday reality. We don’t need gladiators anymore; we’ve got television.

3 – Sometimes it’s easier to define a thing (or yourself) by what it is not.

4 – To me, those using the argument of being born in the wrong body completely miss the point. Such thinking implies that one’s biological sex (male or female) is related to their gender (so, i.a., their way of communicating, behaving, dressing, etc. in social situations). Gender is socially constructed, so there is no way one can be born in the wrong body – though it may appear so to those who don’t comprehend the concept. To put it in brute terms, whether you have a penis or a vagina has nothing to do with wearing makeup.

5 – A point of confusion could be added here concerning free will. Schopenhauer said, Der Mensch kann zwar tun was er will, aber er kann nicht will was er will – you can do what you want but you can’t want what you want. To what extent do you have control over what you want, can you only say “no” to a desire or can you somehow come up with it consciously? Or does a desire, an idea, come to you? If free will is an illusion, as some contemporary neuroscientists claim, then our experience is nothing but a simulation of reality, whence we are but a manifestation of some intersubjective and subcoscious will (Jungian collective suncscious), and hence doomed for our inevitable destiny? Then again, does the Schopenhauerian will not support the claim? Ego is an illusion and the self is a void around which we oscillate but never reach – can we identify the void, the lack, the will of desire that pushes us to stay alive, the sublime object of ideology?

6 – In many revolutionary and counter-cultural movements of today, activists push for rejection of economic growth as a moral obligation to humanity – an approach of opposing means to embracing hopelessness, yet one with identical ends. I agree that the outlook presented in this article appears to be very counter-intuitive – but is it immoral? That I leave for each one of my readers to decide individually, as it depends on the ethical code and philosophical approach one chooses to support. Yet, no matter one’s anti-capitalist beliefs, all counterculture and revolutionary movements get incorporated into the system anyway: from Nirvana, through AdBusters, to any anarchist collective that wants to reach a wider audience. They all use social media to communicate, drive cars to move about, and not just utilise, but need capital in order to go on. That’s capitalist realism. Nevertheless, I am willing to entertain the idea that while the hopeless culture of late capitalism is being pushed to its limit, some circles organise and get ready for a revolution to come.

Published by Dawid Tysowski

[writer]

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