I hope not to retread overly well-worn material (about the problems or issues of identity), but I feel some threads currently adrift in the ether might usefully get woven together in (something that at least might seem for a moment) a new configuration.
I apologize if this gets longer than desirable (the long post-title makes fun of me for it). I normally try not to let myself go with posts here–preferring dialogue to lecture–but I see no help for it this time since the point (the argument) has necessary steps to work through (as I see it). Theoretically, however, you might jump straight ahead to “The Argument Itself” (below), or maybe my concluding paragraph just below covers enough to suffice. (I don’t really think so.)
EDIT: also please note, in the following where I note “dominant culture” I mean rather to point to the culture that individuals encounter on a daily basis (one might say “local culture” then) or that they orient to when addressing themselves to the world (one might say “internalized culture” then). Generally, I should say the problem involves ‘dominating culture” more than what usually seems meant by “dominant” (or hegemonic) culture.
The “problem” ultimately (of identity, of being an Outsider or an Insider as an adoptee) hinges on a lack of recognition (of adoptees) by dominant culture, a lack of recognition we then try to accommodate by awkward pastiches of assimilation or already compromised consumerist entitlements about identity. Directing our “demands” toward recognition (as an actual and existent of mutual social obligation, whatever consumerist culture tells us otherwise) avoids these twin ills but also requires our (reciprocal) recognition of that (already existent) obligation to culture as well.
PREFACES TO THE ARGUMENT ITSELF
A Basic Framing of Threads Currently Floating Around
In a comment, Girl4708 noted:
Perhaps what I’m saying is that cultural appreciation is surpassed at some point with the collecting of cultural appropriations in the pursuit of a – and I choose these words carefully – a second chance at birth.
I read her point of emphasis here in the phrase “a second chance at birth,” but I want to chew at the precursors to that desire (as part of this post generally). Cite the Devil’s Bargain of assimilation, footnote all of the material to critiques of the politics of respectability, reference by implication Daniel’s comments acknowledging and embracing the many problems and directions of this (especially when he notes
the taking on of neo-liberal derived “multiculturalism” and “cosmopolitanism”, when it is this economic depravity that resulted in our adoption in the first place),
these all undergird the assertion (I hear) around the hopelessness, or ill-advisedness, or undesirability of any public policy (e.g., against the notion of culture camps) in striving for (some kind of blended) “identity,” not just (1) because most generally an ideal may never be reached, whatever the ideal consists of, but also (2) because pursuing such an ideal (tragically) occasions suicide and other forms of detriment to individual’s lives, thus negatively affecting us (and by us I mean everyone) both individually and socially. For adoptees in particular, as oxytocinoverdose puts its succinctly, we stand not merely always as an outsider, but also instantly fungible (replaceable) at the drop of a hat—in light of which, we might (learn to) thrive by dropping in and out of various cultures (as best we can), so long as we avoid burdening ourselves along the way with any “illusion” of (ever) belonging.
Outsider & Insider
The above offers my summary of the themes I see coalescing in comments and such currently.
Here, as a (further necessary) preface, I point out that any proposed dichotomy automatically proposes four (not two) categories. For example, in the dichotomy between Outsider and Insider, this not only proposes the two categories of “outsider” and “insider” but also the two additional categories of (1) the “outsider who is inside” (e.g., comprador intellectuals, native informants, Uncle Toms, &c., though one does not automatically get morally comprised by such status, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Hamid Dabashi demonstrate currently in the US) as well as (2) “insiders who are outside” (not all of whom themselves remain morally uncompromised simply for their marginalization, e.g., Anders Breijvik, Theodore Kaczynski, &c).
One may immediately note, if (transracial) adoptees seem more readily slotted into the “outsiders who are inside” category, clearly this pivots often to “insiders who are outside”. Besides everything else one might note about the problems of these categories, the one I especially want to emphasize as far as the point of this argument involves the general social failure of recognition for these kinds of “additional” categories. Taking note (in the general discourse) only of Insiders and Outsiders, we encounter the problem of a double misconstrual: (1) getting misconstrued as either an Insider or an Outside, and (2) the failure to recognize the inadequacy of those categories and our actual status as an Inside Outsider or Outside Insider.
Assimilation & Consumerism: Two Dead Ends
With the foregoing in mind, comments from Girl4708 and Daniel further illuminate an frame what remains at stake in all of this. From Girl4708:
It would be different, in my opinion, if we really truly did elevate the fiction to a fantastic or ludicrous or satyrical degree and used that to empower ourselves. It would be different because the problem would be recognized and we would be deliberate and intentional about our motives and actions, and it would serve us. We SHOULD focus on how we are special, of this (insert country here) culture instead of focusing on becoming something we can never be; imitating what we lost.
we might take Daniel’s remark as answering with:
What I do see is something that comes from our adoptive acculturation, and it is something that is shared also by adoptive parents.
This would be the myth that states we have something called “agency”.
By this I mean to say that we are speaking as if we have an ability to “define” ourselves outside of the culture, society, and system we live in.
I will return to Daniel’s point, but first, what I especially most agree with in Girl’s formulation above involves the recognition of not taking the fiction far enough. Two of the most delightful comedies of all time for me are Airplane (for its relentless deadpanning) and Ace Ventura Pet Detective (for the relentless physicality of Jim Carey’s performance), because both comedies go so far (in radically opposite directions); they do not leaven their extremes with middling centrism. One could cite de Sade; “anything to excess is good” or Oscar Wilde “everything in moderation, including moderation”. Schiller too has a (typically thoughtful) passage where he says, in essence, if you would write naïve poetry, don’t interlard it with sentimentality, and vice versa. Very few worthy examples of such “mixed attempts” actually command our aesthetic and affective respect.
And so then also with our fictions, our γενναῖον ψεῦδος (the gennaion pseudos, as I learned from Brent); the problem may have less to do with fact of the noble lie, the elevating fiction itself, and more to do with timidity in its composition, half-stepping. In attempting to express our individuality, we stop short of true self-expression and opt instead for a rather sorry pastiche of conformisms. Rather than truly pursuing the golden ring of individuation (as adoptees), we end up living an awkward parody of “transcultural expression”—here again, we encounter the politics of respectability, which locally here has left two young African-American boys dead (by the way), and which explains (I say) the popularity of this anteater, because she at least avoids the half-step. Jung’s notion of a healthy culture rests on each person’s individuation, which means their specific and necessary individual expression of a cultural norm. I quote him specifically (here) because I think the point of view at work behind his remark here tends to go unappreciated or gets glossed over:
As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation … A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when the individual way is raised to a norm, which is the aim of extreme individualism … The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (Psychological Types, ¶758)
Another way of expressing Daniel’s (concern for the) myth of agency, then, hinges on recognizing the hierarchical inequality in culture for (particularly adopted) people with respect to society at large or the discourse of that society. This unequal playing field makes having our voices heard (as we intend them to be) well-nigh impossible. We do not get to define the definitions, except in limited for a (like this one), and that likely doesn’t prove sufficient for everyday life. The rigors of property rights assure us, “Make enough money, then you can live in your bubble and just lord it over those beholden to you,” &c. I wouldn’t deny this argument, especially when a key part of it (as we encounter it in US discourse) involves the reassurance that when I (specifically) carve out my own space of identity in culture (as an individual) I do so on innocently faultless grounds and thus “earn” my reward—a very pretty fiction in itself, one of the biggest ones of all, and certainly normally taken to the kind of extreme I approve of above—a fact we may readily witness not only (1) in the way that “collectiveness” or “collectivity” stands as so thoroughly demonized in the popular imagination that one can hardly say socialism anymore (never mind communism!) but also (2) in the way that the vast historical array of readily available cultural examples where individuation occurs precisely through the individual expression of a collective norm gets impugned (via Orientalism) into “primitive” (hence also savage, barbaric, and backward) cultures.
Summary So Far
The problems of (transracially adopted) identity outlined above include (1) the socially and individually problematic consequences (for adoptees, such as suicide and culture camps) in attempting to pursue the goal of “identity” (Girl4708’s and oxytocinoverdose’s points), which (if we even achieved it) could (2) occur only at the expense of other human beings, locally and abroad, since that’s how the current social order (for us) defines the creation, maintenance, and perpetual reinvention of individuality (Daniel’s point). Problem (1) arises in part because (A) the dominant discourse fails to recognize the status of the adoptee in the first place (my point) and (B) leads to the awkward, failed, or simply inadequate attempts (by adoptees) to craft an identity (Girl 4708’s points)—all of which occurs within the context of the “economic depravity that resulted in our adoption in the first place” (Daniel’s point).
THE ARGUMENT ITSELF
In our demand for an identity—in our (justified) desire for recognition of our human selves—this demand itself fails to recognize any social reality to culture in the first place and thus any (justified) demand by culture on us, or on anyone.* This points, again, to the economic depravity Daniel speaks of, but I think it goes further.
*EDIT: on reflection, I doubt that the italicized portion reads clearly. I propose a difference between identity (as a set of public human behaviors) and presence, as the fact of one’s human existence. To demand recognition of the latter always deserves our solidarity–slaves, prisoners, terrorists, enemies have all been denied the humanity of their presence unfairly. But if I wish to be a nudist (in public), my demand for recognition of identity runs afoul of everyone else’s demand for a recognition of identity as well. To be a nudist publicly–to have that identity be recognized–would involve social dialogue, and the general complacence one may easily imagine on bot sides of the dialogue (nudist: “those people are just a bunch of repressed prudes”; anti-nudist: “that person is some kind of freak or sex pervert”) shows how far from a genuinely shared sense of the communal world we’ve come. The power-over involved in this resonates in the remark that cultures that tear identity down cannot be used to build one up. But at the same time, the demand for a recognition of identity (in the case of adoptees at the very least) often arises out of the experience of a denial of our very presence; the nonrecognition of bisexuals by heterosexuals and homosexuals alike points to how presence and identity can shade from one to the other in the blink of an eye.
Obviously, the notion that we should or ought in some sense to “submit” to culture has a totalitarian ring these days, but until the State takes up the enforcement of a “culture” (and we can argue to what extent that has already happened) then we have yet to have to deal with fascism or totalitarianism per se. We already have to deal, in any case, with human oppression that results from non-State imposed demands for such cultural “submission”.
Nonetheless, people in some previous North American cultures and the original people of Australia (just to pick two examples I have read about, and which Orientalism and popular imagination dismiss as “primitive”), as well as some of the people I personally observed in Việt Nam (also Orientalized, but also “communists”) certainly seemed to have individuated (in Jung’s sense) “despite” (we might say) often highly constraining cultural elements. Michelangelo, to again pick only one example, had no problem (apparently) expressing immense creative genius within the extremely confined constraints of his patron’s demands. &c. The greatest (known) Occidental composer, JS Bach, not only imposed upon himself the strictest compositional constraints when writing secular music, his sacred works (I’ve read) remain even more constrained by extra-musical (theological) considerations as well. The necessary freedom, it seems, doesn’t hinge on freedom from constraint, but the free exercise of will within constraints.
The current social order (call it consumerism) offers the utopian premise that we might detach ourselves from “the social”; property provides (in theory) the salient means of this and “identity” denotes its existential mode (for people). The current social norm insists, with fantastic surrealism, “I owe you nothing.” More precisely, I slander you as free as a way to (attempt to) excuse myself from any demand you might make on me—or any demand that would require me to do something inconvenient.
So, not addressing but also not ignoring the objections one might raise, a way out of the problem of identity does not involve avoiding it or demonizing it, but recognizing that “my” identity never belonged to me in the first place; rather, I am “ours”. This “us” or “we” does not point to a sub-group solidarity but, rather and precisely, to the (now denied) obligation “I” owe to “you” and “you” to “me”—or, more honestly,, to “us”. When Daniel speaks of communities, I hear this “us” and what it principally threatens involves, precisely, our no longer speaking in terms of “I” only. This does not propose a subsumation of one’s essential self into some sort of mass-mind—that argument merely echoes the anti-communist/socialist neurosis that capitalism waves about in order to terrorize people into accepting a mass-mind of consumerism, &c.
In a narrowly practical sense (reprising my own earlier point from my Schiller post), our demand for “identity” more involves a demand for recognition (by dominant culture) that we too comprise a (fully valid) member of our culture. Bisexuals (or transgendered people) may make straight, gay, and cis-gendered folks nervous because they can’t decide ‘where they fit in,” but that (neurotic) discomfort points (1) to the validity of the recognition in the first place, as well as (2) the inadequacy of the available categories. Similarly, that adoptees (transracial or otherwise) comprise neither Outsiders nor Insiders indicates the inadequacy of categories that would try to force our (already always existing) identities into the various pre-formed idea-molds.
To conclude as I began, the “problem” ultimately hinges on the lack of recognition by dominant culture, a lack of recognition we then try to accommodate by awkward pastiches of assimilation or already compromised consumerist entitlements about identity. Directing our “demands” toward recognition (as an actual and existent of mutual social obligation, whatever consumerist culture tells us otherwise) avoids these ills but also requires our (reciprocal) recognition of an obligation to culture.
When I speak of a “demand for recognition,” I do not insist that all (transracially adopted) people must or should do this; I identify it as an alternative to or for those who experience or witness the futility of assimilation or who (rightly) worry “at whose expense” one might “obtain” a sense of identity (as place, self, home, whatever). Were I to emigrate to Wales, after a generation or two grew up around me as simply a part of the landscape, I would “belong” in the sense that I’d be socially recognized by a (bunch of youngsters in) society who didn’t know I’d been an interloper forty years prior (this, modified by any tales told by my elders and peers who still remembered I’d arrived as an interloper). Whether I experienced that acknowledgment in terms of belonging, my point remains simply to point (again) to the function of recognition. Assimilation involves (also) acceptance, to some degree.
So I don’t suggest that someone must need to make this demand. My own general sense of alienation or independence–hard to tell difference sometimes–makes me desire less any specific recognition of some sort of “identity” on my part, and much more simply no oppression of my expressed presence in the social world (subject to negotiation, of course, about what may or may not wash in the social world). Ultimately, I think I care less whether culture recognizes my identity (as gay, or as I prefer to say not-heterosexual) and more about whether culture refuses to recognize or allow my expressions of my sexuality in the social world. As a kind of short-hand, acknowledgment by those around me that I’m “gay” or “adopted” or “wearing a tail” points simply to a willingness not to unfairly constrain my (non-conformist) behaviors, and mutually so.
So, in a similar way, all of the foregoing does not say we cannot dip in and out of cultures either, but proposes that doing so need not (even should not) require as a prerequisite anyone’s taking on (in actuality or simply as a performance) whatever normative cultural markers that cultural-space “enforces”. In one sense this already happens. When I traveled in Việt Nam, as a foreigner no one expected me to act (strictly) Vietnamese, but, of course, as a foreigner there were certain “Vietnamese acts” that I had no access to, would not have been (was not) permitted access to, or would have been (was) excluded from (the language barrier notwithstanding). To remain forever a foreigner to all the world—ignoring the problematic ways this attaches to consumerist individualism, Occidental chauvinism, &c—can work, so long as one’s access to the necessities to meet our basic human needs (i.e., recognition, cooperation, compassion, and fairness—things like food, water, shelter follow humanly from the recognition by others that fairness demands I not be denied such things) does not get unduly hindered by circumstances, as currently often happens; testimony here bears frequent witness to this fact. Not everyone has (in fact, perhaps most do not have) the luxury, means, or inclination for such cosmopolitanism or existential tourism.