Who do you think you are?
It’s hard not to hear that question as an interrogation, a challenge. It’s particularly hard when it’s the subtext running through everything I read. Who are we? How has the way we see ourselves changed over generations, cultural epochs? How does being online impact our sense of ourselves?
Studying identity is like peering into a mirror that reflects a thousand mirrors back: it’s dizzying. The big picture I’m trying to cobble together isn’t about me, and yet it’s my own face I see refracted out from the exploration: a disco ball of Bonnies spinning to the tune of of a lot of big theory words. It’s all heady enough without the inevitable personalization the identity lens brings. Grappling with something so big and unwieldy and…well…self-ish does make me wonder who I think am. In a hundred different ways. Which is only really culturally appropriate if one is fourteen and writing bad existential poetry.
And then there’s the motion sickness. I’m at the point in my Ph.D where the bulk of the required, pre-determined coursework is done or on hold, to an extent. I’m in the privileged position of spending many of my waking hours under my own direction, blindly groping – or so it feels – towards vague concepts that excite and intimidate me.
But the more I read, the more the concepts I started with slip from my grasp, and the ground shifts under me.
Part of me feels like this uncertainty is probably good, that my existing thought and belief structures need to be destabilized in order to allow new ideas and concepts to settle somewhere. Part of me balks at how convenient and tidy this sounds, as if I thought my thoughts eventually formed coherent, integrated entities. Ha. Suspicious notion for somebody working with the partiality and fragmentation of poststructural theory.
But then, blushing at being caught out in my wrongthought, I hear the refrain again. Who do you think you are?
Here’s the thing. I have a whole other blog to tell you who I think I am. Here, I’m going to try to tell you who I think YOU are. Or how I think identity works, at this early, slippery, juncture in the sorting process.
I have been sleeping with Judith Butler under my pillow. In book form.
I started this journey because I’m interested in the idea of digital identity, of who we are when we’re online. What it means to “talk” to people on Twitter. What it means to interact digitally, and form deep connections with people we may have never met. How writing one’s life can be different from telling it in person, because of what one is allowed to say and focus on. What it means to share our thoughts and life via RSS or tweet or status update rather than email or telephone. Why some of us @reply most of the time, using the medium almost as a party line. What kind of commitments – in terms of time and repeated engagement, in terms of pressure to be funny or interesting or smart – it takes to build and maintain a “self” online, an identity that others recognize and respond to. Whether there’s a digital identity even if nobody’s reading or following.
For Judith Butler, identity is performative. There is no essential, core self: who we are or think we are is created by discourse, what she calls “the limits of acceptable speech” (1997). Discourse is always in circulation, in every culture, though it shifts from place to place and over time, sometimes drastically with drastic events. We are all, for Butler, creatures of discourse and little more. Even the body is understood in her work not as a pre-discursive fact – though she doesn’t deny that we have bodies – but as meaningful to us in terms of language. Even before we are born these days, thanks to ultrasound, we exist within a web of language relations and assumptions that predate and utterly circumscribe our bodies. You are male. I am female. Those meanings are read onto us even before we know we exist, and shape how we come to know ourselves.
Butler disrupts the apparent simplicity of that binary and the concepts of gender and heterosexual norm that it supports by exploring histories of feminism and Foucault, challenging who we think we are by suggesting that the essentialist categories we rely on to explain ourselves have cultural and power-based historical interests propping them up.
(In a few weeks I have to give a presentation on Butler and her non-essentialist identity concepts to a room in which I will actually be the only person generally identified as straight and white. We’ll see how that goes. It’s one thing to destabilize identity when yours is usually taken up as non-problematic for others. It’s another thing to try to do so to a group of people who’ve lived the oppression our society doles out to identities that don’t measure up to the white, heterosexual discursive norm.)
It may seem strange to try to ground a study of digital identity in queer theory, with its focus on bodies that don’t even make it into the online realm. And yet the notion that we perform ourselves with each other, differently according to circumstances and the discourses that limit and frame the roles we understand ourselves to be playing, is for me an extraordinarily useful place to begin examining how and who we are online, and whether and how this who differs from the selves we get to be or play in our so-called “real” lives.
For me, I’m not sure there’s even a divide anymore. Online is one of the places I live and perform. So is the university. So is my children’s daycare, and the grocery store, and whereever else I go. So is my home, and even here my roles vary depending on who I’m interacting with. Some of these selves or performances matter more to me than others, some are more surface than others, more circumscribed by the limits of acceptable speech and by what is expected. But I’m not sure any aren’t real.
Do you believe in a real, authentic core self? How does the idea of performance strike you? And who are you when you’re online?
Who do you think you are?