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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,
Comments: 2


Author: joe

Tuesday, 23 November, 2010 - 23:51

- on the absence of inner realities.

While we could retain the common-sense notion that fostered appearances can be discredited by a discrepant reality, - there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they have the power of embarrassing. A cynical view of everyday performances can be as one-sided as the one that is sponsored by the performer. For many sociological issues it may not even be necessary to decide which is the more real, the fostered impression or the one the performer attempts to prevent the audience from receiving. The crucial sociological consideration, for this report, at least, is merely that impressions fostered in everyday performances are subject to disruption. We will want to know what kind of impression of reality can shatter the fostered impression of reality, and what reality really is can be left to other students. We will want to ask, "What are the ways in which a given impression can be discredited?" and this is not quite the same as asking, "What are the ways in which the given impression is false?"
I would like, finally, to add that the matters which the audience leaves alone because of their awe of the performer are likely to be the matters about which he would feel shame were a disclosure to occur. As Riezler has suggested, we have, then, a basic social coin, with awe on one side and shame on the other. The audience senses secret mysteries and powers behind the performance, and the performer senses that his chief secrets are petty ones. As countless folk tales and initiation rites show, often the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery; the real problem is to prevent the audience from learning this too.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Goffman's front and back regions and their associated performances are standard fare in the kinds of intro-to-cultural-studies units I've taught on, especially in relation to online participatory media, where it has been a popular way of understanding the liberating and playful 'face-work' that disembodied, pseudo-anonymous spaces afford. The front persona acts out roles based on scripts determined by the performative imperatives in play at any given moment - the particular stage being occupied, the nature of the audience present, the props and paraphernalia to hand, the superset of expectations and conventions which are mobilised by the narrative genre at work and the attendant sense of destination that such stories always demand. The 'front' persona is what we think it is - it is transparently a role, immediate in its ability or otherwise to convince us of its sincerity.

The back region is always more problematic. it is very tempting to ascribe to the 'back' region a hidden authenticity - the real actor behind the role, the performer behind the performance. If the front region is determined by the external pressures of peers, observers and the wider world, as well as the internal pressures exerted by self-consciousness and confidence, personal desires and aspirations, fears of failure and hopes of acceptance, then surely the back region is what is concealed by the performance: the inner drives and originating sources of such desires, fears and hopes - the real person behind the appearance. Common wisdom fears that excessive and injudicious self-exposure will reveal more of oneself than was intended or might be desirable or safe, precisely because areas of the back persona will escape through cracks in an out-of-control performance - corpsing.

I had gone along with this interpretation of Goffman's analysis, teaching undergraduates about the front persona and it's conformance to social norms, versus the back persona and its association with a more authentic, hidden self - until one of my colleagues demanded to know why I was so sure this back persona should necessarily be 'the real me', and even whether Goffman intended that we should understand it so. Why would I assume that 'back' were synonymous with 'real'? Go back to the text, the script.

The analysis of back regions focusses for the most part, (frustratingly for the essay-writing or lecture-planning skim-reader looking for a quote about online identities) on teams. The teams go front-stage together in their workplaces, sanatoria, suburbs and homes; they also go back-stage together where the anti-front actions play themselves out - informality, swearing, solidarity, irritability being a few of the symptoms Goffman lists. But back-stage is still stage: the actor has merely turned his back on one proscenium arch to face another audience. The back is just another front: the business of complying with scripts continues just the same. We may ask, where is the back region to this new front-that-was-back? Is there an end to the infinite regress, when the actor leaves and finds himself alone? Goffman himself notes the dilemma:

"it must be allowed that one can become so habituated to one's front region activity and front region character that it may be necessary to handle one's relaxation from it as a performance. One may feel obliged, when backstage, to act out of character in a familiar fashion and this can come to be more of a pose than the performance for which it was meant to provide a relaxation."

He seems to imply, here, that habit makes the back region a performance in itself, but I wonder if his aside - that the question of "what reality really is can be left to other students" - is not a hint that those other students might be chasing a hall of mirrors. The performances are - as the dramaturgical analogy implies - acts, and as such, they enact; they make real. Perhaps they do not reveal or conceal hidden depths, so much as they compensate for the absence of such essences, and in so doing produce what is now, newly real. There is no inner core which ever-withdraws from display and revelation. There is only a performer; there is no actor; and therefore - no gap.

Categories: Erving Goffman, dramaturgy, performance, identity, gap, front, back, persona,
Comments: 0