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limits to self-invention

...we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose.

- Pico della Mirandola

...a human being, for moral purposes, is largely how he or she describes himself or herself.
- Richard Rorty

I and my friends have a theory of identity, a  inspired by an implausibly positive reading of the oddball sociologist Erving Goffman. Call it bootstrapping:

  1. what you like is a large part of who you are; 
  2. you often grow to like what you choose to do (adaptive preferences); 
  3. you can choose what you do
  4. so to some degree you can choose what you like (2&3); 
  5. so you can sometimes sort of choose who you are (1&4).

Compared to the received view of identity, which holds that "Once grown, you are an essence of given things that will not change. Biology + Childhood + Peers = Self", this approach to life leads to excellent things: freedom from more obvious social determinism; allophilia; psychological neoteny; and less distortion of beliefs by tribal forces. Let's unmask:

  • Goffman Thesis: We are dramatic creatures; we inhabit multiple roles; we gain and lose roles as we go along. And if identity is a performance, then due study of codes and conventions allow you to take on identities. Not as a 'fake' or 'wannabe', but a real performer. Goffman gets called cynical for saying that human interaction is the presentation of masks; bootstrapping sees him as a liberator instead (see Macht, below).

  • Gordon Thesis: What you like is a large part of who you are. Language, money, race, and other illiberal things aside, what divides us is not our origins or even what we believe, but what we like. This applies whether the object is Muhammad, Naruto, or sex with other men (or all of the above). Preferences divide us via two reinforcing effects: because we automatically group up with people with similar interests, and because it's hard for us not to misunderstand people with very different preferences.
(...what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth..." - Nick Hornby's Rob Gordon.)

  • Turing thesis: A necessary test for identity is to "fool" those who already have the identity. What passes is close enough.

  • Macht Thesis: Given certain constraints, with enough perseverence, you can choose what you like. Among good people, that's actually the lion's share of who you are. Identity is not only fluid and performative and all that good modern stuff: it can be imposed on yourself. As well as nature, one's metapreferences can become second nature.

It has worked. One of us changed from a studiedly anti-sport crumpet to a die-hard Liverpool FC encyclopaedia at very short notice. In the space of two years, another took himself from deadbeat, drunken self-loather to literally the hardest-working summa-cum-laude in his cohort. (Though some of the self-loathing stuck.)

I'm emphasising the preferential part of identity (over the essence or tribal part): this is not to say that someone who likes black culture a lot thereby becomes black.

This is great news! It suggests that with enough work, there is almost no-one you cannot associate with. (Barring bigotry, the ultimate dividing preference.) Bootstrapping goes against the prevailing pessimism of e.g. anthropology, whose solution to white monetary imperialism is to mentally lock us away from each other into 'cultures'. I'll grant their point about the incommensurability of world-schemata if they grant the joy of playing football with people you share no language, background or life goals with.


Unfortunately for this sunny picture of human potential: most people think identity is a serious business. Depending on what you set out to like, bootstrapping could be seen as disloyal (when you decide not to follow your family's faith), decadent (when you have a procession of unused musical instruments in the loft), or appropriative (when you call yourself African after buying up land there).

In addition, I'm quite committed to the idea that identity is intellectually corrosive; it is that which must be minimised if you want to avoid large delusions. How can we balance our vital suspicion of identity with bootstrapping's enthusiasm for it? Well, just note that it's the freedom and lightness of identity that we value; the main problem with identity is that its unconditional and exclusionary character leads to lifelong cognitive bias and groupthink.

Please flag the following as pseudo-scientific insinuation, but: do check out work on neuroplasticity.


Worse: I recently bumped up against a counter-example. Despite trying for 6 months - despite strong motivation* and personal affinity - I have failed to make myself into someone who like maths. Absolute abstraction holds no charms. I can do maths, but I do not know it. The analogy is: if you only have functional ability in maths - no proofs, no sense of field dependencies, no originality - you're a monkey driving a car. 

* Broadly, the motive is: the human mind can barely handle important complex stuff without it, and I should like to handle some of that stuff in my life.

Some ad hoc explanations leap to mind:

  • There is almost nothing quasi-real about maths. Unlike the other identities we've tried on, in maths your beliefs don't make a difference: you are always either right or wrong. (Or the answer is undecidable. Or the problem is NP-hard given P≠NP. Or worst of all, your answer is malformed: "not even wrong". But note that these para-truthvalues leave no room for human variation either.)

    Consider: thinking you are in pain is to be in pain; believing certain claims about Christ makes you a Christian. But when we do maths wrong - if you think that [log10 x log100 = 3] - we're maybe still doing maths, but we necessarily step away from the identity proper. No amount of Lacanian ambiguity can save you from this.

  • Maths is utterly internalist: it's thus unforgiving of the ambiguity or amateurism that the bootstrapper needs to get started. Some people go as far as to say that if it's ambiguous (not just fuzzy) then it's not maths. It takes a long time before one's opinion of mathematical questions counts for much, and even then it is subject to strict and clear criteria. (Can someone with severe dyscalculia be a maths fan? In an unusual and important sense, I think the answer's no.)

  • One can excel at something via willpower, talent, or love. In this instance I have none of these qualifiers. Because I don't love maths, I do not really know it. The things that make people love maths - its unique apodictic thrill, its aesthetic power, its foregone intensity, its esoteric spirituality - may only be perceptible to those with a certain born flair.

The last retcon offers me a sad bullet to bite: perhaps I am simply a candle-powered mind, unsuited to laser thoughts. In any case I'll persist, because it is ludicrously useful; it is a seriously underappreciated sphere of human creativity; and because I refuse to live in fear of it anymore.

On a brighter note, maths may well be the limit case of our happy project, casting light on its process and boundary. It might be the area where functional knowledge falls most short of real understanding, and thus real identification.


Is bootstrapping obvious? I don't think so, judging by how static and crudely determined our political, recreational, and working lives generally are. Is bootstrapping empty self-help nonsense? I don't think so, judging by how much I like the idea.

some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, with words for not being feelings. Words and images are like shells, no less integral parts of nature than are the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation. I would not say that substance exists for the sake of appearance, or faces for the sake of masks, or the passions for the sake of poetry and virtue... all these phases and products are involved in the round of existence...

- George Santayana


  1. I don't know how this hooks up with the established transgender movement - but I'll bet you it's in a good way.


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