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When it comes to discussing the notion of one’s self-identity, it is important to understand that, regardless of what happened to be our outlook on the notion in question, we are bound to address it solely within the context of the currently predominant socio-cultural discourse. In its turn, this presupposes that there is indeed a good reason to believe that the discourse of identity is essentially concerned with the agenda of ensuring their hegemony over others, on the part of the discourse’s participants. As Hall aptly noted, “There is no moment now… where we are not able, extensively and without end, to theorize power—politics, race, class and gender, subjugation, domination, marginality, otherness, etc.” (Hall 1992, p. 286). What it means, is that there will always be political overtones to how the identity-related subjects are being discussed. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while promoting the idea that one’s self-identity is ‘ambivalent’ to an extent, in the sense of being both: socially constructed and genetically predetermined.
The proponents of the environmental/dynamic theory of how one’s sense of identity is being formed, often point out to the fact that just about any culture, as well as the mentioned sense, should not be thought of in terms of an objective ‘thing in itself’. According to them, identity is essentially a process-in-making, which in turn suggests that it is being acquired, as a result of a particular individual facing life-challenges on a continuous basis (Shashidhar 1997, p. 38). In this respect, we can well refer to Butler’s (1988) article, in which the author promotes the idea that one’s sense of gender-identity is being continually ‘reconstructed’, by the mean of the concerned individual remaining thoroughly affiliated with what happened to be the socially upheld set of the gender-related behavioral ethics. Technically speaking, this process is about men and women indulging in the highly ritualistic and publicly observable ‘sex-affirmative’ acts (acting as the adherents of either masculine or feminine existential values) – hence, trying to prove to the whole world that they are psychologically compatible with what happened to be their formal sex. As the author noted, “My suggestion is that the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (Butler 1988, p. 523). This, of course, implies that identity/culture is something ‘fluid’, rather than something well established in the space-time continuum.
The similar point of view is advocated by Hollway, who defines identity as the activity of ‘identification’ – that is, “imagining oneself in another person’s place” (2009, p. 255). Hollway’s definition is concerned with the assumption that, as people live their lives, they grow increasingly aware of what would account for the age-related circumstantially appropriate behavioral stances (capable of affecting one’s sense of self-identity), on their part. To exemplify the legitimacy of this suggestion, we can mention the identity-related transformation, experienced by women in the aftermath of childbirth, which instantaneously endows them with the new identity of a ‘mother’. It is understood, of course, that the dynamic/environmental perspective on the formation of one’s identity is politically charged – by acting in accordance with what is being expected of them by the society, men and women simply strive to live up to the provisions of the discourse of ‘euro-centric patriarchialism’, which still dominates in the West.
Nevertheless, there are also many reasons to believe that the mentioned ‘acts of identification’, on a particular person’s part, do not affect the innermost constituents of how he or she is being genetically ‘preprogrammed’ to react to the externally induced stimuli. The foremost of these reasons is concerned with the well-proven fact that, in the biological sense of this word, the representatives of Homo Sapience species are essentially hairless primates. In its turn, this presupposes that, regardless of what happened to be the qualitative characteristics of their sense of self-identity; they may have only one true purpose in life, justified by the Darwinian laws of evolution – spreading genes (sex), making money (for nutrition) and striving to attain a social prominence (domination). Biologically speaking, one’s existence is solely concerned with establishing the objective preconditions for the spatial preservation of his or her DNA.
This, of course, suggests the legitimacy of the materialist/instrumental outlook on the significance of how one goes about constructing its sense of identity – hence, implying that there is indeed nothing phenomenological about the notion in question. Apparently, the manner in which people react to the challenges of life (commonly assumed reflective of their identity), cannot be discussed outside of what accounts for the measure of their ‘existential fitness’. What it means is that, rather than connoting the notion of ‘uniqueness’, the term ‘identity’ in fact connotes the notion of ‘survival’. The rationale behind this suggestion can be formulated as follows: As the recent breakthroughs in the field of neurology indicate, the spatially observable alterations to one’s sense of self-identity do not quite reflect the process of this individual growing emotionally detached from what he or she used to be in the past. Rather, they reflect the degree of an environmental adaptability, on the part of what happened to be the concerned person’s ‘true-self’ (or ‘soul’, as religious people refer to it) – something, solely defined by the constituents of his or her DNA-makeup. While addressing life-challenges, throughout our lives, we naturally adopt different approaches to doing it, which is often seen as being yet another confirmation of the validity of the specifically environmental outlook on how one’s sense of self-identity is being formed and maintained.
Yet, there are many good reasons to think that the qualitative essence of these approaches remains the same, regardless of what happened to be the affiliated external forces of influence, which in turn presupposes the existence of a ‘true-self’ (unaffected by the flow of time) in just about any person. Allegorically speaking, as they go through life, people do wear different ‘masks’. However, the actual force that makes the ‘identification’-triggered replacement of these ‘masks’ possible, does not undergo any transformation. There is a political implication to this suggestion, because it does allow us to discuss one’s existential posture, as such that reflect the qualitative aspects of the concerned person’s affiliation with a particular culture, which in turn provides the notion of race/ethnicity with a whole new meaning.
I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, in defense of the idea that there is the quality of ambivalence to the notion of identity, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, the identity of just about any person continues to adopt new subtleties, throughout the course of his or her life. Yet, on a fundamental level, it remains the same.
Butler, J 1988, ‘Performative acts and gender constitution: an essay in phenomenology and feminist theory’, Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4. pp. 519-531.
Hall, S 1992, ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in L Grossberg, C Nelson & P Treichler (eds), Cultural studies, Routledge, New York, pp. 277-295.
Hollway, W 2009, ‘Identity Change and Identiﬁcation’, in S Bromley, J Clarke, S Hinchliffe & S Taylor (eds.), Exploring social lives, The Open University, Walton Hall, pp. 251-289.
Shashidhar, R 1997, ‘Culture and society: an Introduction to Raymond Williams’, Social Scientist, vol. 25, no. 5/6, pp. 33-53.