Is Identity Formation Liberating?

Earlier in the semester, when we reviewed Foucault, we talked about his general rejection of sexual identity formation as a means of sexual liberation. To Deleuze, zeroing in on a sexual identity would inevitably just limit a group of individuals who could be vastly different from another, lumping them together by one common trait, even if that trait itself is a unique individual experience. This identity, would not really designate what this person is, it would only remove the possibilities of what a person can become. Thus, ascribing an identity becomes a repressive force instead of a source of strength.

What struck me about this notion was the vague memory I had of Simone De Beavouir. Simone De Beavouir’s principle argument in terms of gender was that women are repressed through their treatment as “the other”, which is argued in her book The Second Sex. De Beauvoir suggests that women are given their identity only as an extension of Man. Male, being the archetype of human existence, and female only as a variation of that archetype. Then, any behavior, desire, characteristic, or emotion that does not originate from the male sex is not given credibility or acknowledged in society as distinct, original, or acceptable. This is especially so, to De Beauvoir, in terms of what is deemed by society  as rational. Man’s behavior, in terms of the male sex, is the archetype for what is rational. Therefore, by default, thoughts or arguments that are unmanly or associated with woman, become irrational. A vague example might be woman’s general approach to violence and war compared to man, and how the use of caution or avoidance of violence can be used against the female sex in terms of war related politics and leadership. Ideas such as this lead to De Beavouir’s argument that in order to liberate Woman, women must transcend “the other”, and form an identity that is separate from Man.

What is left is this question: Is designating an identity liberating? When thinking about this question, I cannot help but relate it to a documentary that I began roughly a year ago  that I have been very slowly shooting and piecing together. I have been following a performance art group that performs weekly at a local gay bar. The group is founded by dancers, and is comprised of both men and women, some gay, and some straight. In my first descriptions of the project, I admittedly described it somewhere in the realm of “drag performance art”. What I quickly realized, is that describing what they do as simply drag, is so limiting that it just becomes totally inaccurate. Performing weekly, the group incorporates the use of costume and make up that quickly deviates from the drag queen archetype. They also perform skits, create fantastic video art, read spoken word, choreograph dances and many other things that one would not know to associate with the word “drag”.  In fact, if there is any form of a thesis to my project, it is how different each member of the group is, yet they all come together to share this common thing that they have created.

Here are some pictures of The Backspace Performance Ensemble and/or members of:

Uncredited photo via Backspace’s Facebook page.

Photo by Monica Rose Song

So when considering this project and these performances, I am left with a somewhat Deleuzian conclusion. I know that elements of drag culture are no doubt important to many of these performers, maybe even very important. I still feel confident that no single member would be satisfied with identifying themselves as a drag queen. It would not come close to capturing what they have done, and more importantly, what they are capable of doing in the future. So, to me, there has to be a positive in-between, or a place in which identity formation itself is in process and remains in process, but never completely solidifies.


3 Responses to “Is Identity Formation Liberating?”

  1. Piril Gunduz Says:

    “Ideas such as this lead to de Beauvoir’s argument that in order to liberate Woman, women must transcend “the other”, and form an identity that is separate from Man.”

    Even though de Beauvoir is a key figure for feminist thought, she is a pretty early one. The call for “forming an identity that is separate from Man” can be quite problematic, since it is a reactionary, therefore secondary act; also it calls for an identity that tries to be uniform and majoritarian, to start with. In fact, I think this is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to when they say “Even women must become-woman.” in “A Thousand Plateaus”.

    Your concerns about how the subjects of your footage would like to be portrayed and also, your post in general, reminded me of “disidentification”, a notion offered by José Esteban Muñoz, an academic of Performance Studies. Disidentification, according to him, is a process through which those who remain outside the racial and sexual mainstream negotiate their identities with the majority culture. It is a negotiation and a transformation, beyond simple identification or rejection.

    For a problematic approach to documentary making in the area of queer subjectivities, you could see Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film “Paris is Burning”, if you haven’t already. For a different approach, I would look into “Mirror Mirror” by Zamirah Moffat. Here is some information about the film: “The film is not only queer in content, however, but also queer in form, as it uses dialogue and intersubjectivity as its main stimulus and narrative drive. It was part of Moffat’s PhD into the relevance of shared-anthropology, where she argued that integrated audio-visual participant feedback is both an effective and affective strategy for representing contemporary queer cultures – indeed any culture who resists identification by exogamous sources.’” []

    Piril Gunduz

  2. immanentterrain2 Says:

    Without a concrete definition of the self to identify ourselves with, how can we exist? We exist relative to one another. We create identities by defining ourselves against (or with) the Other. For Deleuze, our only fixed quality is that we are constantly becoming what we are. If this is the case, labeling groups is futile, since both the individual and the collective group are constantly in motion. Deleuze describes how the phenomenon of smooth and the striated occur in different circumstances. The concept of identities can be applied to this — they are these boundless, chaotic, endless elements which are mapped out over time to be made sense of. But once they are pinned down to a definable set of qualities and a term is invented for them (“gay” or “drag” or “hipster” or “romantic”), there are always leaks in the cracks, exceptions to the rules. The boundaries of the definition are constantly being pushed or expanded upon. In this way, identities are endlessly recreated and expanded upon or destroyed and transcended. This reminds me too of Nietzsche and language; words are imperfect, as they only can stand in as symbols for the things we are talking about, and makes generalizations that can be misleading. This negates the actual subject itself, which we then forget about. This can happen with labeling people as well. When we try to name a group, we stop seeing the individual as unique, and assign a pre-fixed meaning to the person. But the question remains: what is the alternative? What would a world look like without labels?


    • Piril Gunduz Says:

      I think wondering what it would be like if these labels did not exist is not a helpful and positive way of thinking about subjectivities. The existence of the labels is not the worst; the worst happens when we try to cast ourselves into these molds of society. Since going back in time to a period in which these labels did not exist is impossible, what we can do is to be “gay and drag and hipster and romantic and…” at the same time. Mixing of codes and making new relations among them, by breaking the hierarchy, can create a rhizomatic structure in society, as well as helping new subjectivities to emerge.

      – Piril Gunduz

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