This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit my girlfriend's sister's family in Long Island. Luckily, my girlfriend came along or it would've been CREEPY. The family includes a three year old girl who has a Herculean amount of energy and, as a result, is the source of nonstop entertainment. Rather than focus on her antics, however, I thought it would be super fun to talk about epistemology and identity for the purpose of boring everyone's fucking faces off.
I wondered aloud, much to the chagrin of the child's mother, when a young mind gains a sense of identity. According to this girl's mother, at about two to two and a half years old, the infant recognizes herself as a distinct personality. Things become "mine." In fact, the idea of "me" becomes overwhelmingly important, so much so that I marveled at how often the idea of "sharing" comes up in the age-targeted media she watches. What's amazing is that her self, her personality, her identity is, at this moment, at its most malleable stage. It's a tabula rasa. From here on out, her experiences inform her very being.
But how does that work now? In 2008? When I was three, I was inundated with the constant barrage of stimuli from various media sources. But however influential that was, it doesn't begin to touch what an infant mind has to contend with now. In an existential sense, the mind manufactures itself, identifies itself, with external "things." My name is Gabe. I have brown hair. I have brown eyes. These are facts that are identified with me, but at the same time aren't "me." The "me," in this sense, is a strange nothingness around which these identifiers adhere.
What makes this problematic is that the sense of identity in today's day and age seems in a constant flux. Don't like your hair? Change it. Don't like your eyes? Change them. Don't like any part of your body? Switch it out for something slimmer or stronger. And despite this bottomless well of choice, at the same time, we are encouraged NOT to consider ourselves different from one another. Categorizing by age, sex, race, or ability is ultimately, we are told, insensitive. It seems that all of these things that make us unique, that distinguish us, are at the same time liabilities.
Taking those identifiers out of the mix, it seems that what remains is harmless tripe. What television shows do I like? What music do I listen to? What sports team do I follow? But ultimately, who am I? Does it matter anymore? The cold, stale formula for the "self" becomes identical for every person, save variable "x" in his case stands for "Good Eats" while for her it stands for "America's Next Top Model."
However dismal my outlook is, I have hope. As I watched the three year old girl atop her playset, she paused for a moment and stared out into the row of trees that line her driveway. Her eyes flickered. She was daydreaming. And for a moment, I understood that consciousness was more than simple formulas.