Fractal identity

Posted: June 16, 2006 at 11:12 pm in people

When I was reading Latour last weekend, I read the following quote:

To say ‘culture forbids having kids out of wedlock’ requires, in terms of figuration, exactly as much work as saying ‘my future mother-in-law wants me to marry her daughter.’ (p. 53)

Latour goes on to point out that, although it’s obvious that “culture” or “society” are abstractions that we project our own impressions on, the same is true of “mother-in-law”. I’m not quite sure why this concept caught my attention the way it did. So I’m going to explore it a bit, with the caveat that I’m off on my own now, not following anything that Latour was describing.

I think the thing that really gets me is that the “mother-in-law abstraction” returns me to the idea that each of us perceives the world differently. We can look at the exact same object and have two completely different reactions because of our differing histories and contexts. Our conception of the object is not contained solely within the object; it involves our relation to the object, our relation to others with whom we are viewing the object, etc.

Applying the same concept to people is fascinating and interesting in light of my recent obsession with identity. When I think of a person, I am not thinking of the person as an entity independent of space and time; I am thinking of my specific interactions with him or her. Those interactions are all I can attest to in my conception of the person. However, because of my brain’s propensity to fill in the blanks, I make all sorts of other assumptions about the person based on the interactions I have had. So Latour’s side comment reminded me that my impression of a person is not necessarily the same as who that person “truly” is. The more varied the interactions I have had with a person, the closer my perception will match their own, but they will never match up.

I have this vision of all of us having these fractal identities, where it is sometimes possible to extract an impression of the whole from a very small part (through the magic of self-similarity), but other times where viewing one part is no help at all at discerning the larger picture. There are portions of us that we display in public, which are good hints as to who we “really” are. Other things we do in public are defense mechanisms, designed to draw attention away from our “real” selves.

I might have been having a bad day when I meet somebody, and they will think of me as a grumpy person based on that first impression. Is that “really” who I am? The same question applies if I’m bouncy because I’m having a good day. I might remind them of a friend, or an enemy, both of which will color their image of me. So many different factors get conflated in our perception of other people that it’s a wonder that we can ever agree on what people are “really” like. Rather than having a singular identity, we each have hordes of identities, projected like a film onto the brains of everybody we have ever met, including ourselves. Which brings us back to the idea of multiple social identities. Weird. I didn’t even intend that.

Do you see what Latour does to my brain? One paragraph, and I’m writing a whole blog post about it. His offhand remark that “Mother-in-Law” is also an abstraction reminds me that I need to always take into account my own bias and history when I’m dealing with somebody else; I might actually be reacting against a ghost, their projection onto my own neuroses. Now imagine what a whole concentrated draught of a book will do to my brain. Crazy stuff, man. Can you believe they sell this stuff over the counter?!

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