The Technology Of Identity And The Loss Of The Self



Axolotl, also known as a walking fish. Photo credit: Getty royalty freeGetty


The axolotl is colloquially known in Mexico as a “walking fish” even though it is not a fish—it’s an amphibian, more specifically a neotenic salamander .  Indigenous to several lakes, like Lake Xochimilco, an ancient endorheic lake located in Xochimilco in southern Mexico City, axolotls are one of the few amphibians on the planet which reach adulthood without undergoing metamorphosis. Instead of developing lungs and taking to the land, like frogs and toads which change from tadpole to amphibian., adults remain aquatic and gilled. 

In his in his book The Cage of Melancholy (1987), Roger Bartra refers to Julio Cortazar’s  short story, “Axolotl,” as a comparative basis for understanding Mexico’s national identity stating that Mexicans are “the imaginary and mythical inhabitants of a violated limbo” resulting from the tragedy that spanned from the Conquest (1519-1525) through the Revolution (1910-1920). Bartra contends that we cannot understand the contemporary reality of Mexicans without exploring the trauma experienced by Mexicans during these two major historical events. According to Bartra, like the axolotl, the Mexican is “incomplete”, a larva that never matures into a salamander. This creature also symbolizes the melancholy of a lost past and an incomplete present with the Mexican continually in search of an identity. 

I have been thinking about Bartra’s thesis recently in relationship to the snowflake culture that surrounds us, in deep wonder as to why the cult of the self has exploded such that Halloween last week was not about having fun, but more about policing who was “doing it wrong.” In fact, it might be a sign of this movement of identitarians who deem their inner soul and essence to be poised upon the every breath we take. Imagine a world where our estimation of each other can cause another “mental anguish” to such an extremity that suicide threats become political tools within identity politics as they have in recent months! I think of the infamous “Leave Britney alone!” video from 2007 as the calling card of a generation in search of is identity. Even if the young Chris Crocker can be given a pass for what is an uncomfortable and transitory youthful rite of passage, this video shows a youth culture in search of itself. Now years later, we can only dream of a YouTube performance piece in defense of a pop star. Technology has become disembodied and it disembodies us as a social unit.

Indeed, there is something much more insidious about how we use technology as a culture where we mediate reality through pure fictions online.  Today, hundreds of millions of people are spending their social lives virtually, with most having few real life social encounters—if any at all. A friend of mine, a psychiatrist in upstate New York, told me five years ago that when she sees patients and they talk about their “boyfriend” or “partner,” she has to ask them this: “Have you ever met this person in real life?” The force of media today is not creating a social arena of encounter but rather the simulation of the social where anything but social interaction occurs. The Internet pseudo-social has become a battle of wit, where few are interested in hearing other points of view and where interacting on social media is more like a battle to the discursive death over a discussion with another human who like us, has ideas, a life history, struggles, and so forth.

In real life people meet up, walk together, talk, listen, and then talk again. People fall out and then fall in, rinse and repeat. People spend many moments in silence taking in information through food, smells, touching, and so forth. Social media does not replace these experiences that make us human and it might be time to wonder if technology is undoing our humanity when we surrender to its every pull, trend, and whisper. I remember being on a date with someone many years ago at the advent of social media when my date spent much of the time talking and narrating what we were doing. It was like being on a date with Howie Cosell as life was no longer about being in the moment, but being a spectator to one’s own life having another report every action for the sake of “living in technology.” After ten minutes of hearing, “We’re walking through NoLita…now we’re heading towards Grand,” I pulled out my phone to imitate my date, “Yes, I’m walking, I just inhaled, and now exhaled, and ooops…I just farted,” trying to get across the point that real life was about doing and not reporting. Time itself has become eaten by technology as we cease to interact the more we allow technology into our lives where time is sucked up in one long spiral, from a YouTube video of how to salvage your mobile from a fall into the toilet to four hours later when you are watching vintage Betty Crocker adverts.

Let’s be honest here: real life is full of quiet moments, pauses, mistakes, awkward encounters, and on and on. And herein lies the media foible that Chris Crocker undertook in his defense of Spears: his task was essentially a plea to accept Spears’ human condition as imperfect. Since that moment we have collectively veered off the cliff of rationality towards the current totalitarian culture which demands that we speak in a certain way, that we agree with the latest Antifa type on Twitter who harasses women who disagree with him, to the onslaught of campaigns directed at anyone who just thinks differently. As such, “social” media has become less about a social diversion and more about an aggressive acting out. One has to wonder if the Internet might be functioning, in part, as a virtual asylum where people who have “issues” can safely bicker with another insisting, until 3am, that they are right.

We are living a technological overload of identity today and it is impossible to stay the course. I can barely keep up with technology and this is what I do research and write about!  From iCloud asking me to change my password every so often, the have a half dozen outdated plugins that need replacing, to the new .heic photo format, the minutiae of technology is likely here to stay. All this amidst my ongoing attempts to research that vast sea of information on new media—architectural AI and green technologies, the deadly abuses of technology, or the wealthy men who are fueling a space race, technology has rather become all-compassing for me both personally and professionally. Yet, looking over how pervasive technology has become culturally, in one form or another much of it is caught up in how selfhood is used to market products and manipulate public opinion, even to form new political agendas.

I have never witnessed the kind of marketing of the self as I have observed in recent years with how language has been hijacked through a cultural revival of misogyny on the left which uses technology as its mask. This is, in fact, one of the most pressing social issues of our day as the totalitarian harbingers of language “wokeness” are the largely angry young men who insult and harass women online for merely thinking differently and expressing these ideas. And it’s not just white lefty men who are the torch bearers of the online mobs of this brand of wokeness, but it is an array of men on the left who have found a way to use technology to shut down women’s voices online while eliding class and socio-economic critique.

Last week, I critiqued the use of a misogynist slur, comparing it to a larger heritage of racist aspersions. The woke dudes of Twitter, instead of understanding my clearly-worded critique, attempted to turn my criticism of misogyny into my having committed a racist act. Their misinterpretation was, of course, malicious. Referring to racist slurs as a comparative, historical reference is not at all the same as making a racist utterance towards another. The illogic of such an argument would have us all believe that in summoning Lord Voldemort by uttering his name instead of through inference (“He Who Must Not Be Named”), that one is necessarily guilty of the evil acts of this character. Social critique is simply not the same as committing diegetic speech.

Yet, this is the nature of today’s political menagerie where words are interpreted as if magical spells that can result in one’s being cast into the netherworld of the “unwoke” because you did not play the required language game. It has struck me that for those identitarians who live most of their social lives online, they make no distinction—possibly because they cannot cognitively do so—between reality and referentiality. The Internet language of symbols ad emojis encapsulate the subject within a hermetically sealed bubble which necessarily cushions the self from any type of real. In this world of pure language, the imagined reference replaces the real. It is like Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose which explores the semiotics of meaning and linguistic ambiguity such that the symbol of the rose has today lost almost all its meaning. Yet 

The reality of this leftist cult which many of us face online is that these identitarians insist upon a vision of the world in which most of us don’t want to inhabit. What sane person would really? The barometer of being “woke” today verges between a somnambulant parroting of word salad and the boring and humorless policing of others’ language. Not only are comedians afraid of doing gigs on university campuses, but now we must all fear interacting online because of the “woker than thou” types who insist upon dogmatic rhetoric and the mirroring of everyone’s self-perceptions. Their notion of the real is the re-fashioning of the Stasi era where there is no room for interpretation, no nuance, no freedom of conscience. The problem with such a formula is that dialectic only works if there is no coercion involved and the pile-ons we see on social media regarding identity politics today are anything but non-coercive. 

This past weekend, I found this in my news feed: “Ezra Miller comes out as non-binary.” Another woke man proclaiming a truism as I have yet to meet anyone who is gender binary. Humans are all non-binary and this is no news to gay men and women who have had to fight the stigma of their sexuality for centuries and is even less newsworthy to women who have had to push out of that constricted space called “gender.”  My response to Miller on social media was this: “I am coming out as officially bored by people who express their personality traits by “coming out.” 

Like Bartra’s analysis of the axolotl as the metaphor for the “incomplete” Mexican, I would argue that the axolotl symbolizes this for many westerners who strive to recreate a lost past of selfhood by staging it as artificiality. Westerners are continually in search of an identity, especially many woke men on the left who have abandoned the politics of class activism. Why bother fighting for a common political goal that can advantage the 99% percent when you can focus our society’s media, economic, and political resources on pronouns? If anything leftist leaders like Jeremy Corbyn have shown us, pronouns are far easier to remediate than homelessness. 

So, here’s an idea for the woke, lefty folks calling women epithets online: take a nap! If your argument can be melted down to “bitch”, TERF, and telling women to STFU, then you ain’t woke—you’re just tired.