Chloe Zhao’s movie Nomadland, which was awarded Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Motion Picture Director at the 78th edition of the Golden Globes, and the Best Picture and Best Director awards at the 93rd Academy Awards, is a poem; a poem following a rhythm ever more strange to the lives that we—those who have climbed onto the carousel of adult life and have discovered that we are no longer free to get off—are so used to.
When her husband dies and the factory that he worked at goes bankrupt, Fern (Frances McDormand in her third Best Actress winning role) decides to roam the United States in her van, which she calls “home.” She leaves her walled house as an empty monument of the past in the city abandoned by its inhabitants who have gone in search of the honest bread that they could no longer earn there. The van is fitted strictly with only the essentials, which means that every object in it has an infinitely greater value than simply its purchasing price.
Fern is free, her friends (played by a mixture of actors such as David Strathairn and real life nomads like Linda May) are free, even her relatives are free in their own way. And this freedom has a thousand perfumes. It smells like a man who hasn’t taken a good bath in a long time, but it also smells like a wild river where you can bathe without anyone seeing you. It smells like clean bedding where you can’t sleep because you’re so used to being uncomfortable that comfort scares you. This freedom also smells like the fear of losing yourself when you give yourself to others. It’s a kind of freedom that comes with such a high cost that none of us can afford it. That’s what the poem says.
Finding myself, and the caricature of the corporate employee
In contrast to the film’s blue-toned sobriety let’s imagine a cartoon depicting a man on a quest to finding his real self. He reaches the top of the mountain of self-knowledge and realizes that what’s waiting for him there is nothing but his usual 9-5 job. “Enough with this nonsense of finding your true self. We are all just slaves to our workplaces anyway!” That could be one way of looking at the drawing. But there’s another way that could also be taken seriously, provided we explored it with some tools that are more consistent than popular Facebook wisdom and wit.
The question, “Who is the true me?” has given people food for thought since antiquity. And this is, undoubtedly, an advantage. Its range of answers is so rich that, although the question of identity remains a philosophical dilemma, we still have a feast of ideas from which to enjoy our fill.
Philosophers on identity
Although there is no universal agreement on what makes us ourselves, the visions of thinkers have clearly delineated two directions: the simple, non-reductionist perspective (supported by, among many others, Plato, Descartes, Kant and most religious philosophers) and the complex, reductionist view adopted by philosophers such as Hume, Locke, Perry, Lewis, and Parfit.
The questions that could structure a discourse on identity are varied and penetrate into various spheres of human existence, but what fundamentally differentiates the two visions mentioned above is how they relate to the problem of personal continuity over time.
Time is a basic criterion for distinguishing between the two lines of thought. On the one hand, the diachronic perspective, which characterizes the reductionist view of identity, defines identity by answering the question: “What guarantees that person X at time t1 is the same as person Y at time t2?” On the other hand, the synchronic conception, the prerogative of the non-reductionist perspective, looks at identity through the prism of the features that define a person at a certain moment of their existence. The reductionist view defines identity as the baggage of human property, preserved over time, despite insignificant changes to the whole. The non-reductionist view perceives identity as a “fact in itself,” not a collection of facts.
One of the major objections of reductionists to the non-reductionist view is that the status of “subsequent fact” attributed to identity marks a relationship between temporary mutable identity and an essential immutable identity, whose disadvantage, reductionists say, is that it does not exist. Both thought traditions agree that, in terms of objects or nations, we can talk about degrees of continuity of identity. However, when discussing human identity, the debate becomes polarized between the reductionist conception, which supports the applicability of the theory of identity continuity to man (similar to objects), and the non-reductionist conception, which requires a distinct approach to human identity continuity as a “further fact” (a word play based on the similarity between the meanings of the words continuity and further).
We can arbitrarily choose one of the camps—for example, assuming that human identity cannot be a given because there is no one to give it to us. But if we believe in God and relate to Him as we have learned from Christian culture, then we will be more inclined to believe that our identity is like software that begins to run when we are born and can be guided in one direction or another, but which cannot be stopped. Each option has rich ramifications and we could inhibit the discussion by trying to list them all.
So, in order to be able to move towards the interpretation we announced earlier, let us assume the non-reductionist vision as base camp. And, to make things less dry, let us paint them with an axiom: there is no identity without otherness. We get to choose from many ways of being in the world. Too abstract? There is no identity without communication. We are who we are (anyone we choose to be) because we are in a permanent state of communication. What does that mean, exactly? Let’s think, first, about our personal relationships.
We find ourselves, but we also get lost, in relationships
Donell King says, in his article entitled “Four Principles of Interpersonal Communication”, that “every time we communicate, we actually involve six people: 1) you, who you think you are; 2) him, who you think is the other; 3) you, the person who thinks the other thinks they are; 4) him, who the other person thinks he is; 5) you as the other sees you, and 6) the other as he thinks you see him”. As King summarizes, the process of interpersonal communication is a contextual one, which cannot be achieved in isolation. He emphasizes the importance of the psychological context, consisting of “who you are and what you bring to the interaction.”
People try to control—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—the information they present to others, especially information about themselves, a strategy that sociologists Schlenker and Weigold subscribe to “impression management.”
Sociologist Erving Goffman likened this practice to a backstage game. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman uses the analogy of dramaturgy to emphasize important aspects of interpersonal communication, such as the distinction between public behaviour (the “stage”) and private behaviour (“behind the scenes”), and building one’s personal image in specialized “workshops” such as the bathroom or the bedroom.
A person can, of course, also send out false information about themselves. But, as Amotz Zahavi points out, in a triad of communication consisting of sender, message and receiver, this risk can be counteracted, because “for each message there is an optimal signal, which best amplifies the asymmetry between an honest sender and a cheater. For instance, wasting money is a real sign of wealth, because a cheater, a poor individual who would only claim to be rich, would not have the money to throw away.”
Zahavi distinguishes between two types of signals: authentication and conventional signals. Referring to the authentication signals, Zahavi gives as an example of the way in which the horns of a deer transmit a message of dominating power and shows how, biologically, the support of such a “crown” presupposes that the deer is a vigorous animal. “Authentic, uplifting signals involve high costs, directly related to the promoted feature,” which helps make cheating less widespread. On the other hand, conventional signals indicate features that cannot be proven or disproved immediately. For example, a job candidate may include in his resume a much richer experience than the real one. Conventional signals are susceptible to inadvertence and are considered “noise” rather than information.
Finding myself: Identity in dialogue
We therefore see that communication is dependent on identity. At the same time we see that identity is constructed through communication. Since society is a self-regulating system, every communication relationship is a negotiation of identities, as a result of the exchange of information. We live this negotiation day in and day out in our relationships. More interesting, however, is that a rather similar process takes place inside of ourselves.
Psychologist Charles Fernyhough said that “the high functions of the mind are dialogical processes derived from interpersonal activity. They develop through the progressive internalization of the manifestation of semiotic perspectives of reality.…The emergence of these functions in the context of social activity constitutes the cultural line of development.” To paraphrase, we can say that our minds think in dialogues. Our thoughts are in fact inner conversations with ourselves or with the people we have admired at some point in our existence. Thoughts manifest in actions. Repeated actions become habits. Habits determine our behaviours, and behaviours create our personal identities.
Finding myself: Time and food
At the top of the mountain of self-knowledge we encounter our 9-to-5 selves as a reminder that our “becoming” is dependent on the things in which we invest our time. Rather than conveying that what we get out of the negotiating game we play with reality is an identity that melts into the office employee, the image of the man at the top conveys that what outlines our identities is the activities we spend the most time on.
What can we do to avoid being disappointed by what we find at the top of the mountain? How can we build identities that will not embarrass us, nor be as satisfying as a consolation prize? Look at its ingredients: time and what fills that time. If identity is built through communication and if our very minds feed and function with dialogue as a fuel, let’s make this dialogue as nutritious as possible! Let’s expose our minds to a constructive dialogue! If our self is a result of interaction, then it means that we must pay attention to those with whom we interact and what they bring to the negotiating table.
This could mean diversifying our entourage, making an effort to spend more time with people we admire and can learn from. It could also mean spending more time teaching others, showing compassion for their needs, because this will develop surprising aspects of our personal identity.
Sometimes we can’t do that physically. Maybe we have to work in an environment that doesn’t give us too many models. But our entourage can (and really is) also a spiritual one. In our mental debate we can invite great thinkers and great people of faith alike, and this hospitality will not delay in bringing fruit. Above all, in this dialogue, we have the privilege of communion with the Creator through prayer. And the result of this communion exceeds even the most daring expectations of our imaginations.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network, the European version of Signs of the Times. A version of this article originally appeared on ST Network and was reposted with their permission. Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation. Nomadland is rated M for nudity.