Who am I?

Louis Shankar: Week One

amazing Cambridge column identity

Identity is like that photo you’ve got on your University card: everyone’s got one but some people are more proud of theirs than others.

I got really interested in this topic after watching a recent series Grayson Perry made for Channel 4. In it, he tried to capture, often critically, the identities of a variety of individuals in a series of portraits. (Yes, this is really pretentious but I’m an art historian and Grayson Perry is one of my favourite people ever. It’s still on 4oD and definitely worth a watch.)

Identity defines who you are. Literally. But it exists somewhere between you and everyone else. Or, perhaps more accurately, it exists where the two meet. There’s the pressure of society pushing in on you, trying to label and understand you. But you can push back, press outwards.

Hi, you might remember me from that time I reviewed a play or something.

Here, in a relatively tolerant society, we have the luxury of ‘self identity’. But this requires a two-way understanding: you need to accept how others choose to self define, if  they are to similarly accept your choice.

And unfortunately, due to the nature of self definition, it is often impossible to communicate your choice to others: a random individual on the street cannot know how you have chosen to self-identify without you telling them. And telling every stranger is perhaps going a bit far.

It has its limitations, too. If I wanted to self-identify as an owl (because they’re awesome), even if I climbed up a tree and went ‘hoooo’ all night, I doubt many people would accept my decision.

One time I was a lion…

A more potent issue is the modern crisis of identity. In an increasingly online, removed society, we have the possibility to create our own identity.

This doesn’t just occur in the realms of fraud and seedy message boards: we all do it. We have the ability, which we often take, to create an online mask and hide behind it.

A fun game is to scroll through someone’s Facebook profile pictures: the simplest way they can try to define themselves to their friends – and, more importantly, their “friends”.

Gone are the simple portrait shots, now we have the creative, subversive, and downright absurd. (And many, many posters for plays…) They might not tell you not who a person is or what they are actually like, but they do tell you how they like to be seen.

Sometimes I write for The Tab.

There’s a strange paradox with identity. We all have our own identities that make us individuals. But we often choose to reduce ourselves to labels in order to join groups of people who share a certain characteristic; we render ourselves as a part of a stereotype and anything but an individual.

Even with self-identity, we can usually only tick a box, choosing out of a selection previously deemed socially acceptable by everyone else.

We all want to be different, yet we all want to fit in.

And so, over the coming weeks, I hope to poke and prod at various parts of my own identity: take a label, dissect it for all to see, and see what turns up.

I honestly have no idea what’ll happen. It could be fun.