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Fr. 482

January 16, 2014

How should we conceive of self and identity? And what form should this conception itself take?

While contemporary thinkers in the humanities seem in agreement over the “complex and many-tiered” nature of identity (Sources of the Self, p. 29), the precise elements making up that structure and the manner of their combination therein remain largely unelaborated in contemporary accounts. Despite giving in the way of hints universal spiritual or religious commitments and regional or national identifications, even accounts such as Taylor’s seem fundamentally incomplete. What are these pieces and how do they fit together?

Tempting though it might be to seek a model for pieces and assembly, this notion of “model” carries with it connotations both of strength and stability, which do not seem entirely appropriate in understanding the inner workings of identity. For model projects both an image of an archetype to which all subordinated doings must conform and that which, once proposed, does not alter (considerably) over the course of time. The most common understandings of identity run, however, contrary to this twofold meaning of model in that, at best, there are a plurality of potential archetypes guiding development and conceptions of identity do evolve with history and changes in society (as evinced by Taylor’s treatment of properly “modern identity”).

Therefore, in seeking a kind of explanatory apparatus for identity, it seems preferable to consider possibilities other than that of “model”. What then can provide the same explanatory regularity without fixing categories too rigidly and thereby allowing for change over time? In short, how can we both admit rules and their subsequent revision?

One enticing possibility looks to the path long since opened by language and grammar. How might grammar better serve to structure our approach to and understanding of self and identity? We hold that this notion of grammar fulfills this role in four ways:

1.) Grammar makes room for claims to universality through the central role played by grammatical rules. More simply, individuals should heed these rules in speech or risk being misunderstood due to either an expressive shortcoming on their part or a lack of comprehension on the part of their interlocutors. Moreover, their interlocutors, either before or upon hearing their speech, can make demands of the speaker to the effect that the latter heeds the rules of grammar. Yet this universality is not that of the model, for grammar comprises ambiguities with several interpretations, cases in which more than one option is correct, and endless structural possibilities for circumlocution. Universal claims and demands are, thus, tempered by the possibility of difference and otherness. While, overall, we attempt to conform to the rules enforced, we nonetheless retain room for maneuver at the level of detail and, therefore, for the retention and promotion of idiosyncrasies (e.g. turns of phrase).  Accordingly, the rules of grammar proffer a soft form of uniformity or conformity, as opposed to the hard uniformity or conformity of the model. In issues of identity, soft rather than hard conformity is to be preferred as this does not lock the individual into one identity forever, a view on which identity is more a tomb than home.

2.  If there the notion of grammar entails the application (and bending) of rules, there must also be a right way and a wrong way of combining units of meaning so as to convey overall meaning to our audience. Again, it is likely that the presentation of an individual’s identity, just like her speech, to another requires something similar. Indeed, in presenting that identity, the individual cannot simply string together modifiers, commitments and identifications in the hope that the interlocutor will better grasp in this way all that is at work in her identity. An individual might well shown evidence of being qualified as: Midwestern-born, farm-raised, introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceptive, reader, writer, hiker, thinker, strong individualist and bootstrap tendencies, having somewhat conservative or straight-laced views on decency, open-minded on matters of belief, atheist, though generally in line with Christian ethics, pragmatist, romanticist, in favor of conscious reenchantment of the world as per a post-Romantic view; and so on. He or she might well be all of these and more, particularly if we allow for endlessly specifiable aspects that are capable of still more precision after definition. Moreover, the individual is all of this without even digging into the particular kinds of claims that stem from these aspects of identity.

Yet the wash of information here overwhelms the listener, even in the form of an incomplete list or catalogue. Although it is without doubt helpful to make a passing catalogue of our beliefs in this way, the question remains as to how we are to make sense of all of this at once, both as the person expressing this identity to another and the listener processing all the information provided. Just as in speech where we must choose which information we wish to convey and highlight through the choice of structure, stress and intonation, so in matters of identity does there seem a need to provide only the most salient or relevant aspects in light of the context and demands made upon the individual by interlocutors. This in no way means that these aspects exhaust the individual’s identity. Quite the contrary, insofar as the specification of our identity is a matter task of retrieving an inexhaustible source of influences. In the end, it remains that we neither use all of the rules nor incorporate all information available at any one time, instead depending upon rules and contextual needs to choose the elements that comprise our presentation to others.

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