Identity Now

Mark Edmundson explores -- and applauds -- current students' quest for identity but says that achieving it is only half the game.

February 20, 2018

My students at the University of Virginia are transfixed by identity, much as college students everywhere now seem to be. They want to know who they are, and they spend plenty of their college time trying to figure it out. Am I gay or straight? Or am I some complexly shifting mix of sexual identities? Am I male or female, or perhaps something in between? Maybe I should contemplate changing my gender identity, through dress and appearance, or even through surgery. Perhaps I’m queer. (But what does being queer mean now, and to me?)

Not all of my students have read Judith Butler. But they are all familiar with the view that gender is a matter of performance. And if we can perform gender as we like, largely undetermined by hormones and genes, then an ultimate freedom of identity presumably reigns.

Perhaps the most salient category for arriving at one’s contemporary identity is race. My students are highly conscious of racial terms. Am I black? Or am I mixed race? (Most African-Americans could claim either of these identities.) If I have 16 percent Native American blood, is it legitimate to call myself an American Indian? Can I say that I’m a member of a tribe when there are, perhaps, tribe members who don’t think that 16 percent is enough?

What my students’ identity quests have in common is that the terms of demarcation tend to be group terms. One affiliates with one, or more likely a variety of groups, and in so doing finds oneself, finds an identity.

After UVA graduation this year, I ran into a student I’m particularly fond of. She was wearing a red stole from the Asian Pacific American students’ association, a purple cord to signify affiliation with the LGBTQ+ community and an orange stole for graduating in three years or fewer. African-American students wear a kente cloth; there’s a cord for the athletics honor roll, one for the academically elite Echols Scholars and others designations to boot. Groups and groups: 20 years ago, one might have glimpsed a Phi Beta Kappa key, but that would have been about it.

Some observers find the results of young people’s current quests for identity through group affiliation to be slightly comic, maybe more than slightly. In her illuminating book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Angela Nagle discusses some of the more striking gender identities that have emerged from Tumblr blog posts. To wit: Alexigender: gender identity that is fluid between more than one gender, but the individual cannot tell what those genders are. Ambigender: a feeling of two genders simultaneously, but without fluidity, shifting; may be used synonymously in some cases with bigender. Anxiegender: a gender affected by anxiety. And we’re still in the A’s.

Nagle is a remarkably good-humored guide to online cultures, but even she smiles at some of the gender categories she encounters. I smile, too. But laugh? Far from it. I’m with Henry David Thoreau when he says, “I desire that there be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s, or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

As a teacher, I applaud the quest for identity among my students. The quest often provokes tough-minded introspection, plenty of conversation online and off, and sometimes brave declarations that parents and friends are surprised or even shocked by. My students’ terms for discovering and disclosing identity are not my terms or my generation’s. How could they be? I can only step back and cheer when, after protracted introspection, a young person makes a declaration of identity.

Being and Doing

But identity is not enough. To put the matter crudely, once one decides who one is, one must decide what one will do. A discovery or a disclosure of identity can be a brilliant first step, and it matters for many reasons. But I think it matters chiefly because locating one’s identity clears the decks, establishes some measure of inner peace and puts one in a position to do one’s work in the world. “But do your thing,” says Emerson, “and I shall know you.”

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, founders of a version of existentialism, were polemically concerned with the tensions between being and doing. To simplify matters a bit: they tended to believe that people were prone to inertia. We all want to turn ourselves into the equivalent of natural objects. In so doing, we can deny time (and death) and can rest content within ourselves. Sartre and Beauvoir were highly suspicious of this state. They were inclined to believe that individuals can only thrive when they have a “project.”

People have to struggle against chaos and despair by giving themselves a major enterprise in life and throwing themselves into it. Write your novel. Compose your symphony. Paint your picture, dance your dance. Or, moving away from Beauvoir and Sartre, who shared the standard French intellectual’s disdain for the bourgeoisie, start your company, score a patent on your gizmo, pitch your idea to the investors who can make it all happen.

It’s probably OK to rest, although Sartre and Beauvoir didn’t rest much. You could probably lapse into being in itself (être en soi) and release yourself from being for itself (être pour soi) from time to time. Ultimately though, “being for itself” is the authentic form of life: it keeps you vital and puts you in a position to contribute something to the world.

Sartre and Beauvoir were singular individuals -- they sought independent identities and found them. (Take the erotic arrangements they made: they would always be loyal to each other but enjoy full mutual permission for flings with this other alluring person or that.) Yet they didn’t rest with identity. They wrote philosophical works, novels, short stories, essays and reviews, and they were active in politics. Beauvoir was committed to women’s rights and to exploring the identity of women, but she went far into other regions of writing and thought.

I think that Sartre and Beauvoir, iconoclasts that they were, would have been pleased with the current push for identity -- the more eccentric the better. But achieving identity is only half the game. It’s necessary to use identity as a base to do one’s work in the world. Spending a lifetime asking and answering the question "Who am I?" may be absorbing, but it can lead to sterility and waste. Fixation on identity might well turn a potentially active, generous human being into a self-absorbed lump who offers little to others.

But, one might say, the quest for identity is socially useful in that it widens the area of possibility for others. (Norman Mailer said something like this when he was reflecting on the social value of the hipster in his great essay “The White Negro.”) Young people see what those a little older have achieved by way of identity formation and are inspired to do likewise. There’s some truth in that, especially if the individual who’s made the achievement does something to spread the word about the perils and joys of the identity quest. She might write a book or a play about the struggle; he might take a job counseling others and leading them along the road to self-resolution. But simply resting in self-resolution, or spending one’s early years calibrating and recalibrating identity, is a pretty good way to turn yourself into a human bog.

In my own teaching, for what it may be worth, I like to pose the question of ideals. We study the great ideals: courage, compassion, wisdom and imaginative creation. I ask students a pair of questions. One: Which of the ideals draws you the most? (That’s a question about identity, about being.) But then, question two: As a thought experiment, how would you construct a life based upon that ideal? (That’s a question about action, about doing.) If you chose compassion as an encompassing ideal, would you work for the poor, would you become a labor organizer -- or would you, maybe, create a business that would offer now unemployed people multiple possibilities?

Philosophical questions arise when we deal with the subject of identity. Can we, after Freud and Derrida, think of our inner lives as capable of being unified? Perhaps the inner contest of desires -- the ongoing civil war of the psyche -- that Freud sees destabilizes us to the point where talking about unified being, about identity, is radically naïve. Maybe the ceaseless, unresolvable play of impressions that Derrida associates with the experience of reading -- and of being -- undermines the chance of unity and closure.

Yet despite those warnings, I persist in seeing the identity quests of my students as valuable. Anyone with the courage and resourcefulness to question the current conventional terms for identity and to emerge with a fresh self-construction has achieved something admirable. Such a person has already struggled and won -- and is capable of striking out into the world and achieving even more.


Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.


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