Some thoughts on *Boyhood*, “following your dreams,” intimacy, and geometry

i once pointed out to someone that the question of how many limbs evolution can give a creature is bounded by geometry. a (for the sake of the argument) spherical creature with an infinite number of limbs has no limbs—there is so little space between them that it’s back to being a sphere. the amount of limbs on a creature determines the limits of the axes through which each limb can rotate and—and i’m no mathematician, so maybe this amounts to the same—the region of space to which each limb can reach (because the more other limbs there are, the more other limbs will be in the way).

a few nights ago i watched Boyhood, and while others have gone into problems like its default whiteness and so on, another of the more pernicious aspects i found in it is the way it promotes this bourgeois notion of “following your dreams.”

sure, it problematizes this a little bit with the way the mom character has that quick breakdown moment and expresses dissatisfaction with the trajectory of her life and her apparently successful career, but ultimately the film doesn’t dwell on it long enough for you to know whether this dissatisfaction is fundamentally because of the hollowness of “following your dreams” (and this idea is undermined from the start anyway, because her stated motivation for going back to college to pursue this career is for more financial stability, so it leaves open the question of whether this was even actually her dream).

but like the whole thing ends on this really optimistic note of the protagonist going to college, unbelievably full of potential, shimmeringly iridescently full of potential. he is following what he loves, which incidentally is his gift, which incidentally is financially opening doors for him in life. it’s a lot like the fairy tale of the romantic One True Love: that you have a Calling that is going to make you holy and beautiful and loveable and an honorable fixture of history in the textbooks and if only you dare to reject social norms hard enough, you will get it.

i won’t lie, i was such a sucker for this idea (or one very similar to it) for so long. it was always particularly beautiful to me, and it still has an enticing power. but you see how it removes politics from the question. it’s strictly metaphysical, which is just fine if you’re firmly located in the u.s. middle class, because then the world really does look to you like achieving A Life Worth Living is just a question of willing your art-dream into reality long and hard enough. it is a way of enticing people into a pursuit that is fundamentally congruous with capitalism (“make your art from a pure enough place in your heart and you will find financial success without having to compromise your vision one inch,” it argues to young people, regardless of the fact that that is never the real outcome) and fundamentally threatened by class struggle (because you might be told that society cannot afford to grant you the material resources and free time to fine-tune every aspect of your lifestyle according to your metaphysically derived sense of style, because it needs those resources to feed starving people and otherwise transform society). and what a monstrous society it is that constrains these purest-dreaming dreamers.

and what is particularly brutal is something one of my comrades pointed out: part of the official story is also that your success in finding, honoring, embodying, and enacting this Special Gift in yourself is a prerequisite for other people even wanting you around, whether platonically or romantically.

so in a society where we are all already (a) emotionally starving for want of intimacy-calories generally; (b) emotionally malnourished of specific emotional vitamins because society especially disallows the sharing of certain particular aspects of each individual’s inner life; and (c) emotionally poisoned because we are forced to pretend to feel so many things that are completely untrue for us emotionally … in such a society, the dangling of this carrot that you can simultaneously (a) be true to yourself and (b) (whether you understand it in these terms or not) find nourishing and healthy intimacy as part of the process and then also (c) be nothing but praised by all of society from top to bottom, appreciated like Shakespeare by both bourgeoisie and proletariat alike—it’s so irresistible that i was afraid to open up the box of my nostalgia while watching that movie. i had to hang “petty-bourgeois dreams are hollow and poisonous” like a huge sign over my mind as a precaution as i explored all the feelings the film reminded me of about what i used to want and dream about.

and it got me thinking like, well if the fairytale premise of all of this is not true, if there’s no solid and unbroken soul with pure ore of Special Gift that goes infinitely far inward, what is the material reality behind what society promises young petit-bourgeois individuals they will get to do? and what is it that we actually want, when we desire intimacy? because it is speaking to a real felt need. but also, obviously, there is neither a solid core to your mind nor is there some Totally New Essence magically united with your physical matter at the moment of conception that guarantees each individual’s idiosyncrasy.

it occurred to me as i was close to sleep last night that the answer to this question is also a question of geometry. we interface with lots of people, and our specific relation to production requires certain aspects of ourselves to make relatively temporary and superficial contacts with all these people. and so then we make these particular aspects of ourselves sort of bland and clean so that they can interface easily with many different types of people in many different places in society.

so, first, instead of having a core, you are like an onion, and you just have a deepest layer—a thought-pattern that is conscious of (that is, it contains reliable representations of) all “above” thought-patterns, but which is itself not consistently represented in any “deeper” thought-pattern. (you can try to share intimacy about some inchoate semi-patterns you may notice that lie beneath that lowest layer, too, by “free-writing” and hoping a pattern is revealed in the process, but really, the further down you go, the brokener and gooier it gets, the less discrete any thought gets, so the idea of “personality” existing that far down doesn’t make sense, because thoughts at that depth are so impersistent and changeable.)

and second, it’s not that you have a pure soul that you’re born with and you only show a few people, but rather that, inevitably, you will have some thoughts/thought-patterns/parts of yourself that you show many people (your “face”), and then you will have “inner”-er thoughts/thought-patterns/parts of yourself that manage those more clean & bland “outer” thoughts/thought-patterns/parts of yourself. and those close to you, your friends and family and romantic/sexual partners, will get to see the inner you who can’t help but develop more idiosyncratic thoughts about what it’s like to undertake the task of hiddenly and secretly managing your “face.”

that is, instead of a Totally New Essence buried in your soul, there are instead thought-patterns inside of you that, inevitably, statistically, by nature of what it is to exist within a society, you will show fewer people, and in fact *can* show fewer people, because they will be things harder to see because in order to see them, a person has to have shared similar experiences to you in society—and from a materialist perspective that means they have to have occupied similar spots to you in relations of production and reproduction, and have had similar cultural experiences. even if suddenly all your previously innermost thoughts became known by the world and they loved you for them, you would develop new innermost thoughts about what it’s become like to manage your outer thought-patterns, your “face,” in this strange new world where everyone knew what were until recently your deepest secrets.

it doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable and necessary to have intimacy or self-expression; it just means intimacy and artistic expression aren’t what they’re made out to be by bourgeois society—interactions with and expressions of a Unique Soul. this is critical, too, because among other things it means (a) the broad masses of people can learn the skills of what bourgeois society wants to say are unreplicable Geniuses; (b) the idea of a One True Love is shown to be an absurdity and so, therefore, is the bourgeois idea of the family; (c) you can maybe talk saps like the one i used to be (and the one i still have banging around inside of me) out of thinking that they have some Perfectly Rare Beauty that they owe it to themselves to express in depoliticized art, the rest of the world be damned; and (d) if you are struggling to find intimacy, well, your inner self is in motion—you can change your inner self into one that will make it more likely to mesh with others’ inner selves. you do not have to believe yourself barred from the connection you are starving for on the mistaken idea that maybe you were just born with a particularly rare Soul.