Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Friday, June 09, 2006


It could be that existentialism gets rid of the identity problem. What matters isn't so much answering the question as committing to a course of action — you are what you do.

Or, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, The man of God is like any other man; he loves his wife, he goes to his job. He is not more successful or ambitious in any of these parameters than other men. It's only that he realizes that none of this matters.


But in fact, this identity crisis is a little more about choosing exactly what I want to perform — it's an economic maximization algorithm, not a eulogy for lost time, although that's how it comes in. Proust starts out with nostalgia and ends up analyzing the entire cosmos. Jung claims in an end we can't have any problems with our soul because the soul is microcosm of the entire universe. All interior problems are also problems we have figuring out something out there.

Six years ago I graduated college with an uneasy double recognition: I had a solid enough theoretical, linguistic, and languages background to whiz through any comp lit program to a PhD; I also had enough friends outside of literature to realize how peripheral my concerns about performance, deep narrative, and construction were unless they could be immediately applied to large groups in a political interaction.

How to get from phenomenology to poli sci? In three easy steps? 1) intern in an advertising corporation so that you learn everything about self-presentation and the body as an image; 2) take on the identities of experts in three other fields while at cocktail parties in another country, thus learning how different people respond to other kinds of expertise; 3) drop out of two phd programs in a row, gradually learning about what people study when they study politics; 4) become a political activist and write the damn dissertation anyway.

Part of the identity crisis is that I'm just writing this narrative now. I've been writing it all along, but I keep on losing it and having to rewrite. Yay! I've finally made it to step 5!! Now what ever happened to the performance techniques I learned in steps 1-2?

I'm trying to be very specific with the jealousy I feel: jealousy without attachment, so that it takes the form of curiosity and desire.

That said, I have come to the conclusion that I am fucking jealous of my dear friend the sociologist of the internet who gets interviewed by the NYT on a practically daily basis. In an attempt to discern her success (why her and not me? why not my proud and depressive friends in LA writing their novels? why not any of the rest of us?), I've launched into an archaeological exploration of the character of her success. First, she's in a more relevant and novel field (do historians ever become experts before age 50?) -- about this I can do nothing but wait. Second, her internal analysis of her own success is a natural personal talent at performance - she can describe perfectly what it is she means to do, what group she studies, what she can say about them. Her descriptions are narrow and precise. This is, in general, a good rule for success, and something our advisors force upon most of us. However, in her case the statement appears to be inaccurate as a diagnosis of her success relative to that of her contemporaries. She's not the most coherent person I know. She darts into fields in which she has no knowledge with less knowledge than the more academic of grad students. Her statements about culture are neither more accurate or more well-backed-up than those of her contemporaries; rather most grad students are cowed from making statements about the world external to their field of study, and she has made the contemporary world her field. See above. Hers is not more coherent as a logical enterprise than anyone else's. Third, if her statements are not in themselves particularly coherent, she performs a coherent identity with perfect skill. Queer-punk-candy-raver since high school, she announces with dress and demeanor a confidence in her identity as liminal. Strangers know who she is. She isn't threatening, so she can bear to express her self-confidence as cheerfulness. The social butterfly of the academic realm, meeting and greeting everyone; friend to all, enemy to none. Immediately recognizable, easy to find at the tip of every tongue. This is true success.

I remember performing a coherent identity. I even reckon I'm performing something much more in line with a great deal of experience than I was when I was an undergrad.

However, I am not liminal. I'm a straight white woman. I can be edgy, but my talents and inclination and experience don’t offer anything new to the field of liminality. I've done women’s studies and queer studies; they ultimately fell into that category of phenomenological knowledge about the soul that I wanted to broaden by understanding the political spectrum of many interacting identities. I've made my political and academic identity as the person who understands what the middle class was doing, how people act in public space, how mass culture operates. I situate myself as an edge observer of the arena.

Whatever I perform, it won't be liminality. It could be grave and certain; it could be nurturing. It won't be naively cheerful about a world that will recognize that they cannot tell me what to do - straight white women get told what to do all the time, and those who aren't perform something other than cheerful naivete. How do you perform the edge observer? How do you indicate that you are always looking dead center at the arena? One way is to do what one does anyway; to listen. The one listener in the room. Frankly, that performance isn't very effective in a world where everybody thinks of themselves as an expert and a personality; you listen, they don't even notice. Until, perhaps, much later.

Another answer may be the medium of the performance. In a cocktail party I'm egregious by being invisible. I'm curious only to the other deeply curious. A Boing-Boing type blog with its need for constant amusement doesn't pick up on why I'm interesting either. I suppose a seminar would work. Or a book. Cafe conversation works very well. I suppose that finding some emergent dissatisfied group for which to speak would also work well - existentially dissatisfied twentysomethings? Phenomenologists without real jobs?

I don't know - what do you think of the performances around you? Who
does a Bob Edgar start talking to first? And is it really true that none of us, unless liminal by sexuality or race, will have a chance to speak in public before we're fifty? Dostoevsky novels, after all, are really about existential angst as the last resort of the "useless man" for whom society has offered no role.

Finally, quick apology to my friend, who *does* read blogs. I am "using" my friend, taking her own reasons for her success in order to come up with my own path in its sovereign difference. I am treating her as a transitional object, the way an infant tears apart a stuffed bear to figure out how the boundaries of objects work. It would be a very sick, fucked up thing if I did it with any sense of fixation or stuckedness or nonexistential conception that it mattered.

All of this is also a monastic practice. Or an excavation of the soul. It is far less important that it works than that I learn something about myself through running up against the world.

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