Relationship Breakdowns, Marx, Alice in Wonderland

‘You don’t let me get to know you’, ‘You’ve changed!’, ‘I can’t be myself around you’

Such comments as these make familiar appearances in the language of relationships. They are all, on the surface, markedly different reasons for breaking up and ending a relationship. However, a bit of analysis shows that they all share a fundamental characteristic which shows us a problem at the heart of our conceptions of our loved ones, or rather, our rejected or passed-over would-be loved ones.

What all the comments share is a kind of doubling; if I say that you won’t let me get to know you, I split you between the ‘you’ that I do know and the mysterious one that is being ‘held back’ as it were. Likewise, if I say that I can’t be myself around you, we have much the same structure only in reverse; now it is ‘me’ who is split, into the one who behaves around you, and the somehow truer one who would be ‘itself’ if you allowed it to be.

What this shows us is our desire to believe in an internal identity or see ourselves as having a kind of presence ‘within’. The temptation, in philosophical or theoretical terms, is to apply a theoretical assertion that this is false; really there is no internal identity, rather retorting to those who complain about us in these terms, ‘how I appear to be is all I am’. This is not simple, and is itself a valuable statement; it shows us how at the very moment of inadequacy, when our relationship is breaking down, we unconsciously turn back in language to an assertion of our own essential being as a way of ‘dealing’ with the problem.

However, what is perhaps more interesting is not stating the falsity of internal identity but analysing instead the effect or construction of that internality. Internal identity may not be ‘truly there’, but its appearance and effects are nevertheless absolutely real. It is something that Karl Marx picks up on in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, where he writes: ‘the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.’

Here, Marx anticipates a later criticism of his concept of ‘alienation’; that there is a problem with alienation because it implies a ‘true’ you from which to be alienated, much like our comments above, like ‘I can’t be myself around you.’ Yet here, far from doing away with the idea, instead Marx acknowledges that such a ‘human essence’ is a social construction, and is interested in the ‘reality’ of that concept as a social construction.

Thinking about the production of identity as an effect is where one should turn to psychoanalysis. Mladen Dolar argues that ‘one could say: it is in the nature of identity to be mistaken as identity. Or: the identity is but a gap between two appearances’. Identity is a gap or absence, so that I am only established through difference from others (as Ferdinand de Saussure says of language). But a mistake is made in that identity is taken for something present, something pre-existing, when in fact it is produced.

In this new way of framing the problem, rather than asking the question: ‘who really are you?’, or ‘am I being myself?’, one ought to ask: ‘who are the people that I am not in order to make me who I am?’ Indeed, Alice, in Wonderland, ponders the problem in exactly these terms:

[“]I wonder if I’ve changed in the night. Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? […] But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’sthe great puzzle!” And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them.

“I’m sure I’m not Ada,” she said, “for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I ca’n’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh she knows such a very little![”]


Alice recognizes that identity is the gap between two appearances, that identity is established through difference – but not difference between pre-existing identities – rather, all that I am is the space between everyone that I have met, and indeed everyone that I have not met, every person or term in my discourse, from class-mates to celebrities to imaginary friends. The effect of essence or presence is a mistake, but it is a very real one.

As such, when our friends or lovers accuse us of having ‘changed’, what we are really dealing with is the fact that our position in their own symbolic chain has changed; that the position we occupied in relation to their sense of themselves has altered, forcing them to redefine themselves as the gap between the people they ‘know’, since that order of people they know has ‘changed’.

Or when our lovers tell us that we didn’t ‘let them in’ or ‘let them get to know us’, are we not dealing with another side of the same coin? It is not that they didn’t get to ‘know’ us, but that they did get to know us, and what they found was inadequate, so that they faced the trauma that we did not occupy the position in their symbolic universe that they wanted us to. At the moment you realize this, identity becomes completely unstable, subject to change with everyone you see or meet, and at this moment you attempt to re-inscribe stability by an anxious and failed reassertion of essence.


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