ESSAY: Issues of Identity and Identity as an Act of Performance
This essay explores issues surrounding identity and identity as a performative act, a theory heavily supported by the works of Judith Butler, and I will use these works as the basis for a critical analysis, as well as other theorists. Firstly, on the issue of changing the fundamental belief of a binary based society, humans have been conditioned over centuries to believe in a series of constructs that revolve around the fixed role of male or female. We have been led to believe that gender is fixed, and cannot be chosen, but my essay will disprove this, showing gender as a fluid ideal that can be performed rather than assigned. Genders of male and female, as put forward by Judith Butler in the majority of her theory, are products of societal expectations, this binary system is assigned and thus expected of you once you fit the requirements to belong to that gender, in the same way people can become a part of a subculture if they fit into the right specifications. To challenge this binary system, Butler put forward the idea that only sex is assigned at birth by product of your sexual organs, but that your societal gender is fluid, and exists on a spectrum, with everyone naturally occuring at a certain point along this line. When Butler talks about the idea of a performed gender in the quote, “The acts by which gender is constituted bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts.”(Butler, 1988, p. 521) she describes the performance of identity as similar to the performance created by actors on a stage, that they can be something fixed and yet become something fluid, always interchanging and never constant, this leads me to believe that not only is gender fluid, but that the idea of both male and female do not exist at all, because if there is a spectrum as Butler dictates there is, then how can we as society depict where on that spectrum the ‘true’ man or woman exists. To change the belief of a binary based society we must first question the system in place that protects it, we must question the importance of systems which require a confirmation of sexual gender, such as applying for jobs, or voting, these place an importance on your physical being, and seek to impose a factual existence of gender on the general populace. One of the issues associated with gender fluidity is that it takes away gender as a form of identity in itself, and with identity being highly important in society as a security measure, this redactment of gender can become dangerous in certain scenarios. Identity is highly important to humans because as a species we strive to be grouped and to be a part of something bigger, we actively seek out people like ourselves to identify with and for our lives to be given meaning by way of a group identity, in working class men for example this can commonly come out as supporting your local football team, in people interested in comic books this comes out as a shared interest in comic books, etc etc. Photography plays a heavy role in the formation or repression of identity, and in the first half of my essay, I will cover how those in power have typically used photography to control representations of identity in the media and how those depicted as ‘other’ fought back against misrepresentation.This essay will first explore the power of the camera as a tool for the controlling of identity and representation, the essay will look at the writings of bell hooks to show evidence of this. Secondly, the essay will explore the writings of Judith Butler to discuss the idea of identity as a performative act, as well as artists working within this realm, such as Eleanor Antin, Anna Deveare Smith, and Nikki S Lee. The research used in this essay are socio-historical and i will be using this to provide evidence to the arguments made in this essay. Power Of The Camera Contrary to the common belief in the modern day world of the uninitiated, the camera can never be neutral, as its operator always approaches image making with some form of participant bias. This can be used for both progressive and repressive ideals, and thus can be seen in both a bad and good light. The writings of John Tagg in his book, The Burden Of Representation(1993), explore this idea of the biased and powerful entity we call a camera. We know the camera as a tool for power as it can record with the common belief of a guaranteed truth, although the more initiated know this to be false. Tagg tells us the power of the camera as a transformative tool when he states: “As a means of record, it appears on the scene rested with a particular authority to arrest, picture and transform daily life.”(Tagg, 1993, p.64) This belief of the ‘higher power’ of the camera he describes when mentioning the ability to ‘arrest’, ‘picture’, and even ‘transform’ a life, meant it could prove extremely useful in subduing the docile population into believing a fabricated truth, we see this most evident in the treatment of the black community in America, and the mind altering media imagery that helped sway public opinion into believing tales of superiority. Tagg goes on to describe the camera as being on the same level of neutrality as the state, which is to say, both are never neutral, and both have the ability to force an agenda, whether that agenda be right or wrong. We see evidence of Tagg’s associations with both camera and state when he writes: “Like the state, the camera is never neutral. The representations it produces are highly coded and the power it wields is never its own.” (Tagg, 1993, p.63-64) It is interesting when Tagg tells us, “the power it wields is never its own”(Tagg, 1993, p.64), this statement creates an eerie, sinister agenda around the function of the camera, is this a tool for artistic purpose, or a weapon against the lower classes and minorities to keep them from uprising? We can however say that this power does not belong to the camera itself, but instead belongs to the ruling classes who presided over most of the art world at the time. Tagg writes about this state use of power when he concludes: “This is not the power of the camera but the power of the apparatuses of the local state which deploy it and guarantee the authority of the images it constructs to stand as evidence or register a truth.” (Tagg, 1993, p.64) Minorities fought back against the ‘cameras power’ that was wielded throughout the mid 20th century by the white ruling class, who were using the camera's power to subdue the black community by presenting a savage-like impression of the black community to the uneducated white working classes, in order to turn them against them. In this fight-back, the black community used the same instrument to produce images of their own, combating misrepresentation by creating images that registered their own truth of everyday black life. bell hooks, an African American female writer, writes about the power of the camera for black communities to be able to produce true imaginings of black life. The camera was well and truly a tool of revolution for the black community, allowing them to reshape their own image that was, at the time, being hugely misrepresented by the white ruling class for their own benefit. As hooks states, the camera “gave to black folks, irrespective of our class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images.”(Wells, 2003, p389), this meant that as long as white ruling classes had the ability to misrepresent them, the black community had equal power to resist, and this became a powerful part of the civil rights movement, in which the camera became a tool for the truth, allowing the black community to show lower class white people what was really happening to them in daily life. The black community focused on this throughout the civil rights movement, and it became crucial for its success, between the images of Birmingham protests, and the horrifying image of Emmett Till's corpse, nobody could deny the truth of racist representations. This would not have been possible if cameras were not readily available at this point, and its mass appeal is what led it to become such a crucial tool in the construction of a resistance based imagery, hooks acknowledges this when she states, “Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construction of an oppositional black aesthetic.” (Wells, 2003, p389), this is because photography is held high as an icon of ‘guaranteed knowledge’ as David A. Bailey acknowledges when he writes: “Documentary photography carries a claim to truth, with the meta message of this is how it really was. This stems from its close relationship with classical realism and classic realist text - exemplified most powerfully by the nineteenth century novel - which places the spectator in a position of absolute knowledge and truth. In a similar way, documentary claims to reveal the truth, because realism as a narrative form places the spectator in the position of guaranteed knowledge.”(Wells, 2019, p229-230) This idea of documentary images being works of guaranteed truths proved crucial for the black community to produce their ‘oppositional black aesthetic’, showing true black life to white viewers that wasn't being skewed by the ruling classes. It also proved crucial in the creation of a black identity that was dictated by black people themselves, rather than having a repulsive and wrong misrepresentation of them forced onto their whole community. The black community have shared issues with other misrepresented identities, be it the LGBT community, or women's rights, and all have utilised imagery to construct their own aesthetic, utilising the camera's position of ‘absolute truth’ to counter representations laid about by the ruling class, and still to this day, people who are dictated as ‘other’ continue to fight for control of their own identities and lives. Artist Carrie Mae Weems creates work along these themes, and one such project is her series ‘Coloured People’, in which she photographs adolescent boys and girls at an age when, as she states, “issues of race really begin to affect you, at the point of an innocence beginning to be disrupted.”(Ann Temkin, 2008, 184.), she then pairs these with coloured grids, and in the use of this grid alongside the portraits, she exerts to ways that color has operated in relation to race in social and historical contexts whilst also suggesting more open minded ways to consider colour. 📷Fig 2. Carrie Mae Weems, Coloured People, 2009–10 Here we can see the layout when exhibited, her series blends colour and African American portraiture to form a counter piece to the idea that people other than white are ‘coloured’, she is giving the subjects identity by combating the preassigned term ‘coloured’, that is unequivocally wrong. This series is of course based on the application of repetition, the modernist style grid is a reflection of autonomy, which then reflects on the autonomous nature of the hierarchical society which frequently misrepresents black life. When Weems uses this grid format, she highlights the non-hierarchical nature of her subjects, placing everybody on the same pedestal, a work of true equality. The prints and frames all contain the same dimensions, the same style, and are all equidistant from each other, again to highlight these subjects as equal. This also applies when we see that there is no structure in the arrangement of the panels, nobody has any clear prejudice placed against their likeness and are thus spread randomly, yet purposefully, with the intention to deter any kind of belief that these people are not equals. This critique of systems of power plays a common role in Weems’s work, she seeks to unravel the relationships of power that result in inequality and misrepresentation, and then seeks to provide an oppositional aesthetic to the systems of power she critiques. Identity As An Act Of Performance The idea of gender as an act has been highly disputed for years, it is a theory refused by generally right wing people, and commonly accepted by the left wing, and will definitely be up for dispute for years to come. When talking about life as a woman, Simone de Beauvoir claims, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman”.(Butler, 1988, p.519), this description of life as a woman, indicates that Beauvoir believes that ‘woman’ is an idea and not a natural fact, and shows a clear definition between sex and gender, one as a biological fact, and the other as a cultural interpretation of sex. Butler describes this statement as “[...]Appropriating and reinterpreting this doctrine of constituting acts from the phenomenological tradition.”(Butler, 1988, p.519) Butler goes on to say: “In this sense, gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time-an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” (Butler, 1988, p.519) This quote puts the idea forward that gender is a consistent acting out of specific requirements that place you under a certain banner, these requirements being how you move, talk, dress, etc etc. This makes it clear that gender is somewhat paradoxical, that the various acts of gender creates the very idea of each gender, they are a cycle, one cannot occur without the other, if we simply stopped seeking to perform that identity, that identity would cease to exist, as Butler describes: “gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.”(Butler, 1988, p.522) As is believable through the theories of Judith Butler, we are a society of performers, in the same way Roland Barthes called us posers through the theory of “a closed field of forces” (Wells, 2003, p23), we have a different identity for every person we meet, a different identity than we ourselves believe we have, a different identity to the one our parents know us to have, etc etc, he writes about this differentiating identity when he states our identities as a subject to be, “The one i think i am, the one i want others to think i am, the one the photographer thinks i am, the one the photographer makes use of to exhibit his art.” (Wells, 2003, p23), in both Barthes and Butlers theories, they describe the idea of performing to ‘fit in’ with a certain domain of society, in which humans will change their personas, dress sense, and their very way of life, just to fit into a subculture. Someone who believes thoroughly in identity as an act is Anna Deveare Smith, an actress, playwright and professor, she creates projects that revolve around identity and issues that surround identity. Anna Deveare Smith believes, like Butler, that identity and character is a process rather than a fixed fact. In Enacting Others by Cherise Smith, we learn about Anna Deveare Smith through her performance, titled Twilight: Los Angeles, in which she takes on multiple identities, the book describes Smith as being “interested in the multiple and interrelated ways that identity is constituted, performed, lived, and represented.”(Smith C, 2011, p.158/159). More than Butler, Smith explores the real way in how the idea of a performative identity is actually performed, she also takes into account the issues surrounding a certain person conjuring up an identity that they would not be naturally assigned to, for example, a white woman acting in the identity of an African American woman, this becomes troublesome as it naturally assigns a position of power to the white woman, which can be seen as a parallel for the actions taken during the slave trade and post slave trade racism. There are clear parallels between Anna Deveare Smith and Judith Butler, where Butler writes, Smith performs, and they share an identical viewpoint on the theatrical basis of performing an identity. The majority of Smith’s theories surrounding the act of performing identities, reflect the theories put forward by Judith Butler. Something I do find problematic in Deveare Smith's work is when she describes her act of becoming an identity as “reenacting the speech of the ‘other’ imprints the experiences of the ‘other’ on her body and psyche.”(Smith C, 2011, p.158), this is problematic as it can, in certain instances, become an offense to cultures, when you take an identity and believe it to be yours, it doesn't actually make you that identity, for example a white man acting out the role of a middle eastern man, does not actually make him middle eastern, you cannot share the experiences of a middle eastern man, without actually being middle eastern. I understand that Deveare Smith tries to understand the ‘others’ experiences and then implement her interpretation of this onto herself, but she cannot realistically share the experiences with say, a black man, who will have experiences that can only be shared with other people of the same race. On the issue of the performance of identities, another performer, Eleanor Antin, produced a similar piece of work when she created the persona of Antinova, “[...]Antin mounted a performance lasting twenty days in which she stepped into and lived as the character Antinova. Each day of the nearly three weeks, Antin applied dark makeup to her own fair skin in order to masquerade as black.”(Smith C, 2011, p.79/80), this is problematic due to its racial historical link to blackface. The process of a fair skinned woman masquerading as black could easily be taken in a different way to her intended performance of identity, it could instead appear to be a caricature performance of the black community, which becomes a large problem. The Antinova projects intentions are however to strip away narrative integrity, “She spins many stories, simultaneously relying on, and diverging from, established narratives that relate to the roles of outsider artist and expatriate artist, artistic exclusion due to racial and ethnic identity, the indignity of aging, and the humiliation of lost fame.“(Smith C, 2011, p.86/87), the project works to examine the performance that we as humans do every day of our lives, we produce new identities for every person we meet, again linking back to Barthes and his ‘closed field of forces’ theory, we are a part of many identities by the act of performing them around differing actors. On the same theme as both the Antinova project, and Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight:Los Angeles, photographer Nikki S Lee, created a series titled ‘Projects’, in which she also explored the idea of ‘becoming’ another identity. To do this, Lee underwent many personal changes, to persona, appearance, and everything in between, she then “Had herself photographed among members of particular cultural groups.”(Smith C, 2011, p.189), through which she became fully embedded in a society, it becomes a constant learning and realigning process in order to stay in her chosen identity, and through the images we see no act, just one community document. 📷 Fig 1. Nikki S Lee’s ‘Projects’ A question is immediately posed through the idea that she is fully integrated as part of these communities however, and one that is impossible to answer, and that is when Cherise Smith states, “What or who is the constant among the various images? After determining that the artists visage is the constant, other questions follow: does she blend into these various groups and communities, or does she stand out from them?”(Smith C, 2011, p.189), the question this poses is brought about to the viewer as a participant who is aware of the artists presence and the concept of her presence, and the question is whether we as the viewer force her to stand out from the group as voyeurs of the image who know its secret, or do we simply see a well rendered integration of the artist in a particular society, in which we are knowledgeable of her integration, and not her ‘non-performed’ identity at this time. To get an explanation for how Lee manages to integrate into these different cultures, we can study ourselves for the answer, in her process Lee finds a particular cultural group, studies their clothing, bodily mannerisms and their personas, and then she spends time with the members, acting out the same activities they do in order to masquerade as this chosen group. What I mean when I say ‘we can study ourselves for the answer’, is that all the things Lee researches and imitates, we as humans do every time we seek out a group, we seek the herding of ourselves and in this we naturally perform all the research and applications of the research that Lee uses in her ‘Projects’ series. Critics of Lee’s work have described her as a ‘chameleon’, in that she uses a supposed “innate or inherent ability to blend in to the background, to become one among many, to lose herself in the collective.”(Smith C, 2011, p.190), but it is suffice to say that we are all somewhat this ‘chameleon’ figure that the critics call Lee, in that we too perform these adjustments and reworking of ourselves in the hopes of ‘fitting in’ to society, whether consciously or subconsciously. Conclusion To conclude my essay, I would like to identify some key points that this essay proves, firstly that identity is fluid. There becomes a general understanding throughout my research that identity is performative and not a fixed, assigned fact. We see this mainly through the theories that Judith Butler writes about, in which she makes the argument that gender is a performative act in the same sense as a theatrical piece, we can then evaluate that identity as a whole is performative, much like as we’ve seen through the work of Nikki S Lee’s ‘Projects’, the very notion of your own identity can be altered and adapted to fit a social scenario, and this is something we do every day when meeting different people, we adapt to fit in, out of fear of being the ‘outcast’ and being depicted as ‘other’ in society. When writing this essay I also came to the conclusion that identity exists in the same way countries exist, as a man-made construct formed to provide and maintain order in society, and that these ideas only exist because our lives are ordered around the knowledge that they do, thus they are paradoxical in their existence. Humanity is a herd species, naturally, the very notion that identity is constantly being performed(a theory put forward by Roland Barthes when he describes our natural act of ‘posing’ when he states “The one i think i am, the one i want others to think i am, the one the photographer thinks i am, the one the photographer makes use of to exhibit his art.”(Wells, 2003, p.23)), is a product of our herd-like nature, our whole existence bases itself on the ability or desire to fit in, and those who do not conform become ‘other’, and are cast out by a mainstream society that depends on conformity to thrive. Photography is an effective tool for the proving of general identity theory, we crave grouping and the organisation of being in a certain culture or community, and photography becomes the tool for proving this, Victor Burgin mentions this when he writes about family and institutions and states, “Domestic snapshots characteristically serve to legitimise the institution of the family” (Wells, 2003, p.131), he acknowledges the power of the camera to legitimise and evaluate institutions, which we can then ascribe to different foundations of institutions which become the identity of a person, i.e their social groups, race, gender, choice of appearance, etc etc. Therefore we can deduce that the photograph is a powerful tool for the confirmation of an institution, which helps to ground the photograph with the ability to prove a person's identity. This then proves crucial in the construction of an identity. Let's take football, for example, in which fans will wear the colours of their team, wear certain brands, and behave in certain ways to associate themselves with their team and with their sport, they will then take photos to prove their part in this community, and thus be confirmed as part of that community, this proves that our identities are not assigned and are in fact a fluid act of performance, that we can, as 'chameleons', as Nikki S Lee's critics describe her, immediately change identities and become something new, this is our ability to blend in, to become a part of the herd, and to beat the fear of being cast out of society. Bibliography Butler, J (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4. Butler, J., (1990). Gender Trouble. London: Routledge. Butler, J., (2004). Undoing Gender. London: Routledge. Butler, J., (1993). Bodies That Matter. London: Routledge. Dijkstra, R (2012). 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