Lots of interesting stuff this week, and I may have got a little over-excited. Identity is high on my ‘cool ideas to think about’ list, particularly as the question underpinning my current book is centered around the balance of personal and social identity. When does taking care of oneself tip over into selfishness, what are the consequences of non-conformism, and is the individual more important than the community? I’ve touched on this before, a bit, but in the context of producing art rather than writing characters.
In her essay on Consumer bodies, Elizabeth Jagger says that the rise of consumerism fundamentally changed the idea of identity, as media and cultural pressures began to dictate what people wore, ate, watched, read, how they behaved, where they went on holiday, and what they thought. I’m sure there were elements of this earlier in history but modern media channels make it far more pervasive. It removes an element of control over an individual’s identity, even if they don’t realise it. Those that choose to ignore current fashions are, to some extent, excluded from society as ‘odd’ or ‘other’ and thus the cycle continues. It’s not a new idea – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a brilliant, sickening look at an extreme version of modern consumerist culture and identity.
Jagger also makes a big point about the greater impact of dictated appearance on female identities, which obviously plays into the behaviour and power dynamics of characters. She says (and I agree) that women use appearance to manipulate their social position. This isn’t new either – it’s a pattern of behaviour that can be tracked back throughout history. Women manipulated, using whatever tools they could but mostly appearance and sex (which are almost always intertwined) to get what they want because they were rarely in a position to just ask for or take it. Is that any different today? With that in mind, how will it impact how my protagonist behaves, dresses, and achieves her goals?
There are a couple of points which Jagger didn’t address, due to the time of writing, but which I think are important. The first is social media. The rise of global communities has contributed to the fall of the geographical community, as individuals are no longer dependent on locality for ‘contact’. But that decreases physical contact which impacts individual identity, making it more fragile and more needing of external validation from the global community. Without physical contact, this validation becomes more about expressing the ‘correct’ opinions. It moves identity away from appearance and imposes taste onto the mind.
It also has lead to the rise of the anonymous identity, such as internet trolls, which fundamentally changes an individual’s behaviour and attitude towards the community. That identity is totally separated from the body, and also from the projected mental identity that is shared openly. It is a fragmentation of identity between private and public, with the freedom of anonymity giving rise to identity without the influence of taste or external opinion.
The second point that Jagger doesn’t really address (although she touches on it in the discussion of female body builders) is that of trans-gender identity. For trans-gender, the body is fundamentally NOT a part of their identity, it’s an obstacle to it. But appearance is the only way society can be made to understand, whilst at the same time making the individual vulnerable to attack and ridicule. Issues of trans-gender leads to situations where the body and mind are at odds in determining identity, and community can be very oppressive – even dangerous, in some societies – in resolving this question.
Okay, moving past the theory (I warned you I got excited) and on to the practical. You’ve heard of the setting being written as a character? Where it feels like it has a personality/atmosphere (see all the stuff last week about poetic topography). I’m going to cite Kate Griffen again as a good example of this – the London of her Matthew Swift novels feels like a real, breathing place that actively contributes to the story. Right, now flip this on its head: now try writing the character as a setting.
The body is relatively easy. Take a step back and view it as a place rather than a person. This is where similes become your friend, although the usual warnings about overuse apply. What can your body do? What can’t it do? How does this impact who you are? And then, having worked all that out, what kind of place does that make it? By way of example, here’s my answer to that last one:
I am a boat, running free before the wind. The pale planks of my deck soak in the sun and the salt, weathering fairly. My sails ripple as the wind changes, sometimes furled tightly, sometimes – more often, lately – stretched high and wide to catch the breath of the world. My compass spins in the gimbal, dancing between logic and desire. The smooth keel is painted with the depth markings of friends and family, keeping the little vessel upright. The small cabin is low-ceilinged, curving over a patchwork of memories and words. It is warm with hope and affection and soft sorrow. The door is open but there are only seats for three; the fourth is broken in the corner. Water sings like crystal beneath the foot of the prow, the horizon is wide, and the tiller is master of herself.
I’ll admit that I found describing the mind as a place much more challenging. To me, the body is the least part of someone’s identity (although, granted, the easiest identifier). It can be stepped back from and described as a place without too much of a leap. The mind, however, is the person. It’s too big and abstract and uncoordinated to easily turn into a setting. I’m not even sure what language to use.
One of the exercises was the following:
Part of the mind as place is how it interacts with the world and processes all of the information that comes in and goes out, such as language, color, light, etc. Imagine yourself as someone else, someone completely different from you culturally or socially. How does that person—this new you—exist inside his/her mind? What kind of place is it?
Because I was struggling with the concept, I made a list of some primary cultural traits that I have (privileged, educated, capitalist, liberal, atheist), worked out what the opposites of each are, and then wrote. I actually did the exercise a couple of times, for characters either out of LARP or my own writing. I didn’t plan what I was going to say in any way – I just held the whole concept of the character in my mind and starting typing. What came through each time was a little surprising and gave a very clear indication of what was most important to them. I’m not sure if it constituted writing the mind as a place but it was a useful little exercise. Again, by way of example, here’s what I came up with.
TAMSIN (poor, uneducated, faithful, optimistic)
There’ll be something to eat at the end of the day, there always is. The god looks after his own. Besides, I wouldn’t swap the open road for all the cushions and cakes in the world. They don’t see past their stone walls, poor folk. Never seen a sunset fire the sky, or had a storm wash off the dirt of a week. Never got by on the smells of a bakery and crusts stolen from a bin. Can’t taste food right if you ain’t felt hunger. I’ve begged for my supper and let me tell you: pity-bread fills the belly just the same as any other kind. But poached meat cooked on an open fire under the god’s stars? Ain’t no oven roast can compare with that.
ALEX (poor, uneducated, feudal, belligerent)
‘Course I know what I want. You don’t know, you’re gonna end up in the gutter – or forgotten at the bottom of the pecking order, if you’re lucky. You can get nearly anything, if you know what you want and have the balls to go after it. Yeah, there’s dark places but I’ll stand in ‘em and shout just as loud as the light ones. This is my life, my turf. You wanna do something with it, you’re in for a hell of a fight. And if you get in my way, the bruises are your own fucking fault.
EDIT: Looking back, I wonder if maybe my description of my body as a place is more accurately my mind as a place. Which sort of highlights how blurry the line between physical and mental identity can be. Hmm. Any thoughts?