Who Am I? It is a valid question, since you’ve come here to read what I have to say. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I have a good answer.
I have no idea who I really am. Only the people who know me could know that. I am the only one who knows who I am. These are equally true statements for me; I imagine for most of us, if we are being honest with ourselves. Even if we know why certain things elicit particular responses, understanding those reactions presents a more complicated task. I know that Waltzing Matilda makes me sad because it was sung in the pub after my grandfather’s funeral; untangling the mess of love, childhood memory, existential terror, historical knowledge of the song’s actual meaning, my guilt at failures real and otherwise, and the certainty of bereavements yet to come however, is a set of Herculean labours. If that’s the kind of neurotic questioning I can conjure for a sad song associated with an obviously sad moment, imagine the level of interrogation I bring to bear on thoughts or actions of significant mystery. I might, for instance, not be particularly bothered about what a person, X, thinks of me. But I might care significantly about why I don’t care, or about why I care that little bit at all. I might spend hours worrying that my disinterest in X makes me a shallow, cruel or idiotic person; and then I might spend more time worrying that worrying makes me any one of those things instead. Then I’ll have to wonder if my self-absorbed personal exploration is merely an act of petty self-aggrandisement, meant to, if nothing else, affirm my opinions and excuse my disinterest. The level of paranoid, panicked overthinking I can bring to the most habitual of situations is worrying, terrifying, hilarious, and quite possibly completely normal. Probably a lot of what I am is normal, but “normal” is its own kind of problematic word, and certainly something that is danger of a thorough, unasked-for, over-analysing.
Normal, of course, is a deeply loaded term. As a concept, it exists in a state of constant flux, warred over by various societal, media and cultural factions. Normal people buy X, normal people go to Y, they are Z; by manipulation, the project of control warps these designations so that normal is Z, so normal must go to Y and must buy X. These become the conditions of normality. Failure to conform becomes rebellion, otherification, blasphemy. Of course, the concept is muddled by the fact that many factors and factions are at work on forming normality at any given moment. The capitalist and Catholic paradigms might share any number of characteristics, from blind devotion regardless of consequences, the accumulation of finite resources and the effacement of downwards responsibility, but ultimately, their synergy diverges at the upper echelons of the paradigm, each attempting to stamp their authority and control on the final design.
When I speak of psychological normality, I probably mean that I function “within safe operating tolerances”. Like, the radiation from the core breach is still within safe levels, or the water is mildly contaminated, but it’s still okay to drink. If I were a factory, there would be press releases to the outside world covering just how normal systems were operating, while inside frantic and deeply concerned staff barrelled about the shop floor hoping to keep production flowing, while one guy was unequivocally advocating a systems halt while the quirks were ironed out. I am the frantic voices inside, as much as I am the guy who wants to stop and sort this shit out; I am the mess of quirks and fiddly hang-ups. Like most normal people I exist in fracture; the facets of me that are visible depend on where you are standing as much as where I am. Like most normal people, I am the most surprised by my subconscious traits, while being the one most intimately familiar with them. You see them when they get out, the terrors and hates and the fears, while I’m the jailor and the therapist, trying to rehabilitate the problems I don’t even have. I’m me, is what I’m saying, and I’m fine. Although I could probably stand to have a few less mental hang-ups, to be less concerned with the unconscious underpinnings of my psyche and imagine it works in a manner relatively consistent with the general population. But then, I don’t really know much of anything about normal.
If I know anything at all about what it might entail, it is only knowing what shouldn’t exclude you from that definition. It is a social and cultural battleground. Most simply, it can vacillate between those who consider it a synonym for standard, acceptable, mainstream or common. Those are four separate designations by the way. Subtle shades of meaning conspire to efface, exclude and condition normality. For me, average and normal have always been divergent concepts. By the most obvious statistical indicators, I belong to the societal average; straight, white and middle-class. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad though, but I own all the box-sets of A Game Of Thrones; I don’t have an iTunes account or a Spotify, but I bought four albums in the last two months; I spent about e5 on alcohol last month, but dropped a small fortune on paperbacks. I have no idea who plays for Man United, but I could probably rattle off the roster for several iterations of current Avengers books. Much of these things might single me out as uncommon, my wardrobe of mostly black, but it is mostly innocuous, benign. No one really minds these divergences anymore (possibly because many of my fandoms have become highly commercialised), but historically speaking, choosing to watch Orphan Black on a Sunday morning rather than attending Mass would have been grounds for social ostracisation. At what point does the benign uncommon stray into punishable subversion?
If my, and your, choices are acceptable only because society has become more tolerant of divergence, is that the same as society having become more inclusive? There are many who consider “normal” a purely rational, statistical value, based on the habits and traits of the average human. This “normality by numbers” is often presented as a rational, non-partisan form of social demarcation, but this mentality fails fairly dramatically to evaluate its own historical prejudices and biases or the rationale behind them, or to seek any form of active inclusion or betterment. Once there are enough of you, you can come into the clubhouse. Those of a more capitalist ideology rather obviously would suggest that normality is a condition of having a requisite bank balance and of using it. In these philosophies normality is reasonably flexible, changing to suit the whims of population or cash flow. For others, “normal” is a fundamentally rigid set of principles, maybe set out by an external religious text, or maybe by tradition or simply by the accumulated prejudices and assumptions of a life. Where all these ideologies become problematic is when adherence to “normality” becomes seen as proper behaviour, or worse a vital component of social inclusion. To deviate from the philosophical tenants is seen, firstly, as disordered, but also as a choice, as weakness of character, as something succumbed to, as deliberate insult. There is an escalating language of otherifaction which pervades this kind of discourse; people who will not conform are contrary, snotty, brattish, ungrateful, weird, stupid, mean, unfathomable, ignorant, vile, savage, dangerous, a problem, a contagion, a threat.
Certainly, I occupy the lower end of the scale in terms of the social criteria I fail to fulfil, and even at that, it could be my persecution complex talking. I am a straight white middle-class dude; I’ve got a lifetime membership card for normality, should I choose to use it. However, I still feel, as I’m sure many do, that I am often considered slightly weird, a little contrary, or childish at times, because I choose to wear slightly dour clothes, inject dark ink beneath my skin and often wear tee-shirts adorned with grim lone-wolf superheroes. I have covered my tattoos for interviews, and kept quite my opinions on corporate responsibility; I have temporarily made myself over in the image required, saying not “this is who I am” but rather “I know who you want me to be”, and I have the privilege of this being a very easy task. There are those for whom the act of “passing” is impossible, or difficult, or requires a surrender of selfhood that is unconscionable. I do not suffer from social exclusion, I’m not claiming to be either; at best I am slightly peeved that sometimes social norms infer that my choices are, at best, a little weird. In this country, this city even, there are teachers who cannot reveal their partners’ names because school boards, backed up by their religious “ethos”, can dismiss them based on their sexuality; there are people who are spat at, beaten up or insulted because of the colour of their skin or the lilt of their voice; there are children, born here, who are locked up in virtual prisons because of where their parents had the misfortune to be born; there are people who are threatened with sexual violence, groped, assaulted, and denied bodily control because their reproductive organs are inside instead of out. I am under no illusion that my little bumps with social inclusion come anywhere near these paradigms; they emphatically don’t. I am occasionally mocked or belittled for my choice of entertainments and personal philosophies, while LGBTI people are denigrated, assaulted, abused, ignored, tortured and murdered because of the simple, and intrinsic fact of who they are attracted to, or how they express their sexuality. It’s not the same thing.
In my case, it helps that I am in the privileged position of not wanting to be all the way in the club and being able to hop back in when social, economic or cultural make it desirable or necessary. Imagine I want to watch a football match; no stranger will second-guess or challenge my position, and I would have to actively disprove my expertise before it will be dismissed. Yet, at the same time, women who watch sports are often, even constantly, met with fierce resistance and suspicion by self-appointed gatekeepers. They’re only interested in good-looking footballers, or meeting men, or any myriad of reasons that are not simply because they like the sport. Gatekeeping is, sadly, one of the great human pastimes. We seem to forever be finding reasons why X isn’t like us, and while it might be a minority, there are those who use this difference to other, to disenfranchise, to terrorise. The narrower the definition of “normal” the greater its use as a tool of social exclusion, concentrating power in the hands of these hoarders of tradition and definition, those who would control and direct the acceptable choices of others. Twenty, maybe thirty, years ago the social definition of normal included adherence to Catholic dogma, probably demanded you vote for one of the two major political powers, and valued silent compliance to established authority above pretty much anything else. These standards of normality were utterly complicit in every scandal and tragedy that we now have the privilege of being sickened and outraged over. Be it the Mother and Baby Homes, the Laundries, the planning tribunals or the banking corruption scandals, our anger and voiced dissent is a privilege, as well as a responsibility, because we are a society that finally has the rights and the means to challenge the dominant narrative of those who would be our authorities. It is something that we as a society, a global community, and a culture have dragged out of the hands of would-be oppressive forces, bit by bloody bit with philosophies and texts of our own, building new technologies and staging grounds, subverting the old, rewriting the rules, buying, taking, winning and building the spaces where we can set out a safe space for not just ourselves, but everyone, to have a say in the project of our cultural destiny. It is a space where the most utterly common, the slightly offbeat and the foreign can congregate, mingle and each be entitled to their position. That is the optimist in me talking, the part of me that can envision a future space that encompasses, respectfully, all positions, a place without gatekeepers, a space where the boundaries are insubstantial and we can all cross in and out as we please, entry is not a privilege, but a taken-for-granted right of all. It is a space so habitually open that we will not even notice as we stray back and forth from it.
Ask me who I am, and I start raving about normality and gatekeeping, which says quite a lot about who I am. It probably gives more insight than any single thing I’ve written here. Really though, if you want to know who I am, I don’t really know. I’m someone who can feel like an outsider while feeling intimately sure I fulfil most of the criteria of a Silent Bob cliché. My favourite songs change, but this is a fairly consistent number. I have a breakdown when people ask me my favourite book or author or comic book. When I’m really stressed, worried or upset building Lego sets helps me. I drive a ten-year old car that I quite like. I think 2009 was the best year of TV in my lifetime. I’m absurdly proud of the fact that I got John Noble to make his evil-Walter face for me at Comic-Con. I think Sephiroth might be one of the most awesome, terrifying and relatable villains ever created. These are some of the facets of me. My personal philosophy strays from certain atheism to an outright fascination with death, its rituals, grief and mourning, existential contemplation and a grim, determined optimism that a hereafter might be possible, but it damn well doesn’t belong to the Catholics or their tyrant God. I like my boots and my leather jacket and I don’t understand the appeal of most popular music, and I am very, very proud of this fact. You wouldn’t go far wrong in reading Si Spurrier’s prog-rock infused X-Men Legacy, if you wanted to see the kind of thing I like, as well as a look at something fairly close to my own thoughts on self-hood and personal identity. “I rule me” is the refrain, more of a hope, a prayer, than a fact; it is not the reality, it is the goal.
I don’t know who I am, but I know who I hope I can be. Optimus Prime, Spider-Man, Buffy and Captain Picard were the heroes I grew up with, that showed me what it meant to be a proper person. I don’t know if I can be like them but I hope I am someone who will not be silent when speaking is required, someone who will not turn when seeing is needed, someone who will not step aside when standing is necessary. What does a cliché like that mean in real life? I have no idea, but I imagine it will be annoying for everyone who has to listen to me blunder through stupidity and righteousness in equal measure. Hopefully it means that some of the time I will be saying something worth saying though, and that I can shut up and get off the stage when someone else has something worth saying.
Identity is not a stable thing; it is a shifting mess of competing designs and concerns, foibles, unconscious ticks, fears and hopes and dreams. It is the maelstrom of personal history, cultural legacy, inherited and self-inflicted damage. We are the scars we carry with us, as much as we transcend and surpass and defy them. I am me, unknowable, indecipherable, silently trying to explain myself to a mirror that doesn’t want to know or care, broken bits of meaning shored up to make a person.
The question isn’t, “Who am I?” If we haven’t established that I don’t know the answer to that, then really, I might want to reconsider this whole project. Who the hell knows who I am; maybe you do, maybe no one does, but even if you do know, how am I supposed to know who you are, when I don’t even know who I am?