Tag Archives: emily riehl

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well

Last week I moderated (virtually) a discussion at Stanford between my poetry friend Stephanie Burt and my category theory friend Emily Riehl, on the topic of “identity” — specifically the question of how, in lyric poetry and in mathematics, one addresses the complex topic of what we do when we identify; whether this means “identifying with” a character in a song or poem or story, or identifying two objects which are not equal but which, in Poincare’s phrase, we “call by the same name.”

What I realized after the fact is that, as in so many other matters, the most succinct formulation is in a They Might Be Giants lyric:

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
I’ve often been told that you only can do what you know how to do well
And that’s be you,
Be what you’re like,
Be like yourself

Surely this points to three different notions that appeared in the discussion:

  • “be you” — to say that you are you is to assert equality
  • “be what you’re like” — that is, have exactly the properties that you have and no others — an assertion of indiscernibility
  • “be like yourself” — this is the assertion of relation (here denoted a “likeness”) between two entities that licenses us, following Poincare, in calling them by the same name — that is, an assertion of equivalence

Here’s YouTube of the discussion:

And here’s YouTube of the They Might Be Giants song, “Whistling in the Dark.” I remember seeing them play this in the fall of 1989, at the Paradise Rock Club, before the album came out, a song nobody had heard. A revelation!

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