The Difficulty of Identity
One of the more perplexing questions we deal with is that of identity. Sure, you know who you are – or a least you think so. But there are many different ways of describing yourself, and probably even more ways in which people can see you. Identity is never really certain; it shifts, changes, falls apart and re-forms in unusual ways. So after banishing the last set of microreviews to the dedicated page, I pulled together a new set of books that could say something about the ever-present difficulty of identity.
The latest reviews are now in the sidebar at the right. They cover comics, cartoonists, geopolitics and representation, already a mismatch of ideas. And that’s the thing about identity – we think of it as a defining element in our lives when it’s often elusive. How do we know who we are? From Sigmund Freud via Jacques Lacan, psychiatrists have come to understand the formation of identity as a process in which the small child observes in itself those things that are variations in others. Cultural theorists put it this way: the Other imperfectly reflects the Self.
Forgive the capitalisation, it merely indicates that these are emphatic categories – just like the West and the East, which was much the point of Edward Said’s groundbreaking Orientalism. Said detailed how those who we might now call ‘Western’ scholars built a system of knowledge around an image of the benighted ‘East’ that they essentially wanted to see, that confirmed their own conceptions of an enlightened West.
Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit didn’t quite make it that far in reverse with their less influential, and scholastically strained, Occidentalism. This is hardly the “grandly illuminating study” that G. John Ikenberry claimed of it in Foreign Affairs four years ago. Still, the book stands as testament to how far authors are willing to twist a popular idea to suit their own agendas, to confirm their own professional identities. By ignoring counter-currents in everything from high art to the evening news, Buruma and Margalit make the ‘enemies’ of the West seem exactly as they are – fanciful caricatures, or perhaps even more disappointingly, stereotypes.
Not that stereotypes don’t have their uses when people set out to fashion identities for themselves. Writer-director Erik Moe plays around with that sort of difficult situation in his rickety but delightfully drawn Tales of a Young Urban Failure. This is not an easy book to snare, but it’s worth the brisk read even though the youthful slacker is just too damn slack. And even when the book was published in the mid-1990s we’d all seen enough of that coming out of North America.
So identity-making has its limits, but it also has the potential for enormous surprise. Larry Berman’s Perfect Spy documents a case in point, detailing the life of Pham Xuan An, Reuters and Time correspondent during the Vietnam War, unswerving friend of international journalists, admirer of all things American, North Vietnamese spy. Since his death in 2006, newspapers like the New York Times have trumpeted “conflicting reactions” amongst former colleagues to Pham’s “double life”, yet to the end he was an enigma. In Vietnamese his personal name “An” means “hidden”.
But what happens when the hidden becomes apparent? Pham never faced that difficulty, lasting the war and long into the peace without having to reveal exactly who he was. But other people, some with just as much to lose, make startling changes to their identities every day. They come out, return to the fold, close in on who they really are. Sometimes they make huge mistakes in the process. But sometimes it would be a mistake to make no change at all.
That’s one of the more serious points that Scott Adams makes in Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! A collection of brief reflections that originally featured on the Dilbert Blog, the book pounces on almost anything that moves and much that doesn’t. You’ll laugh till you cry and then laugh some more. But Adams’ clever, often biting frivolity strips away any pretentiousness from a serious proposition. We more often lose than win as we stumble through life, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep walking. Expectations – of our own and of others – too often cripple us, when who we are should equally be about who we might yet become.
From certainty to promise, from stereotypes to surprise, identity is the sum of all that we are and everything we’ve yet to be. Welcome to the possibilities of this puzzling world.