Improvisation of Identity – Who am I, and if yes, how much of it?


In a pluralistic post-modernity with a multitude of approaches to identity, finding identity seems to be a task with unbounded creative authorship. Yet, identity is not a free choice among numerous possibilities as it might seem. While for Enlightenment traditionalist R.W. Emerson, gaining authentic identity is still relative straightforward, for Judith Butler it is much more complex. Focusing of the constraints and possibilities of self-crafted identity, the intention of both may be not that different: it is rather the step from modernity to post-modernity which makes for the striking difference.

In order to reason generally, we take gender, the subject Butler is concerned with, as a particular manifestation of identity. Then, she sees identity in general as an improvisational act as opposed to something preconceived, and the cause for the demand of identity is the individual’s need for recognition, taking recourse to Hegel’s claims that only through recognition we become human beings. The norms by which the individual is recognized are provided by the outside and are not fixed; they are “socially articulated and changeable” [1] and make for the personhood of the self: “The ‘I’ that I am finds itself at once constituted by norms” [1]. The individual’s identity is dependent on external norms: one must act accordingly to these norms in order to be an “I” that gains a limited agency for improvisations. “If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact I am constituted by a social world I never chose.” [1]

Hence, identity in the postmodern world becomes not only impossible to design, but also a challenge requiring creativity and the ability of reacting to a social play: it is indeed improvisation. Power resides on the side creating the norms. There is not a single author of those norms, so this power appears what Žižek would call the imaginary “Big Other”. Identity doesn’t feel self-reliant, there is a power out there to be reckoned with. Emerson sees an external power as well, in the form of expectations for conformity, threatening his ideal of self-reliant identity. “At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, – ‘Come unto us’” [2]. Yet, his remedy shuns the intricacies of the social interplay and is very much in the tradition of a modern, enlightened individual. He prescribes the elevated “solitude in the crowd”: “But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation” [2].

In contrast, for Butler softening external norms is crucial and ethically necessary: “What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is livable to some […] the differences in position and desire set limits to universalizability as an ethical reflex.” [1]. Butler sets ethical limits to Kant’s categorical imperative because it potentially encroaches on the individual’s authenticity. In Foucaultian thinking, it is possibly Enlightenment’s downstream normative force for identity. For Emerson, by contrast, a derivative of the CI is the  precondition of self-reliance: the conviction “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” [2] is derived from a divine, universal ideal, present but suppressed in each individual: “But we half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.” [2].

Postmodern Butler diagnoses something much less ideal. She recognizes identity as illusionary but nevertheless crucial for recognition and offers some improvisational leeway for self-invention. Due to the “staging and structuring of affect and desire” [1], identity norms have a performative structure, offering a possibility of influence: the sociability of norms exceeds my self-understanding, thusly “sustaining a temporal and spatial field of operation” [1]. Furthermore, the individual’s desire of fitting into a category is subject to a feedback-effect from those norms: “it (the desire) can exceed regulations, taken on new forms in response to regulation, even turn turns around and make it sexy” [1]. Hence, identity is not fatally controlled by norms, but reacts and can even be invigorated by them. Even more so, identity need those outside norms. For Emerson, by contrast, the norm is universally inherent to the individual; for Butler socially conveyed norms are the precondition of identity.

Butler, far from being fatalistic, extends the individual’s agency even towards a proactive role of co-authors. Since categorical terms are “crafted in time” and  work through excluding minorities” [1], and furthermore “social articulation of the terms depends upon its repetition” [1], “its articulation will begin precisely at the point where the excluded speak to and from such a category” [1]: if you keep repeating what constitutes “masculine” while being recognized as “masculine”, you can extend that norm. Identity becomes responsible for more than only oneself.

Emerson is the modernist proponent of an ideal behind identity. In contrast, Butler provides a post-modern diagnosis of identity which recognizes intricate psychosocial dependencies without a universal ideal. Pragmatically, she points out possibilities of if not inventing, but improvising on oneself: How much of what I am I have to be to be recognized – and how much beyond it in order to lead a livable life?

[1] Butler, Undoing Gender
[2] Emerson, Relf-Reliance

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