A number of things I’ve read and/or observed lately run aground on the notion of “identifying as”. The notion of identifying as in a fixed manner indicates not only a misunderstanding of the proper use of that action, but a misunderstanding based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the notions of Self, identity and Self-Identity.
The only thing I identify as in a fixed way is my Self, i.e. I identify uniquely and solely as me. This isn’t some rampant individualism, since my Self is largely shared with other human beings, more so the closer we are in terms of the society into which we were initiated, and in which initiation we became human. Self-identity, at its base, is precisely the identity of one’s Self with oneself. How we comprehend this identity and how we always know when we are being true to our Selves is a complex matter, but it has nothing to do with identifying as one genera or another, or with one group or another.
When I see someone doing verbal somersaults trying to accommodate their sexuality, as an example, to a label they can be comfortable identifying as, and predictably failing, there is a demonstrable confusion between who one is and how one happens to live. Simply put, if I fuck the same sex, I’m gay; if I fuck the opposite sex, I’m straight; if I fuck both, I’m bisexual. At any given point in my life, based on how I project myself acting in the foreseeable future, picking one or the other shouldn’t be altogether that difficult. The apparent difficulty arises when we try to use the way we project living in the reasonably near future as determining who we are. At that point the simple definitions (and the huge variety of more complex ones) are never sufficient to capture every aspect of something as complex as sexuality, and the only possible outcome, beyond the above mentioned confusion, is a self-limitation to one or another group’s definition of itself as a group. Living as straight, gay, bi, is not a limitation since that projection can change as we change and develop. Identifying as any of those, or queer, or leather, or cuticle-centric, or whatever is inherently limiting the manifold ways in which we change and grow as selves.
Of course we spend time in various groups, not just over a lifetime, but over a single day, and to some degree we ‘take part’ in the identities of those groups. However simply because we are employed by private businesses we do not necessarily ‘identify as’ rampant capitalists; nor do we necessarily ‘identify as’ xenophobic nationalists simply because we come home to a family of a particular ethnicity and enjoy some of the common praxes of that ethnicity. The State arbiters between groups as groups precisely because individuals morph between various groups on a constant basis, and as a result their identities, wants, desires are far too complex and fluid for any kind of comprehensible contract between state and individual. Just as having an ethnicity that is part of my identity does not make me identify as that ethnicity, neither should having particular sexual proclivities, or being part of particular groups that are defined by some common proclivity, force me to identify as that proclivity. While it is part of my identity it may be a major or minor part, it may be constant or fleeting, or it may come and go.
The exceptions, of course, are groups where membership is a lifelong binding commitment. Being a Jesuit is not something you can take up and put down, for example. Neither is being a Hell’s Angel. Even in these extremes, though, members remain the complex beings they are, the difference being that they have made a solemn commitment to putting a particular group’s interests above those of any other group they may take part in at different times in their lives or different times of the day or week.
With the implosion of the concept of ‘personality’ and its replacement with the poorly enough defined ‘self-identity’, as individuals we are in greater difficulty coming to grips with who we are than ever before. However self-identity and identification are separate matters, and conflating them cannot lead to a satisfactory self-understanding. Simultaneously modernization, and capitalization in particular, has functioned as an acid on a vast number of shared praxes that lent a sense of belonging to members of different groups, whether the destruction of the shared praxes of particular rituals in various religious groups and their replacement with groups that only share abstract ideological belief-systems, or more recently the abandonment by capital of the shared praxes of the sciences, and the ensuing removal of funding for the scientific community and its replacement with “knowledge workers” that do not maintain the expensive and, from the perspective of global capital, useless shared praxes that gave a sense of belonging to members of the scientific community. These changes lead to an understandable desire to have a comprehensible determination of oneself, and a sense of belonging to some sort of community with whom we share something intrinsic.
Creating new communities, though, requires new shared praxes, and this is a difficult achievement, particularly in a time where people are skeptical even of skepticism itself. Trying to create communities via a shortcut of self-imposed sets of limitations via the notion of ‘identifying as’ will not work, and in fact will cause nascent communities to self-destruct, leaving individuals in the same place they were to begin with. There’s no point in defining and redefining what makes a particular group the group it is to such a degree that it becomes unrecognizable. All that’s been achieved, functionally, is the destruction of the group and its replacement by an arbitrary set of individuals with no common praxis that would lend the sense of belonging and identity desired in the first place.
Redefining something in order to make it more inclusive, in this case usually inclusive of whatever is part of your Self, but was excluded in the original definition, also makes the definition less precise. As an obvious example, some of the recent redefinitions of ‘leather’ that I’ve read are so inclusive they make it practically synonymous with ‘human’. We all belong to that definition in any case, there’s no need to duplicate it, nor will doing so give anyone any greater sense of belonging to something particular.
Communities based on new shared praxes, providing they are not particularly difficult or onerous, have the advantage of being open to anyone willing to participate in the shared activity, without thereby becoming more and more inclusive to the point of meaninglessness.