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).