Your Personality Has To Be Load-Bearing
nothing can be you but you
It’s easy to feel that culture war only ever grows and never shrinks, but there’s one culture war that I’m glad has cooled a great deal: PC vs. Mac. There’s still two major platforms for personal laptop and desktop computing. (Apologies to Linux and ChromeOS.) People still are very dedicated to their particular ecosystem. People still argue about it. Mac fans still mock viruses and instability in PC systems, while PC users still deride Mac fans as sheep who pay more for less functionality. But to a great extent, especially compared to say the mid-aughts period, there appears to be a kind of fragile detente. I am much, much less likely to encounter PC vs. Mac fights in the wild today.
I have always been a PC guy and can’t claim neutrality on this point. Certainly I maintain an old frustration that Mac fans never update their understanding of the security and stability of the Windows platform, which are both vastly improved relative to earlier iterations of the operating system. (Seriously, you have to try pretty hard to get a virus these days.) But of course I can admire Apple’s usability and design chops. Perhaps some of the fire shifted to Android vs. iOS, but even there the skirmishes seem less heated and less frequent than the old days. Perhaps that’s because Apple enjoys dominance in smartphone mindshare, if not quite market share. Either way, with my admitted bias serving as caveat - there used to be this class of Apple Guy, someone whose love for the brand transcended the regard you would ordinarily reserve for an expensive commodity and became something existential, something that defined them. And I’m not even really putting words in their mouths. There was (and still is) this whole explicit and avowed cult-of-Mac thing, where people publicly professed unhealthy devotion to their preferred computer manufacturer. For some, being into Apple products really was like a religion, a defining element of the self.
When I would participate in the war, I would haughtily remind Apple fans that a laptop is not a personality. (This was very annoying of me, but these were internet forums and message boards, which are houses of the damned.) I’m sure that most people have always known that, in an explicit sense, buying a particular brand or product can’t be the stuff of the self. Such things are too ephemeral, accessed by too many people, and too bound up in the mercenary work of capitalism to satisfy our internal desire to have selves that are comprehensible and admirable to other people. But in a consumerist culture, the temptation will always be there to pawn off the work of being a self to the things we buy. Capitalism can’t sell you a soul, but it will certainly sell you stuff to try and fill the hole.
If the stuff you buy isn’t who you are, then what are you? I would say that your personality is simply your behavior, including your expressions. It would be lovely if our selves were only the product of our conscious choices, but as a species we are famously unaware of ourselves and act based on impulses and influences we would never choose. Sigmund Freud, and all that. Your personality is the way you talk and act; it’s your behaviors under a given circumstance that might be different from the behavior of others. The constituent elements of our personalities can’t be fully enumerated, but I would name honesty, creativity, gentleness, courage, perceptiveness, equanimity, extroversion, intelligence, kindness, and a sense of humor as essential parts. What I’m here today to argue is that these things have to be constitutive of you as a human being. You cannot be Mac Guy, not for long, not really. And I want to say also that the desire to be Mac Guy is profoundly human and something I have a lot of sympathy for.
The thing is that it’s hard to be a person. It’s hard! Our personalities are something that we both are and do, and we are always being evaluated by the others around us. Appearing attractive or admirable to other people, for most people most of the time, is something like the work of life. And like any other kind of work, there’s pressure to do it well. To fail at the construction of a self could hardly be more fraught with stakes and meaning. Looking around at your life and finding not much to be proud of is a common condition. To try and find that thing, that one external thing that shapes and animates your life, is a constant temptation, whether it’s Buddhism or Marxism or Alcoholics Anonymous or always carrying a guitar around for no reason or pretending to have Tourette’s on Twitch or buying every FunkoPop or being the guy who always has a toothpick hanging out of his mouth or your new boyfriend or cottagecore or vintage electronics or reading on the subway or the Buffalo Sabres or your insouciant yet political Twitter feed or your skill at Mario Kart or being a cat person or having an opinion on “Cat Person” or your Polish heritage or your pink gold iPhone or all your guns. These various external things can be core to our self-presentation, can be healthy and positive elements of our lives, and can amount to signals to others about what we value and enjoy. But they can’t fulfill our fundamental desire to be somebodies, to be people. I’m sure people in the comments will trouble the distinctions I’m drawing, and that’s fine. I still believe that, at the core of things, you can be your studied indifference to the vagaries of fate, but you cannot be the motorcycle you bought to broadcast it.
I have already discussed this issue when it comes to the realm of “fandom” specifically. I think people within that world - generally speaking, the world of intense devotion to cultural products in the realms of sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, comic books, fan fiction, and the like - are particularly at risk of obscuring the boundaries of the self, confusing what they like with what they are. This is why such people are so often still filled with resentment over perceived slights against their cherished properties despite the fact that such properties are commercially dominant in our world today; they can’t separate a difference in artistic tastes from insults to the self. You can broaden this to the entire concept of the “stan” and the frightening fan communities you find on the internet, such as those celebrating K-pop or Taylor Swift. Oftentimes, people deeply ensconced in these worlds are attempting to offload the burden of having a personality (of being a person) onto the art they enjoy. Such art is celebrated and, more importantly, acknowledged as real, as they would like to be. If you want to be a Star Wars fan existentially, if you want that to be your personality, there’s so much stuff, so much to grab onto that has heft and the feeling of being real - movies and shows and comic books and bedsheets and commemorative Coke cans but also communities and lore. The self? For a lot of people, that feels flimsy and not worthy of other people’s attention.
Also, the victimology inherent to stan-dom is particularly seductive in this regard because it creates both divine objects to worship and an enemy class, the latter of which fits snugly into the common human tendency to rage against those that (we imagine) look down at us. The guys at Red Letter Media have made the point that some fans seem to enjoy being seen as fans more than they enjoy the properties that they ostensibly celebrate, and above they discuss the toxic nostalgia and cynical manipulation by studios that arise from that. Roger Ebert famously wrote
A lot of fans are basically fans of fandom itself. It's all about them. They have mastered the Star Wars or Star Trek universes or whatever, but their objects of veneration are useful mainly as a backdrop to their own devotion. Anyone who would camp out in a tent on the sidewalk for weeks in order to be first in line for a movie is more into camping on the sidewalk than movies. Extreme fandom may serve as a security blanket for the socially inept, who use its extreme structure as a substitute for social skills. If you are Luke Skywalker and she is Princess Leia, you already know what to say to each other, which is so much safer than having to ad lib it. Your fannish obsession is your beard. If you know absolutely all the trivia about your cubbyhole of pop culture, it saves you from having to know anything about anything else. That's why it's excruciatingly boring to talk to such people: They're always asking you questions they know the answer to.
This is a bit meaner than I intend to be here, but it’s very close to what I mean: if you just are “Star Wars Fan,” you’re exempt from the exhausting and frightening work of making a self. The work has already been done for you. And while I don’t buy that love for Star Wars ever really consigned people to the status of nerd - they were the most widely popular and commercialy successful movies of all time! - I do think that it’s not a coincidence that we associate social awkwardness with this kind of devotion for popular entertainment. If you are someone who has been made to feel like your self is deficient and vulnerable, then you might go looking for a ready-made identity someplace else. The internet insists that there is never any such thing as too much of any given piece of popular culture; Tumblr essentially rides on the cloud of people’s unhealthy devotion. And of course Disney will sell you all you need to make your identity known.
Saying that people are too apt to make the stuff they consume their personality has gotten me in a little trouble in the past, but it’s not really controversial. This is controversial: I also think that, in the 21st century, a lot of people try to do this with their various identity categories. I think that the cacophony of identity politics has gotten so loud in part because for many these broad group affiliations take the place of the basic work of having a personality. They pepper Tinder profiles and Twitter feeds in part because of the wish that others will see these identity categories and assume a person into being. And then there is no chance that we will be seen for what we are and, potentially, be deemed unworthy.
To be clear: the point is not that these people are somehow not really members of the identity communities with which they identify. Nor is the argument here that people should not spend a lot of time thinking and talking about their various identity groups and markers. What I think some people can fall prey to is coming to think that their given identity markers can define themselves in a totalizing way. Identity markers are comprehensible, they have social-cultural content that everyone recognizes. It’s been my observation that many people maintain a quiet fear that they aren’t really anybody at all, that they have no self. But for any given identity group online, there are signposts and definitions that feel corporeal, that you can grab onto. And there’s also community, a set of other people who carry that identity marker with whom you could potentially break bread. There’s nothing wrong with profound and loud identification with an identity category, and often such identification is explicitly political, in a good way. The trouble lies in you getting lost in the shuffle - sometimes, of wanting you to get lost.
I think of a well-known phenomenon in the gay and lesbian communities, which is for people who have recently come out of the closet to become Super Gay, to make that the centerpiece of their entire self-presentation and to bring every conversation back to their recent coming out. And let me be quick to say that this is fine. It’s natural. It’s a momentous time in someone’s life, and undoubtedly it’s a positive step forward. There’s nothing wrong with getting wrapped up in that aspect of your identity in a time like that. But I also think the people around someone acting like that, their friends and loved ones, are often quietly thankful when that person moves on a little bit and starts talking about something else. You’re out now, it’s better, you should be proud, you should live your sexuality out loud, great. But sooner or later you’ll find yourself in a spot where you’re reminded that you still have to be a person first. Of course our sexual identities and our genders and our ethnicities and the like are important to us, central to us. But none of them can act as a stand-in for being funny, or charismatic, or an asshole, or a good friend, or a bad listener, or a brilliant and mercurial bastard. And paradoxically, the more that you devote yourself to a particular identity community, the more your personality will have to bear the weight of how others see you, as within the community the identity marker can’t distinguish you.
I’ve written so much about online disability communities this year that I’m loathe to discuss them here, but I think they represent perhaps the clearest example of what I’m talking about. Take the tendency I discussed for people to ascribe the most quotidian and common elements of human life to ADHD. In those corners of the internet, people describe experiences like “not wanting to do work right now” or “preferring to order food in rather than eat what’s in the fridge” as somehow an indication of having ADHD, rather than being perfectly typical of the general human experience. That kind of conceptual creep makes perfect sense if you are someone who has tried to substitute having ADHD for having a personality; you want more and more of your existence to be described by the orienting principle that gives shape to your life. Worse are the dissociative identity disorder teens of TikTok, a community of thousands ostensibly suffering from a condition that has long been understood to be one of the absolute rarest in the psychological canon. “Having” DID gets them attention in their digital worlds, and more, distinguishes them from those they see around them. The substitution of external markers for the authentic self is often undertaken for precisely this reason - to not be boring. You can’t think my personality is unimpressive, the lament goes, I am my multiple personality disorder.
I should be clear here that while I think this tendency has bad effects on the rest of us, the fundamental problem with trying to outsource the self is that your efforts are bound to fail. You will eventually be left with only yourself, and you’ll have to just be a person. If the internet makes this quixotic desire more common, perhaps it also better ensures that it will fail; there’s just so many other people out there, trying to be autism, to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to be white male feminism, to be the most authentic communist, and so the field is crowded and you find that these things can’t distinguish you. Besides, I think your heart wants to be a you, and in time your heart will have its say.
I have been aware throughout writing this that I’m risking sounding condescending, which is not my intent. The job of creating a self is rocky and fraught for everyone, certainly including me, and there have no doubt been times in my life when I have been guilty of bad faith and attempts to obscure a self I didn’t like behind external markers. (Ironically enough, one clear time was when I was really into existentialism.) The question I come back to is, if you stripped away my Marxism, if you left aside my identity as a writer, if you looked past my pretenses to being a dissident, if you ignored my mental illness, who would I be?
Your personality has to be load-bearing; the self, and only the self, can carry the weight of being a human being.
In terms of advice… I don’t think this temptation can be fully or finally defeated. I think all of us are guilty of it at some point, to some degree. What we can attempt to do is to remain alive to our petty moments of bad faith, to the way that we attempt to make ourselves objects in the world instead of subjects. When we notice that we’re trying to make some broad externality do the work of being a person for us, we should forgive ourselves, then try to remember that in the end, the self will out. We can’t hide forever behind the screens we try to place between ourselves and others. It would also help to remember that we don’t have to be appealing to everyone, just to the right people. The Buddha said “nothing is to be clung to as I, me or mine.” I’ve never been much of a Buddhist! I don’t know what it would be like to not cling to the self; I look around me and I see self everywhere. Perhaps instead we might say, “cling to nothing else in hopes that it might take the place of I, me, and mine.”
Speaking of Apple, apparently the teens are really invested in being a blue text bubble instead of green. Sooner or later you have to be a person, kid.
Why did the Apple-PC war cool? I think that one big thing is that the cellphone you choose became a more visible symbol for status games. I also think that the great convergence of tech made it harder for people to find things to fight about; while partisans on both sides tend to chafe at this, in my opinion Apples and PCs have become more similar over time rather than more different. Also, Apple achieved such dominance in laptops in certain professions and cultural spaces that there were few people to debate, just as PCs enjoyed such supremacy in gaming that there wasn’t really even a “Mac or PC gaming machine” argument to be made.