Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Identity: A complex thing

In the first of their trilogy of books — Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth — Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri make a distinction between two kinds of racism: “modern racism” and “postmodern racism”. The first, they point out, is recognisable by an essentialism of biological properties, specifically the pigmentation of one’s skin, which is supposed to determine one’s “identity” for the duration of one’s life, and from which no one can escape. Once black, always black; once white, always white; once Asian, always Asian; and so on.

In the face of severe criticism from various quarters, especially to the effect that it is one’s culture that determines one’s character, and not one’s race, this position of racism eventually shifted to its postmodern variety, which claims precisely that culture has priority over race — a person’s identity is determined by your culture, and not the colour of one’s skin. This seems quite acceptable, in light of instances of black and Oriental people, for example, who grow up in Western cultures and display these cultural identity markers, or vice versa. But then the “postmodern” racist move is made: according to postmodern racism, once a Jew, always a Jew (culturally speaking); once an Arab, always an Arab; once an African, always an African; once an American, always an American; and so on.

According to both of these kinds of racism, therefore, one’s racial, or cultural, identity is something from which one cannot escape — it is a kind of prison. Is this true? I believe not, and I shall try to explain why “identity” is far more complex than one is led to believe, and why such complexity enables one to “shift” one’s identity if one so chooses, even if this takes time and “practice”.

People often appeal to their “identity” — whether as individuals, or as specific groups — in order to justify their actions or preferences. Politicians, in their turn, use what has been called “identity-politics” to rally support for causes they promote, by appealing to a supposedly homogeneous group — Afrikaners, Zulus, whites, blacks, card-carrying party members — in the process implying that such individuals share an inviolable, fixed “identity” of sorts. In other words, quite apart from the two kinds of racism discussed at the outset, the way that the concept of identity is used in language creates the impression that it is something one is saddled with for life, and if on occasion you try to escape its clutches, you should feel such guilt that you return to “who you really are” with haste.

The futility of conceptualising cultural (or political, or religious, or racial) “identity” by means of such a monolithic, self-enclosing notion of identity becomes apparent when one reflects on what, exactly, one’s identity entails, and where it comes from. First, one has a name and usually also a surname. Through these linguistic markers an individual is inserted into the fabric of their culture — your first name(s) individualises you, and your surname (or its equivalent) inscribes you in a network of kinship relations, as any “family tree” shows. In other words, you are given a place or a (social) identity in society through language, or what the psychoanalytical theorist, Jacques Lacan, calls the symbolic order.

In the second place every person also has a specific appearance, and when it comes to identifying someone, the visible, physical marker one usually looks at is someone’s face — one’s image — which one recognises as belonging to Tilly or Tom, Vuyo or Lerato. Here one’s image-identity is registered in what Lacan calls the imaginary order, and comprises the second aspect of one’s identity. It is also the basis of one’s so-called self-image. The fact that one tends to be disconcerted by the appearance of so-called “identical twins” who look so much alike that they are virtually indistinguishable, confirms how much weight one attaches to this “imaginary” identity of a person.

However, things are complicated here by the fact that the imaginary register is also that of alienation, as Lacan indicates — instead of finding one’s “true” self here, one encounters a fantasy or fiction of oneself or one’s “ego”, easily seducing one into believing that this is the real “you” by the ostensible (but misleading) unity, totality and coherence of the images of oneself in the form of mirror-images, or photographs, for example. Needless to say, the extent to which photographs are posted on social networking sites like Facebook, to keep “friends” informed of your latest activities and your “makeover looks”, has the consequence that alienating fantasies of oneself flourish in these virtual spaces.

There is a third register in which one’s identity is inscribed, namely what Lacan terms the order of the “real” (not “reality”). This is the most difficult one to grasp, because it lies outside of language and visibility, and is perhaps best described as that in us which remains latent, and may manifest itself, unpredictably, under certain circumstances, as either something monstrous, or something saintly. Enigmatic as it may be, it is part of one’s “identity”.

All three aspects of one’s subjectivity are necessary for a person to be a “subject” in the usual sense of the word. For any person to be able to function in a reasonably “normal” or “healthy” manner, the three registers have to be intertwined in such a way that, if either of them loses its articulation with the other two, the person involved would be subject to pathology. It would be as if there were a short-circuit between the other two — for example, if the imaginary thread of a person’s identity were to collapse, and the symbolic would “short-circuit” with the “real”, one might encounter something like a member of the Borg in the science fiction series Star Trek, where every individual manifestation of the “collective super-organism” (the Borg) speaks, not as an individual with a distinct “ego”, but as a mouthpiece directly instantiating the whole.

From the above it should be apparent that what we think of as our “identity” is more complex and nuanced than most people tend to believe. Because of its complexity, we are able to escape from what could easily become an ideological prison — imposed on us by one of the two kinds of racism referred to earlier, for instance — by “revising” our personal identity. Because it is partly inscribed in language, and language is the bearer of cultural values, we are able to reject values that we do not accept, and appropriate others, in the process modifying our “cultural” (or in some cases even our “gender”-) identity. In other words, neither of the two types of racism that Hardt and Negri identify, is tenable — no one is forever locked in a racial or cultural straitjacket.

Because subjects are symbolically inscribed in society at the level of discourse, or asymmetrically structured language — which means that their cultural affiliations or interests are articulated in this register — they need never be prisoners to such cultural affiliations. If indeed one’s subjectivity is first structured by your mother tongue, one is able, at a later stage in life, to position oneself as subject of the symbolic in a different way — prioritising different values to those that first shaped one — if one so chooses. This is not easy, however, but requires a painstaking switch to a different discourse, a new discursive practice, in which the values one has chosen are embedded, and to which one’s moral practice then becomes subject. But it can, and has often been, done by individual subjects who have, for some or other reason, not felt at home in their “cultural identity”.

  • A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Herald on October 22 2010