“On names, identity, and personal mythology” by Lianna Schreiber

Visitants

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Is it still an identity crisis if what is causing you grief is a fractal self which exists only in another person’s mind?

I am hyper-aware of myself at all times, and whether or not this roots in being a woman is a discussion best left for another time and thought piece, but the fact of it stands — I curate my behavior to the best of my ability whenever I am in public spaces, even if they are just everyday internet hang-outs. I treat each word as if it were a museum piece, analyzing its possible implications so as to not have my meaning be lost in translation by leaving something I consider to be implicit up to my peers’ interpretation. I do this because I know how easily misunderstandings arise.

Even my own self is parsed through the personal lens of every individual I come in contact with: cashiers, delivery boys, bus drivers, random pedestrians. They each apply their prior personal experiences to my image, together with all the preconceptions born from them; and so a paradox arises. Although they see me, they do not really see me.

They see someone who has my body — or, in the case of online spaces, my avatar and type beat — but whose psyche may have nothing in common with my actual self. They see a simulacrum that talks with my voice without possessing my thought process or intent, and I have no control over how they construct this person in their head.

I must admit that I have something of a fascination with the phenomenon of being seen always yet never perceived fully; even my friends and family possess a notion of me that is, at best, a partial overlap with who I am.

And part of this fascination roots in a kind of raw, abject horror — I am at times filled with such genuine despair over the idea that these mirrors of me are still only ever that, an array of imperfect reflections. This in turn is because to me, being loved equates to being understood, and I want an affection that is full and uncompromising; yet all the same here I am, a stranger in small ways to even the people I hold in confidence. Minute discrepancies will always color every interpersonal interaction I have, in much the same way my atoms will never touch. That space is a world in and of itself, and it is one terribly lonesome.

Over the years, I have come to compartmentalize these alien selves. I index them according to the extant level of familiarity, a knowing which is indicated by the name basis someone uses when addressing or otherwise referring to me.

Case in point: to the world I am known by my legal name, half baptism, half inheritance. When it rolls off the tongue, it leaves behind the oilspill of my father’s sins — and swimming in its black trails is enough Orthodox longing to build a church from the ground up. There is distance, here. The world sees me, but it does not understand me, as our level of interaction is built strictly upon formalities and necessity. The agora makes no effort to know me, and so I do not try to extend it explanations.

Ours is a business relationship: I am a blur of letters left behind on government paper in neat uppercase script and the half-formed, nearly unintelligible signature underneath them. And that suits me fine. I believe deeply in the power of words, you see. I believe in their magic.

To name is to tame, as folktales teach us, and we should never give away parts of ourselves if we are not to receive in exchange something of equal value. You have lent me your eyes, and for that I will make you privy to this aspect of my personal mythology.

In naming me, my mother consigned me to two distinguished crosses.

I was given the first name of Liana, as in “vine”, but also as in “God answers”; due to geography, its etymology is at best convoluted, but no matter which map you choose to trace it on it will always lead you back to a kind of paroxysm. My middle name, Andreea, was chosen to honor an old tradition, that of consecrating children to a saint — the association with Andrew the Apostle is thus inextricable. I and half the country bear the lopsided signet of his suffering and piety, and we may only hope to be worthy.

Growing up in an environment where myth bleeds so insidiously into everyday life has made me wary of life’s fine print. Etymology is important; names are, to me, prophetic.

Thus, when I had to assign myself a professional name, I took ample time to deliberate my options. In addition to personal meaning, I took numerology into consideration, too, and eventually christened myself Lianna Schreiber. The second n was added so as to conserve within the letters one of my arc symbols, the number fifteen; Schreiber I chose for its meaning — “scribe”. That is what I am, at the end of the day. A victim of my muses, a prophet rich in only blood, half mad and always, always raving.

Here, the distance has begun to lessen. My name tells you something about me, because you know it was chosen, not given, and you know the why behind that decision.

But to name is also to own, and pet names between friends always carry an inherent contractual aspect. Mine seem to love and think of me in flowers: I have always been Li, Lia, Lili — more recently, Lilia. I have accepted this nomenclature with both hands, because in truth I have always been the bird just as much as I have been the flower on whose thorns it perches; accepting the symbol did not require me to abandon my skin. I try to live up to it, to bring honey into their lives by being a soft thing, an ointment, a nurturing presence, and all the while I worry about the day I might become a poison.

I think that such worries are only natural — they are born of an understanding love. My friends get to see me at my darkest, and when I sink into one such nocturne, it takes me days to come back up for air. Of course I worry about how that will affect them; when you care for someone, a part of their suffering and joys becomes your own.

And thus the distance lessens further: “Lia” is closer to my true self than the persona I present before the court of my peers, as the intimacy which binds me to the people who have given me the name means they have seen all sides of me.

Still, this is at best an incomplete alignment; for you see, the highest level of closeness is, ironically enough, a nameless one.

In the dark, alone with myself, I am an amorphous thing. All there is to me then is a coil of flesh and a handful of fugitive symbols — I dress myself in them as one would in battle armor, becoming what I need to mean to myself in the moment.

Bird-girl. Witchling. Star-peddler. Absolute c-nt.

My own savior just as much as I am my own destroyer, my own God.

Perhaps taking the time to explain all these self-assigned sigils would help bridge the gap in perception — they are tells, after all, much like the tremor of a deer when it senses peril. Perhaps I would be better understood if I just said outright that the reason I think of myself as a bird, for example, is about more than the metaphor of its hollow bones, that it is chiefly about the freedom their kind has yet never takes full advantage of, always flying in the same exact patterns their ancestors have for millennia. Perhaps dialogue is, after all, the solution to this flavor of hedgehog’s dilemma.

And yet. And yet. And yet —

I cannot help but feel that something is lost when I myself am the one to say it. Is it wrong of me to want to be understood without needing to explain? To want to be deciphered, never needing to meet someone halfway as they have of their own accord followed the map to the proverbial door?

 

 

 

Lianna Schreiber is a Romanian author. A self-described “New Romantic”, her work mostly concerns itself with gods, monsters, and human nature as it is caught between the sacred and the profane — all wrapped up in an overabundance of floral imagery. She can be found @ragewrites on tumblr.

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No History To Speak Of, No Place To Speak From by Wes Bishop

Cyber Pamphleteer: Imagined Stations

I often come across many authors and thinkers in my reading who argue writing their own history is an emancipatory practice. In other words, they believe that taking control of the narrative of their past is the first step in creating their own distinct identity, which allows for the development of a particular social and political philosophy.

I understand this argument. The violence of empires leaves us no other choice but to rip the pen from the hand of imperial historians and give it to the people who have been brutalized. Lions writing histories while telling the hunters to take a hike, and all that jazz. But for me, personally, I’ve never felt that way about my own personal history. In many ways, it terrifies me.

Why? Because, I suppose, I see writing down my own history as freezing the fluidity of who I am. Histories have a troubling tendency to become established tributaries to the present moment. Small streams to artificial lakes.

Who are we? We are the rapids in one time period coming to a rest. We are the foam of a particular waterfall easing back into the water. We are waves from someone else’s stone being skipped across the surface. We are change over time.

So, by hiding who our past selves are, by grounding ourselves in the present and in our future hopes, we don’t become the descendants of someone else, the sum at the end of a mysterious mathematician’s equation. We become the birthplace for a new era.

I am fully aware that this is a contradiction.

I’m a historian who feels more comfortable racing to the future than walking in the past. Is this just “white guilt”? Possibly. A good portion of my own collective history is one of being a direct descendant of colonists. Europeans, (some willing, many reluctant), were removed from one continent to work on another. I remember first reading about this history in graduate school. Historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker challenged the older narratives I had been told. Many of my white ancestors had not come for “opportunity.” Instead, it was a longer history of forcing people out into the Atlantic World to create new profit for the newly emerging global capitalist system.

But, despite that, we were still colonists. We were the people who moved into areas, violently pushing others out of their homes and land.

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Growing up everyone, and I mean literally everyone, told people in my generation to get an education so we could transcend our socio-economic status.

We should be doctors, lawyers, educated elite people who didn’t have to work in the service industry, one of the last reliable ways of life in mountain towns and cornfield villages.

And some of us did just that. But the further we went with our education and the more we learned, the more we became alien to the very culture that produced us. Didn’t matter that Appalachia had produced its fair share of artists, thinkers, writers, teachers, and scientists (not to mention politically radical movements).

Ohio rural culture had swallowed the Kool-Aid. We were “hillbilly proud”! Our collective poverty not a social problem, but a feature that made us “more honest.” Apparently being on welfare, with poor health care, while white and with cows around you, made you some kind of “noble frontiersman.” Funny, since the same people who argued this thought being in the inner city, with darker skin, and the same socio-economic status, somehow made you a “social degenerate.” This was an attitude shared by both rural whites and many cultural elites. Better to be a “Son of the Earth.” It made you somehow more “honest and hardworking,” I guess.

Is it any wonder then that so many people from rural white communities end up feeling alienated from the very culture that produced them? When your entire education is predicated on the hope that you will “escape,” education and thoughtful expression cease to be the natural elements of that society, and instead become a rocket ship that is constantly struggling to break the gravitational pull of the past.

We create a situation that views a connection with the past as a failure, because conscious, educated understanding is supposed to leave that society once attained. It is the very foundation of the philosophy “get an education, and get out.”

Appalachians and small town Midwest denizens internalize this feeling, creating a popular cultural expression enslaved to the past, conservative in all respects.

 

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“Do you refer to Christian thought and belief as mythology in your classrooms?” I asked my friend Podge over coffee one day.

We had been having a conversation about one of the textbooks used in one of the introduction classes at Purdue. He was angry because the text had referred to Christian belief as “Christian mythology.” It was a swipe at the validity of religion, in his opinion.

I disagreed, but understood where he was coming from. It is hard to climb in the head of textbook authors, but anyone who knows anything about the scholarship around textbooks knows that they are as much historical documents as the documents we use to inform the textbooks in the first place.

Referring to Christian belief as “mythology” could be, and probably should be, read within the broader historical context of the so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, where cultural conservatives and social liberals duked it out for dominance in educational materials. In that context there was “scientific fact” and “cultural belief.” Science equaled “truth,” while cultural belief, that is mythology, was synonymous with “fantasy.”

Podge told me as much. “Wes, science with its belief in unending, continuous progress is as much a myth as any system of religious beliefs.”

I didn’t disagree, but I told him, I thought the real issue was with the scientific materialists corrupting the word “mythology.”

“Myths shouldn’t be synonymous with ‘fake,’” I said. “Myths are just cultural stories we, as societies, tell ourselves to organize our universe. It gives us meaning because it claims to know where we came from, and where we are going.”

It is why I personally do refer to Christian belief as “Christian mythology” in classrooms. But I do so while trying to make my students understand that mythology is not interchangeable with “lies.”

It is not an easy thing to accomplish. In order for people to fully understand that Christianity is as much a system of mythology as Greek religious thought, or Norse belief, they have to first understand that everything we think as humans is historically constituted. There is no system of thought that is either permanent or forever-true.

Sorry, Plato. There are no absolute forms. Just historically constructed variations of ideas dependent on a time period. What is true in one era is false in another. What is basic common sense in one era is utter gibberish in another.

But, this is hard to understand. Why? Because the system of thought we currently live under is a powerful ideology. That’s a byproduct of the hegemonic power of modernity.

“Science” is one way of understanding our place in the cosmos. It orders the world, is open to change, and spins off both beautiful and often terrifying human creations. But science is not the only way of understanding human existence. Furthermore, it only exists if a culture believes in conceptions of historic progress, materialist reality, and human ability to accurately measure and observe said reality. That supposed “truth” is actually a house of clouds shifting through time. It will not always be with us. It will eventually change to the point that the new system of thought that comes from it no longer resembles the previous. Science, as a system of belief, actually is fully capable of understanding this feature of its existence. Evolution, one of the major achievements in thought for science, demonstrates this aspect of our shared reality.

We continually change until we are no longer that thing we used to be.

“Mythology” (categorized as a previous society’s way of understanding) is another way we do this. Myths are the cultural stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our ancestors, and our future generations. It gives us meaning because it connects us with a collective past and common future.

Hercules slays the Hydra. Pandora opens a box. Nudists eat forbidden fruit. Prophets speak to gods. Gods visit wrath on people.

All of these communicate, a universe where humans are just a part of the cosmos. Often, they are not the most powerful in the story. They have choices, to be sure, but that choice is not radically free. Choices lead to new situations, which creates new conditions, which influences future states.

This is the basic principle of historic social change. We are the products of people and forces before us, not just our ancestors, but also large cosmological forces. We don’t pick our past, and we are only able to select a limited set of options for the future. Furthermore, simply because we choose and push for a certain social ordering, does not mean we will actually achieve it.

So, we walk about this world as modern actors with ancient understandings. We are a collage of various time periods.

Lincoln sits in a temple modeled off of Zeus.

Washington is remembered with an obelisk.

The so-called “canon wars” continue to rage in vital ways. Who we collectively deem as our legitimate authors for our civilization determines not only how we talk about ourselves, but it informs how we literally build the intellectual stage for our possible future actions.

It is why that argument of people writing their own histories is so important. Who we deem ourselves to be, and who argues that self-identity is the future’s beliefs, an eventual present’s truth, a probable past’s mythology.

Myths are powerful and they are important. Those stories matter.

But even as I understand this, I find it difficult to write about the past, present, and future of the culture that produced me. Much of what I’ve been told in my life says that in order to produce something worthwhile I should not focus on the factors that created me. Instead, I should look to another’s ideals. Not an archaeologist’s pick and shovel, but an astronaut’s star charts and rocket fuel.

Get out, don’t come back, escape and make a better life for yourself.

This is only complicated by the twin irrational argument that to do the very thing my education was supposed to do is to become arrogant, a know-it-all, an alien in one’s own home world.

What is my collective mythology, then? What orders the subset of the culture I come from?

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A few weekends ago my partner and I went home for a weekend visit. As we pulled off the highway I looked out the window at the valley farms, and changing landscape. Buildings I had known as a young person were beginning to decay and fall in on themselves. They were like collapsing black holes dotting the Ohio valley’s landscape, yet instead of gravity, history pulled them toward their destructive centers. Lack of funds and ability to keep up these 19th century homes and barns determined their fate. It was a perfect symbol for what I had been thinking about. History served as a point of destruction, violently pulling the past together until it was destroyed by its own weight. History did not radiate outward.

We drove past several older buildings and before pulling into my partner’s parent’s home, we saw a new barn being built by an Amish family. It was a sign that human civilization in this area would continue, but that it would look different from what we had known.

Perhaps that is just a common state of affairs for all people. But as we crossed the final stream to pull into our destination I thought about how that stream eventually led to the largest artificial lake in the area.

Back in 1937 the federal government had entered the area and drastically changed the landscape. Taking the various swamps and floodplains of the Ohio valley region, the New Deal organizations had flooded close to 3,000 acres of land creating “Seneca Lake.” It was one of the permanent features of my childhood. Every day to get to school involved a half an hour drive around that lake on a school bus.  

The New Deal, one of this nation’s most celebrated ventures into social democracy, had radically altered the landscape of our homes. If you ask most people, especially the tourists who come during the summers, the lake is one of the most beautiful features of the landscape. But we ignore this history, just like we ignore the radical coal miners who fought wars against corporate capital. We ignore this history and instead opt to believe that our area is essentially conservative. Bodies for the masses needed by reactionary movements. Such collective aspirations make people like me unreadable to their home culture. We are placed on starships and told to fly as fast as we can, and then are slightly scorned for doing so.

We drive around the floodplains of social democracy and grasp at what mythological figures we are. What mythological figures we could be. I suppose it will be determined by those who have the wherewithal to write about it.