Plato, in the Republic, claims that to have an ideal man, a guardian for the ideal state, there must be a convergence of both physical and mental perfection. Indeed, physical perfection will create mental readiness in a man and prepare him for the guardianship of the state. This link between the physical and the mental ideal may seem irrelevant today. However, if we examine current and past thought about the creation of human identity, it becomes apparent that this idea has been and still is an important reference point to our thinking. It is a gateway to understanding the age old and ongoing struggle to come to terms with the ways in which we perceive people through their physical presences, and how these physical presences and traces can both symbolize and fail to capture the identities of people.
In the age of what W. J. T. Mitchell calls "biocybernetic reproduction," we are faced with new definitions of what it means to reproduce humans along with new environments in which these reproductions of people exist. I would like to examine the tradition of human creation through sexual reproduction, parenting, teaching, coaching, and even artistic influence and their relationships to new forms of genetic reproduction. The tradition of influence and reproduction examined will include Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, the Republic, The Shape of Things, and any number of sports examples. In these cases, a mentor figure works to shape another person’s identity (physical and/or mental). In films such as Gattaca, Blade Runner and The Matrix, we see worlds not so distant from our own inhabited by genetically manipulated humans, created not by individual sculpting but by an attempt to reach some kind of ideal human. As Mitchell points out in "The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction," these people would not be reproductions in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the word, devoid of aura, but rather have the potential to be imitations that improve upon their originals rather than moving farther from them.
Along with the question of author, or "Who contributes to the creation of this human?" we find the question of audience: "For whom is this person created?" In most cases, it is easy to think about identity creation as the search for an image that accurately represents some kind of hidden personality. This image, or, in Lacan’s terms, symbol, is a register of the real person that acts to communicate that person’s identity to another person. In this sense, the image of the person includes both physical alterations to the body itself (hairstyle, piercings, tattoos, scars, plastic surgery) and nonliving objects that form an aura of a person. The external objects that we come to identify with a person can be simply stylistic (clothing, room decorations, personal possessions) or they may be receptacles of information (computers, personal music players, journals, recordings). Objects outside of a person may be helpful to that individual’s understanding of herself, but they carry with them the inherent problem of interpretation. If a person dies and leaves behind a room full of objects or a journal of the past three years of her life, these traces will open up new interpretations of the personality of the dead one that may differ or reinforce preconceived notions of personality held by those who knew her best. Even an individual re-reading her own writing from a few years will gain new perspective on herself. In Memento, the main character creates himself through traces for his own benefit. He is not attempting to express his personality to anyone but himself, for his idea of himself cannot exist within his own mind.
We therefore reach the point at which we must ask ourselves about the ideas themselves that people represent. While on the one hand, it is clear that each of us has our own distinct identities, it is also true that we are capable of changing our minds and identities from time to time. Styles and modes of thinking change constantly, so there is no way to pin down any kind of concept absolutely. Just as it is manifest in the real world, an idea changes its configuration and form, something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. At the same time, it seems that through the medium of people, we are able to come closer to some truths and immediate reality. I would like to ask why this is, and why we find ourselves and other people so intrinsically fascinating.
Gremblat, Renaissance Self Fashoning
Hales, "Toward Embodied Virtuality"
LaBute, The Shape of Things
Lacan, translators notes from Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
Lynch, Mulholland Drive
McLuhan, Understanding Media
Mitchell, "The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction"
Scott, Blade Runner
Wachowski, The Matrix
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey
Zizek, selections from Organs