Thursday, April 19, 2007

Identity Pathology

Associated Press Writer Matt Apuzzo has written one of the better extended analyses of the Virginia Tech shootings in the wake of the packet of information that Cho Seung-Hui sent to NBC. Unfortunately, you cannot find it on the Associate Press Web site. It is currently on Yahoo! News, but my experiences in recovering Yahoo! News articles more than a few days after they appeared have been pretty frustrating. So the story is probably worth reading there sooner rather than later.

I suppose what I liked about Apuzzo was the way in which he helped me reflect on a theme I have been examining from a variety of angles recently, which, at least for purposes of this post, I want to call "identity pathology." My most recent venture into this area was a post about "culture death," along with a somewhat related post about Clive James' book Cultural Amnesia. However, these were both basically "pre-Internet" topics; and I have been concerned with more urgent questions of identity pathology since the flood of discussion over the death threats against Kathy Sierra. In that regard I would like to interpolate (with some editing) one of my confused of calcutta comments, responding to JP Rangaswamy's effort to enumerate different perspectives on the nature of identity. With his usual literary panache JP identified several of these perspectives with familiar quotations. This is the one I wanted to examine:

My name is Bond, James Bond: A licence to do something. Granted by someone else. Usually not transferable. Usually not permanent either.

I thought about this while doing one of my “major San Francisco walks,” from my place in the Civic Center to the celebration of the newly-dedicated Jack Kerouac Alley and back (with a stop in Chinatown for congee). I decided that Midnight Cowboy provided a better perspective on identity than the Bond movies; and the particularly characteristic phrase I had in mind was “I’m walkin’ here!” For me this phrase embodied what we might call it the looking-out-for-number-one syndrome; and I wanted to explore it further.

I have spent large portions of my life in large cities where hiding in my car was more trouble than either walking or using public transportation. However, whether you walk or drive, such cities bombard you with more examples of stupid behavior than you can shake a stick at. I used to joke about this being the result of our government putting something in the water. Then I had my insight: It isn’t the water; it’s the population density! While I find something very satisfying about being able to manage a major metropolis on foot, there are a lot of people out there who experience (not necessarily consciously) a strongly dehumanizing effect from the crowds. The result is a growing feeling of insignificance, countered by a need to act out in ways that will assert the self against all those “others” out there. (In this respect I am a Spinozist: there cannot be a sense of self except as a negation of the sense of other.)

Let us now extrapolate “from the city to the Internet” (what a great title for a book). If the sense of self is besieged by walking up Van Ness Avenue, what happens to it in the cosmos of cyberspace or, for that matter, in specific “solar systems,” such as Second Life or the blogosphere? I find myself particularly interested in the way some bloggers start getting obsessed with ranking. It is not to hard to imagine folks out there desperate to be something other than an insignificant (or nonexistent) blip on the Technorati rankings. If they get really obsessed over such things, who knows how they might lash out in an attempt to assert self? They might even start sending death threats to those who have elevated themselves beyond “blip status.” In that respect, then, my conclusion probably aligns very much with the key point that JP kept trying to make I and kept contesting: Where the “social health” of cyberspace is concerned, it really is all about Identity! It just happens to be about a particularly social aspect of identity that slipped through the cracks of JP's particular analysis!

To return to Apuzzo's report, the Virginia Tech campus is significantly smaller than the city of San Francisco; but an attack on the sense of self does not require a large scale. Indeed, it can happen within the scale of a single classroom (or, in a more adult setting, a single committee or panel). The only thing that really matters is how robust the sense of self is under feelings of threat, small or large. Apuzzo accounts for a lot of questions being raised about Cho's sense of self at levels that included the student body, the faculty, the campus administration, and even the more clinical medical perspective. One comes away from reading Apuzzo with the feeling that "everyone knew there was a problem."

Let me now shift to some orthogonal questions: Why do we read reports like this with so much fascination? Why was that package such a scoop for NBC? Why has even the BBC sent reporters to Blacksburg? I think the answer is that we, as audience, are less interested in the underlying problem than we are in the way in which Cho lashed out "in an attempt to assert self;" and the reason for that latter focus is that we seem to have an inbred cultural need to affix blame when the lashing out assumes catastrophic proportions. We refuse to accept that a mess this big can be "nobody's fault" (as I tried to argue was the case with the "racially offensive Canadian couch").

Suppose we take the questioning to a higher level: Why do we act the way we do? There are a variety of answers that hold in different settings. I want to consider three of them:

  1. The act is the "effect" of a "cause" (in which case we tend to call it a "reflex").
  2. We act on the basis of decisions we make that are grounded in Kantian principles of "pure" and "practical" reason.
  3. We act in a particular way because our environmental context disposes us to do so (sometimes called "situated action").

We are all familiar with the first but feel strongly enough about "free will" to reject the premise that everything can be reduced to reflex. We appreciate the second but probably see it more as an idealist theory than anything that would hold up in the "trenches of practice." The third, however, is probably pretty alien to most of us and more than a little disquieting. It has a vague connotation of reflex at a scale too large to comprehend, along with an associated connotation of fatalism. However, it is also disquieting because it denies that an action can be attributed to some single isolated factor, which means that it undermines the concept of an object of blame (human or otherwise).

I realize that it might sound glib to suggest that the horrific events of Monday can be described as a tragedy of situated action, but I think that this is my way of going back to yesterday's reflections on morality. Reducing the discourse to good and evil is just another way of focusing on seeking out that object of blame; but this is simplistic thinking in opposition to the "moral clarity" that President Bush attributed to Elie Wiesel. Unfortunately, our "world without reflection" has a hard time with that particular brand of moral clarity; so is it any wonder that we are left at such a loss when the context of that world provides the disposition for catastrophic action?

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