Monday, November 2, 2009

Hi, My Name Is Jungle Girl- A Discussion About Self-Identity and Society

Two nights ago, on Halloween, my friends and I attended an "undergroundish" party in Philadelphia that some would characterize as being a rave... it was in a huge warehouse, at a location that was kept hidden until the day of the party. There were performance artists, DJs mixing electronic music and playing programmed beats from computers (
very few use vinyl records anymore, sadly), a rose petal, geodesic dome where one could feel the velvety, light petals falling like rain drops all over one's body, roller skating girls with hula hoops, wicked witches pedaling their bikes, tents, a lounge and grotto with exhibitionists baring their physical lust for one another on filthy mattresses and linens, drunk people, high people, clueless people, bright people, artistic people, beautiful people and some very confused people, all coming together as princesses, gypsies, elves, fetishists, vampires, and cheerleaders, devils, angels and me.

The night proved to be an extraordinarily valuable experience for my partner and me, for, in having a last-minute stroke of genius, he thought of a costume idea for both of us, "We should go as our own Facebook profiles."

"What a great idea," I said. Little did I know just how great an idea it would turn-out to be.

So, we went to a professional shop that enlarged our screen-shots with a Pro Photoshop plug-in and laser-printed the profiles onto a 30" x 36" piece of sign-quality, foam, whiteboard, punched a hole in both corners, and looped through some twine so we could wear the sign around our necks.

Because my partner and I are both keen observers of human nature, we quickly understood the complex, social phenomenon that was occurring from people's reaction to us, their perceptions of us, and our reaction to them in a way that I may find very difficult to describe, but I will try my best. I've decided that the best manner in which to explain what happened is to first give itemized examples of encounters we had with many of the party goers, then I will summarize my analysis:

1) The Ego- "Oh, you're both your Facebook pages? So what makes you so special?"
My mirrored-answer was, "The same thing that makes you special." The Moon's position was influenced by its movement through the constellation Aries, so the feeling in the air was Aries-like: people were egotistical, arrogant and oppositely creative, and childlike. My answer seemed to satisfy her question when she replied, "Wow, that's the best answer I've ever heard." LOL

2) The Clueless- "Are you a Dot-Com?" and "So are you guys advertising for the DJ?"

3) The Suspicious- "What are you protesting?" and "Those aren't your real names, right? I NEVER use my real name."

4) The Appreciative- "Great idea! I wish I had thought of that!" and "Can I take your picture? Will you friend me on Facebook if I look you up?" and "Can I actually read your pages? Let me use my light to see!"

5) The Repeaters- "I just poked you- and again, and again, and again!" (actually poking us). "What's your Status Update now?" and "Oh, here they come, here come those people with their 'posts' again."

What most fascinated me was the sudden realization that most of the people were living a paradoxical, almost schizophrenic, existence. For instance, most people have nicknames, but only in the party scene. Now, I know plenty of people who have adopted new names that are quite unconventional- but they own the names. Generally speaking, everyone calls them by their adopted names through all facets of their lives. While for most, it's difficult to tell grandma to refer to one's self as "Dancing Galaxylight", most of the people I met, only use these nicknames in one arena. One young man of about 20 years old said, "I have a Facebook page, but I don't use my real name. I don't want anyone from work to know about
me or find me."

Certainly, I have felt the same way. And I, myself, have been guilty of using nicknames; however, "Jungle Girl", for instance, is a name I've used for about ten years, generally when I am writing. It first described a type of music I enjoy and later, took on a new meaning regarding my love for the Amazon's rich and wonderful botanical secrets. In fact, people use pseudonyms regularly and it does not make one mentally ill, shallow or confused in the least. But in this context, the context of the party, something was very strange.

Party-goers say, "We come here to express our true selves."

I disagree... partially.

Sociologist/philosopher George Herbert Mead devised the idea of social interactionism; whereby, one's behavior is shaped by one's language and physical, environmental cues which are controlled by one's thoughts, ultimately To Mead, there is a generalized self that exists as a member of society and that is shaped by the external community. This self is what Mead called the "Me." We behave according to the social cues and norms of the community. However, while using social cues to guide behavior, one also has the ability to choose one's behavior. Mead called this, the "I". The "I" is what prompts us to make our own decisions, outside of the societal current. According to the same article, Freud went a step further to state that the determined "I" can make a decision that the "Me" eventually adopts, as in the way of pioneers or folks whose new ideas or discoveries forge a new path for all... so the "Me" becomes changeable and fluid.

In my mind, the logical conclusion must also be that the "Me" is the foundation of the "self"- it is our given name, our family, our community, and the lessons the world has taught us. The "Me" makes us self-aware, not be confused with self-conscious, by understanding that we are a part of something greater- that not only are we never alone, but that we must also consider others' right to exert their own "I". Because our individual experiences shape the "I", there cannot be an individual "right" or "wrong", but there can be a societal, "Me", right and wrong from which we gather our social norms, mores, and taboos.

So, while sitting at the rave with my legal name printed across my chest and with strangers knowing my name and even calling me by that name (I not knowing theirs), I suddenly felt unusually comfortable.

I was comfortable because I was Me.

I wondered if the "Dancing Galaxylights" in the room would have taken-off their clothes, dressed in drag, had sex, vomited, cursed, and were so high they couldn't speak would behave that way around Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa? Would they teach their kids that it is okay to be naked if grotesquely overweight, just because they should love their bodies, despite what others in society believe? Maybe some would.

But I'm wagering that the pseudonyms and the pseudo-selves who are students, financial advisors, professors, lawyers, doctors, bankers, are all Tom, Mary, Bob, and Jane in their everyday lives. It is unlikely that a lawyer named "Dancing Galaxylights" would be very successful.

When talking with a very bright party guest, he said, "In an aggregate community, let's say in a small community, everyone would know everyone. There would be no secrets. We would know all there is to know about who the best cobbler, baker, or farmer is and we would go to that person to obtain goods and services in order to satisfy our needs." Bingo.

At the party, the people who claimed to be expressing their true selves, in this particular setting, didn't even know each other's real names much of the time. They were shocked that we would dare use ours and some thought it downright boring to not come-up with a groovy monicker.

Aside from people who hide behavior according to an ever-changeable penal system that now punishes, but that someday might change, to me, the party people who wouldn't offer up their real names (and many did offer them after seeing ours) and who behaved so vastly different than they normally would if a part of regular society, were suffering. We do it all the time in society... take politicians for example, societal behavioral standards are much higher for those in positions of authority than for the common person, so they hide their true selves; otherwise, people might not like them and it would jeopardize their careers or personal lives.

Our society, in its age of technology, believes that somehow privacy should exist... but should it and is that realistic? Further, does a "threat" really exist or is it constructed by paranoid deviants who would rather hide behind computer social networks, only allowing some people to know who they are and what they have to offer the rest of us?

Perhaps we should all wear our profiles around our necks.

And a good rule of thumb for all you younger people who wouldn't normally strip naked in front of others unless you're high as a kite, love yourself, even if no one taught you- But first, that means, knowing yourself and what is best for you. Before you embarrass and lose yourselves further, ask this question: "Would I behave this way in front of my parents?"

If the answer is, "Yes," Hell, go for it. Get naked and have mom and dad join you and call you whatever the heck you wish. If not, perhaps, your real name ain't so bad after all.


  1. In the sixties a friend of mine was just getting his MD from Stanford and was applying for psychiatric internship at hospitals. Normally you would think that "Will" would have his choice of spots, but "Will" also had sampled psychedelics and felt compelled to express all the many facets of his being not only the hyper-educated doctor part. One of the symptoms of "Will's" self-expression was that he decorated the envelopes in which he sent his doctor applications with lurid magic-marker flowers and tendrils. I'm sure his applications stood out from the crowd but not in the way he had hoped. Consequently the best post that this otherwise very talented doctor could draw was at a hospital in LA specializing in the treatment of alcoholics.

  2. That sounds like a party I should have been invited to!

  3. Wow, Nick, that's a great example of clashing selves, which also raises other facets to this issue in that the "me" (society-at-large) might not want to be a part of one's expressed "I". Or in your friend's case, hiring hospitals did not appreciate his self-expression! So, we play these anti-social games of hiding qualities that burst at the seams when no one is looking, which probably only keeps us further from knowing who we truly are.

  4. I have a nickname used since I was a baby, shifted to my given name when I moved to Japan and encountered years before the need temporarily to use while living in Morocco (in Arabic my nickname means cock).

    14 years in Japan got me used to my given name, but I now live near my sisters who finally asked if they could just call me by my childhood name. It is now on my business cards. I consider it my 'real' name.

    Now I notice I change with the clothes I wear. The setting I am in or the person I am talking to. more of a slow reveal. Not because I feel the need to hide as much as I find letting people know too much about me can freak them out and get in the way of our communication. Naked interesting, quick strip can be exciting, but the slow reveal....ah the stuff of life.

    I shall prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet