Judith Butler drew attention to the paradox of foundationalist frames which would fix or constrain “the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate” in her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble. She asked us to consider that “if identities were no longer fixed … cultural configurations of sex and gender might then proliferate or, rather, their present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness” (Gender Trouble 189-90).
The Seduction of Fixed Identities…
The notion of anything fixed as fundamentally unnatural is obvious to many of us theorists, spiritual warriors, and humanists yet, it is a notion that has no “articulable” or established “intelligible cultural life” or discourse in the mainstream of society. And no matter how free we may individually seek to be and are, or how enlivening the possibilities we create, the majority of us are conditioned to survive a set of external world views and circumstances that may not share or support our freedom-loving visions. We live in a climate that leans into having sexual, gender, ethnic, and socio-economic identities structured, known, and certain —fixed identities that have a seductiveness in the illusion of comfort and constancy.
If we (at the individual and group level) are committed to the long-term goals and values of living free from identity and constraint—which is what the fields of feminism, humanitarianism, ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies are ultimately grounded in—it is encummbant upon us to notice and challenge any fixed ways of being/thinking as they come up?
A good starting point is to notice where and when we live in, create, are in conversations that allow and give space to counter-productive and constraining identities of our own. Inquiring into our own undetected, binary-based blind-spots and barriers be can enable a greater clarity in that which we are committed to. We can make clearer connections that bridge, rather than looking (usually outside of ourselves) for that which is different, separating, and divisive; expanding into something new and unpredictable—and possibly very enlivening—results when switching and/or playing with our identities: in uncertainty, we have much more room to have that which is undiscovered or unknown be expressed.
There is a tendency to grant a degree of import and emphasis on fixed identities: there is a consistency, and the ease of the familiar that it brings. At the same time, many of us speak of identity and sexual politics that scream for binary disruption. Yet, when binaries are disrupted what actually occurs? How willing, how reluctant, can we be? And what affect does this have?
Fixed Identities as Constructed…
We all began to construct our identity in childhood: we formed ourselves based on our upbringing and parents, our schools and friends. We very gradually formed who we consider ourselves to be based on what happened to us, what our experiences were, how we viewed things, what went right and what went wrong. By the time we are in our late teens and into early adulthood much of our personality and who we consider ourselves to be seems to be formed. How we approach life and people, they key attributes and characteristics that we admire, replicate, and/or shy away from are fairly set. Thus, many psychologists consider that our personalities and identity, in general, is put together in response to our environments and what we are taught, what we have decided should be/is right and what shouldn’t be/is wrong, versus some genetic code.
Identities as Moveable…and the Freedom that Exists There
Thus, if we take a moment to look into what decisions and choices each of us made it’s quite easy to see how our identity – and often how our later counter-culture, shifting identities – got constructed. We can see where new ways of looking at ourselves and our world, where new identities and new narratives of ourselves – where switch moments exist and show up – allow us all a much larger space to play and (re)create.
What does considering this make possible? Especially for those who may be somewhat attached or wedded to aspects or parts of our identity? What meanings did we allow or borrow from society, culture, subculture? Which ones did we ourselves assign?
Contrasting questions aid in answering this question: who do I/you/we never get to be when we are that we are a fixed identity? What constraints do we experience? What does having a fixed, immovable identity cost us? When we focus on identity, rather than desires that may enliven us in the present moment, what do we miss out on? In naming ourselves based on something we like to do, like a temporal preference, what do we give up? Miss out on? What worlds are closed to us? What people? What conversations?
And lastly, what new found freedoms can arise from focusing on the myriad of possibilities that are open to us when we do not attach ourselves to a particular way of being, acting, or identity construction? What doors may appear and open in saying who we are? Who might we get to be? It is in this non-attached openness that a fundamental shift in how the world, ourselves, and identity can occur. And certainly, that seems a much more freeing place than a box.