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Reflections on Identity

July 15, 2009

Alderson and I recently got into a debate about having a self (in the comments to this post); part of the discussion revolved around how having a “self” might be possible in a non-essentialist way. That is, if there is no essence, no soul, no atman, can there still be some sort of continuity of self? I think there can be, but that it is minimal, and is largely the product of the recognition of others. Thinking about this led me to the following consideration about how identiies work.

Pretend we have two institutions of higher education, both started in the year 1900: Athens University and Athens College.

Let’s say that Athens University started as a Catholic college with a sizable campus in downtown Athens. Over time, however, the school lost its Christian identity and mission, and adopted a “secular” identity and mission instead. In addition, as the university grew it had to expand into a suburban campus. Eventually the downtown campus was in such a state of disrepair that it was cheaper to close it and move the college entirely to the new suburban campus.

Athens College also was a Catholic college in downtown Athens, but two years ago it went bankrupt and closed. However, only a year passed before some Christian investors bought the campus and reopened it under a new name: St. Benedict College. These investors kept the same mission statement, hired the previous faculty, turned on the lights, and opened for business.

Socially and legally speaking, Athens University in 1900 and Athens University in 2009 are the same schools, despite the fact that they don’t have the same mission, the same campus, the same faculty, etc. Athens University can claim to celebrate its109th birthday this year, and can put “Established in 1900” on all their literature. Students who just graduated can claim to have gone to the same school their grandparents went to.

By contrast, socially and legally speaking Athens College and St. Benedict are two different schools. Although the campus is the same, the mission is the same, and the faculty is the same. They can’t claim to be celebrating their 109th birthday, they probably don’t have rights to the any registered trademarks associated with Athens College (such as a logo), and so on.

Identities are weird this way. General Motors today has more in common with Ford today than either have in common with their own namesakes 50 or 100 years ago, but it doesn’t matter: identity through time is not necessarily based on any sort of real continuity.

There’s something really absurd about this. 21st century bourgeois Christians have lots more in common with 21st century bourgeois Muslims and Jews than they do with 1st century Christians, but they nevertheless claim to be in continuity with 1st century Christians and different from Muslims and Jews.

This doesn’t lead me to conclude that identities are false, or fake, or unreal. It’s just that identity claims are social productions, which have a logic which is counter-intuitive and quite different from common sense.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. larry c wilson permalink
    July 15, 2009 1:51 pm

    The “self” is an attribute of biological organisms not psuedo-scientific sociological organisms.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 2:16 pm

    Larry, that strikes me as a weird thing to say, not least of which because my post was primarily about identities, not selves.

    But, in any case, you seem to be suggesting that selfhood is in biological organisms themelves, which is false. What I myself am is almost entirely social: I couldn’t be a professor without a college, I couldn’t be a husband without a wife, I couldn’t be a son without a father, I couldn’t be a blogger without the internet, and so on. If you asked me “who are you” the last thing I would say is a biological organism—I am a social being whose self is a product of social relations, not independent of them.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 3:25 pm

    In addition, independently of whether or not human selves are like institutional selves, that doesn’t mean that identity claims don’t work similar between the two types of cases.

  4. larry c wilson permalink
    July 15, 2009 4:42 pm

    I don’t identify myself by my job or my relationships, but by my temperment.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 5:01 pm

    If you didn’t rely on any other identities you couldn’t get a home loan (requires job identity), join a union/professional academy (requires a job identity), vote (requires national identity), marry (currently requires gendered identity), and so on.

  6. larry c wilson permalink
    July 15, 2009 10:50 pm

    those are not self but roles I play.

  7. John permalink
    July 16, 2009 8:33 am

    Is your temperament something that has not been created (or at least influenced) by social interactions? There may be genetic tendencies present at birth, but these tendencies describe a range of possible outcomes; they don’t determine your whole personality from the outset. That is, it’s not like there’s a “friendliness” gene, and if you have it, you’re going to be outgoing and likable. Any natural tendency toward friendliness is going to be influenced by (or a product of) environmental conditions: early familial relations, early school experiences, proximity to other children, etc.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m just naturally surly. But I think that picture of myself is a product of selection bias–for some reason, I’ve come to identify my “me-ness” with “surliness” and I ignore all the times I’m kind and friendly–and strictly environmental factors. However, the environmental factors I was about to describe (divorce, intermittent poverty, changing schools often, moving across the country) aren’t deterministic, either–there’s more to your personality than cause and effect.

    The point is, my picture of myself (or my “self”) is just that: a picture, an interpretation, a way of looking at something from just one angle. Anything you can think of as being essential to your personality can be changed, discarded, transformed, either knowingly or unknowingly.

    “Where psychoanalysis says, ‘Stop, find your self again,’ we should say instead, ‘Let’s go further still, we haven’t found our [Body without Organs] yet, we haven’t sufficiently dismantled our self.’ Substitute forgetting for anamnesis, experimentation without interpretation. Find your body without organs. Find out how to make it. It’s a question of life and death, youth and old age, sadness and joy. It is where everything is played out.” –Deleuze and Guattari, “A Thousand Plateaus”

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 16, 2009 9:02 am

    Great quote from D & G!

    Larry, you seem to want to separate between primary and secondary levels, or between authentic self and roles, or something like that. But how can you justify that sort of distinction? You could define self as everything that’s a part of you that’s not a role, but that would be a circular argument …

  9. larry c wilson permalink
    July 16, 2009 11:41 am

    Logic is no way to live a life.

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