Archive for subjectivity

Identities Like Bumper Cars

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 23

Even as I state, over and over, that I subscribe to poststructural thought, my poststructuralism is partial. It exists in tension with my loyalty, my can’t-let-go-ness to our adoption story, which has become, in our family, one of Barthes’ myths. I do not have a coherent identity as a poststructuralist–those words can’t even be in the same sentence, really, since poststructuralism decries the existence any sort of coherent identity. A poststructuralist with a coherent identity would be sort of like a cyclops with two eyes. Impossible. Defeats its own point.

Anyway. Coherent identity though I do not have, and poststructural ideas though I do, provisional, partial, local, contingent identities abound. And I find it quite easy to move, as Lyotard has said, “nimbly” among them, always and already acknowledging their very contradictoriness–and living with it.

I am both a member of the family created by our adoption story–completely. And the very same person who breaks that narrative, sees its holes, it contradictions, its silences. Acknowledges its fragmentedness, its position as a series of refractions of, and not reflections of, perspectives and interpretations of how we came to be.

(In 7th grade, I had to take a test as part of my Religious Education class. I had to pass the test in order to be Confirmed. I got one question wrong on the test. The question was multiple choice, and it said, “Jesus was: a. completely human; b. completely divine; c. half human and half divine; d. all human and all divine.” I knew the answer the teacher was looking for. I remembered the class discussion about this very thing. But I disagreed. I just couldn’t buy it that Jesus was all human and all divine. I knew I was going to be marked wrong and I didn’t care. But. Now. Now I want to argue that I am a meant-to-be-member of our family even as at the same time I acknowledge that that family–our family–was created not by fate or God or a miracle but by discourse (which I might argue, someday, is miraculous in and of itself, worshipping as I am presently at its altar).

At. The. Same. Time. Good God. The Catholics always get themselves in there, don’t they?)

And those two parts of my identity, those fragments, bump up against each other all the time, and work each other, and silence each other however temporarily. I daily enact, perform, mix, mingle, fuse and separate and play with both of these identities, and others, often at once. Janet Miller and Elizabeth Ellsworth, in “Working Difference in Education,” call this, “engaging with and responding to the fluidity and malleability of identities and difference, of refusing fixed and static categories of sameness or permanent otherness.”

And so let me repeat: Memory, story, identity, subjectivity: molten, fluid, protean, kaleidoscopic.

And like all writing, constantly under revision.

Go ahead. Revise yourself.

DNA vs. The Discursive Production of Identity; or, Holy Crap, Can That Be Right?

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 15

(Although this is a rather large epiphany, as epiphanies go, and not so much an epiphany as a discovery.)

Since I was small, my parents have told me, having been told, themselves, by the adoption agency, that I am of Italian, German and Indian ethnicity. And while I guess we were never quite sure about the Indian part, we were sure enough that there was at least one Native American headdress in my childhood, which I brought to kindergarten show and tell.

Later, the adoption agency told me that my birth mother was Italian; her parents had emigrated from Italy to Canada to the US; I found her last name in the New York City birth records and it seemed to confirm her ethnicity. The alleged birth father, as the adoption agency called him, was Indian-German. Last year, I wrote to Angel Guardian to ask what they might have meant by “Indian” in 1967–because my parents assumed it was American Indian–but they never wrote back.

Meanwhile, I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, that primarily identified itself as Italian American, at least in terms of food.

Today, I got the results of an DNA ethnicity test I took recently. Turns out, my ethnicity is 83% British Isles, and 17% Middle Eastern.

My first thought was that it was a mistake–that mixed up my saliva with someone else’s. But the whole thing was barcoded and registered and tagged and secure. I mean, sure, someone could have just mixed up the test tubes. Who knows?

My second thought was that I must have been, not only adopted, but switched in the nursery, because while I could see my birth mother reporting my alleged birth father’s ethnicity wrong, she seems pretty damn Italian. And how would she get that wrong? Unless she just lied. Again, who knows?

My third thought, in order both chronological and degree of outlandishness, was that it suddenly made sense that for the past nine years, ever since I first set foot in Edinburgh in 2003, I have been saying that Scotland is where I was meant to live. I must, therefore, be Scottish. My very blood was calling out to the land, my DNA recognizing itself in everyone around me.

The truth is, I have no idea what to do with this information. And before you say, “What does it matter? You are exactly the same person you were before you got this information, back when you were Italian and German and Native American,” I get that.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor am I having some sort of identity crisis.

But I am, I guess, sort of, like, “Hmm. . .”

I’ve just written 375 pages about the discursive production of subjectivity, and how we are written by narratives inscribed and reified by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our local communities, our religious beliefs, and so on and so forth.

What does it mean that I grew up believing I was Italian, in an Italian family? What does it mean that I am in fact English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, instead? How would that have changed the stories I told about myself as I grew up? How does it change the stories I tell about myself now?

Maybe the Italian part is a bad example; being Italian in an Italian family, your various kinds of traits sort of disappear in the crowd, into naturalness. Being Native American in my family, though, was a difference, a difference that made a difference, that made me special, and interesting.

And now I’m not that anymore.

My dissertation doesn’t look specifically at ethnicity and adoption; perhaps that’s because it seemed like a non-issue. My father cheerfully called us the United Nations; of course, we were a United Nations made up entirely of European nations. How does someone of Middle Eastern descent fit into that family?

I am, though, of Middle Eastern descent much the way I was of Native American descent–in name only, in ways that I would never claim on a census form. Still, how will the discourses of the Middle East, the wide and varied discourses we Americans write and subscribe to about people of Middle Eastern descent, now begin to change my narratives?

Part of my story, the story I tell about who I am and where I come from, has shifted, if only because new historical and ethnic narratives have become relevant; new discourses have become available to me.   And that changes things.

I’m just not sure what.

Time is a piece of wax falling on a termite who’s choking on a splinter: or, My friend B disrupts the space/time continuum

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , on December 5, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 4

This posting every day thing is hard. I have a bunch of unfinished fragments of posts.

This is from my friend B, and I’ll write in response to it tomorrow. Meanwhile, talk amongst yourselves.

The construction of persona is a constant negotiation between biography and autobiography and so all writing/reading involves elements of reflection (autobio) and projection (bio). We write ourselves and read others but are written on and read by others too. We are simultaneously composing and decomposing past-present-future modes as rhetorical constructs through which our own personas adapt, change, accept, and resist. Time is a series of discourses that structure both self perception and perceptions of others. We never really go back or forward but use memory and prediction to write narratives that are self fulfilling, self justifying, self accusing, or self abusing. The past is never past and the future is always beyond our grasp.

Holy crap. Still digesting this. But I love, love, love it.

Question: When I say subjectivity is discursive, am I saying it is a rhetorical construct? I think I am. Is it sometimes not a rhetorical construct?

Introducing Pamela

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2012 by chateaucone

Is the essay inherently post-structural?

My readerly friend, let’s change direction for a bit on this Friday afternoon–which is of course, from a networking/public relations standpoint, a terrible time to post. But there you have it. Today is the day this post is demanding to be born.

I’ve been having this conversation in my head and the in margins of various books for years now (yes, I’m that girl, the one that writes all over books), and I’m going to try to reproduce it in some coherent (ahem! with all that entails!) form.

Is the essay inherently a post-structural form, because it acknowledges the fragmentedness of the subject, the gaps and silences of traditional narrative? Does the fact that the essay acknowledges the subject’s lack of knowledge of itself make it in fact post-structural?  Or does the essay rely too strongly on the notion of a reliable narrator, one coherent self telling the story? Is it enough that the essay often acknowledges that that particular self exists only in that particular moment of telling the story?

Am I even asking the right questions here? Is this another case of a post-structural piece of work versus a post-structural reading of any piece of work? Am I wasting my time? I don’t know. Let’s see. Let’s essay. And let’s begin with the narrator and her reliability.

Philip Lopate, in The Arto f the Personal Essay, tells us, “The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity.” You see the problem there? Reliable. Sincere. Lots of non-post-structural implications there. Sounds like that darn liberal humanist self again. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, in The Fourth Genre, as well, privilege the unified voice, saying of the essay, “Its writers share a common desire to speak in a singular voice.”

Lopate, though, throws a bit of a wrench in things with this:

Part of our trust in good personal essayists issues, paradoxically, from their exposure to their own betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust. Their sincerity issues from an awareness of their potential for insincerity—see Max Beerbohm’s telling aside, “But (it seems I must begin every paragraph by questioning the sincerity of what I have just said)”—and it gives them a doubled authority. 

Well, there’s an interesting thought—an awareness of our potential for insincerity gives us even more authority. It’s true the essay does this—monitors its subjectivity constantly—but does that make it any more self-aware? Any more authoritative? I have to think about that. Does that mean that each reflection/refraction I write about “Bedtime Stories” makes me more authoritative? Hmm . . . but what if those subjects occur outside/after the essay? Which Liz does it make more authoritative? Are the collective Is more authoritative than each individual I, even if they are contradicting themselves, showing their fragmentedness?

Lopate tells us that essayists are “adept at interrogating their ignorance. Just as often as they tell us what they know, they ask at the beginning of an exploration of a problem what it is they don’t know—and why.”

Unlike the traditional biographer, and the autobiographer, essayists, according to Lopate, have “realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality.”  That’s the p/s good news. On the flip side, however, “The hope is that in the end, when an essayist’s lifework has a been accumulated, all those personae will add up to a genuine unmasking.” And we’re right back to the knowable, representable self. de Man. de Faced.

But then Lopate backs out again. (I have to say, the guy is a little slippery. Fragmented, I might even say. Next time I see him at a conference . . .) “In the meantime, the personal essayist tries to make his many selves dance to the same beat—to unite, through force of voice and style, these discordant, fragmentary personae so that the reader can accept them as issuing from one coherent self.”

Why? Why does the reader have to accept the essay as issuing from one coherent self? This is exactly what I want my readers NOT to do. What happens if the reader is asked to accept multiple, fragmented subjects all in one instance? What happens if the essay is chaotic? The (auto)biography is chaotic?

I swear I want to pin this guy down, and I can’t. Maybe I can. I think, I think he’s saying that over a lifetime, we have these multiple and fragmented personae that we are trying to represent as coherent, and we hope that over many, many essays, we end up “unmasking” the real self. Is that what you’re getting from Lopate? Because frankly, I’m starting to think he’s on the fence about the self and the subject. I mean, there is a self to unmask or there isn’t. And it’s representable or it isn’t.

If I follow Lopate’s logic, then, my post-structural autobiography can exist; I can just paint a million different pictures of my subjectivity, pile them all up, and then I’ll be represented. At which point I will have tossed out the post-structural. Because then even my million subjectivities will have become fixed. Ahh, but there’s where Lopate and I disagree. I don’t think the stable, knowable self exists prior to, or after, language at all, no matter how much material you pile up.

Vivian Gornick, in The Situation and the Story, skips this discussion and jumps right into the construction of the persona. There’s no fooling around here with whether or not the coherent self exists. For Gornick, that debate doesn’t matter. What’s important to Gornick, and, she argues, to the essay, is the creation, or selection, of the appropriate narrator to tell the story; “the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or memoir. It is the moment of illumination.”  Just prior to this, Gornick tells us:

Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona. Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator—or persona—sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.

Gornick calls this  “a narrator who was me and at the same time not me.” For Gornick, as opposed to Lopate, the creation or selection of a persona is a conscious choice of the position and angle, the perspective, the subjectivity, to tell a story.

And this is what I’ve been talking about–this persona, the subject represented in writing, always has a particular perspective, is fixed–for the moment, anyway.

Now, what about the “I” of “Bedtime Stories,” the center of this little project of mine? Poor girl, she’s all confused, but not unlike a half-hour sitcom, she straightens it all out in the end. Paves over the cracks. Stops the disintegration of the narrative with some trusty spackle. Trustworthy? All-knowing? Exposing her own bewilderment? Illustrating a knowable mental journey?

You could almost argue that there are two subjects writing that essay–the confused Liz confronting the broken narrative, and the safe, secure Liz who comes around at the end and shuts up the confused Liz. Maybe this is an example of Epstein’s wound being enacted–the confused Liz who sees the broken narrative being shoved into the abyss of silence by the Liz who doesn’t want to see. The bad Liz.

I should start giving these other Lizs other names. Like Pamela.

Pamela is not very nice. She’s maybe a little bit bad. Certainly less naive. She might watch Criminal Minds for the wrong reasons.

Moving on. Root and Steinberg give us this: “Creative nonfiction is reliably factual, anchored in real experience, whether the author has lived it or observed it and recorded it.”

But experience is always and already interpreted. Haven’t we agreed on that much? And therefore, that poor girl in “Bedtime Stories,” is just presenting her already interpreted, but not yet consciously, version of the story.

Annie Dillard tells us, “The nonfiction writer thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case, he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts” (xxvii).

I think I’m reaching a conclusion here. The personal essay, the genre of creative nonfiction, is not inherently post-structural, or not. But we can read it with a post-structural lens, and interrogate it further, even, than its own narrator does, because it gives us the room to do so.

Was this just an exercise in futility?

The personal essay is inhabited, yes, by a coherent voice, presenting itself as a knowing self…but there’s no one to say that that subjectivity—the one presenting itself as a coherent, unified, knowing self, exists for a second beyond the moment it speaks. Right? I don’t think the essay, as a genre, goes so far as to make that claim.

So, then, the subject of “Bedtime Stories,” just the essay, not all the other material, is perhaps unified, coherent, or was at the moment of writing, but the refractions remind us that that particular subjectivity (and we’ve seen how it might be fractured itself) existed only at that moment, and was, even in the moment, fragmented, unknowable, unrepresentable, AND, AND, AND has since changed, fragmented, and, THUS, it became fictional the moment it was fixed, anyway. Defaced.

The I of the essay is only the I of the moment writing.

So can you, or I, or Pamela, write a post-structural autobiography?

Adopted Babies, Adopted Identities

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2012 by chateaucone

My office mate and chief idea-discussion-partner D. asks,  “Do we give birth to an identity, or do we adopt an identity?” I am perhaps at once exactly the wrong person to answer this question and exactly the right person to answer the question, having been adopted, having had my adoption, my identity, my various identities as a Cone, a DiStefano, an adopted child, a meant-to-be-member-of-the-family blurred over so sweetly, so smoothly by narrative, by identity construction, so as not to ever really feel adopted. D. says “We adopt, over and over–multiple identities. The adoption is never fixed. Adopting multiple identities is like being born over and over and over again–constant yous being created and then constant theys-readers–being created.”

And then he says, “All autobiography is always already in a state of becoming, always in delivery, always about to be born, always becoming.”

And again, exactly right and exactly wrong. Our family, always and already in existence. I joined a narrative in motion, moving forward with me in its stream. But one that was inevitable, natural, no other way it could go, its path determined.

I think this is not exactly what D. means. “Always becoming” seems to suggest newness, not pre-determinedness.

Is that narrative, the meant-to-be-a-family narrative, always and already in motion, in a state of becoming, as well? And nonetheless killing off other possible narratives, other projections, in its path?

Can a narrative be multiple, with room for multiple, shifting, constantly being born identities, and still shut off avenues to other possible identities? Or is it an illusion that a narrative can have room for multiple, shifting identities?

I think this is like when your mother offers you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a ham sandwich, and you think you’ve been given a real choice, but she’s actually set boundaries for you, set the agenda, controlled your thoughts, confined your choice within certain discourse, while creating the illusion of wide openness.

Someone posted this on FB last week and attributed it to Joseph Goebbels: “What you need to control a media system is ostensible diversity that conceals actual uniformity.”

I googled it–having shared a good quote recently and been told later it was wrongly attributed–and couldn’t find it. Then, someone responded to the original post, calling the guy who posted it on its authenticity and he said, “The original quote comes from Goebbels (sic) diaries, and as you’ve keenly observed, I’ve taken some artistic freedoms with it 🙂 The original quote used a word that would more closely be translated as “cultural environment” than as “media system.”

(You can see the conversation here.)

“Cultural environment” works even better for me.

We’re talking about mind control, after all, right? Just doesn’t feel like it. But then, what successful mind control feels like it?

And it’s not just the media, obviously, propagating it.

Either way, then, we don’t give birth to an identity so much as adopt one that’s already out there, written for us.

Is there a difference between constructed and being adopted?

Constructing sounds like you have more agency–but not if the materials with which you construct are subtly limited and limiting.

Then, perhaps, constructing and adopting are not so far apart.

And if we adopt identities, don’t give birth to them, from where are we getting them? From Epstein’s “proprietary powers” and “dominant structures of authority”? And if not, how do we know we’re not?

And if I’m good at it, this shifting of identities, this living of fractured subjectivities, does that mean I notice it less? Or notice it more and play it? Am I more or less controlled by the powers that be if I’m good at my fitting into my (appropriate?) identity? If I am good at the game, how aware of it can I be?