I was in a linguistics class a few weeks ago, discussing the relationship between language use, geography, and cultural identity, when my professor took a step back and asked our class what identity is in the first place. I took the question literally and began to think of it, as one does, self-referentially.
There were some obvious answers for me: I’m an Indian, male-identifying undergraduate student who’s spent considerable time in California, New York, and Texas. According to our lecture in class, you can draw a lot of conclusions about peoples’ identities from their geographic history; the way they talk, what they’re interested in, how they generally perceive the world around them – they’re all supposed to be shaped by our hometown(s). For some this is more true than for others, but I was surprised to realize how little my geographic history has affected my identity. When I really think about my identity – how I talk, what I’m interested in, my worldview – I find myself ascribing everything to the internet. Sure, living in white suburban Texas greatly influenced my personal development. But beyond perhaps having an inclination to wear upscale athleisure, I’m not sure what of my identity came from Texas. Most of what I can tangibly describe about myself I can say came from the internet.
What does that mean for me? My identity is a set of sketches, each loosely drawing from some far more robust source material that I’ve lost touch with or didn’t know in the first place. I love listening to music, and I listen to a lot of rap that I’ve pulled from the internet over the last seven or eight years. If you think of music as a tree, a vivid, pink magnolia tree, and each branch as a genre of music, and each twig as a sub-genre of music, and so on and so forth until the actual magnolia flowers represent individual songs, you can think of my relationship with rap music as the relationship between someone who goes to the store to buy a few magnolia flowers and the magnolia tree itself, thousands of miles away, that parted with those flowers long ago. The mass-produced plastic wrapper that came with the magnolia flowers tells you a little about the tree that it came from, maybe where exactly that tree is or when and how it’s nurtured. But you don’t know anything about the place the tree came from, and are about as far removed from the actual tree as one can be while still holding a fragment of its physical existence.
It seems to me that the nature of identity in the modern world is moving away from us each having our own little magnolia trees, shaped mostly by our geographic and community ties, and towards us each possessing a haphazard assemblage of flowers from across the world. It is an understatement, actually, to say that our identities are merely a medley of flowers – they are veritable Dutch flower markets of their own, constantly swelling and mutating according to vague sets of rules that are our personalities. More than any generation before us (and necessarily less so than any of the generations to come), our identities are shaped by a dynamic and unending process of information exchange with the world that enables us to acquire massive quantities of flowers and fit them into our identity-markets as we see fit.
The effect of this model of engagement with the world is twofold. First, our individual identities begin to defy categorization. If you watch pretty much any movie that attempts to describe adolescent life from thirty years ago – even ten years ago – you’ll notice that its mapping of the adolescent world is governed strictly by categories. There are jocks and geeks, smart kids and dumb kids, the cool crowd and the weirdos. Most pieces of media from more than ten years ago, in fact, that attempt to illustrate the nature of adolescent life, use this societal mapping. If you watch one of those movies with someone born after 2000 and ask them if the movie’s social dynamics reflect the real dynamics of adolescents today, they’ll resoundingly respond “no”. Sure, movies that try to get a snapshot of adolescent life have never been particularly representative of real life, and that societal mapping certainly exists to some extent today. But humans just aren’t like that anymore. Adolescent identity is now unfathomably varied, and kids in every corner of the earth are exposed to so much information about the world that their identities are chock-full of disparate and often contradictory references. Traditional social dynamics cannot keep up with the developers of Fortnite, rappers from Memphis, and internet meme culture, so kids choose to participate in all three of those things and gradually escape the gravity of traditional “coolness”.
The second effect of our flower market identities is more nebulous and hints at an underlying explanation for our generation’s general existential angst. In the past, a given twenty-year-old’s identity (if you’ll indulge me in this metaphor for a little longer) was less so a flower market and moreso a single tree that at its root was tethered to the twenty-year-old’s geographic and community ties. A twenty-year-old growing up in East Texas had an identity shaped in the mold of most of the twenty-year-old East Texans before him, give and take some branches and twigs. For lack of a better word, that twenty-year-old’s identity was real. He understood deeply the relationship between the soil and the tree, because that relationship was defined by his lived experiences. He wasn’t picking and choosing Magnolia flowers from North Carolina, because he simply did not have the ability to do so. All he knew was the life physically proximate to his own, his own sturdy tree that could not be uprooted by forces that weren’t there.
What, then, of my flower market? If you recall, I know something about all of the flowers in my market – I’ve read the wrappers! I know where they came from, how they ought to be cared for, and I’ve grown to understand where exactly they fit into my market. But herein lies the problem: my relationship with these flowers isn’t real like the East Texas boy’s relationship with his tree is real, because my flowers are as removed from my lived experience as possible. The best I can do is know where they fit in my market.
The result is a sort of hyperreal identity. As French theorist Jean Baudrillard put it, objects (objects, here, referring to everything that can be described in coherent language) in the modern world exist in any one of four stages. Those four stages represent the spectrum of existence between an object-as-itself, and an object as a symbol for itself, devoid of meaning and cut-off from its original context. Information, borne by the forces of technology and media, infinitely develops about objects and produces a relentlessly expanding web of references to each object that give them more and more meaning. Once information about an object reaches a critical threshold, we, the people, understand it exclusively through its myriad references and the object itself ceases to be meaningful.
Baudrillard’s most notable example was the Gulf War. In his 1991 essays, “The Gulf War Never Happened”, Baudrillard argued that the popular perception, and ultimately the only lasting history of the Gulf War, is a simulacra, a version of the original detached from the actual events of the war. For Baudrillard, the war was objectively a highly immoral and destructive display of Western power – an atrocity. But persistent propaganda from the American media produced a complex and expansive web of references to the war that at some point became completely unnavigable and replaced the meaning of the war altogether with references to the war. The war was no longer a war – it was a symbol of the righteousness of the West.
This exact phenomenon, which could be reasonably argued to be occurring in every facet of life, is happening to our young identities. We’re each at the center of our own web, forming tenuous connections with the rest of the world at breakneck pace. As we’re exposed to more and more information (which becomes progressively harder to fact check and distinguish from propaganda), and as we seek to comprehend more and more about the world (curiosity that Baudrillard argues is a fundamental feature of human society), we enter a state of hyperreality. We have so many connections to the world, so many flowers in our market, that our identities are made up entirely of hollow references. Each of the elements of my identity is an empty signifier of the original object, irrecoverably detached.
A few weeks ago, I was on a subway in New York when I noticed that a girl sitting across from me was wearing an Aaliyah shirt with 90s-style flashy bold lettering that’s in vogue again. Aaliyah, an extremely popular R&B singer and pop culture icon from the 90s, died in 2001 in a plane crash. Since then, her image has been plastered on t-shirts, billboards, twitter advertisements, and pretty much any place in which it would remotely make sense to present her. In the twenty years since her death, Aaliyah has become a symbol of a particular type of cool and culturally savvy identity. “Aaliyah” is now a reference to the symbol of Aaliyah, a theory confirmed by the fact that the girl was unable to describe Aaliyah in any meaningful way and additionally by the fact that there are at least five people at Duke University that own Aaliyah-related insignia of some sort. To integrate Aaliyah into your identity, then, is really just to refer to some vague image of Aaliyah that is devoid of the context that made Aaliyah, the singer and popular sensation, who Aaliyah was.
Certainly, some people understand the context that makes Aaliyah, Aaliyah, more than others (and myself), and their web of references is marginally more coherent and meaningful as a result. And of course, a great percentage of the world lives lives that are far less referential and hollow than that of my own – that man in East Texas surely still exists. One could argue that I’m just saying people are posers now, and they’d be somewhat right. Most of us who don any specific identity can’t help but be posers, because we’re hopelessly alienated from the context that gave those identities genuine meaning. But the ultimate effect of our hyperreal identity is far more insidious.
In our quest to make sense of a fundamentally entropic and harrowing world, we seek to confer value onto the objects around us. Why are people so depressed and apathetic nowadays? One explanation, beyond the underlying economic system that is prohibitive of value accumulation beyond monetary value, is that people simply cannot understand the world. Members of my generation objectively know more facts about the world than any of the generations before us, because previous generations did not have the ability to get real-time news from the far reaches of Siberia at their fingertips. But what does it mean to know about the world?
For many, it is to know, for example, that there is a conflict in Yemen, and perhaps even to know that the United States and Saudi Arabia are involved in said conflict. In the seven-odd years since the War in Yemen began, however, public sympathy for the war’s humanitarian toll has dwindled and is now nearly non-existent. Seven years of weekly headlines each acting as harbingers of Yemen’s imminent collapse have amounted to a mountain of information that has seared “Houthi” and “Aden” into the collective public consciousness. But as each year passes, those words lose coherency and become mere signifiers of what was once there. Now, as the millionth headline in seven years proclaims “Yemen’s humanitarian crisis growing as economy collapses”, we’re left to find meaning in an infinite void of information, meaning that we can only find if we accept the framing of the war as another war in a war-torn region that simply could not stop its devolution into chaos.
We know of untold suffering happening across the globe, even in our own cities and towns, but we are unable to determine what exactly that suffering means because it is caught in a web of signs and signifiers that refer exclusively to themselves and not to the original phenomena of suffering. Information becomes dissuasive, and in seeking more information to resolve our angst, we plunge deeper and deeper into the referential web only to come up empty-handed, confused, and, in due time, apathetic.
Our multitudinous identities that defy categorization give us joy and make us feel unique, but they are part and parcel of a system of signs and signifiers that renders much of the world a simulacra, a hollow representation of original phenomena. It is not our obligation to individually derive true meaning from the world, but we would be best served trying to understand the phenomena that we identify with. Though some objects seem irrecoverably lost, reflecting on our relationship with the objects that make up our identity can help us wade through the sea of information and find value as best we can. Next time you think about adding a flower to your market, think about where it came from and where it best fits in your market – you will be all the happier for it, and your market will make just a little more sense.
- Artrip, Ryan E., and François Debrix. “The digital fog of war: Baudrillard and the violence of representation.” (2014).
- Baudrillard, Jean. “Jean Baudrillard.” Fifty Key Sociologists: The Contemporary Theorists (1983): 14.
- Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War did not take place. Indiana University Press, 1995.
- Öberg, Dan. “War, transparency and control: the military architecture of operational warfare.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 29.3 (2016): 1132-1149.