On Defining the Self

It is rare that I do a post on this blog that isn’t directly related to art, or isn’t a deliberate attempt at some form of literary writing. However, a recent event has caused me to do some thinking about myself and how and why I react to certain situations as strongly as I do.

The exhibition was featured in a full-page article in The New Paper today (will post about it tomorrow morning). In it, I found 3 errors in the way I was portrayed, two factual, and one more of a misrepresentation. I do not blame anyone, including the journalist, for these errors – I sent her a message and told her that I was upset, but that I understand why she made those assumptions. The purpose of writing this post is not to lambast her or the act of making assumptions, which is an act that everyone has committed. I just feel like I needed to write something about why I feel so strongly about the misrepresentation of my self, which has upset me multiple times over the years.

First, let me do what all bad essays do by announcing that I am about to define something. To me, anything positive or negative can fall under the category of misrepresentation. I do not believe in the oft-quoted aphorism of celebrities, “all publicity is good publicity”. Positive and negative misrepresentations are equally bad in my eyes. As long as it is not from my own mouth, as long as it is not as I intended myself to be portrayed, I will be upset. Some people just happen to make it worse by (mis)representing me without my permission.

These are the examples that particularly unnerve me: Do not call me an artist simply because I make art, do not call me an illustrator because I make the occasional doodle, do not call me a designer because I have some limited experience with Adobe Illustrator, do not call me a photographer because I have a DSLR and happen to possess the habit of minimally editing all my photos in Photoshop. All I do is create. It is not my profession, my aspiration; it is not me. I feel physically uncomfortable thinking of myself as an artist as opposed to a humble art student. Call it an Existentialist nausea*. I do not know how to define myself, but I know how I do not want to define myself, and it will be on my terms.

I use the term “Existentialism” and its derivatives loosely. I will be the first to admit that I am not familiar with it as a philosophy. The extent of my knowledge of it is simply enough to get me through a semi-intellectual conversation, and the amount of it that I can put in words consist of what my Dictionary widget tells me: “a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.” Yet, I feel like this sentence alone aptly describes my reactions to being misrepresented.

To others, it may be oversensitive. Perhaps the fact that I am even typing this out right now proves that. But to me, every misrepresentation, no matter how small, is an unsettling of my sense of self. It is a sense of self that, despite being on this earth for over 21 years, has yet to be developed to be a point that even a corner of it can be put into words. Woe is the request to “tell me something about yourself”, or even worse, some trivial social media website asking you to describe yourself in so few words for all the world to see. It feels like – forgive the melodrama – I am standing on an edge of a cliff, and far away on the horizon is where I will finally know myself, while behind me is a nothingness that I am being pushed closer and closer towards. I am constantly standing at the point closest to the admission that “I” – “myself” – “my self” – is merely a wordless void. And I am constantly struggling against that every day, with every thing I do, and then suddenly someone comes along, thinking they know what they would call me, thinking they have the right to define me with one word, when I can’t even find the words that I purport to have such great control over.

“Control”: perhaps that is the word (language is always in flux – how many people understand that inexhaustible power of words?). I need to be that “free and responsible agent”, I am the only one that can be that figure for myself. No one else should be allowed to do that. I am but me and me that cannot be put in words, but that me is only I. You shall not touch me while I am vulnerable – forever. You will not topple my shaky belief in whatever pieces of myself that I can only grasp with fingernails. You cannot think differently from me of me – if you do, who, then, is the real me?

I don’t know how many of you among the few people who will read this thoroughly will be able to understand. Just know that this was really done for me alone, as is clear from the percentage of this post that is one of the words “I”, “me”, “myself”, “my”, “self”… We are selfish beings after all – we who know nothing about ourselves.


*20th July 2011: In a strange and convoluted way, I have discovered that my use of the word nausea is apt, not just in describing my own physical reaction. While reading Roland Barthes’ brilliant A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, he made a reference to Nausea  by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. A quick search on Wikipedia revealed the following – “The novel concerns a dejected historian in a town similar to Le Havre, who becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself, on his intellectual and spiritual freedom, evoking in the protagonist a sense of nausea.” Perhaps not as dramatic as my post, but still, it’s curious how suddenly things start falling together and referencing each other at a certain point in time.

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