The Self Is a Virus, So Let’s Kick Down the Barriers of Identity

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In this week’s New York magazine, there’s a short essay by David Wallace-Wells on the idea of the body as a “superorganism” — not a single entity, but a sort of colony of different organisms, living and dead, that make up a composite whole. Wallace-Wells’ essay is fascinating in a very body-horror kind of way — it concludes with the ghastly tale of one Sanju Bhagat, an Indian gentleman who apparently carried his twin inside him for 36 years, something that was only discovered during a surgery to relieve an unexplained swelling in his stomach. (The swelling was, yes, the twin — you can read the gory details here if you’re game.)

But it also has a lot to say about the nature of identity. Taking his cue from Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan’s recent paper “Humans as Superorganisms,” Wallace-Wells proposes a sort of gestalt identity for humanity — we’re not a single discrete being, but rather an agglomeration of organisms, from the bacteria in our gut to the viruses that have shaped our DNA. This idea in and of itself isn’t radical; we’ve known for a long time that the human body is home to all sorts of other living things that are not, strictly speaking, part of the human body, and that those organisms can have very real and occasionally disastrous effects on our health.

What takes this from fascinating abstract theory to news you can use is the fact that these parts of us can have distinct and identifiable effects on the way we behave. Kramer and Bressan cite the example of a mouse into which the gut flora of another mouse were transplanted, with startling results: “Take a mouse, evacuate his intestines, and repopulate them with the microbes of another mouse, and he’ll act like the other mouse — adventurous mice become timid.”

Apart from the immediate sense that, hey, that’s freaky as hell, there’s a more interesting idea here: that our selves are not entirely our own. If we transplant Mouse A’s gut flora into Mouse B, the latter might start acting like the former, but we’re pretty clear that Mouse A is still Mouse A and Mouse B is still Mouse B. But what if we follow with other things that might affect Mouse B’s behavior: a pituitary gland? A leg? A brain?

At one point does Mouse A become Mouse B? It’s a real-life example of the Ship of Theseus paradox, and one that poses some fascinating questions about the nature of identity and the self. As beings blessed with self-consciousness, we’re used to thinking of our selves as things that are, well, ours. Clearly, our perception of the world is defined by physical constraints — sight, hearing, etc. — but our perception of ourself is one that belongs in a different realm. The self seems to be something you perceive by “looking” “inwards,” and exactly what this means is something that philosophers have been interrogating for millennia.

Whatever your view on the exact nature of the self, or the veracity of its very existence — because clearly one could write an entire book about this, and many people have — there’s one idea that seems to remain constant: that the self is a discrete entity. It’s something that can be influenced by the world, but it’s also something that can exist independently of the world. As far back as the 11th century, Avicenna argued that even if all of our senses were removed (his example was a “floating man”), we’d retain a sense of self-consciousness. Even those Eastern philosophers who deny the existence of a self seem to accept the discrete nature of the thing they’re denying exists.

But if we accept the idea of our body as a superorganism, which means accepting that it’s not something we own so much as it is a big machine with lots of moving parts that somehow keeps us alive, it’s interesting to think of the self in the same way — as a composite entity over which we have a lot less control than we like to think we do. The idea of the gestalt being as a metaphor for consciousness isn’t lost on Wallace-Wells; he concludes his essay with Kramer and Bressan’s observation that “We argue that an incessant struggle among a very large number of ‘selfs’ — some human, some not — determines who we are,” and asks, “Is it insane to say, at least as a metaphor for mosaic identity, that sounds sort of reasonable?”

Not at all. But beyond the fact that we have a multitude of “selves,” there’s also the stuff that isn’t us at all, but nevertheless lodges in our personality and shapes our behavior. The self is also a sort of superorganism, one that’s constantly being bombarded by culture. We shape culture; culture shapes us.

The idea of culture-as-organism is one that various authors have played with over the years. William Burroughs famously declared that “language is a virus from outer space,” and Richard Dawkins — back in the days when he was a scientist first and foremost, rather than a proselytizing blowhard — who proposed the idea of cultural memes as self-replicating, living entities that work like viruses, taking physical residence in a host’s brain. Just as “real” viruses have shaped our DNA, so cultural viruses have shaped our cultural DNA.

It’s particularly interesting to consider this idea in light of the rise and rise of identity politics, which deal with the definition and perception of the self. Wesley Morris discusses this to great effect in his excellent New York Times essay on the 2015 as the year of identity politics. Morris draws a distinction between how we construct our identity and how it appears to others:

I’m someone who believes himself to have complete individual autonomy, someone who feels free. But I also know some of that autonomy is limited, illusory, conditional. I live knowing that whatever my blackness means to me can be at odds with what it means to certain white observers, at any moment. So I live with two identities: mine and others’ perceptions of it.

So it’s always been, to some extent. But it’s notable that the rise of identity politics has been driven by an environment where, in theory at least, you’re free to define the self you project to the world whatever way you like: the Internet. In the early years of the Internet, we drew a strong distinction between the abstracted, constructed online self and the innate, organic IRL self. On the Internet, at least at first, you could be anything. The early Internet facilitated the formation of identity-less communities — you had no idea who the other people on the U2 listserv were, beyond the fact that they were all over the world and yet here they were, miraculously, a whole group of people who shared your interests.

These days, the opposite is increasingly true — communities coalesce around identities, and as this happens, those identities become ever more granular. You’re provided with a larger and larger choices of boxes and sub-boxes to tick, a development that’s both progressive (instead of just “male” or “female,” you can now choose from a multitude of gender options on Facebook) and somehow oppressive (why does Facebook need to know your gender at all?). Instead of gay, straight, or bi, you can be pansexual, asexual, demisexual, aromantic, sapiosexual, etc. — which, again, allows for a bewildering multitude of identities but also enforces a view of sexuality that requires it to be defined as something.

Why has this happened? I’d argue that, to some extent at least, it’s a reaction to the sense that our selves are becoming less and less clearly defined: globalization and the rise of the Internet has meant that the culture that colonizes each of our brains has become more and more homogenized — and, as a result, so too have our selves. To some extent, as Morris argues, this is liberating:

[We are] in the midst of a great cultural identity migration. Gender roles are merging. Races are being shed. In the last six years or so, but especially in 2015, we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are.

We’ve begun to realize on a culture-wide basis that many of the descriptors we’ve used to define ourselves are entirely arbitrary — gender and race are constructs. Sexuality is fluid and needs no definition. Etc. But at the same time, those descriptors retain their power to oppress. And if the identity that others assign you retains its oppressive power, then this loss of identity can feel more disempowering than anything else. What’s the benefit of everyone else of being able to be more fluid about their sexuality if you still get beaten up IRL in your small town for being gay? Where’s the liberation in the deconstruction of race if you still can’t hail a cab?

Online, you’re another IP address; offline, you’re still trapped in your identity — or, more accurately, the part of your identity that others perceive. The result is the curious dichotomy that Morris discusses: “the way your online profile can diverge from your real-life identity, yes, but also the way you can choose a self or a self can choose you.” It’s telling that the way we choose a self online these days seems to rely more and more on a repudiation of the homogenizing power of the Internet. We are our own markers of difference, the little things that distinguish us from every other IP address. We are choosing to fight back against the cultural bacteria in our personalities, to see them as pollutants of the self that need to be flushed out.

This, hopefully, is a phase in a greater evolution of the self: the understanding that to a large extent we are all similar, that no one is an island, and that the ways we separate ourselves are arbitrary and destructive. If the homogenizing effect of culture is embraced, in real life, as a way of removing these barriers, then our need for them will also fall away. It seems to me that we stand at a critical time for our conceptions of identity: we can continue to see them as trenches in which we can fortify ourselves, or we can climb out and let them fall away. But if the idea of doing so has arisen in a virtual realm, it can only be accomplished away from the keyboard. Until the barriers of identity are removed IRL, they retain their power to oppress.