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None of us has a fixed identity

While re-reading parts of Gilles Deleuze and Fèlix Guattari’s monumental work, A Thousand Plateaus I was struck, for the umpteenth time, by the inescapable truth, that the vast majority of people — I’m talking about 99.999% of humanity  — could never grasp the actual character of “reality”. And there is no intellectual elitism implied by my statement.

The reason is simply that almost everyone  —  with the rare exception of Zen Buddhists and some Taoists  —  is taught, from infancy, that everything, from human beings through animals to inorganic things, has a largely fixed identity. 

I was also taught that as a child, so I’m no exception, as far as my personal history goes.

But sometimes an individual  —  very few, I’d say  —  has a fortuitous experience of an epiphany, that is, an instant in which your eyes and ears suddenly see and hear the world in a manner that is so different from what went before that it is as if you see things for the first time. There are many literary passages and poems about this phenomenon, which some of you may know.

It is a way of looking and listening that is very difficult to sustain, because we have been taught  —  and continue being indoctrinated  —  that everything has an identity that is separate or unconnected from everything else. Particularly in the political domain this doctrine is very powerful, and is continually abused by politicians who practise what is known as “identity politics” — because it suits them to make you believe that you belong in their camp (and others in their “own” camp), so that they can rely on your support to attain their (sometimes dubious) goals.

For practical purposes it is useful to act according to the fallacy that identities are stable. But the truth is  —  and I use this term circumspectly, because it is so often abused  —  that reality is not stable in any way; we merely act as if it is. In ontological terms, we tend to think and act on the basis of  substantialist beliefs — the conviction that things, including ourselves, are unchanging substances, although they are nothing of the sort. Jacques Lacan referred to this tendency, to act as if there are stable objects, and stable subjects (us) as the “paranoiac” or illusory character of human knowledge.

As far as I recall, my epiphany came more or less at Honours level when I was reading the first very important work of Martin Heidegger, which links “being” and “time” (it is titled Being and Time), so that one is compelled to think of “being” not as static  —   as in “I am a human being” — but as something active, so that both “am” and “being” in this short sentence suggest that every moment in time “I” actively “am”, or engage in “being me”. It is not a process that I can arbitrarily stop in time.

Then, having been awakened from my stupor, as it were, I started reading the work of thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson with new eyes, and I discovered that their conception of reality was one of “process” — that reality is nothing stable, even if, for practical purposes, we need the illusion, that it is. In the work of Lacan – and to a lesser extent of his teacher, Sigmund Freud — one encounters this as well (and one could add that of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard). For example, Lacan points out that even in the act of perception one tends to arrest, or fix, mentally (at an unconscious level), what keeps shifting in the visual field, so that the illusion of permanence attached to the object of one’s perception leaves a lasting impression.

But by far the most penetrating analysis, or interpretation, of reality in processual terms — that is, of reality as a constantly changing (or becoming) multiplicity of relations among what may appear as stable entities —  is encountered in Deleuze’s thinking, and in his collaborative work with Guattari. These two French thinkers are two unapologetic champions of “becoming”. 

What does this mean?

Think of it this way. Every moment of every day processes of becoming are happening at multiple levels in the world — psychological, physiological, biological, ecological, meteorological, geological, tectonic, virological, political, military, communicational and many more. These are occurring in relation to individuals, but considering that individuals are themselves concatenations of multiplicities, it means that processual changes happen at “molecular” levels, in the first place, and every such instance of becoming affects everything that it is connected to, which comprises what Deleuze and Guattari call “assemblages”.

The latter are not static structures, but dynamically changing, interrelated gatherings of what may seem like entities, but are actually manifestations of flows of desire and energy, which have a rhizomatic structure, or rather, structural dynamic — considering that a rhizome (like grass) consists of multiple, constantly expanding (and contracting) interconnections, many (if not most) of which are invisible. Think of the internet, with its endless hyperlinks, as a gigantic rhizome.

If this seems like ancient Greek to you, let’s take a concrete example  —  a so-called conspiracy theory. Suppose there is someone (actually, there are probably many people) who has an interest in concocting a story about the novel coronavirus having been artificially manufactured in a laboratory somewhere in China (or, alternatively, in the United States, before supposedly transporting it to China and planting it in a Chinese laboratory). For this to happen, there has to be a psychological process in the mind of a person  —  probably more than one, who are “conspiring” together  —  that construes China as a threat (an imagined one) to themselves and/or their country and seizes upon the opportunity afforded by news concerning the novel coronavirus to incriminate China (or alternatively the US).

Once this “theory” has been communicated to multiple receivers or addressees in cyberspace, they either pass it on or reject it critically, depending on their receptivity. But, whatever the case may be, it snowballs, and triggers divergent reactions all over the world, depending on whether one’s interests coincide with those of the original sender or not. In short, it either elicits responses that are equally malevolently intended, or ones that are critical of it, each category of which triggers further responses, and so on, and so on, endlessly, rhizomatically. Here is an amusing discussion of conspiracy theories that relates them to the coronavirus, and which illustrates my point. And here is a very intelligent perspective on conspiracy theories.

Note that this reconstruction of the path of a conspiracy theory does not even delve into the rhizomatic processes that one must presuppose for the path to unfold: psychologically, the processes on the part of everyone involved would take psychologists a very long time to map. These would include resentment, suspicion, aggression, envy or hatred, and so on, in different intensities. Communicationally (and linguistically), the messages exchanged among individuals would exhibit all manner of argumentative, rhetorical and performative characteristics; concomitantly, the physiological states on the part of every person that participates in the process — either pro or contra — would be diverse, depending on the state of health of individuals, and may involve negative effects on the cardiovascular systems of some, or an exacerbation of the physiological (and psychological) manifestations of so-called bipolar syndrome.

And none of this is static; all is processual, changing or becoming all the time. But because of the human “paranoiac” need to “get a grip” on things, we use language to create the illusion that things are stable. Most importantly, most of us cannot afford to admit that as a person, each of us is not one, but several, depending on which one of our selves is elicited by the different situations in which we find ourselves in the course of a day.

If you want to detect such a flux of selves on your own part, remember that, invariably, one’s changing moods are barometers of a different “self” —  some would say, a different “side” or “aspect” of yourself —  manifesting itself under certain circumstances. In my own case, for example, when I have done what I deem some good, constructive work, I am a different person, affectively, from when I am struggling to formulate an argument —  it sometimes seems to me almost miraculous that these two incarnations belong to the same person; me. And my shifting moods are symptomatic of this.

The fact is that, at any time, each one of us is, at best, an assemblage of fluctuating mental and affective states, with either some or others being preponderant at any given time. If we grasp this, we would (or may) be more receptive to change, particularly change for the better — this is one of the political implications of accepting a world of becoming.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.