As a boy growing up in the 1950’s, Popeye the Sailorman was a major cultural influence. He willingly ate spinach, something my friends and I would do only if forced, and he was stubbornly self-assured. His slogan:
“I am who I am and that’s all that I am.”
In an era when everyone was dedicated to forming you according to their ideas of what a pre-pubescent boy should be like, someone with the courage to say, “No, I am me, I know who I am and I will be who I am, not what you want me to be,” was an instant hero and role model.
A decade later, I began to read the Existentialists, especially Sartre and Camus, and found they offered a very different idea of identity:
“I am not what I am, but I am what I am not.”
“I am the being whose existence precedes his essence.”
“I know who I am, and I know that I can be whoever I want to be.”
So, who’s right, Popeye or Sartre? And does it make any difference?
Well, turns out, it makes all difference in the world; and for my money at least, Popeye gets the short end of the stick.
Question: how did Popeye come to be who he is? If he chose that identity, then he could just as easily unchoose it. But if he is who he is and that’s all that he is, then he does not have the power to change and therefore he did not choose who he is in the first place.
If I am what I am and that’s all that I am, then I am basically an automaton. I am a product of my nature and my nurture. I do not get to create myself. I am what someone or something else created.
Ironically, Popeye, who masqueraded as our liberator, was just our parents in nautical garb. In the end, Popeye wanted us to be just exactly the same people our parents wanted us to be.
No wonder our generation was obsessed with the question, “Who am I?” We were convinced by Popeye (and many other cultural influences) that each of us had some hidden, as yet undiscovered, identity. We relentlessly peeled off the layers of our onion in hopes of finding a gem inside.
There was no end to the things we tried: sex, drugs and rock and roll, of course. Not to mention meditation and political action. In the end, we found exactly what should all along have expected to find: nothing! There is no secret identity. There is only the freedom to choose our identity and then to forge it.
Yet again, I ask, “So what?” Well, if I am what I am and that’s all that I am, then I’m not really responsible for my actions, am I? If I commit a crime, it was my nature to do so (a modern version of “the devil made me do it”). If my politics are racist, they are merely the product of the racist culture I grew up in. The very idea that identity could bound to nationality or race is vintage Popeye-ism (through there’s no reason to suppose that Popeye was a racist).
The stratification of society into classes (lie quiet Marx) is reinforced by the idea that I am destined to follow in my father’s footsteps when it comes to work (my relationship to the means of production).
Disparities in education trace to the tyranny of standardized testing (especially the all determining IQ). By the age of 13, many children in the North Atlantic community have already been assigned to “tracks” that in turn determine what they will have the opportunity to learn and what work they will be expected to do as adults.
So, in the true spirit of deconstruction (Jacques Derrida et al.), we see that Popeye only masqueraded as a liberator. When he said, “No!” he was really saying, “Yes,” because his No secretly presupposed the culture of conformism that he nominally opposed. In reality, he merely projected the ethos of 1950’s culture (conformism, keeping up with the Joneses, etc.) onto his adoring fans – and all the more brutally and effectively because he did it in disguise.