Allison Weir

One of the most important tasks facing contemporary feminist theorists is the task of reformulating and reconstructing our concepts of the self. We need new models of identity, of individuation, of agency and autonomy which will take account of the important critiques of these concepts generated by feminist theorists. In this paper I will work toward a model of self-identity which can address some of the concerns of both relational feminism, which argues that the ideal of self-identity too often conceals a defense against connection with others, and postmodern and poststructuralist feminism, which argues that the concept of self-identity can be understood only in terms of the system of mean­ing which produces it: a system predicated on a logic of exclusion of noniden­tity or difference. My attempt to clarify a normative ideal of self-identity comes out of a conviction that we need to uphold a commitment to women’s strug­gles for identity and autonomy in the context of feminist critiques of defensive atomistic individualism and critiques of the concept of the disembedded subject as the free and unfettered author of his destiny. We need to make a space for an understanding of self-identity and autonomy which will not clash with our conviction that individuals must be understood as embedded, embod­ied, localized, constituted, and fragmented, as well as subject to forces beyond our control. We need to understand ourselves clearly as actors capable of learn­ing, of changing, of making the world and ourselves, better.

So it is important that I begin by saying what a defensible ideal of self – identity is not. It is not some sort of essentialist ontology, not an idealist

conception of an original pregiven authentic self. It is not an alienated indi­vidualism severed from connections and solidarities, severed from collective struggles, immune to systems of power and oppression. It is not an attempt to repress or deny the embodiment, fragmentation, dividedness, and multi­plicity of human selves, or the constitution of subjects in and through language and power.

The concept of self-identity I defend can be defined as the capacity to expe­rience oneself as an active and relatively coherent participant in a social world. Essential to self-identity, then, is “the ability of a person to relate to him or herself and to be able to relate to others in a meaningful way, to act and react self-consciously.”1 This emphasis on a capacity for meaningful interaction with self and others takes us in two directions, for it introduces both reflexivity and intersubjectivity as essential components of self-identity. Reflexivity, for the meanings of my relationships to myself and to others come down to me: I am the one faced with the question of who I am and who I want to be. I am the one who must invest my existence with meaning for me; this meaning can be generated only through my participation in social mean­ings, which are intersubjectively constituted. The very concept of a self, of an I, of a me, is something which is constructed only through intersubjective interactions, which take place always in contexts of shared meanings. Similarly, my identity as this specific individual is constructed through my participation in communities, institutions, and systems of meaning, which organize my interactions with, and through which I interpret my interactions with, the world, my self, and others. My identity is produced through a complex process through which I am identified, and identify myself, in terms of intersubjective contexts of meaning.

The capacity, and the responsibility, to problematize and define one’s own meaning (one’s own identity) is both the burden and the privilege of modern subjects. As a subject who is no longer defined by a fixed position in a social system, I am (relatively) free (or, at the least, I aspire to a normative ideal of freedom) to determine, through my practices, who I am and who I am going to be. The flip side of this freedom is the burden of self-definition: every action, every decision becomes self-defining; every action, every position is open to question.2 This freedom and this responsibility are absolutely inescapable in our daily lives. At the same time, along with the increasing need for self-definition goes an increasing production and differentiation of identity-attributes: of possible roles, attachments and affiliations, values, beliefs and commitments, needs and desires, styles and modes of expression. We are exposed to more and more frameworks for reflection on and demys­tification of the constitutive influences which shape our identities (such as family and relationship dynamics, unconscious processes, collective identities, economic, social, and linguistic systems, systems of power and oppression…).

Central to self-identity, then, is the capacity to sustain and in some sense reconcile multiple and often conflicting identities and to understand, criticize, and reconcile multiple and often conflicting interpretations of those identities, not to mention the capacity to live with and somehow reconcile all of the ambiguity and complexity of our lives that does not (and never will) readily lend itself to this identity-work. Ideally, these reconciliations are achieved not through the imposition of an identity which excludes or represses difference and nonidentity (the concern of post-modernists), but through a capacity to reflexively and practically accept, live with, and make sense of differences and complexity. This capacity is based not on a denial of connections with others (the concern of relational theorists), but on a cognitive and affective acceptance of intersubjectivity and autonomy and of the dependence on and independence from others, which underlies a capacity to recognize when my meaning differs from the meaning of others, and when my identity is bound up with the iden­tity of a partial or general “we.”

This is, of course, an enormously demanding project, the difficulty of which is increased as various identities are recognized as bound to systems of oppression, and with communities and institutions that define themselves through exclusions. This is acutely expressed by Gloria Anzaldua who writes of her ongoing attempts to make some sense out of the conflicts among her various identities as a Catholic-raised, lesbian Chicana (Mexican, Anglo – American): “I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.”3

The experience of lack of self is the familiar dark side of a culture charac­terized by a growing pressure for self-identity under conditions of increasing fragmentation. But the other side of this pressure and this fragmentation is a freedom of conscious self-determination and a capacity for analysis: Anzaldua describes her conscious choice to live her life as a lesbian and describes her struggle for self-analysis and self-making as a “path of knowledge” which opens up a process of analysis and critique of social and cultural institutions governing race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Essential to an individual’s capacity to problematize and define her own identity are cognitive and practical capacities for self-knowledge, self-realiza­tion, and self-direction,4 which involve cognitive capacities for learning, for critique, and for organization, and practical capacities for expression, engage­ment, commitment, and flexibility. The development of self-identity requires the learning of social and linguistic norms, through which the expression or realization of one’s specificity, and the development of a capacity for the critique of norms, becomes possible. (I also want to say that it is through these practices of expression and critique that social and linguistic norms change and are kept open and diverse.) The development of self-identity requires the cognitive capacity to reflect on who I am and what matters to me, and to organize diverse identities and identity-attributes, into some sort of meaning­ful narrative or constellation. It also requires the practical, existential capac­ity to discover and define and commit to what matters to me, to my meaning, while remaining flexible and open to change. To some extent, all of this depends on an ability to resolve particular differences and conflicts into more general meanings.

This notion of self-identity as a capacity to resolve differences and conflicts has not been popular among feminist theorists. Iris Young, for example, argues that “any individual subject is a play of differences that cannot be comprehended” and that the struggle for self-identity (and the struggle for reciprocal recognition with others) is necessarily based on a logic of identity which necessarily denies differences.5 For Young, identity and difference are mutually exclusive; thus, she argues for an ideal of “unassimilated other­ness.”6 Similarly, Luce Irigaray, Diana Fuss, and Jessica Benjamin all argue that the attempt to resolve contradictions is an act of domination, and it is better to leave contradictions and paradoxes unresolved.7 All of these theo­rists make these arguments in the name of a model of the self as an open process of constant change.

But the struggle to resolve conflicts through an openness to difference is essential to the practice of change and the generation of new meaning. It is impossible to understand the developments in the self-understanding of femi­nists, and the feminist movement, without acknowledging the role played by individual and collective struggles to understand differences and make sense of and resolve conflicts. To take just one example, the “Sex Wars” debates were provoked by some women’s struggles to explore sexuality, pleasure, violence, and desire past the boundaries set by anti-porn feminism. At the individual level, the struggle of a particular woman to analyze, articulate, and make sense of the relationships between her sexual desires, fantasies, and practices and her feminist values requires a struggle to reconceptualize the relationship between her feminist values and her experiences of pleasure and desire. In the process, both the understanding of feminism and the under­standing of desire—and, in turn, her own self-understanding—undergo change, a change that could not have happened if she had simply accepted paradox and had made no attempt to resolve it; if, that is, she had not taken either her desires or her commitment to feminist values seriously enough to attempt to resolve the apparent conflict between them. It is such individual and collective struggles to resolve conflicts which fueled the opening up of feminist discourses about pleasure and desire and radically changed the land­scape of feminist theory and practice.

The struggle to make meaning through attempting to resolve apparent contradictions is essential to the ongoing constitution of self-identity. Since it is impossible to make meaning in abstraction from the practical activity of

making meaning for and with other people, the development of self-identity is possible only through the development of a capacity for mutual under­standing, within intersubjective relationships. But this means that we have to be able to conceptually abstract from the relationships themselves to the inter­subjective meanings which mediate relationships.

To put this another way, the problem of the identity of the self is bound up with the problem of the identity of meaning, and with the problem of the identification with, or the relationship to, others. It seems to me that attempts by feminist theorists to formulate a positive conception of self-identity often founder because one or the other of these elements is left out. Relational theo­ries like Nancy Chodorow’s focus on the relationship between self-identity and identification with others, but leave out any consideration of identity of meaning. Because they lack any concept of mediation through identity of meaning in language, they see the identity of the self and identification with others as locked in eternal opposition or merged into one. On the other hand, post-structuralist theories tend to focus on the structural homology between the identity of the self and the identity of meaning in language, but leave out any conception of mediation through social relations with others. Thus, they see the identity of the self and the identity of meaning in language as united in a logic or structure of totalizing repressive identity. The effect is that each is unable to abstract, either from concrete relationships or from the system of language, to a concept of the individual as a participant in the intersubjective constitution of meaning.

It is crucially important that feminist theorists reconsider a common tendency to see abstraction as the enemy. For example, Judith Butler argues that we need to reject any conception of agency as a capacity for reflexive mediation, because such a conception falsely “separates [the] subject from its cultural predicates,” abstracts from the subject’s color, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and the “illimitable et cetera,” and abstracts from the process of signi­fication or the linguistic constitution of the subject. Furthermore, the postu­lation of a capacity for reflection upholds a false “epistemological” conception of a subject who is separated from and opposed to its object/other.8 This argument is surprisingly similar to the arguments of rela­tional theorists like Evelyn Fox Keller, Susan Bordo, and Sandra Harding, among others, who criticize a characteristically masculine emphasis on abstraction, which they associate with the separation of subject and object, the denial of connections to others, and the domination of the other/object.9 What is common to these otherwise disparate arguments is an association of abstraction and separation with domination or repression.

While there is much to be learned from feminist critiques of the abstrac­tion of the individual from the intersubjective relationships and the contexts of power; language, and meaning that constitute us, there is also a danger here

of sliding into absurdity. Once we get to the point where we reject any abstraction of the individual from contexts and any postulation of the indi­vidual’s capacity for reflection on contexts, we effectively deny any capacity of agents to participate in, criticize, and change those contexts. In rejecting abstraction, feminist theorists forget that the capacity to abstract from partic­ular relationships, from linguistic systems and social norms, is essential to a capacity to criticize those relationships, systems, and norms. The challenge, then, is not to reject abstraction for embeddedness, but to theorize a capacity for abstraction for detachment, for critique, which is not opposed to but continuous with, and in fact constitutive of, participation.