“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”
— Allen Ginsberg from his poem “Howl“
Identity theft, at least the most familiar type, is possible because today the individual exists not merely as flesh and blood, but as flesh and blood spliced with bank account numbers, user names, passwords, credit card chips, etc. These added parts aren’t secondary to the individual’s overall identity, they’re central to it. Sometimes they’re all there is of it, as in many banking and purchasing transactions. In such instances, the data we’ve supplied to the relevant institutions doesn’t merely represent us, it is us. Our bodies alone can’t complete transactions without the account numbers, user names, passwords, credit card numbers, and ID cards which have become our identity’s essence. Without them, in many ways, we don’t exist.
In a worst case scenario, if someone gets hold of this private data, they can become us by possessing the data that is us. Following this, who or what we are is no longer a question. We don’t exist, except in the form of a stolen dataset now under someone else’s control.
In such a case, an unknown proxy has eliminated us and become who we once were.
Although problematic, the above form of identity theft is relatively minor. A worse form is one we all know about, yet chronically underestimate because we think of ourselves as too canny to be conned. Nonetheless, this other form of identity theft frames and limits everything we do. In the process, it fleeces us of the fullness of our identities and subjects our lives to a type of remote control. This remote control consists of the combined influence on us, from childhood onward, of society’s major institutions and dominant activities, which seed us with a variety of parameters for how to acceptably navigate society and and its particular challenges.
This process is usually called “socialization.” However, it’s better seen as a sorting procedure in which society sifts us through a citizenship sieve in order to eliminate supposed defects, thereby guaranteeing that, despite each of us possessing unique characteristics, we share an underlying uniformity. Ultimately, this process is a kind of identity eugenics which strives to purify the population by eliminating or weakening troublesome qualities — e.g., an overly questioning attitude, chronic boundary-testing, a confrontational stance toward authority, a fierce protectiveness toward whatever space the body inhabits, etc. Such traits are frowned upon because they’re seen by the status quo as a likely threat to society’s stability.
Such indoctrination is much subtler yet, in many ways, more pervasive than outright propaganda. Its theater of operations is everywhere, taking place on many fronts. Public and private education, advertising, mass culture, government institutions, the prevailing ideas of how to correct socioeconomic wrongs (this is a “good” form of protest, this a “bad” one), the methods by which various slangs are robbed of their transgressive nature through absorption into the mainstream, the social production of substitute behaviors for nonconformity and rebellion — each of these phenomena and others play a role in generating the so-called “acceptable citizen,” a trimmed down (i.e., possesses reduced potential) version of her or his original personality.
Make no doubt about it, this trimming of the personality is a form of identity theft. It is, in fact, the ultimate form. Take as an example the African slave in the U.S.: abducted from her or his homeland, forbidden from learning to read or write, denied legal standing in the courts, given no say over whether offspring would be sold to another owner or remain with them. The slave was robbed of her/his most essential identity, their status as a human being.
In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois described this theft in terms of how slavery reduces the slave to a person with “no true self-consciousness” — that is, with no stable knowledge of self, no clear sense of who she or he is in terms of culture, preceding generations, rituals for bringing to fruition one’s potential to create her or his own fate. As Du Bois correctly argued, this left the slave, and afterwards the freed Black, with a “longing to attain self-conscious manhood,” to know who she or he was, to see oneself through one’s own eyes and not through the eyes of one’s denigrators — e.g., white supremacists, confederate diehards, “good” people who nonetheless regarded Blacks as “lesser,” etc. Du Bois understood that from such people’s perspectives, Blacks possessed only one identity: the identity of being owned, of possessing no value other than what its owner could extract from them. Without an owner to extract this value, the slave was either identity-less or possessed an identity so slimmed and emaciated as to be a nothing.
The point here isn’t that today socialization enslaves the population in the same way as U.S. slavery once enslaved Blacks, but rather that identity theft is, psychologically and culturally speaking, a key aspect of disempowering people and has been for centuries. Today, because of mass culture and new technologies, the methods of accomplishing it are far more sophisticated than during other eras.
How disempowerment/identity theft occurs in contemporary society is inseparable from capitalism’s current state of development. We long ago passed the moment (after the introduction of assembly line production in the early 20th century) when modern advertising started its trek toward becoming one of the most powerful socialization forces in the U.S. As such, it convinces consumers not only to purchase individual products but, even more importantly, sells us on the idea that buying in general and all the time, no matter what we purchase, is proof of one’s value as a person.
To accomplish this end, modern advertising was molded by its creators into a type of PSYOP designed for destabilizing individuals’ adherence to old saws like “a penny saved is a penny earned” and “without frugality none can be rich, and with it very few would be poor.” Once this happened, the United States’ days of puritan buying restraint were over. However, modern advertising was never solely about undermining personal fiscal restraint. It was also about manipulating feelings of personal failure — e.g., dissatisfaction with lifestyle and income, a sense of being trapped, fear of being physically unappealing, etc. — and turning them not into motives for self-scrutiny or social critiques, but into a spur for commodity obsession. This wasn’t simply about owning the product or products, but an obsessive hope that buying one or more commodities would trigger relief from momentary or long-term anxiety and frustration related to one’s life-woes: job, marriage, lack of money, illness, etc.
Helen Woodward, a leading advertising copywriter of the early decades of the 20th century, described how this was done in her book, Through Many Windows, published in 1926. One example she used focused on women as consumers:
The restless desire for a change in fashions is a healthy outlet. It is normal to want something different, something new, even if many women spend too much time and too much money that way. Change is the most beneficent medicine in the world to most people. And to those who cannot change their whole lives or occupations, even a new line in a dress is often a relief. The woman who is tired of her husband or her home or a job feels some lifting of the weight of life from seeing a straight line change into a bouffant, or a gray pass into a beige. Most people do not have the courage or understanding to make deeper changes.
Woodward’s statement reveals not only the advertising industry’s PSYOP characteristic of manipulating people’s frustrations in order to lure them into making purchases, but also the industry’s view of the people to whom it speaks through its ads. As indicated by Woodward’s words, this view is one of condescension, of viewing most consumers as unable to bring about real socioeconomic change because they lack the abilities — “the courage or understanding” — necessary to do so. Consequently, their main purpose in life, it is implied, is to exist as a consumer mass constantly gorging on capitalism’s products in order to keep the system running smoothly. In doing this, Woodward writes, buyers find in the act of making purchases “a healthy outlet” for troubled emotions spawned in other parts of their lives.
Such advertising philosophies in the early 20th century opened a door for the industry, one that would never again be closed. Through that door (or window), one could glimpse the future: a world with an ever greater supply of commodities to sell and an advertising industry ready to make sure people bought them. To guarantee this, advertisers set about creating additional techniques for reshaping public consciousness into one persuaded that owning as many of those commodities as possible was an existential exercise of defining who an individual was.
In his book The Consumer Society, philosopher Jean Baudrillard deals with precisely this process. He writes that such a society is driven by:
the contradiction between a virtually unlimited productivity and the need to dispose of the product. It becomes vital for the system at this stage to control not only the mechanism of production, but also consumer demand.
“To control … consumer demand.” This is the key phrase here. Capitalist forces not only wanted to own and control the means of production in factories, it also wanted to control consumers in such a way that they had no choice but to buy, then buy more. In other words, capitalism was in quest of a strategy engineered to make us synch our minds to a capitalism operating in overdrive (“virtually unlimited” production).
The way this occurs, Baudrillard argues, is by capitalism transforming (through advertising) the process of buying an individual product from merely being a response to a “this looks good” or “that would be useful around the house” attitude to something more in line with what psychologists call “ego integration.” It refers to that part of human development in which an individual’s various personality characteristics (viewpoints, goals, physical desires, etc.) are organized into a balanced whole. At that point, what advertising basically did for capitalism was develop a reconfigured ego integration process in which the personality is reorganized to view its stability as dependent on its life as a consumer.
Advertisers pulled this off because the commodity, in an age of commodity profusion, isn’t simply a commodity but is also an indicator or sign referring to a particular set of values or behavior, i.e. a particular type of person. It is this which is purchased: the meaning, or constellation of meanings, which the commodity indicates.
In this way, the commodity, once bought, becomes a signal to others that “I, the owner, am this type of person.” Buy an Old Hickory J143 baseball bat and those in the know grasp that you’re headed for the pros. Sling on some Pandora bling and all the guys’ eyes are on you as you hip-swing into the Groove Lounge. Even the NY Times is hip to what’s up. If you want to be a true Antifa activist, the newspaper informed its readers on Nov. 29, 2017, this is the attire you must wear:
Black work or military boots, pants, balaclavas or ski masks, gloves and jackets, North Face brand or otherwise. Gas masks, goggles and shields may be added as accessories, but the basics have stayed the same since the look’s inception.
After you dress up, it’s not even necessary to attend a protest and fight fascists to be full-blown Antifa. You’re a walking billboard (or signification) proclaiming your values everywhere. Dress the part and you are the part.
Let’s return to Baudrillard, though. In The System of Objects, another of his books, he writes about how the issue of signification, and the method by which individuals purchase particular commodities in order to refine their identity for public consumption, becomes the universal mass experience:
To become an object of consumption, an object must first become a sign. That is to say: it must become external, in a sense, to a relationship that it now merely signifies … Only in this context can it be ‘personalized’, can it become part of a series, and so on; only thus can it be consumed, never in its materiality, but in its difference.
This “difference” is what the product signifies. That is, the product isn’t just a product anymore. It isn’t only its function. It has transitioned into an indicator of a unique personality trait, or of being a member of a certain lifestyle grouping or social class, or of subscribing to a particular political persuasion, Republican, anarchist, whatever. In this way, choosing the commodities to purchase is essential to one’s self-construction, one’s effort to make sure the world knows exactly who they are.
The individual produced by this citizen-forming process is a reduced one, the weight of her/his full personality pared down by cutting off the unnecessary weight of potentials and inclinations perceived as “not a good fit” for a citizen at this stage of capitalism. Such a citizen, however, isn’t an automaton. She or he makes choices, indulges her or his unique appetites, even periodically rebels against bureaucratic inefficiency or a social inequity perceived to be particularly stupid or unfair. Yet after a few days or few months of this activity, this momentary rebel fades back into the woodwork, satisfied by their sincere but token challenge to the mainstream. The woodwork into which they fade is, of course, their home or another favorite location (a lover’s apartment, a bar, a ski resort cabin, a pool hall, etc.).
From this point on, or at least for the foreseeable future, such a person isn’t inclined to look at the world with a sharp political eye, except possibly within the confines of their private life. In this way, they turn whatever criticism of the mainstream they may have into a petty gripe endowed with no intention of joining with others in order to fight for any specific change(s) regarding that political, socioeconomic or cultural phenomenon against which the complaint has been lodged. Instead, all the complainer wants is congratulations from her or his listener(s) about how passionate, on-target, and right the complaint was.
This is the sieve process, identity eugenics, in action. Far more subtle and elastic than previous methods of social control, it narrows what we believe to be our options and successfully maneuvers us into a world where advertising shapes us more than schools do. In this mode, it teaches us that life’s choices aren’t so much about justice or morality, but more about what choosing between commodities is like: which is more useful to me in my private life, which one better defines me as a person, which one makes me look cooler, chicer, brainier, hunkier, more activist to those I know.
It is in this context that a young, new, “acceptable” citizen enters society as a walking irony. Raised to be a cog in a machine in a time of capitalistic excess, the individual arrives on the scene as a player of no consequence in a game in which she or he has been deluded that they’re the game’s star. But far from being a star, this person, weakened beyond repair by the surrender of too much potential, is so without ability that she or he has no impact whatsoever on the game. Consequently, this individual is, for all practical purposes, an absence. The ultimate invisible person, a nothing in the midst of players who don’t take note of this absence at all. And why should they? The full-of-potential individual who eventually morphed into this absence is long gone, remembered by no one, except as a fading image of what once was.
This process of reducing a potentially creative person into a virtual non-presence is a form of ideological anorexia. Once afflicted, an individual refuses nourishment until they’re nothing but skin and bones. However, the “weight” they’ve lost doesn’t consist of actual pounds. Instead, it involves a loss of the psychological heftiness and mental bulk necessary to be a full human being.
One can’t lose more weight than that.
*Click here to read “Identity Theft & the Body’s Disappearance, Part 2” by Robert Bohm