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The question of identity

Author: joe

Tuesday, 20 November, 2012 - 22:09

One of the concerns that arises in the analysis of the relationship between selfhood and computerised media is a focus on authenticity. There is a tension that arises between the various personae that people are able to adopt in any given situation and the centripetal force that unites them in some supposed inner core. The relative status of these different personae - the extent to which they have fidelity with respect to the "primary source" of the "inner core", or the extent to which they perhaps mislead other inter-actors as to the true nature of that "real person", or even threaten the supposed integrity of the authentic self, is instantiated in the very functionality and interface of the computer screen which permits the same "logged-in, authenticated user" to adopt pseudonymous guises in online environments that can be slipped in and out of, framed as they are by windows one can "cycle through".

The people that Turkle describes, who find in the windowed interface a serendipitous enactment of their sense of their plural selves might, as Zizek puts it, be enabled to "discover new aspects of 'me', a wealth of shifting identities, of masks without a 'real' person behind them". In the postmodern world of simulation, where we as subjects trust in the fantasies presented on the digital screen rather than become modernist masters of the inner workings of the device, (the technics), instead we should "endorse this 'dissemination' of the unique self into a multiplicity of competing agents, into a 'collective mind'" and appropriate the logic of the "'decentred' subject".

Zizek provides a number of analogies for thinking about the efficacy of the production or construction of the decentred self, albeit that it might involve an "immanent violence and arbitrariness" since it has no authentic hinterland to which it must pay some sort of deference. Capra's film "Meet John Doe" portrays a character who adopts a "fake identity" but learns to adopt the subject position that the role demands of its actor. The cultural landscape is awash with imaginative explorations of the consequences of identity play, and in many of those story experiments, the narrative is resolved only when the protagonist learns to accept the identity which was at first mere play or a reluctant contingency. In "Sommersby", the interloper who adopts the identity of Jack demonstrates the fullness of his sincerity by accepting the penalty of death that is its price. The transience of identity necessary for persons to "become someone else" has its corollary in the tradition of fictions in which disguised characters become the object of some lover's affection, only for those affections to switch target as the disguise is revealed or passed along: in Twelfth Knight, Olivia easily accepts Sebastian as a husband despite having fallen in love with his disguised sister Viola, suggesting that accepting someone for who they appear to be is a perfectly adequate strategy.

Such ways of thinking about the self are clearly in contrast to traditional conceptions in which an authentic, continuous self acts as a guarantor of identity. Odysseus' testing of Penelope by adopting a disguise is an early instance of the depiction of a "true" identity which should be immune to the vicissitudes of changing circumstance or outer appearance. Woolf's “Orlando” is another case where a distinct and unitary identity both survives and underpins a shifting collection of personae and genders, adopted in dramatic episodic shifts. The protagonist's picaresque adventures are intertwined with the trope of 'The Oak Tree', the work which Orlando eventually completes, and which acts both as the "spine of the earth" and as the embodiment of change as it "flowered and faded so often", as it had over many years, "put forth its leaves and shaken them to the ground".

Erving Goffman provides useful tools for thinking about the shifting personae that we adopt. Using a dramaturgical model as the context for understanding interpersonal interactions, Goffman suggests that in any given situation we are actors on stage, a context which entails the existence of an audience whose observation of us is a primary structuring factor in our self-awareness. While on such stages, we stick to particular scripts - those we have learned, through normal processes of socialisation, which are appropriate to the context.

Such performances, enacted under the consciousness of observation, occur where Goffman calls front ‘stage’ or ‘region’ – the situation in which ‘act out’ the appropriate sorts of behaviours that we know are expected of us. Distinct from the ‘front’ region is a corresponding ‘back’ region – where alternative modes of performance can occur. Note though that this ‘back-stage’ situation need not be thought of as the refuge of the true or authentic inner self which can express itself away from the gaze of the audience: the back region is rather ambiguous, since it is commonly co-habited by fellow-performers who are also part of our ‘team’, also ‘letting their hair down’; and it is also a place where habituation can result in back-stage scripts becoming every bit as socialised in our behaviour as the formulae we follow front-stage. The back can be though of as just another front.

This dramaturgical metaphor opens the way to anti-essentialist conceptions of selfhood: contrary to traditional notions of the dimensions of our identity that have been considered to be stable, material and inescapable - sexuality, gender, kinship, race – not to mention the tangible common sense that we ‘are who we are’ (‘I am that I am’) – there is no inner core as such, but a constantly evolving and self-monitoring sense of self whose coherence is the subject of constant vigilence – either of ourselves or of circumscribing institutional and social apparatuses and their many ‘techniques’. It is only in the light of such possibilities that Butler could articulate the trouble with gender, and suggest that discursive formations of selfhood are anterior to the traditional material considerations of physiology and instrumental knowledge practices.

Categories: identity, performance, authenticity, front, back, queer theory, Goffman, Turkle, Zizek, Butler, Foucault, selfhood,
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