Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Losing Ourselves

“My chair told me I should start dressing more like a professor,” said the grandmaster of my martial arts dojeng. In addition to being an 8th dan in both hapkido and tae kwan do (“Only 7th in hapkido,” he corrected me, “but either one is a can of whoop ass”), he was also a full professor in the law faculty at the university and had written a couple of textbooks. His response to his department chair, “Well, I’m a professor, and this is the way I dress, so professors must dress this way.”

Let’s hear it for syllogisms.

We’re supposed to look a certain way (dress for the occasion) or act a certain way (your age, to name one). When I used to be heavily into academia and would talk about “performing the self,” I got a lot of eye-rolls. “That sounds like bullshit,” was the intimation. Academic gobbledigook.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of academic gobbledigook. A LOT. We are a veritable gobbledigook machine.

The idea of performing the self was sketched out by a Russian named Evreinoff and detailed by an American named Goffman (among others). We have an idea of who we are, and that idea is what we perform. If you’ve ever seen me in a suit, you’ve seen me out of my element. I don’t know how to wear a suit , and you can tell. I am comfortable in jeans and t-shirts with a Leatherman on my belt (for the record: Leatherman vs. Gerber, I don’t care). “People can change,” we hear, and are treated to a conversion story about how the person became someone else – typically a better person. Yes, people can change, but mostly we don’t. Because we rehearse our performances every day of our lives and changing requires a new directorial vision.

RadioLab (a show some folks hate, I grant – I’m not one of them) did a show (it might have been Who Am I?) I podcast while driving out to teach at a suburban university last year about personality. One of the stories was from a woman talking about her mother changed after a stroke, and a neuroscientist they spoke with said, roughly, “Yep, we’re all just a bump on the head away from being someone else.” I was listening to RadioLab again yesterday on my now daily 90 minute commute (it won’t last, I’m happy to say), Numbers, and how we, people, naturally think “logarithmically,” and we learn to count by integers only between 3 and 4, by which they meant, we can repeat the words that stand for numbers, but we only really learn what they mean by 3 or so.

One of the things that came up while I was in graduate school was “aphasia,” which is the process by which people lose language. Linguists interested in language acquisition look at the reverse process for insight, and it turns out that there is a generalized, actual reversal. The hardest sounds to make, for example, are theorized as the ones we learn last. The ones we learn last tend to be the ones we lose first.

I wonder how aphasia plays out with performing yourself. What parts of ourselves go away? To hear Hana talk about her, Lucka never lost anything of herself in her last days. Anthony, meanwhile, between the actual brain tumor and all of the meds he’s stuck on, has what his battery of doctors calls “low affect.” It’s not that his personality isn’t there, but he’s not showing it as much. When does a lack of practice mean a bad performance?

After one surgery a few years ago, Anthony woke up inviting people to call him Tony and interested in football. Neither of those things is “Anthony,” and neither of those things lasted. Where did they come from and where did they go?

For the record, the grandmaster of my martial arts school still occasionally wonders if everything he’s experiencing isn’t actually a delusion and if he’s still lying injured in the mud in Viet Nam.


2 responses

  1. Suzy

    Fascinating reflections…. if we are conscious that we are performing who we are – role playing – how can we be sure that that is our real self and if its not, when aphasia kicks in it could be that then the genuine self is coming to the fore rather than anything being lost…suddenly people’s expectations of someone have no influence and therefore there is no intrinsic need to perform… I making any sense??
    Anyway thanks for sharing – it has certainly given me something to ponder over xx

    July 8, 2010 at 11:19 am

  2. Elizabeth

    Oh sage. I suppose one must have experienced much sadness, death and loss to be this wisely observant. I am sorry for your loss(es) but they are their own gift manifest in your beautiful writing. And just take the “beautiful” for what it’s worth, okay?

    July 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm

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