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Who Are We? And Why Do We Care?

Rhapsodica's picture

Who Are We? And Why Do We Care?

As I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to address in my final project, I’ve kept coming back to questions of identity—how identity is formed, why we feel such a desire to figure out who we are and to be able to explain who we are to other people, how we create and handle changes to our identities, and ultimately, whether there is such a thing as a core self-identity at all.  In addition to considering these questions from the points of view we’ve explored in class, I’ve also been taking a sociology class called Self and Society, where we have been addressing similar questions—but so far, I still haven’t come to an answer that both makes sense and is satisfying. In that class, I feel like we are expected to come to the conclusion that there really isn’t anything special about each of us as individuals at all, and that the idea of being an individual and having a “self” is something purely constructed. This, of course, may be true, but even as I continue to read all the theory, I am still attached to the idea of having an identity that is unique, and which we have power and agency over developing.

One statement that particularly resonated with me was Felice Picano’s belief that his identity is not something that he needed to figure out for himself, but rather, for other people—that he doesn’t feel a need to define himself for himself. I suppose this seemed to interesting to me because it is very much at odds with my own way of approaching identity. Admittedly, I do tend to find some kind of delight in sharing who I am with others when it’s something I feel good about, but most of the time, that comes in secondarily. I am constantly thinking and contemplating, trying to figure out why I feel and think particular ways, making connections with past experiences and trying to find patterns. I find it to be such an interesting need—to feel as though I have some internally coherent and consistent picture of who I am, how I act and feel, etc. It’s not about being the same person or having a single identity (because one of the beautiful things about life, I believe, is that we are always changing and becoming), but rather about having a framework (or, perhaps, a narrative?) that I can rely on to help me figure out what to do next, how to understand how I am feeling, and how to fit new pieces of identity and experience into the larger picture of who I am and who I am becoming.

One thing I have started recognizing this semester is how many limits and binaries I seem to impose on everything—even in my own head. In my brainstorming on Tuesday, I wrote several questions about whether I was “allowed” to do or think something—and then I realized how absurd it was. Who dictates the rules of what I can think? I feel a constant need to be thinking “accurately,” to eradicate all of the contradictions from my thinking and to make sure my identity fits into the right boxes. Why do I (we?) live within this illusion that there are definite answers that flow easily and make sense, when that is just not true of people, or of reality? If there are no definite answers, why do humans feel the impulse to come to a clear answer? Why do we embark on this journey of self-discovery? Do we gain more through potentially finding ways to understand ourselves, or lose more through putting ourselves into potentially limiting boxes of who we are capable of being and what we are capable of doing?

Well, I have just rambled a lot and written out a bunch of questions—so what do I actually want to do? I would like to explore the process of developing an identity—specifically thinking about gender identity and categories related to sexual orientation—and consider the question of whether it is possible to develop an identity without relying on categories and binaries. I would like to think about the process of developing an identity not just in terms of academic theories, but in terms of how this process takes place in a person’s conscious, lived experiences, and why exploring identity might take a greater significance for some people than for others. I want to think about the potential power of constructing a narrative of one’s own life/identity, and about how much choice and control we have in choosing which pieces of our experiences to absorb and interpret in particular ways—the constant attempts we make to create a coherent whole out of it all.

Rather than just writing a paper, I would like to explore these questions through working with an art form similar to the one used by Lynda Barry in What It Is (and which I have incidentally taken up as a relaxing activity that I find to be figuratively representative of how I conceive of identity): the collage. I hope to create a few different collage-type pieces of work, and to reflect on the process of creating those pieces, as well as the finished products, thinking about how this form and process is relevant to understanding the formation of identity. In terms of content for the pieces, I am hoping to address issues of my own experiences coming to terms with what it means for me to be a woman in my family and in our larger society, and of my current thinking about gender identity and sexual orientation. I plan to use found pictures, words, and other clippings from magazines and basically any other sources I can get my hands on. In addition to the found pieces, I will periodically create new pieces of my own in order to literally and figuratively create a fuller picture of what I am trying to express when it feels necessary. I plan to draw on things we have read in class, as well as other texts, poetry, etc. that have been important to my development as an individual. Through using such an eclectic style, and drawing on so many different sources and influences, I want to think about the different forms that one’s personal narrative can take on, what it might be important for one to include (or exclude), and how different forms of expression can be appropriate for different narratives.

I will have a written component to this project as well, but I am reluctant to decide exactly what it will look like just yet. I would like to try and work on the artistic part first, and see what I learn through approaching my thoughts, the class material, and the visual pieces from a different way than I normally would—letting my mind “have a mind of its own” rather than pushing it to analyze right away. I do intend to combine this more open, artistic approach with an intellectual, analytical approach—essentially, trying to break down the binary that seems to exist between those different modes of thought, since I feel like both are essential and interrelated.



In terms of works I plan to consult—I plan to draw on Kate Bornstein’s ideas from My Gender Workbook (and perhaps a little bit from Gender Outlaw if I find a chance to look at it), as well as those she expressed during her talk and performance, to think about the development and attachment that we have to gender identity, and about potential alternatives to labels and binary thinking. I also plan to think about Lynda Barry’s use of the collage form in her book, and about how she uses it to represent her own narrative and create a particular visual/intellectual experience for the reader. As for a third source—well, I am not sure exactly what else I plan to use, but I imagine I will draw on a combination of lines of poetry and other quotes that I have yet to dig up. One poet that I always come back to, whose work always touches me on a level that feels to be below consciousness, is Adrienne Rich, and I will probably include lines from her work that have been particularly resonant and relevant to me.




twig's picture

a crucial question

i think that this is definitely one of the crucial questions that has come out of our class and i'm glad you're going to try to tackle it. that was one of the things that picano said that most stuck with me also. and he was so sure of it, and it seemed like we hadn't even realized that, yes, it sounds a little foolish to say you have to idenitify yourself to yourself, and yet we try to do it all the time. i agree with skindeep that a collage seems like a good way to approach it, since identity really is a collage where different aspects are expressed in differing degrees at different moments in our lives.

skindeep's picture

an idea well expressed

the theme of your project sounds amazing - in the sense that it seems to be both intriguing and relevant. the questions you pose and the answers you're trying to find seem to be easy to relate to and yet not so easy to solve.

i like the fact that you chose to make a collage, simply because it allows someone to view everything its in complete - ness (as a whole) and yet view each individual picture as an entity -- which fits in nicely with your theme.

maybe you could focus more on this particular question - Do we gain more through potentially finding ways to understand ourselves, or lose more through putting ourselves into potentially limiting boxes of who we are capable of being and what we are capable of doing? simply because it appears to encompass what you're trying to say.

the project sounds great and I hope I'll be able to glimpse of it once you're done!