Culture

Abstract Thoughts on Identity

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.)

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image