Can We Talk About the Limitations of Identity for Half a Second?


Like many of us, as a lonely and vaguely unhappy teenager I justified a natural tendency towards silence and social awkwardness with the thought, Why would I want to talk to Those People anyway? Those People, of course, were comprised of nearly everybody but me, all of them slotted off into easy categories I had learned from movies and sitcoms. Having read my Salinger, I was certain that most people were phony.

The fact not that I got along with so few people, but that I couldn’t talk to them long enough to even say that, was proof of my being different than most others. Rather than deal with my own insecurities and limitations, I merely concluded that nearly any form of public ritual was the height of insincerity. This stemmed from the usually intense adolescent perception that everyone has a unique identity so sharply distinct that any pretense to bridge that gap amounted to compromising one’s true and genuine self. And as a young writer whose stories and poems didn’t fit in with the kinds of activities that other kids got credit or recognition for, these accomplishments also struck me as disingenuous.

While this social anxiety lessened as I got older, I now notice that I still allowed similarly easy judgments to be thrown over other public rituals: I dismissed organized religion because of the thousands of years of personal and institutional failings and horrid violence that plague all of them; I dismissed voting as brainwashed and useless, and politics as horrendously corrupt; I never sought a major promotion at a job because of the increasingly scripted and inane interaction that becomes unavoidable when dealing with more than a half dozen people; and while I’ve lived off of the scholarship and translations of many of those employed by universities, I dismissed higher education and the rituals of academia as about as false a structure as any I knew, especially when compared to my own intense and personal experience of literature and history. So certain that so many areas of public life would never accept me anyway, I dismissed them before they even had the chance. When I did finally return to college in my early thirties, I felt so inadequate to the process of just filling out forms and summing myself up in a small essay, that I was prepared to fail utterly.



Which is not to say that I emerged from a haze and realized that things like organized religion or politics actually weren’t well-meaning but imperfect mixtures of decency and dishonesty. It’s just that it seems more and more advisable to live with the knowledge of this imperfection—the knowledge that pretty much any activity undertaken outside of isolation inevitably involves difference and compromise—but to not let this knowledge keep us from participating in daily life.

This struck me a few years ago when watching a documentary about Martin Luther, who at the time I knew next to nothing about. As an introduction to him I loved it, but I noticed that nearly all of the snarky reviews complained, as they often do with nonfiction books, about “what was left out.” But considering that the English edition of Luther’s own writings is now beyond seventy volumes, even a documentary much longer than two hours could not possibly cover everything—and indeed, in this as in many contexts, even the word everything loses any precise meaning in its attempt to contain so much. The people who complained, I realized, were expecting what I had in high school: a level of perfection that was impossible. Finding it lacking, they were unwilling to just take what they could from the documentary, and instead dismissed the whole.

However, I saw even more of myself here, since my adolescent desire for perfection was replaced, as I read more and more widely, with a desire for completion. If I found a poet I liked, I read every poem of theirs, and then their letters and a biography. I tried to do the same with novelists and became adept, if anything, at making great chronological lists of this or that author’s output. When I came to swim through ancient poetry and mythology, I collected translations of Homer or the Tao Te Ching or the Bible, or as many Arthurian Romances as I could find; I sought out old multivolume sets like The Golden Bough or The Mythology of All Races since in their own way they suggested a great encyclopedic totality; and for a long time I refused to read any part, say, of the Hindu Mahabharata, since it was only available either in an incomplete English version (running more than ten volumes), or as an abridgement or retelling, none of which would satisfy my need for the whole thing. Certainly the real enjoyment of these books was the primary urge, but so was the belief that—like some safety blanket—I could hold all of a writer or subject in my hand.

Yet I always sensed that this completeness was probably impossible, and found this truth best articulated in the writings of archaeologists and ancient historians, who all gladly admit the limitations of their work. As Barry Cunliffe put it in his book on the prehistory of Britain:

… our vision of the past is always changing. The cherished beliefs of today, so painstakingly constructed and rigorously checked, will inevitably have to be modified tomorrow…. An archaeologist writing of the past must be constantly aware that the past is, in truth, unknowable. The best we can do is to offer approximations based on the fragments of hard evidence that we have to hand, ever conscious that we are interpreters…. What is offered here is a single perspective crystallized at a particular moment—next year the story will have changed. Herein lies the excitement of the subject.[1]

In what other area of cultural life is such uncertainty, imperfection, and inevitable change celebrated as exciting? I can’t think of many, and indeed that is the problem. Another example of this comes from the career of the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who lived from 1907 to 1986. His two dozen or so books were as influential as any in the twentieth century on the history of religion, but his major work is now already at least fifty years old, and has slowly become dated. In a new foreword to his book on shamanism, one of his more famous students at the University of Chicago, Wendy Doniger, admitted all of his limitations but still said his work served “as starting points for the comparative study of religion.”[2] But in a way, that’s all anything is, that’s all Eliade’s work was the moment it was written or the day it was published: a starting point, a way through the door. That is all.



I also remembered the story of an adult education class on ancient Egypt. Egyptian history is separated into about thirty dynasties, and those dynasties are distributed into a handful of larger chronological units: the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, with a First and Second Intermediate period straddling the Middle Kingdom. Generally speaking, these two Intermediate Periods are ones of political and cultural upheaval, about which much less is known than the other periods, and the Egyptologist teaching the class told me of a student who seemed actually offended at this gap in knowledge. For some reason, he had come to expect completeness, perfection, and certainty, from something as difficult as history.

This shouldn’t be surprising, however, since we are also made to erroneously expect certainty from so much else in life. Indeed, when I said that I was mistakenly searching for a sense of completeness and perfection back in high school, I was also reacting to the same expectations that I was receiving from others, and which I couldn’t help but dismiss. The structures of classes, grades, academic awards, scholarships, and on up to college, all seemed a perfectly straight and useful ladder for them; such people actually believed that some combination of religion, voting, jobs, college, and all the rest, really weren’t inherently complex, and that they largely and quite simply made you happy and successful. The idea that this could possibly be true baffled me, but the answer wasn’t, as I thought then, to conclude that the SATs were useless and only taken seriously by idiots, but merely that such tests were good at measuring and recognizing certain kinds of intelligence which I did not possess. Far from being useless to everyone, they were just useless to me. Quite simply, many of their beliefs, just as many of my own, weren’t certain or perfect, and never have been; they simply represent the many varieties of life and living, and all of them are unstable.

In this context I often think of sports. For a medium so surrounded by statistics and numbers, it’s stunning to see how imperfect so much of it actually is. Take baseball: players who compete for the highest batting average are being judged not on how well they do under identical conditions and against identical opponents, but against different pitchers, different pitches, on different days and at different times. The best baseball players emerge not from something like the environment of a repeatable laboratory experiment, but through a process that is much closer to everyday life, where everyone is given the same basic structure to compete under, all while this structure allows for vast and dissimilar expressions of choice and chance. There is no need to stop enjoying sports because of these imperfections, but very often the self-evidently non-scientific nature of sports is belied, even denied, by the mountains of commentary and predictions that emerge before, during, and after each game; and of course the same commentary and criticism plague the simple experience of culture as well.

This concept which resembles everyday life is much more difficult to live with, of course, when actually seen in everyday life: that is, success in the world is also the result of chance as much as choice. While all of us are given twenty-four hours in a day to spend our time, how well we do in life and how well our choices succeed are largely the result of factors out of our hands, such as the accidents of where and when we were born. There is an inherent imperfection—and, when this comes down to basic livability, an inherent injustice—in everyday life that many of us would like to solve completely or to completely deny, and in the absence of either, so much of life is dismissed, denied, or condemned.

Those on opposing political sides would prefer either to reject this idea or to push it to its extreme (i.e., we are entirely responsible for our actions, regardless of our environment; or, environmental factors are such that we cannot be held responsible for much of anything, and are in need of constant help), but again reality is somewhere in the uncomfortable, unsolvable middle. And the fact that society’s attempts to right these wrongs inevitably results in bloated and flawed government programs is less a reason to get rid of the programs than it is just another illustration as to how imperfect and actually impossible real problems are.

These extremes are close enough to my adolescent predilection that sometimes I nearly jump to one or another grand solution. But while admirable, our desire for answers and solutions, for a “level playing field” one way or another, so easily become destructive, such as when a philosopher recently claimed that parents who read to their kids “are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children”[3] who aren’t being read to. Apparently, because a good number of children aren’t being read to and reached, none of them should. George Orwell usually says it best: “We are living in a nightmare precisely because we have tried to set up an earthly paradise.”[4]



I like to compare this to how human beings acted during the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, when perhaps a third of Europe died of the disease. One bishop summed up the general bewilderment by saying, “It is not within the power of man to understand the divine plan.” As if he hadn’t even written those previous words, though, he continued by pretending to understand that very plan: “But it is to be feared that the most likely explanation is that human sensuality—that fire that blazed up as a result of Adam’s sin and which from adolescence onwards is an incitement to wrongdoing—has now plumbed greater depths of evil, producing a multitude of sins which have provoked the divine anger, by a just judgment, to this revenge.”[5] The scale and completeness of destruction that the Black Death caused could not be allowed to exist without an equally complete explanation.

While such tendencies—coping with difficulty and ambiguity by reimagining them as not difficult or ambiguous at all—have always been the lot of humans, our technology and culture today have now multiplied those tendencies exponentially. After all, so much of our lives actually can be known with utter certainty: the ups and downs of weather, the performance of our retirement plans and credit scores, how many miles before we run out of gas, how many calories we’ve consumed, and everything online. There is not one imperfect mile, dollar, gigabyte, page, word. In the same way, everyone from advertising agencies, media conglomerates, websites, stores, and political campaigns, now have the ability to collect so much precise and irrefutable data about all of us that it is very hard to believe that we aren’t just numbers and bodies and minds filled with trackable motivations and desires. And the same with so much of practical science and medicine: whether in properly dosing a drug, or knowing the atmospheric makeup of planets millions of miles away, it seems absurd that so many other aspects of life should be so uncertain and even unknowable. And yet they are.

For while the illusory belief in cultural or religious certainty is indeed much older than our smartphones, the certainty and completeness which our digital age allows has only made us that much more desperate for it. Even if religious differences have been the source of more violence and suffering than cultural ones—at least since religion and culture became two separate pursuits—the truth claims of cultural critics, authors, painters, or directors, are not very different than those of theologians and believers: that is, they are empty of the certainty and authority they pretend to possess. (And since religious belief is on the wane in cultural circles, ostracism and humiliation for one’s opinions, while nothing close to being burned at the stake, is still its own form of auto-da-fé.)

Allegiance to certain authors, bands, composers, painters, movies, genres, and religions have never been solved like a math problem, and can never be used as the definitive hammer their authors or admirers desperately wish them to be. This needs to be said because, for many of us, the vast majority of religion or culture we experience assume they can. We simply have no ability to communicate cultural, religious, political, or any other differences except in some combative fashion. In other words, our technological moment has created a culture similar to my cynical adolescent outlook: we are so obsessed with articulating the details of our own (and others’) identity, and we are so aware of every difference between us, that the best we can do is shun or judge or dismiss one another, in whatever juvenile fashion is current. For while it is assumed that so many TV channels, web pages and podcasts will allow everyone to be seen and heard without discrimination or bias, in actuality only those who excel at communicating in this self-referential and dismissive and corrosive way get any attention; and only those who effectively draw the sharpest distinctions between peoples and groups, and only those who can pretend to speak from some absolute authority, are even noticed.



In such an exaggerated landscape, it isn’t hard to find vastly complex historical ideas reduced to ridiculous simplicity. For instance, both religious believers (in order to demand their own form of fundamentalism) and unbelievers (in order to show up how faulty and superstitious fundamentalism is) say that we cannot “pick and choose” with religion: we must take it as a whole. But this again assumes completeness exists at all, and that orthodoxy is something other than an ever-changing fiction. Whether in terms of religion or politics or culture, there is nothing but picking and choosing. There has simply never been any possibility of personal or organizational agreement or consistency from one year—let alone decade or century or millennia—to another.

Because if I believed that I couldn’t pick and choose, and was determined to only expose myself to those people, those historical moments, and those forms of art and culture and religion that squared completely with my own opinions and values as of October, 2016, there’s no end to all those areas of knowledge and experience which I would have avoided. Without the ability to pick and choose, we are left with a desire for perfection and authority which can only lead to what fills the internet: endless (and largely anonymous) criticism. For while it’s wonderful that blogs have freed us from the supposed authority of “professional” critics and reviewers, it’s unfortunate that they have been replaced with thousands of other reviewers who also present their opinions as unassailable.

In his old age T. S. Eliot, who began his career as much a critic as a poet, bemoaned his early reviews and in general the “dogmatism of youth” we are currently mired in:

When we are young we see issues sharply defined: as we age we tend to make more reservations, to quality our positive assertions, to introduce more parentheses. We see objections to our own views, we regard the enemy with greater tolerance and even sometimes with sympathy. When we are young, we are confident in our opinions, sure that we possess the whole truth; we are enthusiastic, or indignant. And readers, even mature readers, are attracted to a write who is quite sure of himself. [6]

Indeed, such certainty and authority is only possible through the mode of criticism, since it would be useless to attach certainty to the highly subjective and deeply specific, imperfect, and individual experience of culture or religion. For while endless discursive reasoning, and endless collation of data, categories, genres, and denominations can be formulated into dogma, the experience of prayer, of poetry, of a great movie or novel, cannot. The actual experience of art needs eloquent articulators, rather than vitriolic defenders; but since it is much easier to establish a sense of belonging or identity by pretending a concrete conclusion, we now largely ignore the brittle and glittering cloud of experience, even of ignorance.

The informality of this essay is, I hope, a reflection of this cloud: making it more formal and rigid, and less anecdotal, would be to act as if I’ve solved something. To the horror of those who think this essay is long enough already, I realize this subject could easily occupy an entire book; but I know that attempting to do so would only waste space: there is no end to what I am trying to say here, in part because a belief in such completion and totality is the probleMdddddsdfasdfasdfasdfasdfm. Like sports commentators, we have strangled the invigorating terror of experience and meaning with the much more comforting cultivation of statistics and categories.

I think of the words of the French writer Jean Guéhenno, who bemoaned this preference for analysis over experience in 1942:

I know a professor who spent a whole year giving a commentary on Lamartine’s Le Lac. He traced the history of a little pink or blue notebook in which Lamartine had scrawled a few stanzas of his poem. He related what hands it passed through, he counted the pages, analyzed them… That required several lectures. When the last one came around, neither he nor his students had read the poem yet. To these so-called historians, it seems that all the artists of the past suffered, wrote, and lived only to provide matter for a few bibliographical index cards. They have fused research with education. We must have researchers. But “researchers” are not professors. Let the researchers do research and the professors teach…. But in the best cases we train bookworms; from the age of twenty on, we accustom them to remain inside one drawer of index cards, we train them to compile notes and work their way through it. We cultivate petty vanity in them. For them, knowledge will always consist in adding a card to their file, like a gram to a kilo. Knowledge will distract them from their life, which it should rather enrich and govern.[7]



Nowadays we have merely made index cards of ourselves. Terrified, it seems, by the loneliness of the subjective, of the deeply personal and strange, and encouraged by the nature of everything digital and of our deep need simply to belong, we would much rather make of ourselves a spreadsheet than a sprawling, varied, unencumbered landscape. Knowing myself the pain of loneliness and not belonging, I completely understand; but even so, none of our categories or attempts at identity can completely or certainly represent or explain us, or be used to dismiss those who are different.

My hesitation and social awkwardness of more than twenty years ago seems to have been well-founded, at least for me: I knew instinctively that the differences between everyone weren’t terribly substantive, but the only way I had to articulate this was with the cynicism of my own assumed identity. Now I know that I what I took for Salinger’s phoniness, or for masks, are simply what people do, what we all have to do, in the creation of a conscious but important fiction and form of restraint that is necessary to communicate and interact. In order to cope with the complexities of the world, we have to pretend that our identity and opinions are much more solid than they really are. But when we take this solidity too seriously, we open the door to every tragedy. A remark from Miss Manners, which I first came across back in high school while reading Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, has always stayed with me: “In civilization there have to be some restraints. If we followed every impulse, we’d be killing one another.”[8] I would change this, however, to something like, “In civilization there have to be some restraints. But if we take those restraints too seriously, we will end up killing one another.”

Because in the end, what allows for prejudice more than a habitual tendency to reduce people entirely to only a few details and characteristics? What allows for bigotry but the ability to reduce people to preferences, to opinions, or even to physical details that can be judged as either right or wrong, and people as either fit or unfit to live? It is much harder to dehumanize those we believe to be complex, multifarious, and varied. And it is worth remembering that no one loves categories and identities more than those people and organizations who seek control; and we only do their bidding when we nevertheless all cling that much more strongly to our sense of difference and identity, and feed into the old tactic of divide and conquer.

Even Auschwitz has been called the end result of people having been turned into numbers.[9] Similarly, the concentration camps have been seen as the logical conclusion of any automatic way of thinking which can make the blanket statement, “every stranger is an enemy.”[10] So while online bullying, and the intellectual sewer that is the comments section of most websites, are all very far from the gas chambers, the essence of them are there: an intense attachment to identity, coupled with an inevitable aversion to all other forms of identity. And how many violent criminals have we heard of, who only came to believe that power or celebrity (or infamy) were of utmost importance, only when those institutions and forms of identity they were told to find assurance in failed them, and they feel they are left with nothing? But that “nothing” is actually the entirety of actual life in the world, that huge sea of uncertainty and imperfection that is everyday life, where we must all find different ways of belonging.

In the Mishnah of Judaism there is a remarkable phrase: “Any controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure.”[11] In other words, if you think you’ve found an answer, if you think you’ve come to the end, if you think you can proclaim anything worthwhile with certainty, if you think you’ve finished drawing a circle, you’ve fooled yourself. Any important question has only attained that status by remaining a question, by never being solved or made safe. The circle you thought you were drawing is a spiral, spinning in and out of itself, and if it is occupied with a task of true importance, it will never stop, it will never reach the center or the outer edge, it will never be perfect or closed or completely secure. But it will hover there and hum in praise of itself, of its endlessness, its imperfection without rest.



[1] Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins, vi-vii.

[2] Preface to 2004 edition of Shamanism, Wendy Doniger, xiii.

[3] Adam Swift, quoted here:

[4] George Orwell, “Notes on the Way,” Time and Tide 30 March and 6 April, 1940; in the Everyman’s Library edition of Essays, edited by John Carey, 257.

[5] Quoted in John Hatcher, The Black Death: A Personal History, 306.

[6] To the Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, 14, 16.

[7] Jean Guéhenno, Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, by tr. David Ball, 142.

[8] Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, epigraph.

[9] Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, 374: “This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods….. I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

[10] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, 9: “Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that “every stranger is an enemy.” For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, is the Lager [from Konzentrationslager, concentration camp]. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.”

[11] Avot 5:17.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Yes that is a long, long post but I do not think it is wasted. It induces introspection and I can quite echoes of it in the evolution of my thoughts. Cheers.

  2. “In what other area of cultural life is such uncertainty, imperfection, and inevitable change celebrated as exciting?”
    True. Strange, however, since I can think of an example in the area of personal life:
    Going on vacation to a brand new destination. That is how I feel when doing that. Actually, I embrace uncertainty, imperfection, and inevitable change that way and find it exciting.
    Also, I allow uncertainty, imperfection, and inevitable change to enter my life when I paint. That is why I paint. I don’t sell much but I need the experience. I paint figures, and the models are family members, because they are my experience.
    Yes, as we age we allow for nuances and imperfections. But what work it is! I grew up with the notion of entering this world with a clean slate and accepting the idea of black and white.
    Thank you for your good work. I appreciate it.

  3. Reblogged this on Elizabeth Stokkebye and commented:
    This is a long but extremely worthwhile essay about embracing uncertainty, imperfection, and inevitable change as part of daily life. We may do that on a personal level but on a cultural level? Hardly.

  4. The nugget about Lamartine’s “La Lac” is priceless!

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