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Identity: An Experiment Outside of Academia

Alice's picture


            I think about identity a lot. In the exercises we did in class, modeled after Lynda Barry’s writing workshop, I noticed that questions on the issue of identity kept popping up, no matter what topic we were told to start with. But what exactly do I mean by identity anyways? I think that is where my thoughts on identity get complicated as an identity can have contradicting, intersecting, and complicated definitions that have cultural, social, and political implications. So, first I look to the dictionary for a definition.
On there are ten definitions. I won’t list them all here, but the mere presence of ten different definitions provides evidence for the complicated history of an “identity.” One definition defines identity as “the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in personality over time and sometimes disturbed in mental illnesses, as schizophrenia.” Another says, “[Identity is a] condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is.” Based on these definitions of identity, I am faced with a question: why must an identity provide “sameness and continuity in personality over time?” Can’t one’s identity change over time? Is it not affected by social, political and even economical situations, which are inconstant? This definition constructs identity as a discourse that is static, perhaps something we are born with, something innate.
While I do agree that some aspects of identity are innate, I think many are products of the environment we live in. It’s like the age-old nature vs. nurture question. For decades scientists were supporting either nature or nature. Only recently have scientists realized that nature and nurture affect our lives. As ebock said in class, “We do not exist in a vacuum!” It would be impossible to formulate theories on identity by ignoring our experiences in our environments.
That said, I find that it is not the concept of an identity as a “condition or character as to who a person or what a ting is” that is problematic, but the social and political implications associated with an identity. Stereotypes exist that limit people’s ability to accept varying forms of an identity and often, when one takes on an identity, one takes on an entire social history that may/may not be desired. An identity thus becomes a social construction in itself that is heavy with social acceptance or inacceptance and often, visual expectations (how you should dress, wear your hair, etc). Personally, I don’t feel the need to identify my sexuality because it seems unnecessary and constricting to me. Yet, I wonder, by being “identity-less” am I just allowing others to identify me? I mean, even if I don’t need to identify myself, would if other people feel the need to provide an identity for me? Does it matter whether I don’t need an identity if everyone else does?
Therefore I am faced with a question: who are identities for? Do they exist for ourselves? For others? Or as Felice Picano suggests, do they exist in the spaces between us? But as a final project, I am not particularly concerned with my own thoughts on identity. I am wondering what people outside of the Bryn Mawr and Haverford liberal bubble think about it. I would like to venture out on the Main Line and in Philadelphia to ask questions (as I have been so well trained to do in this class) and see how opinions differ. Will there be consistencies based on race, age, or economic status? Discrepancies? I don’t venture out hoping to solve any answers or to look for a certain trend, I just would like to see what others think. I find myself coming out of class often thinking,” Yes! Gender and sexuality are fluid categories. Yes! We should stop thinking with an “either/or” mentality and get rid of binaries. BUT, it’s one thing to say these things in a liberal academic setting, what about those who are not experiencing the same environment? What do they think of these issues?”
We have talked a lot in class about activism and taking what we learn in class into the “real world” and this is my attempt to do just that. It will be a learning experience that I think will extend my knowledge of gender and sexuality, hopefully coming out of it with a whole new string of questions. I am not sure what I am going to discover, but that is not really the point. I hope to be surprised. I hope it encourages me to dream further.
With this in mind, not knowing what I will find, I plan to present these interviews via pictures, text, and video in my final project, using theory from academia such as Sherry Ortner, Felice Picano, and Kate Bornstein to investigate further how these perspectives on identity could have developed. Perhaps then I will be able to revise my dreams and incorporate these findings in order to look onward and outward in issues of not only identity, but of gender and sexuality as a whole.
Works Cited:
Sherry Ortner, “Reading America: Preliminary Notes on Class and Culture” – I plan to use this article as a basis for some of the situations I may encounter, asking people from different backgrounds for their thoughts on identity.
Kate Bornstein, My Gender Workbook – I will use many of her ideas on gender binaries and fluidity of identity to support my own thoughts.
Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw- Again, more theory on the use of identity and its purpose in our lives.
Felice Picano, Art and Sex In Greenwich Village – I hope to compare some of his experiences to my own and those that I hear about and discuss his theories on identity existing between us.
Caren Kaplan, "Postmodern Geographies: Feminist Politics of Location” – I will use Kaplan’s discussion of identities based on the understanding of space/place/location and time.
Stuart Hall, "Introduction." Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices – I want to use Hall’s ideas of stereotypes which reduce people to a few, simple traits that are fixed in nature.


rae's picture

Getting rid of the binaries--It's not just an academic thing.

I know that two people have already commented on you post, so I'm not going to count this as one of my two, but I just wanted to say something briefly.

You wrote, "Yes! Gender and sexuality are fluid categories. Yes! We should stop thinking with an “either/or” mentality and get rid of binaries. BUT, it’s one thing to say these things in a liberal academic setting, what about those who are not experiencing the same environment? What do they think of these issues?" 

In GenderQueer: Voices Beyond the Sexual Binary (which, if you haven't noticed since I'm constantly referencing it, is one of my new favorite books), there are bunches of people who do away with binary gender and sexuality, and not all of them are (or have been) in a liberal academic setting. Also, there's Ignacio Rivera (I recently posted about them because he's awesome)--they're not an academic, but I'd say "Queer, gender-shifting, Trans- Entity" is pretty non-binary.

I'm not saying you're wrong--actually, I think it's great that you are questioning this since it's really easy to just assume that what we know is how the world is. I just thought I'd mention that yeah, I've read a lot of stuff (most of which I can't remember right now) written by people who don't identify within the binary (sex/gender/sexual orientation/whatever) and who aren't just academics and college students.

cantaloupe's picture


My thought is that identity is entirely unexplainable.  I can only describe physical identities for myself, in addition to obvious identities such as i'm gay.  I probably couldn't even tell you what my emotional identity is or how I interact with people or what I think about all day.  I think that even asking people in the bi-co would be interesting.  Probably 9 out of 10 people would have to think for a long time about what their identity is and who it exists for.  And the answers would be diverse, I imagine.  I think it's impressive of you to venture out to the main line to ask people about their identities - I'm just wondering how you are going to do that.  Approaching someone random and asking about identity probably wouldn't end well.  Or are you planning to ask people you know outside of college but live close by?  Regardless, I'm curious as to what your responses will be.

Rhapsodica's picture

Alice, I really like your


I really like your project idea! Funny, I feel like we are both asking a lot of similar questions, but taking completely different angles on exploring them. I think it will be interesting to hear what people outside of the bi-co have to say about these things, and I am especially curious to hear what kinds of questions you are planning to ask, how you plan to word them, how you are thinking about selecting people to ask, etc. Will it be a written survey? A spoken discussion?

I was just reading an article yesterday in one of my sociology books about how the kind of ongoing discourse about diversity in which a person is involved (or not involved) affects what people believe and how they conceive of diversity, but also how comfortable they feel discussing those topics, and to what depth they can comfortably do so, etc. So, I imagine it will be interesting to think about *how* people in different places react to your questions, as well as what they actually say.

I suppose one question I have is whether you think that your questioning and discussing with people outside of the bi-co bubble might have any effect on them, in addition to giving you more to think about? I suppose there isn't really much way to know in advance, but that might be something else to think about... whether, through talking to others, it seems to affect their thinking at all... whether simply discussing these kinds of issues that aren't normally talked about ends up being a kind of activism (I think it is! but it will be cool to hear what you observe).