The Project of Identity

I’ve always found the concept of identity pretty fascinating; I wrote a PhD on it after all, and you have to be keen to do that. Who we are, what makes us tick, the relationship we have to our idea of ourselves, the way we deal with (or fail to deal with) the crises and the disasters that befall us exerts a mesmerizing influence over my mind. I keep thinking that one day I’ll tire of all the different theories and ideas I come across in relation to identity, but not yet, it seems, not yet.

It just so happened that I was reading about Sartre and his ideas on writing biography and autobiography (sorry about the excess of Sartre lately – I’m going to write on him and I keep playing about with different angles) and I came across an explanation of his concept of identity that I found immensely intriguing. I’m paraphrasing the work of a critic here called Michael Sheringham (I’ll give the reference to anyone who’s interested), just so you know that what follows is not pure Litlove. Sartre, it seems, considered that at the core of every individual was what he called a ‘choix originel’, an original choice, that lent a particular colouring to every act and gesture that person made. It’s more a method of being in the world that Sartre’s talking about here, a pattern of responses, rather than some form of essence; he wants to describe the particular way in which any one person exercises (or denies) their freedom in life, out of some inner sense of who they are and who they want to be. For all that Sartre’s Existential theories suggest that we can be redefined and reshaped by every passing moment, we don’t really live like that, it would be too unstable for us to deal with. Rather, what we do live with is a very complex, often contradictory, often, even, irrational set of principles that exert a very significant influence over the way we act.

Now Sartre’s thinking on this altered slightly over the years. His interest in the first place was sparked by a fundamental question that fascinated him: what can we know about the individual? If I wanted to be able to say that I knew someone, what would that knowledge consist of? What knowledge would it be most informative to possess? Sartre’s answer to this was the ‘choix originel’: the analysis of the subject’s behaviour to understand what fundamental choice dominated his motivation and his life philosophy. If a person could possibly see his or her own ‘choix’ then they would be able to understand how they engaged with experience. And they would understand that that choice consists as much in what we shut our eyes to, as what we choose to see. But the more that Sartre worked on and with this notion of a choice, the more he found he needed to alter his concept. He decided that this choice was the product of the individual’s early environment, the economic, psychological and sociological conditions in which he or she grew up until the age of about 11, and interestingly he felt that this forging in the family crucible was somehow ‘indépassable’ – intransigent, well and truly fixed in place. Rather than understand this choice as being impossibly stubborn, Sartre began to adopt instead the notion of the ‘project’ of every adult as a need to attempt some kind of transcendence of these original tramlines on which the subject shuttles along. And he eventually came to understand living as the business of negotiating with the original foundations of the self, laid down in childhood, indelibly inked on our soul, no matter what we do, but which we often struggle to transform or to surpass or to integrate more comfortably.

Now Sartre owed a debt to psychoanalysis for his understanding of the subject, but he was a casual borrower if you like, rather than a really interested student of the topic (like me). Like most people who aren’t convinced by psychoanalysis, Sartre had never really needed to be cured of anything, which of course is lovely for him (although Beauvoir may have had a different opinion on that score, later on in life). It was a matter of academic interest to him whether or not the subjects of his biographies were nutters, depressives or criminals who might have felt a great deal better if they could get a hand to the original foundations of their selves and yank them about a bit. Reading about Sartre’s idea of the ‘choix originel’ made me think of some of the late twentieth century writings on psychoanalysis I’ve worked with, some by that master of obscurity, Jacques Lacan and some by a little cutie of a contemporary theorist, the Rumanian academic’s delight, Slavoj Žižek. Now Lacan didn’t call them choices, he spoke instead about ‘fantasmes’, let’s call them the fantasies that act like veils over our eyes and colour all we see with our own original perspective. For Lacan the business of an analysis was bound up with ‘la traversée du fantasme’, or actually finding a perspective on ourselves in which we see clearly (or at least dimly trace the outlines of) all those silly, poignant, irrational but tenacious pillars on which our identity rests. And of course this is no fun, not really. It’s very upsetting to have the basic premises by which you live pulled to pieces, even if they weren’t actually doing you any good. This is why Žižek (whom you will understand why I love in a brief moment) declared that the average analyst was far crueler than Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal Lecter only wanted to have your kidneys on a plate; the average analyst wants the very core of your soul served up, and to add insult to injury, you’ll be made to pay for the experience, too.

Anyway, I tell you all this because I was reading about it this afternoon and it interested me so. When I worked on my PhD, all the identity theories were about performativity, or the way we act out the roles that our culture assigns us. That’s a post for another day. What I liked about this model is its stubbornness, the way those original default positions are always there, no matter how you fiddle about with the menus. It takes an apocalyptic crash and then the psychoanalytic wiping clean and reinstalling of all the systems to make any real difference (and even then those default positions might sneak back).

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14 thoughts on “The Project of Identity

  1. And so my untidiness is due, psychoanalytically, to the fact that I chose to scatter my porridge all over the high chair, my unruly sleeping habits are due to my choosing to do my homework at 4am, after a good night’s sleep and my sexual preferences are due my choosing to pull Daphne’s hair (she sat beside me in class) when I was nine years old. I never DID find another Daphne.

    See, I am not responsible for my actions! Between my genetic make-up with its propensity for addictive habits and my proto-choices made before I was responsible, I am fixed on my course, whether to hell or glory.

    Of course, being an egotistical human being, should my destination be glory, I shall take all the credit. Should it be hell, then it was not my fault.

  2. Oh no, no, no, Archie! I’ve misrepresented Sartre (and psychoanalysis) entirely if that’s the impression you’ve been left with. For Sartre there’s never a moment when we’re not responsible for our own choices, even if we do have a particular kind of choice we’re prone to making (it might be the need to be ethical that drives us on, for instance). And what would the point of psychoanalysis be if not to make us take charge of ourselves and try to implement alterations? And I don’t think what’s formative about our childhoods is to be found in the details of them. Psychoanalysis has a noble intention at heart, which is to make people who are suffering feel a bit better; for this reason it is more productive to consider its techniques in relation to people who really have been through hell – most of whom will be crippled by the sense that whatever happened was irrevocably their own fault. I should re-write this or add a coda if it looks like this is all about determinism!

  3. This is an interesting distillation, Litlove. I have little to add other than this: when I find myself in times of doubt or crisis, I force myself to remember defining moments that I believe have shaped the person I wish to perceive myself as. I run through this picture book of memories, and bolster my sense of self from them, and in doing so reaffirm my confidence and basic belief in my own goodness.

    I understand this exercise as an attempt to come closer to my idealized self; these Lacanian pillars are consciously chosen, and range from early childhood to my recent past. I have of course many moments that I am ashamed of and wish to distance myself from, and thus perhaps this exercise is in part similar to Satre’s directive that we ‘transcend’ our original tram lines. I seek to move away from the bad ‘pillars’ towards the good.

    A blend, perhaps, of both theories?

  4. How very interesting, Phil! The idea of making reassuring contact with the tenets of the ideal self after any kind of uncertainty seems a very healthy and wise move. Sartre would undoubtedly approve!

  5. This is very interesting Litlove and rings true, from my personal experience at least. How did you end up in literature instead of as a psychoanalyst yourself?

  6. Stefanie – now that’s a very good question. Literature led me to psychoanalysis and I constantly toy with the thought of becoming a therapist of some kind. I very much wanted to work with teenagers for a while, but I’m not sure I could leave their problems behind at the end of the day, and that’s fundamental to doing a good job. So… I always teeter back from the brink. One day, though, I expect I’ll do it. Dorothy – oh you have that absolutely right! Fascinating and terrifying at the same time. And then perhaps you might realise that you’d known it all along.

  7. In my own writing, I am fascinated, obsessed might be a better word, with problems of narrative voice. I don’t have the tools to approach this as critic or literary theorist–for me it’s a part of the aesthetics of process, something I have to work out as I write, in the writing itself. More out of political than philosophical sensibility, I’ve shied away from Sartre–feeling more comfortable in the company of Camus–but this idea of un ‘choix original ’ is wonderfully fertile, and has broken free a sort of mental log jam that’s slowed down progress for some time.

    Thank you for posting that!

  8. Have you read other works by Balzac? This was my introduction to him, so I don’t really know where to go next in his massive oeuvre. I’d be grateful for any suggestions!

  9. Hmmm, I don’t know if I can handle an apocalyptic crash in order to tweak the menu a bit. I would like, however, to return to my eleven year old self, such a happy little guy—right before puberty and all the rest. I believe also that much of who we are has to do with early conditioning and wonder if there isn’t a way to build new tramlines without the catastrophic crash of the old, lines that may circle around to meet the old ones, but also cart us to new vistas on the way. Really thought provoking post—I know I’ll be pondering it for a while. Thanks Litlove.

  10. Jacob – welcome to the site! Delighted to have you here. I write about the things that catch my attention during the day, but it’s particularly nice to think that they might well chime in with other people’s preoccupations too. It’s made my day if I’ve been of help. Eva – I’m a big fan of Balzac. Le Pere Goriot is the companion piece to La Cousine Bette and wonderful. I also love The Wild Asses’ Skin (La Peau du chagrin) and Eugenie Grandet. If you’d like to try one of his novellas then go for The Girl With The Golden Eyes. And then post on how you get on, please! Oh Ian – you’re so right! That time before puberty has a special freedom and sweetness to it. I think Sartre was rather hoping that identity would be just as you describe it, an endless gentle rearrangement of the lines. The apocalypse is only for those who have nuclear problems in the past. Stefanie – you are such a darling. Thank you.

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