As someone identified only as Patrick recently suggested in response to a post by Linh Dinh on the blog International Exchange for Poetic Invention (and later, Harriet) , most poetics discussions regarding the concept of self or identity and its relation to the creation of writing and language are tired, reasserting old ground in unexamined and contentious ways. “All writing is autobiographical.” “We write from inside fundamental conditions of bodies and cultures.” “In writing, we can be anyone we want to be.” To assert that the self is central or insignificant to writing; both beg the question of what this self is.
Generally speaking, discussion about politics among contemporary poets is very developed but discussion about psychology much less so. Obviously there are exceptions: a writer like Nick Piombino, a practicing pscyhotherapist, has always explored the psychological formation of selves and others as much as the social ramifications involved. But in the world of innovative poetries broadly, Marx and Debord are discussed every day; Freud and Lacan much less so; Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst whose writing has been tremendously valuable to me, is practically unknown to poets. So is Alice Miller, whose book The Drama of the Gifted Child seems to describe much about the internal conflicts of any number of writers I know although they’ve never read her work. It remains common for poets to dismiss psychology as irrelevant to supposedly more important political and aesthetic questions.
I’m hardly a scholar of psychoanalysis any more than I’m a Marxist scholar. Nonetheless I feel like I can make some suggestions about what these selves might be that we so love or disdain. So, tentatively, and with less than scholarly thoroughness, I’d like to suggest that anyone asking the question “Who Wrote That?” is dealing with at least the following set of conditions.
Body: A set of physical conditions, outside language, that create us and limit us and make themselves known to us. We can affect the body through our living habits, healthy or unhealthy, and we can describe the body. But can never control it; it always exists somewhat outside all our purposes for it. The body imposes a powerful set of limitations, needs, and desires. The need to eat, sleep, and drink, the physical urges of sexuality; aging; illness and disease; these are perhaps the main key components of the body.
Identity: Identity is a condition of culture and the languages created by cultures. Identity consists of a series of stories that exist beyond us as individuals, stories which shape us long before we know they do. What it means to have a gender and a sexual orientation, what it means to have a skin color, to be rich or poor; what it means to be in a family; what it means to live here or there, to have fought this war or been invaded and assaulted by these people in this way; all these meanings are abroad in the cultures we are born into, and they shape how others see us. Soon enough, they become essential to how we see ourselves. One can celebrate an identity, accept it, try to reject it or to redefine it, but key to identity is the fact that it is culturally imposed upon us before our own reactions to it can begin. It is objective in that sense; subjective (or cultural) in the sense that identity is no more than the story that a culture or set of cultures tells and thus can be changed.
Self: The stories we tell others, or just ourselves, of those things that make us unique, that individualize us more than identity can. More thoroughly subjective than identity, it concerns our individual experiences and our individual reactions to those experiences. Self inevitably implies others because the stories we tell about who we are as individuals are frequently shaped out of our relation to others. Nonetheless self has a greater degree of individual freedom and volition than identity even though it is greatly formed in relation to identity. Self can be largely a matter of assertion, although gaps between assertions and behavior are included in the way others see us (and such gaps are often the subject of psychotherapy). No doubt, as Erving Goffman has shown, the self is a series of performances. But in this case, the performance is one of who we think we are or wish ourselves to be.
Performativity: Related to self in being a series of individual gestures, but beyond the self because it consciously highlights the game-playing element. Performativity involves a series of gestures that we often use to free ourselves from our daily senses of body, identity, and self. They are games we play in which we imagine ourselves others or attempt to strip ourselves free of our own limitations. The concept of the actor is crucial to perfomativity; for a time, we create ourselves as other than ourselves. That said, the freeing of ourselves from ourselves that is crucial to performativity is never complete. As actors know, our ability to play successfully at being others always requires that we imagine those others, and such imagining can only come from our own perspectives. Still, the degree to which we can imagine and create ourselves as other shouldn’t be underestimated. If some trace of our selves and identities always remains, it’s still truly remarkable how far people can go in creating temporary selves and identities unlike their own.
The Ineffable: As poststructuralism made clear, all attempts to define the complete structure of anything always leaves something out, something missed or that can’t be or isn’t spoken. In relationship to who we are, some call this undefinable piece the sacred. Julia Kristeva speaks of the semiotic chora: those processes outside language to which language is always related. In writing about Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser speaks of The Practice of Outside. The ineffable is that irreducible fact that no matter how accurately we describe our bodies, our identities, our selves and our performative freedoms, not even all of them together can account for all we think and feel ourselves to be. We know that we are different from all that has been said of us; we know that nothing can fully account for all the change that we have experienced. Like body, the ineffable operates outside language (and Kristeva’s chora essentially combines body and the ineffable) and so what is most mysterious connects back to what is most concrete. We are always more, and other, than we know ourselves to be.
While I would suggest that all these features are interrelated, and all bear on the act of writing, it’s certainly true that they are related in different ways for different individuals. Some people feel the weight of one or the other more heavily, body and identify especially because we have so much less say in them. Obviously, writers can focus on one or some of these features rather than all, or assert that, to them, one or the other is most central. But I would suggest that when we deny that the others exist, our sense of who is writing is probably too limited.
Among the many fascinating issues that it raises, Stanislaw Lem’s great science fiction novel Solaris posits the following question: How can we understand what life might be like on other planets (and read here also: other cultures) if we don’t even understand crucial things about ourselves? He doesn’t ask the question smugly, or with the implication that we shouldn’t try to understand lives other than our own until we understand ourselves completely. Instead the implication is that exploring the lives of others and exploring our own lives are processes that need to work together. Trying to understand who somebody else is always requires trying to understand ourselves.