Identity, Multiple: Overview

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Identity, Multiple: Overview

Within Western thought the subjectthat is, the self as a thinking, feeling, psycho-physiological entityhas been traditionally defined as a centered consciousness, characterized and unified by one self-defining identity. Within this tradition, a centered subjectivity was long thought to exist and function independently of the social contexts surrounding it, without significant influence from those contexts. Later, the centered subject came to be regarded as socially constructed in and through social contexts, yet still rendered whole by a single self-defining identity or identity-grounding element that would center the subject in any and all circumstances.

Multiple identity, on the other hand, is one specific conceptualization of the more general idea that the subject is not centered, but instead decentered and multiple. Such a decentered subjectivity can encompass many different, perhaps even contradictory, identities, and is not necessarily centered by one self-defining or "true" identity. Rather, since identities are socially constructed and constructing, their specific number and character are a function of the various forms of socialization that forge the subject over time, as well as of the lifeworlds in which he or she participates. Consequently, the multiple identities of a subject (both social and personal) are relevant to and engaged in specific social milieux and are manifest in a context-dependent manner. Since subjects engage different and multiple identities in response to the social contexts in which they find themselves at a given moment, no one identity is a priori or necessarily more central, self-defining, or true than any other.

The Critique of the Subject

The idea of a decentered subjectivity composed of multiple, socially constructed and context-dependent identities began to emerge during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the writings of a variety of thinkers including William James (18421910), Sigmund Freud (18561939), and the critical theorists Max Horkheimer (18951973) and Theodor Adorno (19031969). These and other thinkers initiated a widespread reevaluation of the philosophy of the subject in the West, and during the twentieth century the "critique of the subject" was debated across a wide array of academic disciplines. Over time the general idea of a decentered multiple subject gained increasingly wide acceptance. With this shift, more specific conceptualizations of it, such as mestiza consciousness and multiple identity, emerged to attempt to integrate the multiplicity, diversity, and contradiction into the philosophical understandings of the subject and identity. Such theoretical formulations have generated new philosophical questions, questions that still remain matters of inquiry and debate.

Early modern conceptions of the subject.

Early modern conceptions of a centered subjectivity can be traced in part to Cartesian dualism in which the mind and its thinking essence were seen as functioning independently of the body and the material world (René Descartes; Discourse on Method, 1637; and Meditations, 1641). The writings of Immanuel Kant (17241804) also oriented modern thought on the subject. On traditional readings of his philosophy, Kant defined the self as a fully self-transparent, self-conscious, self-consistent, and transcendent free willwhat is commonly understood as an autonomous ego. For Kant, the autonomy of the subject depended on the self-legislation of the will (i.e., on living by rules that one gives to oneself). Thus the Kantian subject possessed free will only to the extent that the social dynamics surrounding the self did not dictate its thoughts and actions. Ideally, therefore, this Kantian noumenal or transcendental self was guided or centered by a consistent, rational set of universal principles that the subject held independent of, perhaps even despite, its surroundings. In this sense, the Kantian subject could be described as unencumbered (not socially constructed or embedded), centered (as a single psychic entity made whole by its orientation to the universal principles of right), and unitary (internally consistent, with uniformity and conformity toward its centering elements).

Modernist critiques of the centered subject.

Critiques of the Kantian account of the subject emerged from a variety of quarters, on a range of grounds. Often referred to collectively as the "critique of the subject," these criticisms are not, as is sometimes thought, limited to postmodernist critiques of the Enlightenment project. On the contrary, modernist thinkers who endorsed many Enlightenment principles were among the earliest to reject the Kantian account of the subject. The writings of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, for example, fall into this category. Like others in the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory tradition, Horkheimer and Adorno retained the Enlightenment's commitment to rational reflection as a critical means to social justice and social transformation. Yet, they also rejected the exclusionary logic of Enlightenment reason.

In their critique of Enlightenment reason and the conception of the unencumbered, centered, and unitary subject, Horkheimer and Adorno contend in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) that the "Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them [and] [i]n the metamorphosis the nature of things, as a substratum of domination, is revealed as always the same" (p. 9). For Horkheimer and Adorno, this logic of identitythis logic of "same" within the Enlightenment tradition and its conceptions of the "unity of the subject" and "its correlate, the unity of nature" (p. 10) homogenized and manipulated the self and nature through a denial of the multiplicity and chaos inherent in both. They argued that by using a logic of identity to mask the unruly multiplicity of the self and nature and by vilifying that multiplicity as unreason, Enlightenment thought ultimately distorted and concealed the very human subjectivity that it sought to advance and protect. Extending this argument to his critique of the Kantian subject, Adorno stressed in Negative Dialectics that a viable account of the self must attend to the connections between ethical action and the "nonidentity" of the self. For Adorno, the diversity, multiplicity, and nonidentity of the self distinguishes it from the social forces that form it, for "[w]hatever stirs in a man contradicts his unity" (p. 277).

Freudian and psychoanalytic critiques of the subject.

Horkheimer and Adorno's critiques of the centered subject were not unrelated to those of Sigmund Freud who, like Horkheimer and Adorno, remained committed to various aspects of the Enlightenment project while nonetheless rejecting the Enlightenment conception of the centered, unified subject. Freud's theory of the unconscious differentiated the self into the ego, id, and superego, and divided it also into the conscious and unconscious. This differentiation rejects the idea that the subject is centered by a single, fully self-conscious, self-transparent, or self-defining identity and ego. Freud, in short, "decentered" the self by theorizing its fundamentally divided character. Later, Jacques Lacan (19011981) influentially echoed and extended Freud's critique of the centered, unitary, and unencumbered autonomous ego. Lacan stressed that by asserting the ego's mastery of the world through its separation from the world, the idea of a unified ego served as a shield from reality. This comforting shieldthe fantasy of egoimposed a false unity and rigidity onto the self that hid the more multiple and fragmented character of subjectivity.

Postmodernist and poststructuralist influences.

Freudian and Critical Theory critiques of the subject represent attempts to usefully amend, rather than abandon all aspects of the Enlightenment project. Such critiques decentered the subject by regarding it as divided in character. They also insisted on its multiplicity and its chaos, thus rejecting the idea of the subject as a uniform or self-consistent whole. In addition, post-modernist and poststructuralist critiques of centered subjectivity have been advanced within a wide variety of scholarly fields. These critiques of the subject have often been combined with more general rejection of the Enlightenment project with its insistence on universal truth, reason, necessary human progress, and in particular the tendency of Enlightenment thought to privilege a white male European worldview as the universal standard of truth and rationality.

Among the earliest and most influential of these critiques of the centered subject were those of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), who related the "chaos in oneself" to the process of self-remaking, a self-overcoming that he took to be the key to escaping the homogenizing morality of the West's religious and Enlightenment traditions (1966). For Nietzsche, subjectivity is characterized by diversityand it is the subject that can secure human freedom and excellence over time.

The Linguistic Turn and the Social Construction of the Subject

Deep shifts in language philosophy are also among the converging intellectual currents that have fostered a rethinking of the subject as decentered and multiple. Wittgensteinian language philosophy, as well as the works of postmodernist and poststructuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) and Michel Foucault (19261984), insist on the centrality of language as the necessary and primary medium of thought and action. With this in view, the formation of social relations and groups, cultural norms and practices, and ultimately the formation of subjectivity itself, is seen as a function of language-mediated processes. This linguistic turn has challenged past philosophical dependence on "universal truths" and "essential" or "natural" characteristics in favor of the ongoing social construction of the self and society as specificities in time and place.

In this way, the linguistic turn contributed significantly to the reconfiguration of the subject by casting it as something formed by, embedded in, and cogenerating of complex sets of language-mediated social dynamics. In turn, this view of subjectivity suggests, by extension, that where the subject and its identities are formed in and through multiple and diverse social dynamics, and that the subject will, likewise, become multiple and diverse in character. Still further, to argue that the subject is entirely and only a product of language-mediated social construction suggests that there is nothing else constitutive of subjectivity beyond what is socially given to it in and through the linguistic, and partially material, processes of social construction. So divergent from Western tradition is this last point that is has been, and at times remains, a matter of particular controversy.

Feminist, ethnic, and postcolonial formulations of multiple identity.

In addition to the philosophical traditions discussed above, the idea of a decentered and multiple subject enjoys wide currency in Ethnic Studies, as well as feminist and postcolonial thought. Collated here under the term "multiple identity," specific conceptualizations of a decentered and multiple subjectivity in these scholarly domains utilize a wide diversity of terminology and varying theoretical formulations, yet often display broad similarities. The tradition is long. W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963) first linked the experience of multiple identity to the history of interracial conflict in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Calling it a state of "double consciousness" Du Bois described black subjectivity as something in which "[o]ne ever feels his twonessan American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (p. 17).

For Du Bois, this grappling with the identity contradictions of double consciousness replicate, within the microcosm of the subject, the large-scale societal and political struggles of blacks against their subordination by whites. Du Bois highlighted how these struggles profoundly shaped the formation of the black subjectthe very souls of blacksbecause in the social context of America, racial subordination barred black men and women from understanding themselves through the lens of their own ethnic group alone. Rather the subordination of blacks "only lets him [the black man or woman] see himself through the revelation of the other world" (p. 16); the "white world" with its norms of racial privilege and exclusion against which the "black world" is constructed. Du Bois wrote, "it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (pp. 1617).

Du Bois's idea of double consciousness still resonates at times in the works of contemporary black thinkers and in writings on racism in America. In addition, postcolonial thinkers have extended similar logic to the formation of subjectivity in the context of colonial oppression. Developing conceptions of "hybridity," for example, postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha have focused on the way that colonial and postcolonial dynamics have contributed to the politicized and diverse social construction of specific subjectivities resulting in multiple and often contradictory forms of identification.

The idea of a decentered and multiple subject also finds favorable expression in a wide array of works by feminist thinkers. Over the past twenty years many feminist theorists working from various perspectives have stressed the "fragmentation" of the subject and the ability of subjects to live in "multiple subject positions." Among them, Latina feminist thinkers Gloria Anzaldúa (19242004) and María Lugones have developed the concept of "mestiza consciousness," which describes the conditions that forge multiple identities and the experiences of living them in everyday life. Their particular formulation has been taken up by other philosophers to help address the philosophical questions that yet remain with respect to decentered subjectivity.

New Philosophical Challenges

The breadth of scholarship utilizing some formulation of multiple identity has firmly established its place in contemporary Western thought. However, many philosophical and practical questions regarding decentered multiple subjectivity remain to be fully theorized, and the general rethinking of the subject, which began more than a century ago, is still perhaps best thought of as an ongoing project. For example, some commentators continue to conflate the idea of a decentered and multiple subject with the clinical manifestations of a rare and controversial psychological disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder. Close scrutiny of the clinical evidence indicates that there is little overlap between philosophical theories of a decentered subjectivity and such disorders. Yet, the use of imprecise terms such as "fragmented" and "multiple" continues to invite such comparisons, and to muddy the waters.

Such issues have justified calls for more detailed theories of decentered subjectivity. Feminist theorists Jessica Benjamin and Jane Flax (both with a background in clinical psychology) some time ago stressed that existence of disorders involving extremely severe fragmentation (i.e., a nearly total lack of interconnection) among identities, although very rare, makes it essential to distinguish such ailments from new theoretical frameworks through more precise theorizing of the decentered multiple subject. They have thus challenged theorists to identify exactly what elements make a decentered and multiple subjectivity hang together as a functional psycho-physiological unit. If the decentered subject is not centered by a single identity, what specifically is the relationship among the subject's different identities? Is there something that makes multiple identities cohere as a subjectivity, and if so, what does that coherence, if any, hinge on?

Similar questions are also posed by the work of those philosophers who accept the idea of a socially embedded or "situated" and constructed subject, but who continue to reject the idea of a fully decentered and multiple subjectivity. From such a perspective, the socially constructed subject remains centered by some dimension that, once it is produced through linguistically mediated processes, stands as a self-defining and self-centering element that is not context dependent, but instead consistently centers the subject within all of the various social contexts that it enters. Among those who take this general approach, the precise element that is thought to center the subject differs widely. Some regard the situated self as centered by a self-defining self-narrative. Others center and unify the constructed subject with a single identity or a single moral orientation that guides the self. Still others see the subject as centered through a procedure of "choosing" the subject, which renders some element as a central or true identity. A very few others continue to hold the view that there is some centering element of subjectivity that is prelinguistic.

Recognizing the need for further clarity, a number of feminist philosophers have persisted in highlighting the subject's multiplicity and complexity by working to further refine our understanding of the relationship among the multiple identities within a decentered subjectivity. One promising approach to this can be found in Latina feminist philosophy, and particularly in the work of María Lugones. Lugones has drawn upon and extends the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, whose conception of "mestiza consciousness" has been one of the most widely influential accounts of a decentered and multiple subjectivity to date. In brief, in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa theorizes "mestiza consciousness" as arising from the social construction of subjectivity in and through different sets of social relations including, but not limited to, relations of class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, region, language community, and subculture. Living thus embedded in a multitude of conflicting social relations of culture, class, and sexuality, Anzaldúa's mestiza gains a multiple or "dual identity" with which the subject lives in multiple lifeworlds. Similar to Du Bois's double consciousness, Anzaldúa describes, as an example, how Mexican Americans are often constructed by and identify (at least partly) with both Mexican and Anglo American culturesoften struggling with the prevailing hierarchies between those two cultural systems. The result is a Chicano/a subjectivity with multiple identities produced within the interplay two interrelated cultures.

Such multiple identities are different, distinct, and sometimes even contradictory. Yet, they can also intersect in ways associated with the societal level dynamics that constructed those identities, including perhaps relations of subordination and privilege, conflict, contradiction, and differentials of power, access, and voice. The multiple identities constructed in and through these elements are often related in ways that mirror those constructing elements. The mestiza is forced by these dynamics (as components of identity formation and identity performance) to engage with the conflicting worldviews and complexities that comprise her multiple identities. Anzaldúa's mestiza thus moves among and negotiates her multiple identities at times by shifting among them, at other times by syncretizing competing perspectives into positions greater that than the "severed parts" from which they were forged. The ability to negotiate, to move between, or to syncretize the different value systems of her multiple identities is what Anzaldúa calls la Facultad.

Working with Anzaldúa's conception of mestiza consciousness, María Lugones emphasizes in "Purity, Impurity, and Separation" (1994) that the multiple identities that make up mestiza consciousness are not entirely fragmented but rather are interconnected and mutually conditioning even as they remain distinct (a point consistent with the common feminist emphasis on the intersection of race, class, and gender). Like Anzaldúa, Lugones stresses the complexity of the social relations in which the subject is embedded and constructed. She underscores in still stronger terms than Anzaldúa however, how these social relations of subordination and privilege intersect. Philosopher Cheshire Calhoun has applied Lugones's work on mestiza consciousness to theorize exactly how a decentered subjectivity that engages multiple identities in a context dependent manner can possess agency and act with integrity toward the sometimes competing moral and political value systems that inhere in those multiple identities. Diana Meyers has also employed Lugones's approach to the intersection of multiple identities. Calling it "intersectional identity," Meyers has argued that Lugones's model of subjectivity offers an important basis from which to generate a new conception of autonomy that departs from the Enlightenment tradition and integrates key feminist tenets.

Implications of Multiple Identity

If full conceptualization of multiple identity is still a philosophical work in progress, then even more wide open are conclusions as to its practical implications. For many, the consequences are not yet fully apparent. Others suggest that the implications of concepts such as multiple identity are generally negative, particularly with respect to how the subject can function in contexts calling for moral and political judgment. Critical of the idea of decentered subjectivity, Alasdair MacIntyre has claimed, "[t]his divided self has to be characterized negatively, by what it lacks. It is not only without any standpoint from which it can pass critical judgments on the standards governing its various roles, but it must also lack those virtues of integrity and constancy that are prerequisites for exercising the powers of moral agency" (pp. 324325). Others find the idea of multiple identity useful for the purposes of critique, but useless for producing or theorizing political or social transformation.

In contrast, advocates of various models of multiple identity often have high hopes for its social and political relevance. Scholars across disciplines have long contended that decentered multiple subjectivity is not only a practical reality, but potentially an enormously positive factor in broad-scale political interactions, particularly in the midst of deepening social diversity. Some political theorists have suggested that a decentered, multiply constituted, contradictory self is highly conducive to democratic politics. Bonnie Honig, for example, suggests that the internal conflict and struggle within a decentered self harbors important potential for democratic practices. For Honig,

decentered subjects have the power to energize their social democracies, while pressing upon them claims to justice, fairness, fidelity and ethicality on behalf of those differences to which social democratic regimes tend to become deaf in their eagerness to administer to represented identities that are established, stable, and familiar. (p. 273)

The range of issues for which multiple identity is of possible significance is wide. Iris Marion Young, Yen Le Espiritu and others have connected multiple identity with social group diversity, the dynamics of political coalition building, political participation, and group politics. Others have underscored the role of multiple identity in political identification and in transnational politics, and Paul Barry Clarke has argued that the multiplicity of the subject is a necessary characteristic of the ideal citizen within deeply diverse democratic regimes. Sociologist Mary Romero has argued that paying attention to the lived experience of multiple identity can better illuminate the power relations affecting Latinos within American society. Other scholars addressing the dynamics of mixed race/ethnic heritage, diverse ethnic identification, and the American mixed-race movement contend that multiple identity may play a role in breaking down the politicized dichotomies of race in America. The complexities of multiple identity are also relevant to new legal approaches to social conflict such as Critical Race Theory.

Articulating her own hopes for its broad implications, Gloria Anzaldúa has argued that in practice the multiple identities of mestiza consciousness can better position the subject for social and political critique and for bridging social cleavages of race, sex, and gender in a manner that could "bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war" (p. 80). While such expectations may prove overly optimistic, the ultimate validity of these and other assessments of multiple identity need to be explored through additional research and theorizing. The intriguing possibility that important social and political implications could be derived from thinking of the subject as decentered and multiple will no doubt foster further development of the ideas surrounding multiple identity.

See also Critical Race Theory ; Democracy ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Mestizaje ; Universalism .


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Edwina Barvosa-Carter