Thursday 25 December 2014

De-Idealizing the Self

[This is a throwback post from my old, failed blog Rationalist Cinema Meme Catapult. It's a pretty big change of pace from my usual content on A Nice Place To Live.]

Hundreds of years after Descartes's death and long after most philosophers and scientists abandoned substance dualism as a realistic view of the mind-brain connection, most filmmakers still portray the self as something magical and pure, a kind of Cartesian theatre.

The perpetuation of this meme probably helps to re-enforce our culture of irrationality.

Selves are dynamic, malleable things. They evolve with age, and with life experience, but are also subject to moment-to-moment fluidity. This can happen either by choice or by manipulation from the outside.


Human minds are subject to all kinds of built-in biases that lead them to wrong conclusions. One of these biases is called "priming." Priming is when random events in your environment hijack your personality for a span of a few minutes.

For example, if I ask you to pick between two concepts (say, "banana" vs "glue stick"), an encounter with a third concept will influence your decision as well as the rate at you which you recognize the strings of letters as words. A glue stick is associated with arts and crafts, so a word like "scissors" or "crayons" might do the trick. All you need is to come into contact with this word and it will subliminally hijack your upcoming decision. The site of a box of crayons lying on a desk may prime your brain to think about crayons - and all of their associations - for the next few minutes.

People can also be primed with concepts or ideologies. A money-primed student is less likely to help a fellow student pick up the contents of a spilled pencil case, for instance.

"Anchoring" is when a random concept, especially a number, influences your estimates of an unknown quantity. For example, if you spin a wheel that happens to land on the number 18, and then I ask you how many teeth a raccoon has, your guess is more likely to be in the vicinity of 18 due to the spinning of the wheel. Anchoring effects have been shown to occur even when the subjects of the experiments are forewarned of them.

Marketers use tricks like these all the time to prime people for buying. Priming has even been shown to impact how people vote in elections.

It might sound scary to you that your decision-making can be manipulated without your knowledge or consent. But it gets worse. Not only can your personality be influenced by priming and anchoring for a few minutes, but you can also get stuck in a mindset that continues to influence you for years.

This is what Anna Salamon and Steve Rayhawk call a "cached self." It's the feeling of attachment people get to their self-image, causing them to make decisions based on what's in line with how they should act given their identity. People feel an intuitive pull toward their current self-concept and make arbitrary decisions based on how they "ought" to act, if they don't have their guards up.

The kicker is that once we perform a given action, be it sarcastically, dishonestly, unwillingly, or what have you, we are liable to adopt it into our self-image. Every action is a possible expansion of our identity, opening passageways that may be repeated and re-enforced at some later point. Just as a forced smile makes one feel happier, any random thing you say or do might hijack your self-concept for the long-term future. Often this comes in the form of the feeling that we need to commit ourselves to intellectual positions we've held in the past, to practice as we've preached, that changing our minds is embarrassing.

Learned helplessness is an example of individuals closing themselves to new possibilities due to an irrational allegiance to their cached selves. This is when people have learned that they do not know how to do something (like math) and then each time somebody tries to teach them that thing, they automatically feel that math is simply beyond their ability to understand. The individual's brain has tagged math with "too-difficult-for-me-to-understand" and the result is helplessness. This pattern has very little to do with math and a lot to do with the individual's mindset.

Conscious choice:

We do, however, in our limited way have some kind of "free will," even if our actions are constrained 
by factors outside of our control. I mean this in the sense that our behaviour can be predicted somewhat reliably based on empirical evidence. We have a "personality" or a "style" that makes us like certain things and dislike others, act certain ways but not in others.

Most people are consciously aware of their identity despite several cognitive biases preventing infallible knowledge of how they actually appear to others. Considering our self-image, we make active choices to appear a certain way. I might decide to dress a certain way so as to align myself with a particular subculture. Or to only drink Coke and never Pepsi, because that's the brand I want to support. In doing so, I'm weaving the narrative surrounding the brand name "Coke" into my own self-narrative.

Because that's what a self is. It's not a collection of atoms that can be found in the brain, it's an abstract concept referring to a mental narrative. As we consciously prune and expand our narratives, our identities, trying to become more of X and less of Y, we literally alter our selves. This process is a big part of being cool, being normal, being counter-cultural.

By combinations of intensional and accidental factors, our selves constantly fluctuate. I think of this phenomenon as the sculpting of identities.

Sculpting Identities:

So our identities are never quite sitting still. We consciously update them so as to create a desired self-image, but also we are manipulated without our consent by external factors, some of them arbitrary. 

People, then, are sculptors of their own identities. But artists also sculpt the identities of their characters (and simultaneously use all these characters, along with other elements, to sculpt their own identity).

Part of what makes life, especially social interactions, so complicated and scary is the instability of the self. Because of how neglectful Hollywood is of this fact, it is one of my favourite themes a film can have.

Ray Carney compares Mike Leigh's approach to mental identities to the typical Hollywood approach. He concludes that in Leigh's films, the characters are depicted from the outside, the way we see other people, rather than the Hollywood way of depicting characters: from the inside, the way we see ourselves. Hollywood films are worlds where characters are their intentions. There is no distinction between what a character is and what he thinks he is. The villain knows he is evil, the protagonist knows he is in love, the lawyer knows what he is fighting for. Everyone has infallible access to their own motivations, goals, and public identity.

Hollywood characters are not only marked by holding infallible knowledge of the contents of their own minds. Their minds are also transparent to the penetration of others. Characters can communicate telepathically with each other, their inner mental states only expressed to the audience through musical cues, costume, camera angles, and other formal techniques. The character doesn't need to express his mental identity. The director will tend to that. In many cases, two characters need just make eye contact from across the room in order for their Cartesian Theatres to exchange programs.

In Leigh's films, this is reversed. Characters struggle to understand their own motivations and desires, and thus fail in their attempts to express themselves to others. Leigh's characters don't communicate telepathically like the cop duo in Barton Fink. They flounder. They are real people trying to communicate without the aid of magical subjectivized consciousnesses.

Hollywood films pin down characters to static motivational states: character X is mentally ill, character Y is a rebel. This flattens out all the fluctuations of the conscious self, the awkwardness, the subtle facial cues, the mid-conversation course corrections, the tensions of everyday interpersonal dynamics. 

The vibrancy of the human mind is reduced to abstract categories. Lifeless, static categories. Carney says that in ironing out the wrinkles of consciousness and replacing them with lifeless, static categories, doing replaces being.

In the "being" version of consciousness, there is no such thing as sculpting identities. People simply are their clothes, their bookshelves, their cars, their jobs. Only in the "doing" account of consciousness do we see people in the process of sculpting and being sculpted, figuring themselves out even as they express themselves.

De-stabilization in Queer Cinema:

Leigh is not the only filmmaker with a de-idealized presentation of consciousness, nor does he have the only approach to de-idealization.

Queer cinema is a category of films that reflect the collective queer consciousness in their presentation of sexuality as something that is de-centered and fluid. These films refuse to define homosexuals in terms of stereotypes and social norms, instead portraying sexual orientation as something dynamic and consisting of an element of fluidity. Sexuality is often the focus of queer films, although it is not used merely to associate characters with pre-existing categories and thus align them with the stereotypes that belong to these categories. In queer cinema, gender is deconstructed as a response to dominant essentialist sexual identities in the media. Queer filmmakers are particularly concerned with avoiding or subverting normalizing depictions of homosexuals that reduce characters to the set of stereotypes that are associated with them. There is usually a more nuanced understanding of the divisions between heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality.

As you might expect, I tend to like queer cinema for its sensitivity toward the fluidity of identity and recognition of how essentializing categories can be limiting and even lead to conflict.

Throughout his career, the queer filmmaker Derek Jarman emphasized the humiliations and horrors of social interactions in a very stylized way. Unlike Leigh, he didn't place real-seeming characters in real-seeming situations. But unlike Hollywood, he didn't idealize communication or consciousness or identity. Rather, his stylized characters tended to be tortured, tormented, conflicted in their attempts to break out of the social roles that are prepared for them. His films are bubbling, boiling brews of politically motivated anger - but significantly, he stops just short of cynicism.

In my favourite scene of his movie The Garden, two men rip cotton out of a gay man's suit and stick it to his forehead. They laugh hysterically throughout the process, delighting over this simple act of bullying. They come off as primal little creatures and they're difficult to empathize with. Although the scene feels so full of rage, 
we still feel very intensely the gay man’s embarrassment and the stomping on his dignity, so even while the scene feels like a violent expression of hatred by Jarman, I sensed an affirmation of the dignity of man, the idea that people matter.

Jarman is not necessarily indicative of the entirety of queer cinema, but his de-idealization of subjective consciousness and static categories of mentality in favour of a de-centered portrayal of (sexual) identity is very typical of the movement.

Korine's Creatures:

Harmony Korine is not a queer filmmaker but he is influenced by certain memes that originated in queer cinema before being circulated into the popular consciousness. His characters are comparable to Jarman's, primal and pathetic, and unable to fit in to the pre-packaged roles middle America offers them.

The characters in Korine’s films are depraved mixtures of children and animals. Often this is shown through prolonged scenes where adults behave and argue like kids. In these scenes the characters are evidence of the banality of humans and their attempts to adhere to socially constructed laws and standards of conduct. All humans are losers and freaks that fail to live up to the social standards expected of them. In fact, it is the very attempt to meet these standards and become normal or cool that reveals a character as pathetic. The only places in Korine’s films where characters truly fit in is when they let go of all thoughts of being normal and accept themselves as freaks or else choose to live in the moment, substituting a self-conscious monitoring of the self for honest, pure experience. Every attempt to conform leads to unhappiness, like the novice Buddhist clinging to his earthly desires. For Korine every moment is an end in itself. Rather than focus on telling stories in the traditional Hollywood way, he focuses on characters and moments, trying to make every scene memorable. In these moments, characters reveal themselves, for all their oddities and failures, as being perfect the way they are, simply miscast for the part that's demanded of them.

As his work consists of primarily youth anthems, Korine pays quite of a bit of attention to detail when it comes to sculpting the identities of his characters. He is known for being an impulsive filmmaker, but in the script of Gummo he pays particular attention to how people dress, what shoes they wear, what brands they associate themselves with, even pinpointing which stickers they would have on their bicycles. He understands how people use brands and accessories to sculpt their identities, or how automatisms form identities in the utter absence of a self-concept.

Like Jarman's work, Korine's films are radically anti-Hollywood in almost every way. In regards to characters, he de-idealizes mental identities, highlighting the difficulties of really connecting with others or of even understanding oneself. His films show the frustrating constraints of social norms and conventions, welcoming those freaks - i.e. all of us! - who simply do not fit into a typical vision of society.


The self is an easily manipulated abstract concept referring to a mental narrative that is in constant flux. It is a highly complex entity that is not reducible to abstract psychological states. Great art will acknowledge this by de-idealizing consciousness and celebrating the dynamism of experience, especially in regards to social interactions. Most films don't do this and thus fail to understand one of the most fundamental aspects of our existence. Some filmmakers that avoid the trap of subjectivized, Cartesian consciousness are Mike Leigh, Derek Jarman, and Harmony Korine.

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