Illusions of Identity

A couple of months ago I read about the American writer Lionel Shriver and the scandal she caused at a writer’s festival in Brisbane. At the time I was sympathetic but passed on. Recently a follow up article showed that the whole imbroglio is more interesting and more important than it seemed at the time. Or maybe the times have changed. Some people think that the Trump victory has emboldened critics of “political correctness,” assuming that such critics are reactionary to begin with. I think it’s rather that the Trump victory has exposed the utter failure of neo-liberalism, and so of identity politics as well. Looking back I can’t believe that I didn’t single out these comments from Shriver: “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” That’s pretty strong, and also rings true. But then what is an “identity” anyway? The definition of the word means a “sameness.” If two things are identical they are the same. In the way that many use the term, it means group solidarity or group identity, that each member is at one with the group. The sense that Shriver seems to give it—meaning what it should or really does mean for her—is really “self-identity.” That may be confusing at first, but the “self-identical” is what is whole, integrated, unified and autonomous. Apply that to a person and it means that all of the parts of that person belong entirely to him or herself, that they are a complete self-directed individual. Personally, when I admit how permeable and porous I am, how the outside world pours through me all the time, and how much that flood fills my mind and influences what I do, I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to be fully autonomous. Autonomy is an ideal, but it’s an ideal worth striving for, because only autonomous individuals can have relationships with others. A relationship between autonomous individuals is the definition of democracy. It’s also the western concept of marriage. So there it is, politics and sexual politics all at once, both dependent on an ideal type that may not completely exist in any particular example. But I share Shriver’s impatience with the followers of identity politics, because they lack the strength, or courage, or whatever it takes, to try for autonomy. They want to surrender to an external authority. 

Doug Cranmer, Untitled painting (abstraction) 1982

As an artist I can’t come up with a theoretical position on any of this, and why should I? I just want my work to be “non-identical,” meaning completely other from myself. And that usually means it will entail some conflict with community, family, the art world, any group that demands allegiance. In my book there is a chapter on this, about Doug Cranmer, an aboriginal abstractionist.

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