Don’t Let Pop Culture Tell You Who You Are
Frequent visitors to this blog will by now have realised that both the form and frequency of my posting is subject to a good deal of fluctuation. Sometimes I crank out sizeable pieces on a regular basis, sometimes I provide only links and other times I post links to short reviews and publish larger essays. The reason for these variations is that my motivations sometimes change and when my motivations change, so to does the nature of my output. These changes in motivation were particularly obvious when, earlier this year, I ceased to write very much at all.
At the time, I found this sudden lack of motivation rather distressing as I have always been able to re-motivate myself by shaking things up and writing about different things in different ways. In fact, this lack of motivation was so traumatic that I soon came to believe that my time as a critic might have come to an end. Needless to say, this did not actually happen but the reasons for this creative impasse strike me as interesting enough to warrant a proper post, if only for the sake of other people who may be experiencing similar motivational problems.
The problem was that I was going through the process of selling my childhood home and moving to an entirely new town. On a purely practical level, this made sitting down to write rather difficult. On a psychological level, this made it almost impossible to think about anything that was not directly related to the move. Unclear as to why I was finding it so difficult to sit down and write, I managed to convince myself that my motivation for writing has been completely destroyed by the realisation that there was really no point in sharing my views with anyone about anything. The reason I reached this particular creative impasse was that I encountered a number of works that encouraged me to think of myself purely as an introverted outsider and introverted outsiders tend not to be all that interested in sharing their opinions with other people. This is a post about the dangers of labelling oneself and then coming to believe that those labels exhaust your entire identity.
1. In Which Jonathan Learns that it is Fun to be Self-Righteous
I have long been aware that I have a problem with group membership. On a one-to-one basis I am generally quite happy to interact with people and can even, on occasion, be charming and persuasive. However, the second you place me in a social group with its own hierarchy and values, I begin to feel alienated and self-conscious to the point where I generally want to leave the group as quickly as I can. This, I am told, is a fairly common experience for introverts and so, in an effort to understand myself better, I began reading books about the desire to not engage with groups of people:
Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto (2002) by Anneli Rufus — This book presses some of the same buttons as Susan Cain’s recent TED talk about introversion. Rufus argues that some people are naturally more solitary than others and that society, which is (naturally enough) dominated by outgoing extroverted types, frequently demonises loners for their natural preference for spending time on their own. This suggestion really hit home with me as I recently uncovered a school report in which I was (at age five) described as a loner who spent most of his time alone and only reticently engaged in group activities and class discussion. Short on argument and precision but long on passion, Rufus’s book stoked the sense that my feelings of alienation and social anxiety were integral parts of my personality.
The Call of Solitude (1997) by Ester Schaler Buchholz– A somewhat more intellectually substantial examination of the same themes touched on by Rufus. However, while Party of One focuses upon the idea that it is okay to be a loner, Buchholz attempts a more ambitious defence of solitude as a source of creativity. Whereas Rufus argues against the public perception that loners are weird, Buchholz argues against the tendency of therapists to see introversion and a preference for solitude as a symptom of psychological distress. Everyone, according to Buchholz, requires ‘Me Time’, it is just that some people require more than others. Though I enjoyed Buchholz’s book while I was reading it, I actually had to look up my notes in order to remember the main thrust of her argument. This is partly a result of Buccholz’s desire for academic rigour meaning that her argument occasionally disappears into a dense thicket of textual precedent. Also problematic is her tendency to seek validation in the lives of saints and artists. Rufus also uses this technique and the point of the exercise is to suggest that if Emily Dickinson could live a life of seclusion then maybe others could too. Given that I have no desire to live the life of a demented poet or saintly hermit, I find these appeals to authority completely unconvincing. How many people produced great art and yet still lived terrible lives? How many people lived lives of terrifying solitude and yet never set pen to paper? Correlation is not even remotely the same thing as causation.
After reading these two books, I was pretty much convinced that my personality and experiences were working together to encourage me to withdraw completely from society. My reasoning was that society had very little to offer me and what it did have to offer could only be achieved at a cost so high as to be completely self-defeating for someone with my psychological propensities. What’s more, having a personality that struggles in society is evidently a ‘thing’ and who was I to argue with my personality?
Taken together, these two books provided me with a means of self-examination that proved both powerful and empowering. Not only did introversion explain many of my personality quirks, it also made me feel like part of an oppressed minority. For a while, I stomped about the place happily droning on and on about my introversion and how society was no place for me. Then I read a couple more books…
2. In Which Jonathan Realises that Fun is probably not the same as Useful.
Slotting yourself into a socially recognised pigeonhole is an empowering experience, particularly when that pigeonhole broadly coincides with the status of a victim. Both Buccholz and Rufus argue that loners are misunderstood and picked on by a society hell bent upon pathologising those who happen to have a statistically uncommon personality trait. For someone largely unimpressed with his life’s work, this is an attractive way of looking at things. The problem is that an attractive way of looking at things is not necessarily the same thing as a correct way of looking at things.
According to Karl Popper, psychoanalysis is not a science because its claims are evidence transcendent. What this means is that when a psychoanalyst makes a diagnosis, there is usually no single piece of information that will either prove or disprove his conclusion. Indeed, the methods of the psychoanalyst are identical to those of the literary critic and the products of literary criticism invariably come with just enough vagueness and plasticity to allow the critic to extend his interpretation over any and all new pieces of data. In fact, one of the most common skill progression paths for critics involves building up a suite of analytical techniques allowing you to read anything and everything in terms of certain irrefutable bodies of theoretical knowledge. Academic criticism’s fondness for such discredited theories as psychoanalysis shows how difficult it can be to let go of an aesthetically pleasing idea and how tempting it can be to interpret everything in terms of that idea. Unfortunately, this seems to be doubly true for ideas about the self as we are swift to explain away all behaviour and ideas that do not fit with our ideas about what kind of people we are. Labels such as ‘introvert’ and ‘outsider’ are simple enough and strong enough to allow us to build up pretty pictures of ourselves, pictures we are all too eager to confuse with reality.
My attachment to the concept of introversion began to fade when I encountered a pair of works that reminded me of the dangers of self-simplification:
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) directed by Sean Durkin – Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of a young woman who escapes from a particularly nasty cult. With a degree of cinematic panache that belies the fact that this was actually his first film, Durkin switches us back and forth between scenes from the young woman’s life in the cult and scenes from the young woman’s life as she struggles to reconnect with her sister and ‘normal society’. Whenever Durkin switches between timeframes he replaces one element (such as a voice or a physical presence) from each timeframe with an element from the other. This cinematic transposition blurs the boundaries between the two timeframes and encourages us to see the similarities between the cult and the family. For example, in one scene, Durkin shows us the young woman being dressed down by the cult leader for her failure to quit smoking, in the next, Durkin shows us the sister freaking out because the young woman stripped naked in order to go swimming. In both cases, the young woman has broken the (unwritten) rules of the community and the leaders of the communities acted to force her back into line. Durkin further emphasises the similarities between these two institutions by showing how supportive and loving they could be, it is only at the end of the film that we come to realise that while these institutions share certain dynamics, the young woman’s family is a supportive environment while of the cult is toxic and morally bankrupt. The young woman’s mistake lay in the fact that she noticed the similarities between institutions and concluded that, because all social institutions follow the same rules, they must necessarily be morally identical. As audience members, we can see that the cult is toxic and the family is dysfunctional but well meaning whereas the young woman can see only the social dynamics and has lost sight of the larger picture that allows us to distinguish between the groups that are supportive and the groups that are toxic.
Steppenwolf (1927) By Hermann Hesse – Hesse famously claimed that his book had been completely misunderstood and it is easy to see why. The novel involves a young man who becomes obsessed with a strange man who lodges in his building. After a chance encounter in the street, the young man comes into possession of a treatise written by the lodger in which he claims to be at war with himself: On one level, he is a gentleman of bourgeois tastes who enjoys good food, good company and a well-scrubbed floor. On another level, he is a self-styled wolf of the steppes who despises bourgeois society and yearns to be free of its countless entanglements. As the young man reads the treatise, he internalises this concept of duality but also calls it into question on the grounds that it is simply an exculpatory myth designed to allow the lodger to explain away his lapses in judgement and manners. The second half of Steppenwolf adds to this psychological complexity by introducing an outwardly genteel but inwardly iconoclastic woman who lures the young man out of his funk on the understanding that he will repay her kindness with murder. This array of interlocking and paradoxical dualities illustrates the idea that no simple dichotomy will ever provide insight as every element of a binary opposition can itself be broken down into an ever-deepening series of oppositions and binaries. The further it progresses, the more Steppenwolf descends into impenetrable psychological sludge enlivened by the promise of mystery, magic and spiritual transcendence. The novel’s main argument, it seems to me, is that the social reality we inhabit has more than enough plasticity to enable us to refashion it to suit our psychological purposes. Indeed, step outside the first-person narration of Steppenwolf and you see a man who effectively talks himself to the point of suicide and only pulls back when a woman appears and tells him to stop being a baby. Steppenwolf is not a great spiritual work and it is not a celebration of the rebellious lone wolf who transgresses bourgeois values and emerges as a pure and authentic loner. Instead the book is a brilliant account of quite how adept people are at refashioning both themselves and the world around them to fit with the latest pretty idea to pass through their head.
Encountered almost simultaneously, these two pieces seriously undermined my commitment to the idea that I was some kind of broken outsider. Together they served as a reminder of how easy it is to confuse how one feels about the world with how the world actually is, particularly when those beliefs about the world make you feel a little bit better about your negative characteristics. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the protagonist reacts negatively against her sister scolding her because she feels bad about disappointing her sister and her experiences in the cult. By running together both sets of scoldings, the protagonist is able to hide behind the idea that all families are necessarily repressive. These types of thought pattern are tempting because they suggest that everything is someone else’s fault and that your personal failings are not failings but rather manifestations of a much larger situation over which you have no control.
My engagement with the idea of complete social withdrawal reached a peak when I encountered a work that perfectly articulated not only my sense of alienation, but also my desire to use that sense of alienation as some kind of badge of honour.
3. In Which Jonathan realises that he is probably not a Hikikomori
‘Hikikomori’ refers to the growing number of predominantly male Japanese people who have chosen to abandon their careers and education in order to withdraw completely from society. In some cases, the social withdrawal is so extreme that the Hikikomori do not set foot outside their room for years on end.
According to some of the thinkers interviewed in Michael Zielenziger’s Shutting Out The Sun (2007), this tendency is due to a growing tension between the Japanese social pressure to succeed and the stagnating Japanese economy that has destroyed the career paths and job security that once supported a culture of intense social aspiration. Compelled to climb society’s greasy poll and yet denied the opportunity for advancement because of bad economic conditions, young Japanese people protect themselves from society’s disapproval by simply refusing to engage with it.
When I first encountered the concept of Hikikomori in Rufus’s Party of One, I immediately felt the sting of recognition. Time and again, I have attempted to engage with groups and institutions only to become disenchanted with the rules governing social progression. Initially, this frustration presents itself as annoyance at the conservatism and hypocrisy of the group but this rebellious instinct soon gives way to a more general rejection of the values holding that group together. In short, I begin by standing inside the tent and pissing out, then I stand outside and piss in, finally I wander off and find somewhere else to piss. If your entire experience of social institutions is one of systematic disappointment then it seems reasonable to conclude that the source of this disappointment is either systemic of personal: If it isn’t me then it’s you and if it isn’t you then it’s definitely me!
The problem with this train of thought is that even introverted people act in a wider social context. Remove yourself from group after group (or tent after tent) and it becomes increasingly difficult to orient oneself and decide what one should be doing. For example, why bother writing up that philosophical insight I had if I had no interest in returning to philosophy? Why bother expanding my thoughts on psychological thrillers into some kind of book if I have no interest in being published or becoming a proper film critic? Sometimes the only group worth belonging to is the one that tells you that you’re perfect just the way you are even if that group comprises nobody but yourself.
Interestingly enough, sociologists and public health professionals in Japan are currently somewhat concerned about the number of young people who are reading about Hikikomori and choosing to identify themselves with the label. Many young people suffer a social or economic setback, feel the urge to withdraw from society and then decide to do so because they hear that being a Hikikomori is now a ‘thing’. Upon first encountering the concept, I felt a similar tug as having one’s personality traits recognised grants them a degree of legitimacy regardless of how negative and stigmatising that recognition may be. The question of whether failure to identify as a Hikikomori might short-circuit the process of social withdrawal is central to another piece I recently encountered.
Welcome to the NHK (2006) based on a light novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto – The anime version of Welcome to the NHK is a brightly coloured comedy drama that is full of slapstick and psychedelic imagery but beneath the fluffy exterior lurks a work of astonishing darkness and power. The series is set in a Tokyo apartment building where 22 year-old Sato has been living in isolation thanks to the financial support of his parents. Initially, Sato is reticent to identify as a Hikikomori but he happily surrenders to this identity when a pretty young lady offers to ‘cure’ him of his condition. The series follows Sato as he wrestles with his own negative feelings using a series of pre-rendered identities that turn out to fit him as poorly as his own skin.
Welcome to the NHK perfectly captures the trap one can fall into by accepting one’s status as a Hikikomori: The first element of the trap is a level of social anxiety so intense that it borders on paranoia. The anime communicates this anxiety by having the character react to stress by slipping into a psychedelic dreamworld where household appliances whisper conspiracies. While the conspiratorial element of these ‘visions’ is not familiar to me, I must admit to a buzz of recognition over the tendency to begin by assuming the absolute worse of people, then assuming the worst possible outcome from interacting with people and then concluding that the only possible course of action is not to engage with people at all. The second element of the trap is the exculpatory nature of labels such as ‘Hikikomori’.
Once upon a time, psychological problems and abnormalities carried a heavy social stigma forcing people to keep their problems a secret. However, as time passed and faith in psychiatry began to fade, many people challenged the stigma attached to their conditions and forced their way out of the closet. My choice of words is far from accidental as the textbook example of this phenomenon is that of homosexual and transgendered people who overturned the idea that they were mentally ill in order to claim a place in the mainstream of society. A similar phenomenon is also evident in the way that some people are trying to normalise spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome by having them formally removed from the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual that psychiatrists use to diagnose mental illness. Tyler Cowen furthered this end by writing a book entitled The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy (2010) that argued that autism provides its sufferers with traits and cognitive biases that are perfectly attuned to elements of the contemporary business environment. Once a questionable piece of medical terminology, Asperger’s Syndrome is now a ‘thing’ complete with its own cute nickname: Aspie.
Welcome to the NHK explores the exculpatory nature of the ‘Hikikomori’ label by having the protagonist use the label to explain his actions and thus get off the hook without having to confront any of his negative feelings. Indeed, one of the series’ recurring phrases is “what did they expect from a Hikikomori?” The series further explores the toxic and enabling nature of self-labelling by having the protagonist talk himself into suicide out of a sense of social awkwardness. This sequence begins with the protagonist turning his back on the series’ love interest when his social anxiety spirals out of control and convinces him that she is somehow plotting against him. Disgusted with himself and the people around him, the protagonist hooks up with an old friend. Convinced that he is now leaving his Hikikomori past behind him, the protagonist jumps at the chance to go away with this old friend despite it being abundantly clear to the audience that the old friend is suicidal and looking for someone to commit suicide with her. After meeting up with a larger group of suicidal people, the protagonist eventually realises that he has made a terrible mistake but rather than quietly back out he prefers to go with the flow and so convinces himself that he too is suicidal. The brilliance of this sequence lies in its willingness to shine an unflattering light on our tendency to use labels to protect ourselves from criticism. Indeed, the series’ protagonist talks himself into committing suicide because he is too ashamed to admit that he misread a social situation. When challenged by his friends, he digs his heels in and moans that they do not understand what it feels like to be suicidal and alone despite the fact that the character had never previously considered suicide and is actually only rarely alone. Also brilliant is the sequence in which the protagonist is convinced to write the script for a paedophilic video game. Provided with a purpose for the first time in years, the protagonist throws himself into his ‘research’ to the point of clogging up his hard drive with thousands of pictures of under-aged girls. When challenged, the character reacts to the shame by grabbing a camera and hiding in the bushes outside a primary school because that is what filthy depraved perverts do.
Much like Steppenwolf, the real message of Welcome to the NHK is that while labels and theories may help us to make sense of the world around us, the order these labels bring to our lives is not necessarily positive. In fact, these labels can prove disastrous as they allow people to internalise and ‘own’ feelings and personality traits that are probably best confronted and expunged as soon as possible. My fleeting identification with the Hikikomori phenomenon and the protagonist of Welcome to the NHK were not simply a matter of recognition or identification but also of yearning for the sense of structure and purpose that comes from an entirely consistent vision of oneself and one’s place in the world. Labels like ‘introvert’ and ‘Hikikomori’ make us feel safe by constraining our identities within a reductive semantic cage.
According to Erich Fromm, our tendency to prefer feelings of safety to feelings of freedom explains why so many Germans surrendered their judgement to the toxic collective hysteria that would become the Third Reich. Like the protagonist from Welcome to the NHK, the inhabitants of 1940s Germany wound up doing horrible things because of their willingness to submit to the Nazi idea of what it meant to be German as the feelings of guilt and self-loathing these people experienced were far less unpleasant than the sense of abandonment and alienation that might have come from recognising their own radical freedom.
My writer’s block may not have stemmed from my feelings of alienation from any wider intellectual community but my decision to embrace those feelings of alienation and internalise them as facts about my identity certainly made it a lot harder to write. Indeed, it is easy to overcome a lack of time in which to write but substantially more difficult to overcome a personality trait that forces you to withdraw from the types of intellectual community that might be interested in what you have to say. The problem with off-the-shelf social identities is that while they can provide both a sense of belonging and a set of community values, they can also shave off the edges of our personalities and trap us into modes of being that simply do not suit us as individuals.
People latch onto words like ‘introvert’, ‘geek’ and ‘American’ because they think that applying these labels to themselves will help them to make sense of both themselves and the world around them. However, every time we apply a label to ourselves and conform to the expectations surrounding that label, we are mutilating ourselves for the sake of a noun no more substantial than a puff of air.