I am not a brand.
When I prepare to sleep, I’ll fill a coffee mug with water, and in the morning, I’ll force myself to drink its contents before awarding myself coffee, like getting to the Gummy Worm beneath a whipped cream plate. My Carharrt jacket will perpetually have a doggie-bag in the right pocket for daily dog walks, and I will avoid carrying a full wallet due to the bulkiness of the common bi-fold.
When I look at my Instagram feed, I still see a person undefined. All of my friends have chosen to create a niche with their personalities, opting to become a botanical expert, or flaunting a portfolio of unreciprocated advertisement. I see the cheeky influencer, blissfully unaware of the draw of their audience. I see the misunderstood artist, with pictures so crudely edited as to make their whole profile avant-garde.
It reminds me of a stage-performance on Hulu called “In and Of Itself.” In the play, the main performer is a magician, but wants to be defined as anything but. Watching the one-man act, audiences come into the theater by selecting a white card on the wall with an “I Am” label attached: I am “an artist,” I am “a mother,” I am “a lot to handle.” At the beginning, all these superlatives are collected and torn so that only the label portion remains: “a friend,” “an accident,” “a breath of fresh air.” The half-torn cards are then placed in the center of the stage. Midway through the show, the “magician” silently moves these cards onto a scale, which then tips down. He takes out a single “I Am” ticket from his pocket, and allows the single card to magically level the entire scale, serving to counterbalance the 300 cards on the other end.
It’s a simple trick, probably using a motorized scale, but the metaphor is what drew me in. Without saying a word, this performer demonstrated how any “label,” becomes impossibly heavy when defined.
For the final piece, each audience member stands, and the performer is able to look each patron in the eye and tell them the label they had chosen among the wall of one-hundred options. “You are a visionary,” he says, and the audience members acknowledge him with confirmation. It’s how they chose to be seen. I cried.
The show made me think about the people I know, and the labels that some of them force themselves into.
I can’t attack any conversation around this topic by speaking in generalities. Just like that of the “magician,” this conversation happens through a showcase of examples.
I got to know Giuliano through Zoom calls in an acting class. This was improv comedy, so every scene was spontaneous, and therefore injected with the personality of the performer. After only a few sessions, I noticed that Guilano would take any suggestion, scheme, or plot and start a solo soliloquy. This was taboo in an improv class, where “group-game” and “group-mind” were some of the traits we were trying to foster. However, whenever Guilano catapulted himself on screen, he would wait a moment to think, and then derail the scene by waxing philosophical about whatever the premise was. This was his attempt at humor:
“Your mother is dying,” he would say in response to another character portraying a baby, “tell me about a time this house has felt like a home.” The other actor would pause (since asking questions without proactively adding information to the scene is a no-go in improvisation), and Guilano would take his cue to continue.
“In what ways will dying shape the things you do without me? I’d like to think, as your mother, that a life completed is one of acceptance.” He meant it as a joke. No one would laugh.
I bubbled with anger every time I was in a scene with Guilano, because it meant meandering around his tangents and defensively navigating the entire scene. I saw him as someone to pity. Guilano desperately wanted to be heard, and took acting classes as a way to hear himself out loud, where no one could explicitly shame him into silence.
Guilano was a product of our time.
He was shouting into an abyss to validate his aliveness.
My phone’s preferences push me to see content from “multi-hyphenate” people, who feel they are best expressed through two-or-three labels. This is the most radical stance our generation could stomach; that maybe, we could become two things. Three, max.
I remember when Instagram incorporated the ability to label your account. I know some people who jokingly choose “food stores,” or “political candidate,” and I can’t help but be reminded of those “I Am” tickets.
I turned my personal Instagram account into a “Business” platform recently to access more analytics on my posts. I saw my friends do the same. The “Shopping” tab stands proudly next to my personal icon, as if edging me towards the monster I opted into.
This week, I’ve taken to turning my “Business” account into a “Facebook Shop” to promote my work as a Pitch Deck Designer. I found myself searching up indie production companies to draft comments under the “1.80 Method” guidelines, in which I made eighty comments every day to claw my way up in the hashtag and engage new customers.
I am a product of my time too.
My phone has now transformed to show me young college students with full-time jobs. These frilly people work with social media accounts, which involves operating a basic Excel sheet of “content planning” and plugging the variables into Canva. These same students will sell courses online, recruit young business accounts, and promise to disclose their broad tactics
As brands dictate humans’ presence, it seems that they themselves lack one.
I’m reminded of a Daniel Sloss comedy routine where he suggests that after three months of dating, a man inevitably realizes that the woman he thought he knew is as complex and intricate a jigsaw as he is. This, he goes on, is also when most relationships fail.
My brand is not pessimistic, or riddled with the word “nihilism.
”I only admire arguments with the pieces laid out in front of you like cards upon a table. My favorite author is J.D. Salinger, who made a career of calling people “phony” and gently guiding Americans towards his own philosophies. We now sell his works to every middle schooler as being part of the Great American Canon.
For that reason, I draw no conclusion, only challenge you to see things as they might be: an illusion. Are we a slave to our own labels, or are we conditioned to think so?
I wrote this piece in my attempt to shout into the void, and to validate my own aliveness. All I really want is to reach someone else in this echo-chamber, and hear them shouting back at me.