The Open
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Being a Hyphen – A Discussion of “What is a self?”

This month’s live event in The Open asked the question, “What is a self?” As the above picture of Jake Baker demonstrates, perhaps the “self” is just the effect of multiple loops of self-perception mirroring itself?

We discussed issues surrounding this topic for five hours, branching out on multiple paths such as: the taxonomy of mixed-culture identity, the relationship between agency and biology, Buddhism and meditation practice, and questions of balance, flow, and the gaps between things.

Using fresh cucumber, bourbon, lemon and lime, simple syrup, and ginger ale, we made a drink called the “Southern Cucumber” to fuel our discussion. We were joined by Davis Jung, Molly Mahar, Dave Eaton, Dave Sacco, Jake Baker (via Skype from NYC) and David Lassiter (via Skype from Malaysia).


Dave Eaton and Davis Jung discussing the nature of identity. Photo credit: Molly Mahar.

Being such a broad topic, our conversation often followed multiple paths at once, even becoming paradoxical and self-referential at times. Yet if I could be so bold to summarize an overarching theme, I’d say that Davis’s idea of “hyphen identity” proved to be one of the most fertile grounds for our debate.

Davis discussed his personal journey through cultural identity over the course of his life, from first trying to identify with a specifically American identity, to then embracing and integrating his Korean identity, and the paradoxes that followed. For instance, in the American astrology system he is a Virgo. In the Korean system, he is a Tiger. These two systems often produce contradictory horoscopes. Obviously, a horoscope is a generalization that never quite fits, but Davis saw this contradiction as an opportunity to see the parallax gap that comes from a shift in cultural perspective from one system to the next.

Davis’s identity of Korea-American then is not just the “both” of a hybrid cultural system, but more specifically the “neither” of their parallax gap, the very hyphen that combines. More than just a mark of grammar, this hyphen provides a window into the unspeakable qualities of our lived experience.

For me, this idea of identifying not with the categories of self but rather with the hyphen that bridges identity resonates very deeply. It makes me think of the Lacanian notion of “that which is in me more than myself,” or the parts of “us” which are outside of signification. The categories of consciousness and identity politics are useful, but are never enough, and always miss the mark by being “not quite.” Perhaps what is most “us” is the gap between identities, denoted by the hyphen mark, which links us back to something undifferentiated.

Key Ideas Discussed

As always, the point of our discussion wasn’t to “solve” any problem, but just to engage with each other as a community of thinkers. I’ll present some of the key items we discussed just to provide some jumping-off points for your own conversations:

  • Cultural identity and categories; the mixed-culture identity of Korean-American; and the contradictions of any set system. Locating identity rather in the gap between words, the hyphen itself.
  • The performative nature of “self.” We explored this idea through the cultural constructs of identity, through the different people we “perform” when we speak different languages or having relationships with different sexes. Language, in all of its forms, seems to structure and limit what is possible in any given context.
  • “Fight or flight” responses triggered by the vagus nerve (which “override” the agency of the ego-self) has interesting implications for our notion of “self” and what it means to have rational agency.
  • Looking at the self as a survival-pattern system.
  • Aches in the body vs. aches in the brain, and what our system tries to do about these feelings. What it means to “feel something, but not identify with that feeling.”
  • Meditation as a process of habitual re-training of these patterns.
  • The effect meditation plays on concepts of identity. No longer identifying with the “active mind” of thoughts, but rather the stillness that lies beneath.
  • Can you change your “self’? And how do you reconcile the different “selves” you perform in different contexts. Which one feels like the “most you”?
  • Discussing “flow states” and moments of non-self-consciousness. The curious fact that the moments when we feel “most us” are these moments of flow. What does it mean, then, that we feel “most us” when we’re the least self-conscious?
  • Do we identify more with our thoughts or our actions? What is the relationship between being and doing? Between theory and practice?
  • The role narrative plays in “self”, and moments of rupture. Looking at examples of PTSD and trauma as moments of narrative rupture.
  • Notions of balance and equanimity, specifically in regards to the “pursuit of happiness” and understanding the difference between happiness and pleasure. Finding balance between happiness and sadness.
  • Is there an irreducible gap between physical materialism and the emergent properties of our phenomenal experience? Or do these two levels loop back upon themselves?
  • That our “maps of reality” contradict does not show that there is a right or a wrong way to understand reality, but rather that any system will always be “not quite” and that the Thing (the “goop” of the Real as we were calling it) is always far richer than any map we can draw.
  • The key, then, is just to find the right tool for the right situation, and always be flexible and relative.


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