Mistaken Identity
May, 2010

carriage trade

"You are sleeping, you do not want to believe."
The Smiths

On Election Day 2008, the usually sleepy polling place located in an elementary school in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn was overrun by an enthusiastic young crowd whose expectant mood rivaled the buzz around the newest iphone release from Apple. The voters, after stepping up and the pulling the lever, went home and eagerly awaited change. But Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster of Barak Obama, which so inspired the candidate’s followers, promised a revolution that never came. The change that followed has been more perpetual than progressive, more shape-shifting than transformative. Making the transition from “Yes We Can” to “Who Are We?” the messianic promise of their candidate has been subsumed by the compromising realities of governing, prompting questions as to the relationship between the soaring rhetoric of the campaigner and the Realpolitik of the President elect.

Faced with a series of letdowns and setbacks following an era marked by an excess of belief, the uncertainties of the recession has brought a “wait-and-see” attitude, which is occasionally punctuated by hopeful messages from media and government about economic up-ticks and “green shoots”. While the economic recovery is deserving of one’s interest and attention, little time is spent considering the after affects of one of history’s greatest examples of mass hypnosis. Positive feedback cycles resulted in millions of people accepting the implausible as fact, convinced that housing prices would rise forever, or that certain financial gurus could provide impossible returns through legal means. The frenzied pace of the boom served to normalize irrationality, marginalizing skeptical views as the bubble grew to historic proportions. The continuing fallout from America’s willingness to believe as contrary evidence continued mount has led to very little analysis as to the nature of this belief, as well as the mechanisms through which it is constructed.

Because identity plays a major role in one’s worldview, it should be considered at the forefront of any examination of social or political phenomenon. Beliefs are shaped largely through environment and context, and yet consumer culture has tended to emphasize the individual as an isolate who makes choices through the exercise of free will. Separated from others yet bound by the common agenda of being me, the millions that make up mass culture are joined by an ambiguous mandate; self-realization through conforming to the cult of the individual. But what is me? Isolated from others for the purpose of constructing a well-defined self, but taking cues from other isolates also looking to personalize their “brands,” the me one constructs must conform to, and yet distinguish itself from, the me of others. As distinctions become further blurred in the personal data mills of social media, we all possess one nearly irrefutable and recognizable trait; our faces are considered to be unique.

The Witness and The Suspect

Commonly associated with detective stories and courtroom dramas, the need of proof of an individual’s identity also has a utilitarian aspect, as our memories for faces plays a significant role in the most mundane of exchanges. In the somewhat rare case of people with prosopagnosia (face blindness), friends and family are indistinguishable from strangers, so that the “context” of an individual (hair, clothing, the sound of a voice) often provides the only clues to their identity. For an eyewitness or victim of a crime, these same associations can prove misleading, as they may falsely trigger a link to an innocent person who has chance connections to a perpetrator’s appearance. With the increased use of DNA evidence, the dependability of eyewitnesses have been repeatedly called into question, raising the issue of whether the notion of objectivity within the realm of perception is perhaps mostly misplaced.

The consequences for “wrong” perception (whether benign or malignant) within the criminal justice system can be dire. The local news offers regular accounts of innocent people who emerge from jail after fifteen or twenty years, freed through DNA evidence, which now contradicts the flawed testimony of witnesses, or cops who “needed” a conviction. Providing at least enough anecdotal evidence for one to be wary of mistakenly getting on the wrong side of the law, media coverage tends to emphasize the “human interest” aspect of these cases, focusing an the exonerated person’s first encounter with a cell phone, or the euphoric moment when he or she is reunited with their family. Side-stepping criticism of the systemic problems that continue to plague law enforcement and the courts in favor of personality driven reportage, these stories tend to exploit the repressed fear of the power of the state to take sudden and complete control over our lives.

Given the amount of people who’ve been exonerated for crimes they did not commit (over 250 nationally, 17 from death row), the lack of sustained public outrage suggests a discomfort with the horrors that await the profoundly unlucky. Many of the wrongfully accused exist on society’s margins, with the injustices of poverty and racism compounded by lingering indifference to severe malfunctions within the criminal justice system. While much of mainstream America watches from a safe distance or comforts themselves with the idea that these experiences “could never happen to me,” the sustained popularity of films like The Fugitive, whose narrative features a white, upper-middle class doctor framed and imprisoned for his wife’s murder, suggests a broader fear of a loss of identity at the hands of the state.

Citizen Brand

As surveillance expands its reach from physical space to cyberspace, the distinction between the concepts of “public”, “private,” and “the state” become more and more difficult to define. The public’s gradual, voluntary forfeiture of privacy under the guise of (market) efficiency and safety has caused the dissolution of one boundary after another, which, for better or worse, lent definition to the concepts of a private, verses a public realm. The significance of an “other” (criminal, terrorist, illegal immigrant) as a means of defining societal limits becomes more important when the rights of citizens are quietly eroding under the guise of security and “free” (corporate) speech.2 As the identity of the citizen merged with that of the consumer over the last few decades, a series of civic brands have been created which threaten to replace participatory politics. Free Trade and Free Markets under Clinton, Patriotism after 9/11, Hope and Change in the wake of Bush, and Palin-supporting, libertarian, anti-government Tea Parties that serve to stir up unaffiliated anger. These phenomena are less about addressing systemic problems with practical solutions as much as the selling of belief structures that maintain an aura of democratic activity within a political system largely usurped by private interests.

Stranger than Fiction

Because reform plays better in the media when couched in terms of a top-down, personality-driven agenda over the less telegenic efforts of any particular group, the reliance on figureheads to define the contours of our beliefs often seems unshakeable. But the repeated disappointments of celebrity figures in politics, sports, and entertainment who, in their missteps and scandals, suddenly seem too human, has spawned intense interest in perpetually mutating television reality shows. Sacrificed for the sake of our insatiable voyeurism, an endless supply anonymous aspirants are thrown into the pen of fleeting notoriety, while the viewing audience veers between “that could be me” to “thank God it’s not.” Unlike traumatic events that have meaning (the assassinations of Kennedy and King, the fall of the Berlin wall, current wars being fought abroad, etc.) these conflicts of everydayness-turned-exotic recast the top-down identification with media figures into grinding conflicts of “the rest of us,” where the momentary victors inhabit a parallel celebrity world.

While the proliferation of these shows suggests an endless appetite for “Joe the Plumber” style celebrity, the perpetual need for larger than life figures who emerge from obscurity and have more lasting power in the spotlight is ever present, but the truth is we never know who will be chosen or how. The ever-widening media spectacle claims to want what we want and deliver it, but because events are uncontrollable, the circumstances of a face emerging from the crowd seem accidental. Like presidential candidate John McCain’s opportunistic choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate, which provoked a seemingly irrational interest in this person who then gained traction, the zeitgeist can be hard to predict. The obvious explanation is that we celebrate the personalities we deserve, but what is also true is that these identities offer a means to channel beliefs, which the particularities of appearance and personality are then summoned to satisfy. The portrait has a background that awaits a face.

A Face in the Crowd

This interdependence between anonymity and notoriety, between that which we’re not yet aware of and that which we come to know, or that which we know and that which we’ve forgotten, is an area of identity which provokes anxiety. Like the experience of being in a foreign city and mistaking a stranger’s face for a friend’s, how an identity comes to be known seems arbitrary. As, when meeting someone new, the strange becomes the familiar, uncertainty seems to fade; familiarity now exists in contrast to the lack of recognition that preceded it. We become convinced because we “know” the face. What once did not register is now a fixed image, lodged in the memory, which stores a template that is matched by the “original,” according to instinct. In misidentifications memory is not enough. The potential identifier is forced to alter either the memory or the face. What often intervenes to quell the anxiety is belief, which ultimately serves as a means to structure an outcome for which perception has failed to serve as a guide.

The inseparability of perception and belief (I “see” things this way) is sometimes manifested by an irresistible urge to confirm what one already “knows.” In facial identification, attempts to define the ordinary (“Do I know this person?”), the consequential, (“Is that who I voted for?”) as well as the fateful, (“Is that the guy who did it?”) can lead to indecision that is displaced by the urge to assert that this is “the one.” When amplified by the thousands or the millions who support each others convictions, or by the interests of a bureaucracy which brings the power of the state to bear on a reluctant eyewitness, the idea that things are “as they appear” can cast a powerful spell over an unclear situation. As the “need to believe” proves more seductive than evidence to the contrary, the uncertainty of the perceptual realm yields to the “necessity” of prevailing truths, a reflex whose origins often remain unexamined, as memories fade and life moves on.