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.
Simpson, L (2002). Lorna Simpson. London: Phaidon Press Limited. Temkin, A, Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 184. Tagg, J (1993). The Burden Of Representation. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Wells, L (2003). The Photography Reader. London: Routledge.
Wells, L (2019). The Photography Cultures Reader. Oxon: Routledge.