Symbols of the Self

I have finished up some of my reading on Dewey, and while he does not write about the creation of the self, he does write about our use of symbols, which led me to reflect on the creation of the self. According to Dewey (and there is always a caveat in my writing that I misunderstood him), symbols are internal representations that are generated in childhood through a combination of culture and biology. I don't think he claims that these symbols are biological in origin; however, there is good evidence that the basic visual shapes are hardwired into our brains, so I'm making a leap for Dewey that he might not appreciate. Overall, he's more interested in how we manipulate the connections between these symbols and test those connections scientifically. 

It got me thinking about the symbols we use for our identity. The creation of identity is something that is well outside of my expertise, but as an educator working with a diversity of identities and as a trans-woman undergoing many fluctuations in my own identity, Dewey's theory of symbols made me wonder how we connect the symbols of our identity and test that against reality. 

Foucault wrote a lot about the creation of identity, and it's the only area in which I agree with him. Foucault seemed to believe that our conception of the self was a modern invention, and not just of the sort in which we now think of ourselves as "modern people." Probably everyone throughout history thought of themselves as modern to an extent. My interpretation of his writing is that he thinks we have changed how what our fundamental definition of subjective identity since the 17th century. Before, humans created identities by associating them with physical things (body, possessions), role in society (carpenter), or thoughts.

The modern person has switched to an historical definition of self, in which each identity has to be linked to a narrative and history. This has a couple of implications. The first is that all of our life events have to be simplified to fit within an identity narrative. The second is that all narratives and identities come with baggage, and Foucault wrote a lot about how the act of creating an identity in this manner obligates each person to pick an "in" and "out" group, creating a them and us mentality. Honestly, this is a bit dull to me.

But Foucault also said that the creation of a subjective identity in this way needed a history behind it to validate the narrative, thus leading to our modern obsession with personal and cultural histories. As history is always partially a subjective creation that can have as many interpretations as there are humans, we become stuck in an infinite loop as we create an identity, create a historical narrative to justify it, judge our identity against i, and repeat. Advertising has become adept at helping us associate these identities with products. I have to admit that Foucault seems to have a point here, in that it's very difficult to even talk about identity within our current framework without referring to an historical narrative. Even a person's career is put in terms of, "I always knew..." instead of saying something like, "I have a real talent for..." Foucault believed that when our culture changed how we define subjective identity, then the entire project of identity politics and narratives would be done, and "man would be erased, like a face drawn at the edge of the sea."

What can we do now though, in the midst a culture that defines our identity through historical narrative? How do we proceed, once we know that we have created these evanescent identities, these symbols of who we want to be and hope we are, through an alchemy of history, will, and imagination? Speaking as a teacher at a community college and as a trans-woman, I think we have to treat them as magnificent and living art - the art of ourselves. And like art, I believe that we can appreciate each person's unique creation, and celebrate those that bring us a sense of authenticity and dignity and beauty. And we can celebrate a plurality of identity instead of getting caught in the trap of the "other."