What Are You? – Society’s categories and labels

I am currently attending a residency in Vermont Studio Center, Vermont USA. The residency invites up to 75 writers and artists to participate in their own studio practice for a predetermined amount of time in the company of other creative practitioners. During the first week, we, the aforementioned practitioners, have engaged in introductory conversations around the dinner tables etc, spouting the usual introductory dinner-table questions, e.g. “What’s your name?”, Where are you from?” etc. One recurring question has caused me an abundance of consternation time and again. That question is “What are you?”

The residency in Vermont accepts proposals for projects in writing, painting or sculpture as broad overall fields. Thus the expected answer to this question is “writer”, “painter” or “sculptor”. My general answer to the question is “artist”. This is a bit of a dodge, and isn’t entirely true, but it serves a purpose. It doesn’t satisfy most interrogators though, as it fails to conform to the predetermined categorisation of “writer”, “painter” or “sculptor”, and I have met with some objection to this vague retort. The outright correct answer to “What are you?” would probably be simply “human”.

It should be pointed out that the spoken emphasis on the question at Vermont Studio Center is on the “you”, i.e. “What are you?” This emphasis infers a certain understanding that the “you” in question falls under a predetermined category (painter, sculptor, writer). The actual question that is being asked is “What category do you fall under in order to attend this residency programme?”, but it is abbreviated for swiftness of delivery in a conversation. The question becomes something completely different if the emphasis is placed in the “are”. It then becomes “What are you?”. This question seems somewhat derisive, inferring that you are perhaps not human at all, but some malformed hybrid concoction of an entity that requires definition.

The reason this question gives me such reserve is in its delivery. A straight answer is expected, but a straight answer can’t be honestly given. It’s like the question that is more common in Ireland, “What do you do?”, which might be most accurately answered by saying “eat, sleep and breathe”. The desired answer here would normally be your occupation, or your regular past-time, or the area that you have achieved a qualification in. However, this can’t be an accurate answer for any individual, as most people fill their time in a variety of ways. If someone spends every waking hour of every day making carboard boxes, then I would accept “I am a cardboard box maker” as an answer, but even then that person would still sleep, eat, drink and breathe or they would fail to exist.

Applying labels is often dismissive, as can be seen when right-wing commentators describe figures like Barack Obama as a “communist” or “socialist”. The word is used due to Obama’s leftist stance on certain issues, and is selected as a negative term to categorise Obama with a political system that is seen as negative within America. In this case the label is used as a form of derisive stereotyping based on capitalist views of what socialism is based on the last 100 years of international history.

Who are you?” might be a more accurate question than “What are you?”, but it has just as vague a line of definition. Who you are speaks more about a person’s cultural, ethnic or historical background, as well as the things that the person does to help define their personality. This is a small obsession that I have noticed since arriving in America. Regularly you will ask a person about themselves and they will tell you about both themselves and half their family tree.

I recently asked a lady where she was from and she answered “Brooklyn, but my grandmother was from Scotland and my grandfather was from Guatemala.” I hadn’t asked about her paternal lineage, but it seemed pertinent to her to share that information nonetheless. Who you are is more about the present than the past, but the mixed cultural heritage of America leads Americans to regularly digress into long lines of lineage without thinking about it.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a half-Spanish half Papua New Guinean lady who sails a tow-boat off the coast of South Africa three times a week after enduring fifteen hour flights from Saipan on which I re-read the same edition of The Pickwick Papers every time, and in my free time I build microscopic paper airplanes using a sledgehammer because I love a challenge.”

It’s protracted, but it gets the point across.

The idea of categorisation made me think about the recent viral meme obsession, seen below, where various occupations were converted into quirky memes and people used these to label themselves in their area of practice. Hyperallergic, the online art zine, interviewed the artist who originally created this meme, Garnet Hertz, where he spoke about mixed histories and how things are portrayed. The idea of portrayal and the point of view of an observer who responds to “you” being a “writer”, “painter”, “sculptor”, “editor”, “gambler”, “flaneur” or whatever else suggests that any field has a stereotypical categorisation, whether this be true or not.

This meme was one of my favourites. Thanks to hyperlallergic.com for the image, click for link.

However, the categorisation is always in the eye of the person who directs the question, as illustrated in these memes. Three separate people may see “painter” as either a) a person who paint the walls of a house, b) a person who paints photo-realist landscape paintings or c) a person who paints abstract forms. And there are thousands of other variants in the broader field of painting, before each individual practice can be disected. Nothing is revealed in the answer “painter”, except to the stereotype of the person who received the answer, who will then happily categorise it away in whatever bracket they have predetermined for “painter”. The same is true for any one-word answer to the question “What are you?” (in whatever form it is asked).

One of my paintings from a series of anonymous portraits that attempt to remove context from the subject. For more information on the project click the link.

The fact is that what “you” are can’t really be defined in a single word answer. The question is asking for a categorisation, but people do not categorise. I remember a piece where Damon Albarn berated an interviewer for naming his super-group “The Good, The Bad and the Queen”. The interviewer was referring to the project that he conducted with a super-group of musicians which culminated in the an album of this title, but the group itself was never named or labelled in any way. Albarn sticks rigidly to this opinion on labels or categorisation, seeing it as a dumbing down of human interaction into a scientific sectioning and sub-sectioning of individuals in society, rather than treating each individual on his or her own merits.

I often see people introduce themselves online in forums or comments sections where they state “I am a biological scientist, therefore…” or “I am a graphic designer, thus…” in order to lend more weight to a comment that they are making. I guess level of expertise is pertinent in this situation, but the level will probably come across in the answer without the categorisation to begin with. And besides, it is easy to claim anything in anonymous online forums. I am actually a professor in online sociological behaviour, so I should know.

So try to answer in one go: What are you?

All images in this post are my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact (contactmoonunderwater@gmail.com) for more information.

6 thoughts on “What Are You? – Society’s categories and labels”

  1. I am a big fan! Thanks for the great post…. me and my husband also often joke about the badly-delivered question, “How are you?” If you think about it literally, it’s almost impossible to answer.

    1. Thanks for the compliment, it was a fun one to write.

      Haha ya, “how are you” is really weighted too, like “how’s it going?” and my personal favourite, the ultra-vague and completely meaningless “What’s up?” Next time someone says that to you just stare blankly up into space until they ask something else.

  2. Reminds me of something said by a guy called Scott McClanahan during a Word Riot interview:

    DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
    SM: I never did. I still don’t. There’s a great Gertrude Stein essay where she says poets are only poets when they don’t consider themselves poets. Boswell was Boswell because he practiced law—the same with Kafka. Kathy Acker was Kathy Acker because she was Kathy Acker. I think writers should get jobs and quit thinking about writing so much and talking about it too. Therefore, I make a declaration from this point on that I will stop talking about writing.

    Really like your site Mr Moon Under Water.
    Jones Jones

    1. Thanks Jones Jones! And sorry about the delay – the writing has been scant lately.

      Love the quote – I don’t know Mr. McClanahan but will now certainly look him up.

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