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Are We All Actors?

"All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;"

- William Shakespeare

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on stage
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on stage

I was once on TV. I only appeared briefly in the background, but I was acutely aware I was being watched. I was aware of being watched as an object, that on a superficial level, people can't perceive me as I am. The extra layer of perception, of the indirect perception of me through a different lens, magnified my perception and made me acutely aware of myself and how I'm perceived in the world. I was acutely aware of my actions and, due to that acute awareness, I was not being myself, I was instead acting as myself. Through that artificial acting process, I ceased to be myself and became an actor playing a role of myself.

But that also made me think about how I "normally" act when I'm not acutely aware of how others are perceiving me. Even when I'm alone, I'm acting as myself, though the differentiation between who I am, who I have been socialized to be, and how I'm perceived to be is not a part of my conscious awareness. Since others don't have access to my internal thoughts, feelings and, ultimately, to my being, then they perceive me as an object and they infer my subjectivity based on their own subjective experiences. Who we appear to be to others is not who we really are. Who we are, only we truly know. What other people see is the image of ourselves we project into the world, whether consciously or unconsciously. In the world, we act as ourselves. We are subjects, our actions come from within. That action is imagined and scripted by us, but it is also largely influenced by the world. Sometimes we even know that we are acting. When we are learning some new way of being and interacting in the world, we may feel like an impostor and become more aware that our lives are an act. But as we become used to it, we forget.

As subjects, we interact with other subjects and with objects around our environment. Those objects serve as props, they define who we are, how we interact with the world, and the experiences which are available to us. They help us create our life experiences. We connect with each other through objects. By liking and sharing similar objects, we define ourselves to each other and our social experiences. We are defined by the clothes we wear because they follow some aesthetic that has meaning in the world. Other people understand that meaning and act accordingly. For example, if you see someone dressed as a police officer, you assume they are a police officer and your interactions with them will take a certain shape based on that assumption. The presence of an object, such as a gun, will have a certain meaning within a context, which builds a larger story with other people in it. A gun at a crime scene, for instance, is not only just a gun but also a piece of evidence that can help solve the murder of some specific person. Objects thus have a complex meaning in society because they are part of a larger social context.

When we buy an object, we are not just buying an object, we are buying a lifestyle. What is important is not just an object's function but the experiences we get with the object and the perceptions that are conveyed to other people about us based on the objects we use. This is why branding is so powerful, because they are not just selling us objects, they are selling us representations of ourselves to us. They are convincing us that their product is an extension of us, an appendage that we can add to define ourselves to others to give us access to some experience that we seek and produce a certain lifestyle which they also sell to us. They target our most basic instincts to manipulate and sell us their product, associating those instincts with their product. They shape entire cultures that way. In the end, we are just actors, and unaware that we are acting based on their script and not one which we are writing ourselves.

In the show Westworld, the "hosts" are AIs that look like humans, "unaware" that they are AIs. The humans are "guests" who are free to play their own character but often get completely immersed in the game. The distinction between reality and fantasy gets blurry.

We express who we are in many ways. We do this through our actions, the words we use, the clothes we wear, the objects we have, our preferences, and so on. In some ways, those expressions are genuine reflections of who we are. But we are also often not completely satisfied with ourselves. So we may sometimes try to project an image of who we want to be. This is Lacan's "ideal-I", a fantasy image of ourselves that we want to someday completely incorporate into our being. In this sense, we are like actors playing a role, trying to become a future version of ourselves.

But it goes deeper than that.

Is there a true I? We covered some of this in previous blog posts, how we are almost completely influenced by our environment and circumstances. If someone asks you about yourself, you tell them about your past, your preferences, and many other factors that are not really you but related to you. Perhaps you are the one who has emotions. But your emotions are based on the preferences you gained from your experiences. You could have had other experiences, other stories, and thus, other emotions. You are just acting out your part based on your character development. If you take out everything you appear to be you are left with nothing at all.

You right now. Probably.

There are many video games where you can play a character. Some of them, RPGs, allow you to decide how you will look like in the virtual world and some of the characteristics you will have, such as your abilities, your character, and your imperfections. Then, once you decide who you are, you are thrust into the virtual world. At first, you don't know what's going on. You may even know very little about yourself. The first step is to become familiar with how you interact with the world. At first, you may make a lot of mistakes. You may not be very good at interacting with the world. You still need to be very consciously aware of the controls so you can infer how the controls will respond in the game. As you get familiar with the controls, you become more focused on the game. Interacting with the virtual world becomes second nature. It is at that point that you forget yourself in the "real" world and you become immersed in the game. In a well-designed game, you become the character you are playing with. You feel what the character feels as the character goes through experiences in the game. For a moment, you escape "reality" and forget that you are playing a game. You become the character.

What if this "reality" we are living in right now is like that? There is no true distinction between acting as a character and acting as yourself. You may point out that, as I explained before, your awareness of how the environment influences you give you some agency, that you imagine a future for yourself, and that you intentionally make choices to create that future. Our capacity to imagine a future different than our past and present is one of the sources of our agency. Different possibilities and different paths toward different possibilities give rise to our decisions and to our indecision. It is the fact that we are different actors in the world, making decisions based on imagined possibilities, that separates us from the world, making us distinct agents within it - subjects rather than objects. But, even then, how can you tell you are not a character? In improv, you don't get a script. You can create whatever character you want from scratch. As you interact with others, you can shape not only yourself but the entire world. It's the ultimate form of agency. The environment doesn't influence you anymore, you influence it. But other actors also influence it, so it still shapes you and your actions, even if you have more power to shape it. You can imagine your future and act it out, transforming the world around you. Still, you are a character. You are not your "true self" (or at least the self you believe is true). Only the awareness of yourself as an actor in the world can paradoxically give you the agency not to be just an "actor".

Stanley is losing his mind
Stanley is losing his mind

Where is your true self? If you are like a character in a videogame, then maybe this reality is as real as a videogame. Then you are not really "here" in this reality, but somewhere else and interacting in this world through some kind of input in the other reality, just like your body provides you with an input in this reality. Not that this reality is a "simulation", because a simulation implies that it's not real. It makes more sense to think in terms of layers of reality, one contained within another. Each reality feels as real as the other, though different realities have different levels of complexity and access to experiences. You can experience this reality physically, but the reality in a videogame can't be experienced physically. If your true self is not here, then maybe it's in the former reality you came from before you were born. Or maybe it is in none of them and the character in the videogame is no less separate from its environment than you are separate from yours. Maybe you can't be anywhere because you are nowhere AND everywhere. Are we real? Entertain that thought, without accepting it.

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