Saturday, November 20, 2004

Postmodern Identity

Unbreakable is a movie about a man, who finds a new identity. It was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who also directed Sixth Sense.

The main character of Unbreakable is a security guard David Dunn. In the beginning, he miraculously survives a train crash. All the other passangers die, but David is not even scratched. A comic artist, Elijah Price, contacts him and suggests that David may have survived because of his superhuman abilities. Elijah explains, that just like some people have genetic disorders which make them weak, there may be people who were created strong to protect the others. He claims that comic book stories were mere exaggeration from the heroic deeds of these men.

David doesn't buy it. Elijah asks him to check how many days he has been sick in his life, and David complies. The result is surprising - he hasn't fallen sick during his current work relationship, or his current marriage - or ever, except for once in very excpetional circumstances.

Little by little, evidence starts to mass up to Elijah's claims. It includes David's choice of career as a security guard. In the end of the movie, David stops a violent crime by interfering - an act, which is consistent with his new identity. The corporal basis of the new identity is never put to test - David is not shot or beaten.

The movie is about socialization into a new narrative identity. The narrative structure of David's superhuman identity is provided by Elijah and superhero comics. It is something like this: "Some people were created strong, so that they could act as heroes, who protect the masses from the acts of evil. Their bodies are extranordinarily healthy and strong, and resistant to accidents and shocks. They have a natural instict to notice that something evil is happening nearby, and a craving to protect the others. Unfortunately, each of these heroes also has a weakness, which can bring him down."

The fact that David's identity had been taken from superhero comics is a clear reference to the current sociological undertanding that national, ethnic and religious identities are more or less arbitrary and irrational.

In the process of recognizing the new identity, David goes through his past, and compares the actual events in his life against the narrative. Things, which were earlier next to irrelevant become cornerstones in the proof for the new identity, and even old choices - like the choice of a career in security - get new meanings. Earlier, he didn't even notice his low sickness rate. Once in a bullying incident in his childhood, he was sank to pool, and kept there for five minutes. He didn't breath when he was raised up from the pool. After that, he fell sick to pneumonia for 2 weeks. Earlier, the survival is the steak, and the pneumonia was just a natural consequence. With the new identity, it becomes another proof about the resistance of his body - and shows that water is his weakness, since he reacts to drowning exactly the same way as the others, and the only case of sickness in his history was linked to water.

The movie also visualizes, why people like to have narrative identities - they give a meaning for life, confidence that they're not just wasting their lives but pursuing a valuable goal. After David did the first act, which matched with his new identity, he commented "The empty feeling in the morning when I wake up has disappeared."

The conclusive proof, that David really is a superhero, is never given. This is a significant point - the identity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which guides David's behaviour. At that point it is more or less irrelevant if it is based on facts or mere beliefs.

PS. Tommi väittää, että narratiiviset identiteetit eivät oikeasti ohjaa ihmisten käytöstä, vaan että ihmiset valitsevat kysyttäessä sellaiset narratiivit kuvaamaan itseään, jotka ovat yhteensopivia heidän aikasemman käytöksensä kanssa. Näin tapahtuu erityisesti silloin, kun toimittajat tulevat kyselemään typeriä ("Miksi teet, niinkuin olet aina tehnyt?").

Yksityisetsivä heittää esimerkin, jossa transhumanisti lahjoittaa läheisen kuoltua rahaa Singularitetti-instituutille, koska se on hänen mukaansa transhumanistisen ideologian mukainen reaktio läheisen kuolemaan.

Varmasti homma toimii käytännössä kumpaankin suuntaan. Tommin (eräs) pointti taisi olla se, että haastatteluissa ihmiset eivät koskaan vastaa "En minä tiedä, miksi teen näin. Olen aina tehnyt näin. Kaipa minä olen vain tottunut siihen."

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