The Ship of Theseus, Questions of Identity, and Phos

I’ve been thinking about Phos again, gang. And not just because I’ve been busy.

[Spoilers ahead for volumes 6 and 7 of Land of the Lustrous]

Non-binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities is a collection of essays—some poetic, some a bit more academic, all ruminating on the various, individual Ways of Being outside the ol’ male/female binary in the modern day and throughout history. One of my personal favourites was Karen Pollock’s chapter ‘Triremes and Battered Pineapple Rings’. As the title implies, there are two main metaphorical devices Pollock returns to throughout. The first is deep-fried pineapple, which was a favourite snack of theirs as a kid, but which they developed a horrible allergy to as they got older. This was heartbreaking news—Pollock had loved those darn things so much, they’d even made a pact of marriage with their best friend at age seven, with the eventual dreamy goal of running a fish and chip shop together and having unlimited access to battered pineapple.

The second is the trireme, an ancient Greek ship that features in a famous philosophical problem. Let’s say that over time, this ship breaks down, piece by piece, and needs to be replaced: a beam here, a sail there, et cetera. If every part of the ship has been replaced, is it still the same ship that left the port? With this in mind, Pollock asks:

I can feel a connection to the seven-year-old who dreamed of marrying her best friend, but when even my pronouns are not the same, when my much desired pineapple now poisons me, am I the same person? (p.148)

There is something of a perception that discovery of identity is linear, fitting into a neat narrative of Knowing You’re Different, coming out, and living out your days as your True Self as soon as you have the means to. It’s a fine narrative and it works and applies to plenty of people, but we ought to also acknowledge that for some, finding your so-called True Self is a messier journey, and the Truth of that self may be less neat around the edges. Pollock’s chapter explores exactly this quandary:

Into the narrative of fixed identities and clear-cut binaries comes the idea that we were somehow wrong about any previous beliefs we had about our gender and/or sexuality. […] What if, though, each of those previous identities were as valid as our current one? What if I was as much a cis lesbian as I am a queer non-binary person?

It almost feels like heresy to write that last sentence. The ship must be unchanging, and every inch of it declared perfect. Even as boards warp and no longer fit, and bilge water pools below decks.

Except…

Except I know how much change there has been, from minor repairs to dry dock refits. It feels the world expects me to be ashamed of, or apologetic about, those repairs, to explain why I was wrong before and to assert with 100% confidence that now I will never change again. (p.149 – 150)

So, why am I thinking about Phos? The Ship of Theseus question has cropped up in discussion of Land of the Lustrous more than once over the years. After all, it seems to be the philosophical query at the centre of Phos’ character arc. As they get into more and more scrapes and more and more of their body needs replacing, they become made up of component parts. What percentage of materials other than Phosphophyllite do you hit where you can no longer call this person by the name of that mineral? When does Phos cease to be… Phos?

The anime covers Phos getting different legs and different arms, gold alloy making its way through their body as a bonus. The manga continues down this path to a jarring new question of identity when Phos loses their head and has it replaced by the face that once belonged to Lapis Lazuli. Personality-wise, Phos still seems to mostly shine through. But as they lose more pieces of themself, they lose the memories embedded in their very being. As parts of Phos continue to be replaced, the question keeps creeping through the narrative. This is still our Phos, right? On the inside?

Of course, Phos’ change isn’t just physical, even if all the hybrid limbs make a nice visual metaphor for it. Phos has been through traumatic events, learned new things that rock their perception of truth and trust, had the rules of the world as they understood them totally upended. Their priorities have changed infinitely from when they were a freewheeling, stubborn, much less mature gem at the story’s beginning. The way they understand themself, and the world around them, has changed infinitely. So, are they still Phos? A new version of Phos? Or is even that incorrect as a statement? Where does your conception of the True Self end and begin, if it’s susceptible to such great change?

Phos isn’t human, but their arc has a great sense of humanity to it. The gems are, by nature, fixed in place: ageless, unchanging, and with their role in life determined by their physical body in a way that leaves no room for flexibility. Phos yearns for change, and they achieve it… though maybe not in the way they were expecting or wanting. They’re maybe the first of their kind who gets to ask this horrifying brainteaser of a question: am I still me when so many things about me have changed? And if I have changed, what has happened to the person I might call “the old me”? Are they lost at the bottom of the sea, in shards of gemstone? Are they sitting somewhere deep in my heart? Have they ceased to exist as I replace them with new aspects of my being?

Again, Phos isn’t human, and their desire for change—and their subsequent complicated relationship with it—stems from their sci-fi scenario. But it’s easy to see how Phos has resonated so much with a queer, and particularly a trans (binary or non), audience. The longing to move beyond the social role they’ve been shoved into based on their body is the clearest part, and of course the complex relationship they have to physical changes that they undergo later.

But I think, more broadly, that their complicated relationship to change, that grasping for the True Self, really strikes a chord. Is Phos still “Phos” if their physical body and their relationship to the world has totally changed? Which “me” is the “real me” if I have changed the way I see myself and identify over time? What happens to that “old self” when you find a sense of self that feels more truthful? Is the ship the same ship if you’ve replaced every part of it?

Here’s the solution Pollock comes to, at least personally: “The ship is the same ship, even if every thread of the sail has been resewn, every board refitted, every nail prised out and then replaced.” Pollock’s conclusion is that change is simply part of life, and perhaps the focus on before-and-after, True Self and Old Self, is yet another unhelpful binary. They found different words that described their understanding of themself at different times in their life—it does not mean their previous identities were “wrong”, they just discovered a better fit as they grew. They were once a little girl who loved battered pineapple, and now they are a non-binary adult who can’t eat it without their throat swelling up—but those two people are still one and the same, just at different points on the journey across the weird sea of life.

Just as the Ship of Theseus is a fun brain-scratcher (if, of course, you find those kinds of things fun and they don’t give you an existential crisis), Phos’ journey could be a neat jumping-off point to explore and maybe even explain the ups and downs of a queer identity journey. The body horror element of the whole thing means it’s maybe not perfect or without flaw, but hear me out. As Phos’ body, their sense of self, and their relationship to the world around them changes, we might be prompted to ask: is Phos still Phos? In that same way that, if similar experiences were to happen to a human in the current world, they might be prompted to ask “am I still me?” Well, of course they are.

Across our lives, various things might happen that mean we switch parts of ourselves out for new ones, whether they be identity labels, fashion styles, physical body bits, or just ways of existing and being. If we panic about no longer being the same ship, we might languish in the harbour letting our wood rot instead of embracing that change is part of life and growth. Who’s to say that everyone has a True Self that they’re on a linear quest towards finding and living as? Who’s to say what components we’ll be made of when our journey is done?

Phos’ story isn’t over yet (and frankly I’m quaking in my boots even trying to imagine what conclusion Land of the Lustrous might come to) but hey, we can weave that into the allegory too. The ship is always sailing, and people are always changing as they learn new things in each new port they dock in. It doesn’t mean what’s left in your wake doesn’t matter.

Like this blog? Have you considered contributing to the tip jar?

1 Comment

Filed under Fun with Isms

One response to “The Ship of Theseus, Questions of Identity, and Phos

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up, 2-8 September 2020: "Cosplay While Black" Panel, Service Dogs, and Trauma as Clickbait - ANIME FEMINIST

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s