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The Imposter Identity

Most social scientists tend to look at human beings in aggregates, as members of society or some socioeconomic class or culture or subculture. So they can talk, as the French sociologist Gustav Le Bon did, about behavior in crowds (in his book, The Crowd) or as countless writers have done, about American identity—whatever that might be. Or they write about various ideological belief systems that still deal with large groups of people—women, gays, people of color, the proletariat. If we take a psychoanalytic approach to people and society, you deal with individuals and how they achieve their identities. Or don’t achieve them, since many people, I would suggest, are pretenders to an identity. We see this on the social media where people create fake selves.

What happens, I suggest, is that many people never grow up, never cast off immature notions and fantasies of what it means to be an adult, never achieve coherence and continuity in their sense of themselves, so what you get, ultimately, is a fake person, a simulation, a fraud. And these people can’t help themselves because they don’t even recognize that they are imposters. They’ve devoted all their energy to fooling others and they end up also fooling themselves.

These imposters suffer from a kind of amnesia, especially about their childhoods when many of the foundations for their identities were established and their adolescent periods, when they were searching desperately for acceptable identities. They forget who they were, so they are condemned to continually creating new characters for themselves. This may be connected to postmodernism, which, many theorists argue, has led to “fractured” and dissociated personalities in many people.

One of the leading postmodern thinkers, Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard, described postmodernism as involving “incredulity toward metanarratives,” by which he meant the knowledge systems that characterized modernism, such as a belief in progress, religion, political ideologies, and so on, no longer were accepted. This led to a crisis of legitimacy in which many private or personal narratives fight with each other for our attention. On the personal level, this means that the idea of a coherent self no longer is believed and you get eclecticism and endless changes in identities.

The collage, a collection of bits and pieces of this and that, is the dominant art form in postmodernist societies (its electric form is the music video) and a postmodern identity is bits and pieces of possible identities, thrown together and always subject to change, upon a whim. So you end up with societies full of imposters, without “coherent” identities, marketing themselves to other imposters, who are like them in having fractured identities. And none of them recognize that they have fractured identities or that they are all imposters.

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