Teeth and Identity
A day of ugly reminders
Yesterday was an ugly day. First, I managed to slice off a tiny piece of skin off the end of a finger while chopping vegetables. Then I almost cracked a tooth thanks to a pebble in my lettuce salad. Then some other unpleasant stuff happened.
Reality, it felt, was biting into me.
And of course, in the background there was the rumbling of World War 3 possibly getting started. The map visuals of Russian forces invading from three sides struck me forcefully as a pair of jaws biting into Ukraine in painful slow motion.
The motif of teeth seemed to be everywhere, at every level.
Elias Canetti, in Crowds and Power, took particular note of teeth as a motif for the constant, violent dismemberment and reconstitution of the identities of all things at all levels:
The teeth are the armed guardians of the mouth, and the mouth is indeed a strait place, the prototype of all prisons. Whatever goes in there is lost, and much goes in while still alive. Large numbers of animals first kill their prey only in the mouth and some not even then. The readiness with which the mouth opens in anticipation of prey, the ease with which once shut, it remains shut, recall the most feared attributes of a prison.
The day got me thinking about how fragile, fluid, and ambiguous a thing identity is — and how, by contrast, the process of reshaping it is hard-surfaced, sharp-edged, and bitey. Canetti was on to something. Subjectivity is soft and gooey, but the shaping of it is hard and bitey.
Being and becoming should really be called being and biting.
To create and maintain identity is to bite and be bitten. We dwell fondly on the being part, and try not to think about the biting part.
Knives — proxy teeth attached to our hands — pre-bite our food for us. But mishandled, can turn around and bite the hand that wields them.
Pebbles can assault even hardened vulnerable boundaries like teeth. Teeth themselves can be bitten. The only bones we expose to the world, to bite into it, protected by flinty enamel, are not themselves invulnerable. Anything that can bite can also be bitten.
Even at a less visceral, more platonic level, Procrustean bureaucratic processes bite down into our lives, to either craft recognizable legal and financial persons out of the piles of paper and digital detritus that make up our institutional lives, or declare us too insubstantial and ghostly to be seen or bitten into.
And we are willing participants in this process. We scan and shred important documents pertaining to our legal and financial identities, with devices that are toothed extensions of our physical selves. Our digital selves are being constantly reconstituted through violent cut-and-paste operations. We willingly upload documentary bites of ourselves into the maws of bureaucracies. KYC is a more familiar phrase today than know thyself.
Yesterday was bad at that level too. I discovered I’d misplaced an important identity document, which felt in some way similar to a bit of my finger being chopped off. I’m going to have a nagging sense of incompleteness until I find or replace it.
And all day yesterday, I was navigating a messy process of crafting a coherent snapshot of my thoroughly illegible financial life for a mortgage application. That felt like the mortgage industry biting into my institutional life, disrupting the felt integrity of the flow of financial and legal life events to impose its own alien ordering logic. And ironically, instead of resisting the biting forces, I’m actively trying to make myself present in a less ghostly way;1 legible enough to be seen, substantial enough to be bitten into.
Bite me, we entreat, rather than dare, every time we try to get an institutional process to ingest us.
And then of course, there is that larger sense of historically situated identity that exists as a thread within the larger tapestry of events in the world, where countries bite into each other on both territories and maps, reshaping national identities, and snapping the threads of individual lives.
The hermetic phase, as above, so below, has been on my mind as a frame for thinking about all this. The world as a connected fractal whole, where events like wars “above” and pebbles impacting teeth “below” all continuously conspire to construct you; bite you into existence, moment to moment, at every level from meatbag, to financial and legal personhood, to thread-like creature of memories being woven into the tapestry of history.
And at the same time, you bite back. You too are constantly striving to impose your own will on events, with your teeth. You too bite into the realities of the world at all levels, to violently establish and extend the integrity of your self by disrupting that of other beings and things.
Even a vegetarian like me bites into lettuce and carrots, tearing into things that have their own identities, to sustain myself. And even lettuce and carrots bite into the soil.
As above so below, and teeth everywhere. Identity may be an elusive, hard-to-pin-down thing, but the process of crafting one is none of those things.
Everywhere, all the time, the boundaries of self are being constantly being tested and renegotiated, torn apart, and reconstituted, by the flux of events small and large, at all levels. Reality as demiurge, being and biting, chewing itself endlessly into existence.
And it is teeth that mediate this process. Without teeth, there are no identities.
A free-agent income and assets in crypto form make you a financial-legal ghost.