Delving into Identity — A Conversation with Lindsey Coombs
By Chloé Rose Whitmore
Edited by Lizzie Alblas
By the time it occurs to us to hit record and shift our conversation to ‘interview mode’, I’ve already been sitting with Lindsey Coombs for four hours. It’s two weeks before Christmas, and we’ve just finished a lavish meal of roasted squash and pear carpaccio. We’re down to our last dribbles of wine, so we order another glass. The night feels wide-open.
I’ve known Lindsey since we were eight years old — and yet there’s still something fundamentally unknowable about her. You could try to label her as a cognitive studies student, a charity worker, a philosopher, a political thinker, or maybe even a gardener. And, in fact, she is all those things — and more. But none of these titles feels entirely accurate for someone that can be found debating gender theory one minute and foraging for mushrooms the next. And it’s this vibrant multifacetedness that I want to talk to her about today.
‘I’ve always had a problem with pigeonholing myself and committing to one particular hat,’ she tells me. ‘If I had a million lifetimes, I’d work every job. I’d want to do everything. And I can’t fathom not wanting that. But I’ve realised as I’ve got older and studied more that there’s a real value in refusing to be confined to one narrative version of yourself.’
This idea of the self, and the multitude of selves that make up an individual, is one of the things that drew Lindsey to apply for a masters in Cognitive Studies. ‘In physical terms, you’re a different human being every seven years.* And it’s the same with our consciousness. Every time you interact with a new person, or you encounter a new thought, it reshapes the way you think, the way you understand the world. The idea of a fixed identity is something I’ve never been able to grasp, and probably never will.’
Lindsey’s rejection of a fixed identity doesn’t just extend to her own life — it’s a view she thinks society as a whole needs to adopt, too. ‘As a species, we evolved really fast. We’ve created and invented all of these disciplines, and defined these boundaries between them. But those boundaries are arbitrary. Whenever I engage with one subject, I find myself wanting to foray into another, to overlap, to explore beyond those boundaries. I’m never quite satisfied with the story that one individual discipline gives me. I think we need agents to bridge those gaps, to engage with loads of different disciplines and create an understanding between different world views. That in itself is a discipline.’
Citing the increasing popularity of side hustles and non-traditional career paths, I ask Lindsey how close she thinks society is to achieving and celebrating interdisciplinarity. ‘People are starting to do it between individual disciplines, but the overarching field of connecting disciplines is something that’s still a bit unmapped. Philosophy tries to tackle this and bridge the gaps, but I don’t think as a separate field it’s really identified itself yet. You can’t study interdisciplinarity.’
Although we’ve still got a lot of work to do in the area of connecting disciplines, Lindsey acknowledges that we’re living through an exciting cultural moment when it comes to labels as a whole. ‘There have been other periods in history where people have been able to self-identify in terms of gender or occupation. But what’s unique right now is that we’ve created space as a culture to accommodate people not identifying at all. The fact that we’re now allowing people to reject labels completely and say “actually, none of this works for me” is a real opportunity culturally.’
As it often does — especially when sauvignon blanc is involved — our conversation shifts towards politics. By any measure, Lindsey is someone who actively engages with politics — whether that’s through studying, social media or activism. As such, I’m interested to hear what structural changes she’d like to see take place. ‘Nobody should have more money than they can spend. That’s just a fact. So for me, the two biggest changes we can make are universal basic income and electoral reform, so we get proportional representation. If you knew that no matter what you did you’d always have enough money to live, eat and pay your bills, suddenly the actions that you take wouldn’t be based on fear. You wouldn’t feel the need to hoard wealth.’
To some strident capitalists, Lindsey’s ideas might seem to stray into communist territory. But, like capitalism, she recognises the communist movement is deeply flawed. ‘Communism is a theory, just like capitalism. The free market has never succeeded, it’s just not failed as visibly as communism.’
When I ask her to expand on these failures, she cites low-paid work, exploitation and living below the poverty line — all the things that make someone live their life in fear. But despite being a product of capitalism, Lindsey posits that these issues actually harm the movement’s agenda. ‘If someone is living out their life making constant compromises, losing the quality of that life as they go, working two jobs to feed three kids — they don’t have the opportunities to come up with new ideas that drive the economy forward. They might have a great idea for a business, but not be able to pursue it because of the risks it entails. And those things fail capitalism.’
When Lindsey’s not reading up on political theory, she’s often at her allotment — a patch of land one of her elderly neighbours lets her use to grow herbs and vegetables. It would be easy to think of her time digging through soil as a respite from political thinking — but for Lindsey, everything’s connected. ‘To nick Karl Marx’s terminology, we all experience varying degrees of alienation. And I think that foraging and growing and gardening are powerful counters to that sense of alienation in the modern world. The production of the things that sustain me and make me continue as a person — the calories I eat, the things I enjoy the taste of — is really empowering. It’s something everyone should have access to — that’s why community growing spaces are incredibly important. There’s an increasing recognition of that, but it’s a bit of a postcode lottery at the moment.’
As a cognitive studies student, a lot of Lindsey’s thinking centres around individuality. ‘It’s in our nature to want to be a part of something,’ she says. But in our desperation to find a community, to identify with a collective, we can forget to recognise ourselves as individual people. ‘I would encourage people to think about their own interests in an intersectional fashion. To understand themselves as individuals that are separate from the collective, just for a moment, and identify what matters to them — whether that’s connection, power, comfort — and what that looks like. Then zoom out and think about what serves that best.’
The idea of the collective has us circling back to labels — the desire to fit neatly within a community, a discipline, a school of thought. Right-wing, left-wing, male, female, capitalist, communist — they’re all just labels. Are they accurate descriptions of who we are? Can they ever fully encompass us as flawed, fleshy, multi-faceted human beings?
Lindsey doesn’t think so. ‘We get caught up in collective narratives and, sometimes, we forget to hear our own voices as individuals.’
*Note: This is a reference to Dr Jonas Frisen’s research in stem cell biology, which found that the average age of all cells in the adult body is between seven and ten years, owing to the fact that our cells are constantly regenerating. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/02/science/your-body-is-younger-than-you-think.html
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