When Alice in Wonderland meets the caterpillar, he blows letters of diaphanous smoke into her face and asks, “who are you?” It’s an unforgettable scene in the Disney animated movie and a familiar one as others ask us about our studies. At AU our identity enters new realms of expansion and perhaps uncertainty. Whatever we were before our journey back into schooling we are sure to emerge changed. Yet to pin down our identity is no easy feat. From the greatest level of abstraction to the minutest life details, the dramas and data of our lives suggest meaning that evades easy capture in words. We grow as we learn and others may not always recognize our internal metamorphosis. Our identity may take on new paradoxes, quandaries, hues and complexions.
So who are we? Are we a bundle of perceptions, a poetic child of God, a program of DNA, a whirligig of felt intellect? Perhaps we’re a bit of everything we can imagine, but then, what aren’t we? Unlike traditional students, who can easily identify with expectations of their ilk, we at AU can be many things depending on time and place. To impart a totality to our identity suggests a process of cutting and pasting, a crafty exercise like making career collages in a high school class where we planned our futures. In 1824 Emile Littre invented something called a panoramagram. By splicing and arranging pictures into shards he attempted to provide the eye with a three dimensional map; the goal was “to obtain immediately, on a flat surface, the development of depth of vision of objects on the horizon” (Littre) Seeking to create in three dimensions what appeared originally in two, a panoramagram parallels the difficulty of representing ourselves in a tidy package.
First Dimension: DNA
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: DNA. Our DNA is a timeless aspect of our identity. To the extent that our bodies live our DNA remains unchanged. Raymond M. Keogh notes that “by using DNA, it is no longer problematic to ground persistence of personal identity in the continuous existence of our changing bodies, and the difficulty in verifying whether one body at one time is the same body at another time is overcome by looking at the genome.” (Koeg, 2019). In theory, to know ourselves is as simple as knowing our DNA. We could spit in a tube and send it away. Yet the results would say less about all of who we are than give a picture of who we are prior to all that we live, feel, and express. In other words, it’d be us minus much that makes us, well, us. That’d be like saying we graduated high school without mentioning our best subjects, teachers and friends.
In our century, where identities seem at once fluid and contested, a final answer to the question posed by Lewis Carroll’s caterpillar seems as elusive as ever. Alice might have ingested magic mushrooms or mystery fluid to trigger her identity dysphoria but realizing that we’re not quite wholly ourselves in a given moment can be acquired naturally by, for instance, noticing and recording our moods from hour to hour. Is hangry you really you? Maybe not. But, then, when are we ever feeling totally ourselves without being swayed or tugged by physiological or social factors? The facts of life don’t beget simple final answers in terms of identity, despite the convenience that entices us to make bold statements about who we are. Even picking a major can lead us to question which discipline really invests us with the most passion; this is yet another reason the MAIS (Masters of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies) program is so appealing.
Maybe to accept the passing nature of our identity is part and parcel with AU studies; we’re as in flux as our textbooks and laptop. AU student life is a labile life. Keogh goes on to discuss those who “are not persuaded that the word ‘identity’ is indispensable in its current usage. They think it is overused anyway, remarking that ‘The ‘identity’ crisis – a crisis of overproduction and consequent devaluation of meaning – shows no signs of abating.’” (Koeg, 2019). Being adults back in school, and not night school like others who seek to re-enter the workforce post haste, we contravene norms and, in terms of rote numerical evaluations and demographic statistics, we literally are not ourselves as we appear theoretically on paper. Name, rank, and serial number might count to Statistics Canada, but the richness of our academic lives defies demographic description. Yet that’s true for anyone; after all, who ever had exactly 2.5 children?
Second Dimension: Poetic Beings
From the unchanging and explicit nature of our DNA sequence we drift into warmer, more prosaic, climes. Our identity approximates a flowing process captured with eloquent poesy by the poet C.F. Meyer in his ‘Roman Fountain’:
“The jet ascends and, falling, fills
The rounded marble basin up,
Which shrouds itself before it spills
Into a second basin’s cup;
Growing too full, the second runs
Its surging billows to the next,
And all three give and get at once,
And run and rest” (Meyer)
To be clear and explicit about our identity is, then, to surpass simple words and their regimes of associated meaning. Asserting sovereignty about who we are and what our life means to us requires an act of creativity that’s only hinted at by mere words. The peaks and valleys of life at once suggest and transcend metaphors. Absorbed in our AU work we may find particular challenges in expressing who we are as we glean our education; we’re nor reducible to simple student stereotypes.
Never fear, Jacques Derrida seems to say. Paraphrasing Emmanuel Levinas, he describes how language itself tends toward craft rather than art, the sort of accounting used by errand clerks to describe their day’s deliveries, or the sort used by managers to write terse reviews of their employees. Certainly language can also be an art that effectively expresses our identity with flourishes of heartfelt detail. But, at its root, language suggests, rather than duplicates, the abundance of personal meaning that our identity embodies.
Third Dimension: Reality Lost in the Twilight Zone of Linguistics
In linguistic terms, words are signs that signify items they represent. As our mastery of language develops through the course of our life, we become better able to use words in ways that feel right. This depends on our realizing that words don’t mean the same thing to everyone; personalizing our words is like adding intimate decorations to a new room. We need words to communicate and thus “to express oneself is to be behind the sign” (Derrida, 101). Like actors in costumes who are well aware of the backstage effort it took for them to appear as themselves in full regalia, we humans take charge of our self-expression when we use words to denote deeper meanings about who we are and how we feel. Our unique use of language denotes, demarcates and forges our identity; there’s a reason why teenagers sound so kitschy and silly when they utilize some new slang term en masse!
We become who we are when words taste like how we feel; by writing our essays we also learn to better reflect our deepest sensibilities. Practice makes perfect. To live fully is to feel ourselves flourishing, and here AU helps us actualize this potential. Learning is in great part about learning to better express ourselves with innovative abandon. Anyone who’s beamed at a tutor commenting “great idea!” on an essay knows this feeling.
To fully live, and be who we are, is to make our life clairvoyant through our language. Derrida concludes that “only living speech is expression and not a servile sign…And we know that all the gods of writing (Greece, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia) have the status of auxiliary gods, servile secretaries of the great god, lunar and clever couriers who occasionally dethrone the king of the gods by dishonourable means” (Derrida, 101). Far from being mere factotums, like bored students toting chalkboards in an old cartoon, AU allows us to discover our identities anew.