Abstract Thoughts on Identity

by Rob Horning

7 May 2010


This Eurozine article by Amy Allen about subjectivity and autonomy got me thinking about identity as site for capitalist development. The frontiers are gone; the new colonies are within the networked territory of the self.

I tend to take it as a given that our sense of individuality - our reflexive identity—is an effect of the sort of society we live in. It requires a certain sort of society to prompt us to discover our individuality, to make self-absorption a seemingly more valuable activity than losing oneself in engagement with the world. Identity is an effect of power (as Foucaldian theory puts it) that has singled us out for some particular form of scrutiny or flattering attention—the point is to control us by telling us who we are and having us believe it. For an identity of that sort to develop, we have to be recognized by a force outside of us (marketers, the police, doctors, teachers, bosses, peers) in order to see our own uniqueness, otherwise we would simply be lost in the sensations of our own experience. The outside force becomes the organizing principle for our inchoate sensations, structuring our ideas about which of those sensations and responses are “us” and which are incidental, contingent, irrelevant. The attention we get teaches us which responses and feelings we should regard as authentic, integral to the self, and which we should regard as roles, pretenses, strategies.
The attention we are paid is always motivated by some purpose beyond our self-development; our self-awareness is an effect, a by-product of whatever it is that has led to our being noticed. Retailers want to sell us goods; as a by-product we come to recognize ourselves in the lifestyle that they have ferreted out in us and people like us. Our identity seems to precede the purchase of the lifestyle goods, but it is actually an ex post facto explanation or rationalization. The purchases are organizing our impulses into an identity; a coherent, innate identity isn’t prompting the impulses. Allen cites Habermas’s claim that individuation develops as a response to our socialization:

Habermas views individuals as produced through but not determined by socialization. As he puts it, “identity is produced through socialization, that is, through the fact that the growing child first of all integrates into a specific social system by appropriating symbolic generalities; it is later secured and developed through individuation, that is, precisely through a growing independence in relation to social systems.” This is because linguistic and moral development generates capacities for autonomy and reflexivity that enable socialized individuals to take up a critically reflexive stance on their own socialization processes.

The presumption is that language (or institutional discourses, etc.) constitutes a self who then learns to master language and reshape the self to suit his own ends. Self-awareness ultimately takes the form of rejecting serially the sort of person our upbringing and social situation has made us.

But what this suggests also is that self-awareness is at one further remove of alienation from our ordinary consciousness. Self-awareness is not our becoming aware of some intrinsic being we were destined at birth to become—it is not the discovery of authenticity within. We become individuals only within a social context; it is not some inborn proclivity. We have impulses, social institutions shape them into an identity, and then we react to that alienated identity and call it ourselves. That is to say, it only makes sense to be self-aware of our individuality in relation to what others think of us, which suggests that self-awareness is an internalized form of what we suspect or intuit others are thinking of us, and is distinct from mere consciousness, or our internal monologue that is preoccupied primarily with everything but the self.

Self-awareness is a process that attenuates identity and furthers its development, its “growth” (though its size can’t really be measured, even though the data-obsessed wish it could be) or its momentum. I see the whole idea of “growing” an identity and tracking its growth as a ramification of networked consumer capitalism. Instead of an identity that derives from integrating experiences, we are encouraged to conceive of a process of accumulation akin to that of capitalist firms. This takes our critical self-appreciation and turns it into an engine for self-extension, manifesting itself as a craving for novelty, a penchant for growing bored, a general dissatisfaction with oneself. Rather than achieve a “steady-state” self, that sort of identity is roundly derided as abrogation of personal potential; instead we must experience and consume as much as possible to prove that we are continuing to “grow as individuals”—prove we are “really alive”.

Autonomy is not freedom from power relations making us who we are—instead power enables us to recognize ourselves and thus gives us a way to see what we do as autonomous. Autonomy is a gift from power, not an escape from it. Consumerism permits us to express our autonomy, experience our own autonomy reflected back to us, through a series of purchasing decisions, elevated to the level of ontological referendums. Can you make yourself sufficiently free to dare to buy that new car and take on all the responsibility for the messages it will send? Will you seize control of the discourse constituting you by sending as many symbolic messages by way of consumer choices as possible? The networked society magnifies the import of these decisions and expands their ability to function as symbolic communication—a mode of communication more authentic than mere language because it carries a material weight, a cost. Identity is not what we say but what we do—which in a consumer society is buy things. In this recent FT piece Habermas puts that point across in his own inimitable style: “liberal confidence in the idea of an autonomous life is now confined to the individual freedom of choice of consumers who are living off the drip-feed of contingent opportunity structures.”

Another example of contingent opportunity structures are social networks, which capture the self but allow that process of capture to feel like liberation, because it gives the self a concrete mode of expression across a broader field. The way our identity can be used instrumentally on the networks seems an elaboration, an enhancement of autonomy even though it is a constriction of what we can do to forms dictated by the platform. (Subjectivity—there’s an app for that.) 


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