Origins of identity

  • Posted on August 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Some thoughts towards gender identity and essentialism.

Are we born without identity? Where does it come from? Do we make it? Is it inherent? Is it made by others? We assume so much that we know what we mean by ‘identity’ that we share a common idea. I wonder.

I don’t want to be academic about this. Academic is OK, but it gets tied up in its own words sometimes, and always has the danger of building foundations on the work of others that isn’t. What are intellectual foundations? Even Newton’s laws of motion are provisional and conditional. Psychoanalysis is built as much on best-fit and presumption as truly scientific principles, and even science is in some respects a philosophy. So forgive me if this all seems less than rigorous. I’m just thinking.

The problem of language

We can only meaningfully communicate ideas by using language. I write, you read, we communicate. Well, that’s our intention. I write clearly, you read carefully and thoughtfully and we come to an understanding. I write carelessly, and/or you read cursorily, and we misunderstand each other.

What happens inside our minds? How can we think about ourselves without using language? We analyse ourselves, have internal conversations, rehearse dialogue with others, and all and only using language. Sometimes we make words up, use a misunderstood word, or use words with adopted meaning or subtexts, and still understand ourselves. But if we speak these words to others, we are misunderstood. So can we misunderstand ourselves too? Of course we can. Language also binds us, but can be our only means of explanation, because ideas have no other expression.

Tell me about your childhood …

Have you ever wondered what you thought, about yourself, life, others, anything, before you had language? What did a food you recognised as likeable mean inside a mind without words? What did you think about that look in your mother’s eyes that made everything alright? Was it just a feeling? And as you learned language, what did that add to your experience? What did it feel like when your words weren’t right and you knew you weren’t being understood? And then when you learned enough to say things that were rewarded and understood well enough?

Later, as you learned the right words and the right way to say things, and then the best time to say them, how did it feel to realise that your self-expression only worked when it fitted in with that of others?

And then, as you found acceptance and rejection as a consequence of self-expression, how did you experience the difference between sense of true self, and being what was expected? And as behaviours become those that made you fit, be ‘normal’, acceptable, likeable – lovable? Were you, indeed, left with a good, secure sense of self at all? To varying degrees we have all struggled with this.

Language, as much as learned behaviours, is responsible for dissonance between sense of self and living according to others’ expectations. This is not to say that having social mores, shared ethics and ways of integrating as a society is bad! I am only offering an introduction to sense of self, to identity and authenticity, and the role of language.

The bottom line is, if you give me too few words to describe myself, I have no internal alternatives to understand myself, once my mind is working in terms of language and ideas. What if the best words to use are just the least wrong ones? I can also have novel ideas, but again, I can only share them by using a common language. Together we can reconstruct language and vocabulary to suit new ideas better, but I can’t do this on my own, least of all just about myself! We can imagine a knowledge that is retained without language – animals do it all the time by learning in addition to instinct, but how do we distinguish intuition-about-self from ideas, when both end up expressed in language?

What is sense of self, once I try to explain it to myself? Because then I am explaining it as an idea as if to you. And how much, in reality, do I create a sense of self that concurs with social convenience, accepting compromise because it is more expressible, or indeed more understood or comfortable?

I am me, only because you are you?

Supposing you were abandoned at birth on a remote island, surviving with the co-operation of animals from whom you gained safety, food and warmth. They would not speak to you, though you would learn their licks and growls, and interpret their behaviours. In this context, with only your instincts, how would you describe your identity? Would you need to in any way at all?

Or would your language centres in your brain kick in, and you would develop a language of your own? (I am sure that long and worthy books and articles have been written about this, and I’m not about to undertake a research project!) But even so, that language would have no communication value other than with yourself for future internal discourse and value in memory. And then, imagine you are discovered. What questions might those first ones be (that you would not understand)?

’What is your name?’

’How long have you lived here?’

’What country do you come from?’

’What is your tribe?’

’Are you a man or a woman?’

I dropped the last one in because, like all the others it is referential, but it would never be asked. This is something that humans have a habit of deciding for others, not for themselves. Living alone, maybe you picked something up from your animal friends, but that would only be that your bits were like those bits: a baby me might grow/not grow inside me.

I see identity therefore as being referential: I am only this/that because by being compared with you, I know I am the same or different in these ways. I don’t need ‘identity’ except in reference to you. Identity is only a locator. I don’t need to describe myself to myself, only as a means to show commonality and difference within a place or among a group. We use identity to distance ourselves, as much as to find inclusion. It is a mask on self that ensures comfortable location, sufficient inclusion, and acceptance. But identity is not ‘who we are’.

A return to ‘what’ and ‘who’ and relating

It seems ages ago that I started to realise and write about only being loved for what I am, not for who, and as divorce comes to conclusion in the next few weeks, this is the thick black line inscribed under my marriage. Insofar as I can fairly understand it, I was loved for what I made my wife: a respectable married and normal woman, healing in many ways a childhood of dislocation of identity. I was the ordinary man putting a lot right, creating success and normality. In a number of ways, I believe that I was a missing part in her self-perception, her referential identity.

So imagine my diagnosis: that from birth my innate being was indeed female. To love me, it was said, would now require lesbian love, and my love was surplus to requirement, if it was to be properly understood as a female love. (Well, it always was, but that was masked by my identity.) She could only ‘respond’ to the right identity, the right outward form, not to the self, the person, expressed through an identity that had to be the right one.

So this is an interesting place to be in, and an interesting realisation. I (who) am not the same as my identity (what). So why do I get so hung up on ‘identity’? Gender is more about sense of self than about identity. It only becomes dysphoria in reference to other people. An identity is thrust upon us, and it isn’t right. I don’t have a problem with self, with intuition, with pure awareness. I have a problem when people tell me that my sense of self doesn’t fit, and that I cannot be what I say I am.

Identity is about recognition. Others locate you, and feel more secure with their location of you than your own. The trouble is, the observer says ‘man’ (with parts present) and I say ‘woman’ (with parts missing). The whole process of observation takes place through language with its building blocks of ideas. How can I express adequately my sense of self, without using a shared construct, when even the word ‘woman’ is in contention? So I have a need to be recognised in line with my pre-language self-perception, and therefore I have a need to create, shape, and present an identity that corrects what others perceive.

And the real bottom line is, on what basis might someone love me again? By liking my ‘identity’? By being comfortable not just with it, but with it in the presence of others? Because they are only what they want to be seen as, with reference to me? How can I find that one person who says ‘fuck the identity, I love you?

When I do, they will understand this essay.


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