There is a 1927 short story by Arthur Schnitzler called ‘Ich’ (‘Me’) where the main character goes to a park and notices a plaque on a tree with the word ‘Park’ written on it. This makes him laugh becuse it is so obviously a park and could not be seen as anything else. But he thinks further. This is such a lovely park it is like a paradise, but if it were a paradise people would start to take their clothes off like Adam and Eve, so it is just as well they put the sign ‘Park’ up. The character becomes obsessed by labelling. He starts pinning labels on people’s coats on the coat stand: ‘Mother-in-law’; ‘Cash desk operator’. The story ends when his wife arrives with the doctor to find her husband has pinned the word ‘Ich’ (‘Me’) onto his own chest.
The constant desire to define oneself is tiresome and debilitating.
I suppose much of its infiltration into our daily behaviour comes from the marketing of products. We are asked to market ourselves in the same way. I remember seeing a bench in a square in Paris that had just been been painted and the municipality had put up an elaborate signpost saying that the bench had been painted through the generosity of the City Hall of Paris. The pot of paint for the bench and the hour of labour would have cost no more than a few euros; the construction and elaboration of the signpost, with (no doubt) a communication company’s consultancy fee included, much more. We are asked to define and classify ourselves in the same way. Who am I and what do I stand for? Let my tattoo tell you. Let the brand I’m wearing explain. And yet, are the most attractive people not those who escape definition, people without qualities (‘ohne Eigenschaften’)?