Insider Outsiders and/or Outsider Insiders? A Proposal Against the Devil’s Bargains of Assimilation or Consumerism for the Formation of (Transracially Adopted) Identity

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.

Abstract

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.

Afterword

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.

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14 thoughts on “Insider Outsiders and/or Outsider Insiders? A Proposal Against the Devil’s Bargains of Assimilation or Consumerism for the Formation of (Transracially Adopted) Identity

  1. I would only add to this quite useful summary the following:

    In a culture that breaks down by identity marker one cannot “build up” by identity marker. By this I mean to say that the “tools” of destruction are still tools of destruction when “turned around”;

    The creation of subcultural groups is a more-or-less failed attempt to enforce the communal recognition not forthcoming from the culture at large;

    Furthermore, this “painted bird empowerment” is actually the realization of the greater culture’s desire to expel such groups, a kind of willed and willing self-ghettoization/self-colonization;

    “Identity” is not something for me to create or claim, but is rather organically produced by my interactions communally speaking, most locally to most globally.

    I have no control over, say, the names that are used to describe me most locally; from “ustaaz” (professor) to “Abou Doun” (a playful take on my name) it is my relationship to this most local that becomes the defining categorization. The latter especially is striking, giving those without children an affirmation along these lines by using the diminutive of their own name. This web of connection is played out a million times a day, in every conversation that one has. This is seen as an imposition in individualizing cultures. Personally, I’ve grown to find it rather affirming of my “place” here.

    I don’t know how else to even talk about this any more.

    • I’m not sure you don’t know how to talk about it.

      When you write: “I have no control over, say, the names that are used to describe me most locally; from “ustaaz” (professor) to “Abou Doun” (a playful take on my name) it is my relationship to this most local that becomes the defining categorization. The latter especially is striking, giving those without children an affirmation along these lines by using the diminutive of their own name. This web of connection is played out a million times a day, in every conversation that one has. This is seen as an imposition in individualizing cultures. Personally, I’ve grown to find it rather affirming of my ‘place’ here”

      In your “assent” to this “imposition,” you acknowledge that identity (what Jung might call the product of your individuation) does not belong solely to you. Hence, Jung’s remark, “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.” To provide a distinction, if identity (as typically conceived) represents a personal holding, one’s existence represents something socially held.

      This reprises the Devil’s Bargain, whether in a capitalist setting or truly communitarian. The unaddressed problem (or, rather, unsatisfactiorily addressed problem) in this imposition involves non-conformism, which in some cases results in massive displays of public scorn: witch trials, scapegoating, lynchings, revenge killings, assertions of taboo, &c. On a less extreme level, if I’m known publicly as “dog-breath” maybe I can do something about that. In some sun-down (racist) communities, there might be one exception made for a Black person (or homosexual) on some grounds; in prison, a child molester–a type normally under an informal death sentence–might be left alone if (1) he can provide some useful service, like access to tattoo ink, or (2) serves as someone’s house-mouse and prison bitch (housecleaning and sex), &c. I mention these examples to show that sometimes exceptions may be found for non-conformism to dominating culture.

      But when exceptions cannot be found–for whatever reason–we have lynching, scapegoating, exile, &. and capitalism, like it or not, provides one answer to the problem of non-conformism, because once you have property an wealth you carry the club of dominating culture with you, while claiming that you owe no one anything anymore (if you’ve paid your financial debts).

      This denial of ANY obligation makes the answer itself unsatisfactory, even without all of the horrowshow we’ve had thanks to property, but to the extent that property still abets non-conformism, it remains popular as a defense against the unreasonable demands of the social–the word “unreasonable’ there is the key one.

    • I meant to add:

      I’m not really convinced that capitalism originally meant to solve the problem of (intractable) non-conformism; I think that might have gotten added on later.

      Regardless, at this point the humanly social “solution” to non-conformism in people (however sketchy or inadequate) comes along with a social organization generally that mandates this as the standard operating procedure and, for that reason, normalizes the oppression of others to secure one’s “non-conformism”.

      Ugh … I should be more precise.

      As a starting point, by non-conformism I mean when someone acts in a way tht “goes against culture”–and this, of course, depends on who and how many people see a thing that way. When such an alternative mode of cultural expression becomes generally accepted, the modification it proposes to culture makes it no longer non-conformist–and, of course, this is never monolithically or totally true. Some still won’t like it, etc.

      So, non-conformism creates a cultural tension, sometimes resulting in an integration and modification to culture, sometimes resulting in an expulsion or murder and purification of culture. This tension seems the essential part, because it lays the groundwork for how “culture” will respond to it.

      On the non-nonconformist’s side of things, the non-conformist seeks to impose, seeks to flout convention, an thus creates a tension and dis-ease that makes others feel ill-at-ease, for sometimes defensible, sometimes indefensible reasons. Those who feel uncomfortable with overt displays of homosexuality or religion generally get called bigots; those who feel uncomfortable with people urinating in public often find more supporters. The point simply involves the tension created and the “imposition” the non-conformist proposes–and, of course, also the imposition that the conformists enforce that led to teh non-conformism in the first place.

      This unreasonable demand by the non-conformist may be read as “oppressive”–I’m not ignoring completely that one’s position in a hierarchy changes the social value of a behavior; my example centers between two people, both of whom have some relative degree of social power, &c. Just as the conformist demands stand as oppressive. But both become so because they fail to recognize the Other in various ways. &c.

      Radical property odes an end-around on this failure to recognize. By my wealth, i force you to accept my (non-conformist) presence in whatever form I present–the most disastrous part of that presence being my claim that I owe you nothing socially, except perhaps to ignore you.

      We still feel the dis-ease of the tension of this noncoformism in our sense of the injustice of wealth, but the truly salient point hinges on how the sense of non-obligation has been built into the structures of Law that govern things. If capitalism provided a kind of answer to the problem of non-conformism, it has since evolved into the problem it was supposed to replace, because it is the next conformism, of course.

      This does not give us a culture of non-conformism because, again, once a non-conformism gets integrated, it ceases to be non-conformism. We have no cutsie paradox here, and in the 1950s in the United States when things were relentlessly conformist, this was much more obvious. What gotten normalized over the past 300 years, then, has involved an assertion of the absolute non-obligation to other people, wherever they are in the world.

      So, whatever often dire problems non-conformism causes in “tribal” cultures, we might do better to revisit their (desirable) solutions while simultaneously challenging (by calling out) the identity of our own brutalities under the name of “non-conformism” in capitalist power structures. We have our scapegoating, lynchings, witch trials, &c–the most endemic of which involves internally exiling the “non-conformists” of the poor to a marginalized existence.

  2. There is so much that cannot be taken for granted.

    For example, “do I believe in the idea of a nation-state that has a de facto national culture?”

    For example, France.

    If so, why?

    And if so, what do we make, say, of the answer from someone in Brittany, or Basque country, or Occitane that would directly contradict this idea?

    And then if not, how do we propose an alternative when the world obviously works in a way that erases the local in the name of such an “ideal”?

    And then beyond this, when the world is globalized into a cosmopolitan elitist morass?

    I only see an exit going in the opposite direction. Not claiming anything. Not affecting anything. Not hanging on to former affectations or pretensions. They all have to go. I’m not sure where this then leaves us.

    • Daniel:

      You make an important point that the language of my post papered over. When I said “dominant culture” I did mean 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).

      Generally, a better phrase might be “dominating culture” rather than “dominant culture”.

      If I understand you, part of your response hinges on questioning what “dominant culture” would provide “recognition” in the first place. federal recognition (in the Law), &c? Hence your question about French “national culture” &c. I agree that such talk amounts only to a (locally determined) attempt to dominate. if I invoke in a face-to-face argument with a recent immigrant something about how “we” do it in the United States, the recent immigrant experiences that dominating culture explicitly locally, and will then carry that with her into the future (or laugh it off, use it as a basis for protest, &c).

      Very fundamentally and literally, I have no interest in “hegemonic culture” except as it shapes actual human interactions. In prisons where Zionist fanatics incarcerate Palestinians (Joe Sacco assures me), the culture of humanity prevails between the prisoners despite the (obviously) excessively overbearing and dominating culture of the prison itself. “Dominant” culture need not determine “dominating” culture.

      Thanks for bringing my unstated premise into the open more clearly.

  3. Great response, but a tough read. I probably have an above average knowledge of the English language, but I’m finding some of the concepts and vocabulary difficult to follow. I need to go back to school. I’ve been out in the jungle for too long.

    • Give me a moment to chew on it, and I’ll see if I can’t distill the thing down to its ultra-core points! 🙂

      • Ha ha its mostly when I read Daniel’s stuff…I really enjoy this forum though its been awhile since I’ve discussed subjects with people far more educated than me. I’m kinda an odd one.. I like to be the worst player and enjoy improvement. Feel free to dumb anything down for me… I take no offense… but its mostly phrases that Daniel uses like “painted bird environment.” Lol.. Are mere mortals suppose to know what this is? And notice I did say everybody was far more intelligent than me… just far more educated 🙂

  4. Very nice summary and statement of the problem, Snow Leopard. Thank you.

    The simple/simpleton way I look at identity is rooted in existentialism.

    I’m not even sure I exist some days. The only way I actually exist is if I registered in the lives of others: and the way I personally know I exist is when others reflect me. The problem, as I see it, is we are always given fun house mirrors to catch glimpses of ourselves in, which distort who we really are and confuse us. The mirrors are warped by design by people who don’t really want us to see. So I agree with Daniel’s observation that we – and probably our adopting parents – really have no agency: it is a myth. That everyone, even the victims, is/are unwittingly participating in.

    To me, if we really want to have an accurate reflection of who we are then we need to smash these warped mirrors. But the question is, will we then cease to exist if we deny/refute the only reflections we are allowed to have? Do we then only exist in a parallel universe?

    How do we smash mirrors and retain any identity? Maybe instead we turn the tables and hold up mirrors that reflect the dominant culture that consumes us is the way. Adbusters come to mind, and they were pivotal in the Occupy Movement which, though it may be argued failed at revolution, by not shying away from complexity, were/are a huge success in raising a huge population of people’s consciousness and giving people the agency to critique society.

    But that requires adoptees to step back and stop choosing which warped mirror offered to identify with. And instead offer a reflection of society to society.

    Identity buster memes, anyone?

    • I don’t want to take up my reply merely rephrasing the (developing) thesis I’ve attempted in the comments here (and in additions to the original post). I’d rather try to add to your point about identity buster memes more directly.

      An example:

      When people ask me if I’m gay or straight (or when I’m offering self-description and I remember) I describe myself as “not-heterosexual”. If liberal or conservative, I’m not-conservative. Instead of “adopted” I might be not-nonadopted.

      As a detail, the hyphen in this descriptions means something; I’m “not-heterosexual” rather than “not heterosexual”. If I used formal logic symbols, it would be !heterosexual.

      It’s easy to hear the strange of this in: “Are you hungry?” “No, I’m not-satiated.”

      Another detail: it surprises how immediately people often will object to this kind of description, which is avowedly (in philosophical terms) a “negative” (rather than “positive”) description. People rush to want a positive description: “Are you gay, straight, bi, transgendered?” perhaps for obvious reasons. So I see the discomfort caused in them by “not-heterosexual” as a step in the right direction, identity-wise.

      When one uses this, it’s important to protect against misprision: if I say “I’m not-nonadopted” and I hear, “Oh, so you’re adopted,” I have to reiterate, “No, I’m not-nonaopted.” Otherwise, people will (just like they give you a nickname) will supply a positive description in place of the offered negative one.

      This kind of shift actually portends a great deal. And perhaps you’re familiar with the tradition in some Indian circles of saying “neti, neti,” which means “not it, not it”–as a way of reminding oneself that a thing’s appearance is not its essence. But on those grounds, it is a reminder that everything comprises not-description, everything warrants a negative rather than positive description.

      Negative description offers a lot of leeway. I could say “I’m not-African” today and “not-Native American” tomorrow, &c. One has to remain sensitive (at least I do as a white male) to how these things can sound in some ears. All the same, instead of speaking as a white male, I an speak as a not-Black male as well, &c.

      To the extent that dominating culture wants to pigeonhole everyone (as an insider or an outsider, &c), these kins of self-description have a culture jamming quality, but again care must be exercised. When the security forces ask me, “Are you an insider or an outsider” and I answer, “I’m a not-Insider,” i at the absolute minimum have to be sure the guards won’t hear “outsider,” but even then, it is not clear if I can jam their categories to recognize what a not-Insider might be, that I’m actually “harmless” according to the (paranoid) categories they operate by and on.

      What I feel skeptical about in the mirror analogy you offer–other people (even those of a dominating culture) are not insentient matter. They do not automatically or merely reflect. We an attempt to make interventions into their operation, and they are free to resist them. Humans always have agency, unless dead, vegetative, or totally unconscious–the problem involves a failure by those more empowered to recognize another’s agency (ours). Short-circuiting their habitual reflections with a not-description, for instance, puts that agency in their face.

      I’ve noticed, in actual verbal arguments with people, that face-to-face the power of a distinction operates crucial. A person says, “Oh, you’re just another liberal shill” n I say, “No, I’m a quadrilateral shill” or whatever other actual distinction I have in mind. Generally speaking, this immediately derails whatever tear they were about to go off on. They at least have to stop adn ask, “What the hell do you mean.” And now I’ve turned the conversation from a rehashing of their prejudices into a (semantics) discussion about a term, but the typical dynamic has changed. I’ve made them acknowledge my agency, which they’d’ve otherwise denied.

  5. Just to clarify: When I say we do not have agency, I mean to say “we do not have the mythologized agency afforded us by the given political/economic system we live within”. We do not have the individual agency we think we have. We are not atomic units bumping around independent of each other; we are a collective whole. Of course we have free will; of course we have “agency”. But this is within the limits of what the whole imposes on us. Adoptive parents think they are free of the imperialist motives of their government, when in fact they are “agents” thereof.

    I’m not stating this as a negative; I’m saying rather that within a truly collective or communal society this allows for much more in the way of freedom than the bogus freedom of ultra-individualism. Our individualization if you will is not an innocent by-product of a system, but a necessary pillar of it.

    And so the actions we claim to be “anti-dominant”, when availing themselves of the modes of the whole, or adhering to methods thereof, reveal the real problem to me, and it seems more and more intractable. Adbusters, for example, uses corporate-style marketing and message making, and thereby shoots itself in the foot; it has a self-limiting audience that will never speak to those who need to hear its message. The Occupy Movement seemed to me to be much more libertarian than it might have been 100 years ago, and it certainly had issues dealing with women, minorities, and hierarchy. I’m very much reminded of the rallies of Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries, which were a first in addressing racism, but which were made up entirely of white people. The grassroots of the Internet leans in a very particular direction, and this was evident at the Bryant Park rally I attended.

    I’m not saying this to shoot our clay pigeons out of the sky. I’m full of warnings, I know, and don’t add much. How do we learn from our mistakes? Or our mistaken assumptions? Mine included? Our artists’ collective here made a poster that was in the Occupied Wall Street Journal. We were glad to help out with the movement, and believed in its potential. The posters ended up being exhibited in the MoMA. I do not feel this is an accomplishment, but a failure. The road from resistance to co-optation is now a matter of months as opposed to decades. How to break this bind?

    I’m down to playing with the “meta” of things and I know this is an obnoxious place to be, and I apologize. If I suggest that answering in the negation to a question such as “are you [this or that]” is, in and of itself, an acknowledgment of the question itself, well, I come across as an asshole. But I do this more out of desperation than any kind of assholery.

    • I’m always looking for practical solutions, and I don’t have the stamina to propose letting everyone I meet know that I can only be defined somewhere in the void of existing definitions. I bow down to those of you who can do that, though. Is that what you’re proposing, Snow Leopard? Or a new vocabulary in which we can live authentically?

      I still think memes can be very powerful – even as they become more commonplace and even as their message gets co-opted. At least more people get their perspectives tweaked. And it is the life of a modern artist that all work gets co-opted. Think of graffiti art, which was once subversive. But it still can be and is when you encounter a graphic message in the street…

      It’s about staying relevant. I think that’s our responsibility to pass on what we’ve learned to the next generation, who can update the message.

      I always think of the following images:
      WANI 1
      WANI 2
      WANI 3
      from Wani Ardy blog, 2003
      “Indian Association for Promotion of Adoption and Child Welfare has launched this touchy and effective print advertisement campaign to persuade people to adopt a child…The copy reads as, ‘Adopt. You will receive more than you can give.’ The campaign was developed by Ogilvy & Mather.”

      And it was co-opted BY US adoptees as a mirror onto some unsettling truth about adoption. I think a campaign BY US regarding identities we can not be would be a fine thing to launch.

  6. If one is conscious of group X’s existence as “other” (or if one or more of group X’s members happens to be aware of the presence/existence of an “interloper”), having the image, language, performing the rituals and ceremonial acts and/or otherwise appearing to be a group member is for naught since “It is a strange fish [person] that knows the existence of water [culture]” – mere awareness may destroy the illusory comfort of “insideness”.

    Having been dealt a full hand of “outsideness” in the Insider/Outsider game, I have, in a variety of roles, earnestly played it numerous times. I have found that the game involves numerous sets of closed-loop relationships that, under applicable social-cultural-economic rules, are not subject to rapid alteration. This makes me wonder if one should expend any time or energy playing the game – “winning” seems to require one to actively engage in the violence of Not playing…

    …and yes, Not playing is violence, just as The Anteater knows…

    I could say a lot more, but to avoid trashing up this page I point to my MA thesis that cites a number of references that, inter alia, touch upon US-centric culture and “groupness”: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B9yCDQy_KiIGYTNiZTc1NmMtNzQ4ZS00OTM2LWI5ZWItNDI5MjVkMDM5NzZm/edit?usp=sharing

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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