Thursday, 27 September 2012


 From a book by Catherine Malabou*:
In the usual order of things, lives run their course like rivers. The changes and metamorpheses of a life due to vagaries and difficulties, or simply the natural unfolding of circumstance, appear as the marks and wrinkles of a continuous, almost logical, process of fulfilment that leads ultimately to death [..] Bodily and psychic transformations do nothing but reinforce the permanenceof identity, caricaturing or fixing it, but never contradicting it.
I wonder if this 'the natural order of things'. To be honest, I've always had difficulty in comprehending fully the notion of identity. So, I'd like to sketch out some provisional thoughts on the matter.  One possible definition of identity is 'that which stays the same over time' or, at least, that which is continuous over time. Have I stayed the same over time? Obviously not. There are, certainly, traits that have remained the same, but I would be reluctant to locate my 'identity' in these traits. If I still have the cheeky smile of my three year old self we wouldn't want to adduce this as proof of identity, it's  just the trait that has happened to survive. I'd probably want to locate my identity elsewhere (e.g. in what i've fashioned for myself as an adult).

But perhaps it would be better to start with an example used by philosophy teachers. Take a local church, or pub. Say that, over time, every slate on the roof is replaced, every beam, window and so on, until not one part of the original church stands. Is it the 'same' church. And if so, where does it's identity reside? It might be worth interjecting here that even if a single part of the church had survived, say the oak door, the identity of the church would clearly not reside in this surviving part. The source of identity is not to do with materials but with the story of their replacement. It is also a question of function and relations, i.e. the church's functions and relations within the community remains the same, regardless of material transformation  So, we might conclude that identity lies in its function and relations. And perhaps its name. The name of the church lends it an identity over time, like the ship Argo as Barthes describes it.

But I wonder how useful the church example is in thinking about identity and the self. Suppose every trait of my 3 year old self had been superceded, we could, as with the church point to a story, a gradual re-structuring, even if there are no or only a few common elements. (And yet it would be difficult to see what could cancel identity in this sense other than death or devasating illness or accident). The business of relations and function though, that worked for the church, doesn't seem to work when it comes to the question of the individual, since many individuals change their relations and 'functions' singnificantly over time without necessarily losing their identity. Relations and functions might be a way of defining the identity of a symbolic position  - like 'the Presidency', but not a self.

An other point about 'identity' is that it is increasingly used to refer to a self selecting attribute. For example, I am a Catholic or I am Irish.  Identity as something one proclaims, but also a kind of welding of the I and the predicate by force of declaration. This is perhaps a different issue though. Anyway, I hope to come back to this question of identity in more detail. 

*She is concerned precisely with ways in which this order of things is radically disturbed, to such an extent that continuity is broken and something different, new, emerges. I'd like to to come back to this

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