Identities, Part 1

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the concept of identity. I claim in my dissertation and elsewhere that we have multiple cultural identities. This seems straightforwardly true to me, given that I subscribe to the idea that we use different sets of cultural schemas to manage our interactions with others and the world. However there is an interesting problem with the idea of multiple identities when it comes to creating a computational ontology about a person. Should the person be described as a footballer, a legislator, or a felon if he has been all of these things over the course of his life? Obviously, these are identities with cultural context. At the same time, they are all subsumed as roles of a single identifiable being, one that maintains that identity through time and in parallel with multiple cultural identities. The question that puzzles me is: how do we maintain a “unity of self” as we enact multiple cultural identities daily and throughout our lives? How does a unified self emerge when every context we encounter requires the interaction of one of our cultural identities? It seems like a strange question to ask, but why do we not think of ourselves as multiple people?

I’ve been reading Ess, C. (2009) Digital Media Ethics, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. In the last chapter, where he reviews a number of ethical frameworks he offers a nice description of the concept of identity when contrasting Modern Western and Confucian ethics:

Modern Western thought strongly tends to assume the human beings are “atomic” individuals–i.e., that the human being as an individual is the most basic element or component of society, one that begins and can remain in complete solitude from others. (This atomism is traceable to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the French philosopher René Descartes, but that story is too long to develop here.) Henry Rosemont (2006) has characterized this view as the “peach pit” view of human beings. That is, a peach presents us with a surface–one that grows, changes, and finally dies over time. But underneath these surface changes remains the peach-pit–a stony, hard core that remains (relatively) unchanged over time. The peach-pit is thus closely analogous to traditional Christian and Islamic conceptions of the soul, and modern conceptions of the atomistic self. That is, underlying a surface body that grows, changes, and ultimately dies with time there is thought to be the “real” self, the identity that remains the same through time, “underneath” the outward and surface appearances of the mortal body. To be sure, this conception of the self resolves some important philosophical and ethical problems concerning identity–e.g., if there is no substantive, real self underneath the constant changes of a body, then who or what is responsible for that body’s actions? That is, if the body associated with “you” committed a terrible crime five years ago, is it reasonable to say something like “that wasn’t really me–I [meaning, my body] have changed and can no longer be held responsible for what I [my body] did five years ago”? Generally in the modern West we do think that individuals remain responsible for their acts through time; thinking this way makes sense on the assumption of a “peach-pit” or atomistic self/identity that remains more or less the same over the life-course. (p. 214)

The peach-pit view makes the assumption that there is a “core” identity that exists and there may be multiple contexts in which the peach-pit is found. So the place to begin any investigation of identity in this view is the individual as a physically distinct person. This is not where I begin an investigation of identity. Rather, I focus upon the schematically different cultural identities that are manifest in myriad contexts. This transforms the idea of a “core” into an idea of a unification of multiple selves. In other words, the unified self or core is the product of an emergent integration of our multiple identities. It is the product rather than the source of identity.

The atomistic view seems to be connected to the historical processes of industrialization and wealth generation. This makes sense to me given the pervasive metaphor of mechanization that historically accompanied industrialization. Industrialization was a means of organizing labor into highly specialized roles that metaphorically paralleled a machine, where each cog and gear provided a special and distinct function that enabled the machine to produce something. Each individual piece had a functional role in making the whole function and enabled greater overall efficiency. This mechanistic view was reflected in the advanced science (i.e., natural philosophy) of the day: Newtonian physics. The atomistic view permeated the conceptualization of humans, labor and production, and the underlying foundations of the universe.

Such a conception of the self, however, can be understood as the result of a long development in Western societies, primarily in the last five hundred years, beginning with the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant emphasis on the individual soul and salvation is then philosophically refined and secularized in figures such as Descartes. Making real such a conception of the self further appears to depend on the wealth generated through industrialization. (As we have seen in the discussion of privacy, such a conception of the self, while initially alien to Eastern societies such as China, Japan, and Thailand, is becoming increasingly apparent–in part, as these societies develop the wealth that make individual privacy realizable, e.g., through the luxury of private rooms for children, etc.) (p. 215)

Industrialization, as it spread to non-industrialized nations, brought with it the ability to understand individuals as having a “core” identity where individualism as a value holds sway. But this isn’t the only cultural model of identity that exists. Ess offers another, based in a Confucian tradition:

By contrast, in classical Confucian thought (and elsewhere, as we will see), human beings are understood first of all as relational beings: we are who we are always and only as we are taken up in specific relationships with others. For me, this means that I am always and only someone’s son, brother, spouse, father, uncle, friend, employee, boss, beneficiary, etc.; and how I am–i.e., my choices, attitudes, behaviors, etc.–is always shaped in specific ways by each specific relationship. And so, how I am in relationship with my parents is different from how I am in relationship with my spouse, my siblings, my own children, my students, etc. To continue Henry Rosemonts’ (2006) organic metaphors, in classical Chinese thought, human beings are like onions, not peaches: each of our distinctive relationships with others–including the larger social and political communities and, finally, the natural order at large (Tian)–constitutes one of the multiple layers that in turn make up who we are as human beings. In contrast with the peach-pit model, however, if we remove layers of relationship from the onion, there’s nothing left. (p. 215)

The onion metaphor corresponds better to the idea of having multiple cultural identities. It also makes clear the difficulty in establishing a transcendent unity of self, an emergent integration of the whole. The onion view simply layers the multiple cultural identities, but offers no clear way of understanding how they are layered or what keeps the layers together. It simply frames the layers as a unified whole in the form of an onion. Maybe it is as simple as this–these multiple cultural identities represent a single, integrated identity when considered together. But for me this is ultimately unsatisfying. It is the same as imposing a supra category upon a number of sub categories. It reflects a sense of something and we can making meaning of it, but it doesn’t explain how the multiple layers became a singular entity.

The question of singular vs. multiple identities seems like a chicken-and-egg problem: which came first? How do we know which came first? How does one develop from the other? It’s too analytical of a problem. What if we looked at it phenomenologically? Could we describe these seemingly distinct things as mutually constitutive? Do they develop or emerge simultaneously in context? The individual-I and the relational-I are always and at once engaged in Gadamerian play. Individual-I is engaged in play such that I am focused on the activity of concern (e.g., playing, learning, writing). Individual-I is actively doing something like kicking the ball, listening or speaking in class, or typing on a keyboard. Relational-I is actively, though perhaps subsidiarily, processing the rules of the activity and the other player/instructor/reader’s activities in context. In Gadamerian parlance, I am both engaged in the game activity and simultaneously aware of the rules of the game. These cannot be separated, though we can isolate either engagement or awareness for discussion or analytical purposes. So, “I” am both an individual-I and a relational-I at any given moment for any given context. In this view, “I” am actually a phenomenon that is the continual interplay between an individual and relational. The only metaphors that suffice would be those that capture the notion of “interplay.” Neither the peach-pit nor the onion satisfy this condition.

To be continued…