The first day of orientation, I watched my parents pull away from the parking lot behind my freshman Butt A dorm. I climbed the stairs to my third-floor single, opened the door, walked in front of the mirror I had just hung with difficulty on sweaty cinderblock walls, took one look at myself, and burst into tears.
Then I started laughing.
There was something so absurdly cinematic about the whole situation. As I watched myself cry in the mirror, I was watching myself watch myself and realized exactly how theatrical a performance it was. And I distinctly remember having the thought: how many more times will I watch myself cry in this mirror? How many times will I laugh?
It was this idea of the mirror watching me—and thus, of me watching myself—that jolted me out of any knee-jerk emotional state and made me highly self-conscious, a mood that steeled me through the rest of the evening: the class year photo crouched on the hill behind Olin with the sun leaving green burnt spots on my retina, the awkward barbecue dinner in the CFA where thank god I found someone I knew, the first night where I discovered I was allergic to my bedding and slept on my floor. Absurdity.
Around half of “college conversations”—a term characterized by late-night, often substance-fueled sessions of verbal intercourse in which at least one person says with some degree of panic: “But, like, what does it all mean?”—seem to gravitate toward discussions of identity. And somehow, in those first 12 hours of Wesleyan, I seemed to tap into one element of identity that I am (or at least pretend to be) sure of: that everything I project is performative.
There are a couple of ways to explain the idea that identity is performative. I was probably first introduced to this idea as “the looking-glass self,” a term coined by sociologist Charles Cooley in 1902 to explain that self-identity is created through a process of imagining how others see us and what their judgments of us are. While this doesn’t mean that the actions themselves are performative, it means that our understanding of ourselves is shaped by how we project ourselves.
Far more existential-crisis inducing is the idea of “signaling.” Professor Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist, wrote: “Each individual’s ideology (religious, political, and philosophical beliefs) can be viewed as his ad campaign—designed not to convey verifiable news about the world, but to create positive emotional associations between the individual as product and the customer’s aesthetic, social, and moral aspirations.”
Essentially, this means that every action we take is the one we think is best crafted to find the ideal mate. If I’ve learned anything from college classes, this is probably true: push comes to shove, it all comes back to spawn.
Though forming an identity is maybe slightly more complicated than baby production, this notion of signaling can be seen readily in Wesleyan culture. Who are you—are you a SciLi person or an Olin person? The answer you give tells a lot about you, even if you have no intention of conveying anything about yourself and even if you think what you’ve conveyed isn’t actually representative of who you are as a person. DKE or Music House? Loud side or quiet side of Usdan? What classes do you take, teams are you on, clubs are you a part of? What causes do you fight for?
For all intents and purposes, what you project becomes who you are. It’s cynical as hell, and, like most things in that category, also probably true.
However, there’s another way think about identity. The alternate theory is that we simply absorb our surroundings and regurgitate them as personality lumps. This is not to undermine the idea that most action is performative, or to say that there is some “soul,” immutable and untouched by outside forces. It is just an additional way of explaining that there is no authentic “me,” but instead, that we just reflect our surroundings, both selectively and automatically.
What do you say when someone says, “Tell me about yourself?” You’re a daughter, a friend, a Mets fan. You’re an Argus editor, a washed-up athlete. A New Yorker, a Wesleyan student (though not for long), a liberal. I read things sometimes. Everything is relational, and everything a bastardization of other people, other groups, other activities, other ideas.
This holds true on the smaller level as well. To construct my Wesleyan “identity” is simply to amalgamate the other people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had. To an extent, “identity” is just memories that you cobble together to make yourself a person. Moments that made you smile, moments of pain, friends you made, obnoxious, lofty Opinion articles you wrote that you know will make you cringe when you Google yourself in five years.
I know I went to Wesleyan because I know what the stairwell between the basement and first floor of PAC smells like (asbestos?). Because I have memorized the automatic message you hear when you call The Ride (“Thank you for calling the Transportation Office. For daytime medical escort, please press 1….”). Because I can tell stories of chickening out of jumping off balconies and of getting yelled at about Argus articles and of climbing on top of the produce refrigerator in Weshop because I couldn’t reach the goddamn lettuce.
This is the part of “identity” that feels like it is ripped away when you graduate, because none of this means anything to anyone else, and the mundane details that have constructed experience are no longer relevant to daily experience.
As painful as that is, you get to take parts of this amalgamated personality with you, and what you take can inform the performative aspects of personality. The stories you’ve lived nudge you toward who you want to be. And while we still all consciously and unconsciously signal to others through performative actions, there is still room to make choices, be choosing the experiences we have.
What I’m saying is that for all the determinist (Look! Big philosophy words I’ve learned and now spit back out!) elements of both performance-as-identity and reflection-as-identity, there is still room for choice. I’m leaving, but I get to choose which parts of Wesleyan I take with me. I’m leaving, but I’ll get to perform to new people the version of myself I want them to see.
And if this article is really embarrassing to look back on someday (which I guarantee it will be, probably by tomorrow), at least I’ll know it was a semi-honest reflection of what I was thinking on this given day.
Or at least, that’s what I want you to think.
Zalph is a member of the class of 2016.