The Identity Crap


Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you1-

We recall ourselves – or a particular inference of ourselves,
our self – each time we utter "I", but at the very same moment, all the other self(s) are by necessity forgotten,
they remain "footsteps"2

Honestly, when I began preparations to write this article, I still thought of it as "The Identity Trap". However, the more familiar I became with the subject matter, the more probes I drilled through sedimented layers of discourse on "identity" – be they sclerotic nationalistic or post-colonial/feministic – the more tempting did it become for me to change that preliminary title into "The Identity Crap".

What had happened? I had realized that it can be said with very little over-generalization that whenever the term "identity" is used, it is always in an incorrect, mostly misleading, and very often abusive way.

1. The Film Part

In mainstream films, the loss of memory is a very popular motif: it allows the (re)construction of a person's identity. And building that pseudo-individual identity is one of the key functions of the film industry in more general ways.

"How individual identity is encoded in specific bits of information is a theme of the popular 2002 film The Bourne Identity, based on the novel of the same title by Robert Ludlum. [...] One bit of information leads to another, and Jason Bourne's 'identity' is implanted back into his mind. The Bourne Identity is about identity loss"3. Christopher Nolan's "Memento" (2000) chooses a similar, although more sophisticated approach.

"Die Kategorisierung von Einzelnen findet in den Medien in erster Linie über kollektive Identitätszuschreibungen statt und erleichtert dessen Kontrollierbarkeit aus herrschaftspolitischer Perspektive."4

"[T]here is no doubt that Bollywood has been the single greatest integrating factor in the evolution of the pan-Indian persona. [...] Indian films [...] cumulatively project a world in which all Indians can participate. [...] And their happy endings and songs and dances provide a kind of entertainment with which all Indians identify."5

Identity issues are always power issues. This becomes very obvious in the series of Dr. Mabuse movies by Fritz Lang6, in which the question of a person's identity is indissolubly connected with the issue of external control, of being subjected to the abuse by a master. "This is of course very close to a conception of the zombie that one sees in any Hollywood movie; the zombie has no will of its own, and is unable to make any decision, doing only what it has been commanded to, usually by a 'zombie master', who is using the zombie as an instrument to bring harm to the master's enemies."7

The search for an identity, and the construction of identities have always been at the core of what films have been about – especially when they were targeted at adolescent audiences (that means mainstream films since the 1950s). Spectators concerned with putting pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together that would one day hopefully add up to an identity of their own are more likely to be receptive to this subject matter.

"Diese Art Versicherung des Selbst, die zuerst von der Malerei freigesetzt wurde, konnte dann im Verlauf des 19. Jahrhunderts durch neuere darstellerische Medien wie die der Photographie und des Films fortgeführt werden. Denn dieses neue Medium erlaubte dem Selbst, sich so facettenreich es wollte zu betrachten, sich zu erkennen, sich zu studieren oder von anderen zum Objekt solcher Erforschungen machen zu lassen"8

"Auf der Suche nach Identität kann nichts gefunden werden, was bereits 'da' ist, irgendwo im Verborgenen schlicht gegeben und auf seine Entdeckung wartend. Wer Erfolg hat bei der 'Suche' nach seiner Identität, hat in kreativen Akten geschaffen, wonach er suchte. [...] Medium und Ausdrucksmittel für solche Akte sind alle möglichen sprachlichen und sonstigen Verhaltensweisen: Vom Beschreiben und Argumentieren über das (höchst bedeutsame) Erzählen von Geschichten bis hin zum Träumen [...] kommt alles in Betracht."9

Film has become the means of choice for this kind of construction of adolescent identities. "This is also the case with supporters [...] for whom a soccer match becomes an occasion to emphasize all their identities that are already almost lost: their failed virility,

their abandoned and disinherited city, their class that no longer believes in any values.

Hollywood make-believe occasionally offers them a fictitious identity, allowing them to lay claim to a violence where hatred for themselves comes through"10. In spite of this – or perhaps rather because of this entanglement in the delicate issue of the external creation of supposedly individual identities – films explicitly dealing with the construction of identity on the plot level are rare exceptions. They are conceivable only for rather sophisticated audiences; the illusion must not be destroyed. The sugar-coated stories to cling to on the way to what must at all cost appear to the individuals as an identity of their own must not be disturbed. Films like "Being There" (Hal Ashby, 1979) would not necessarily appeal to masses of teenagers anyway. Robert Zemeckis's "Forrest Gump" (1994) was probably the closest any such film ever got to a blockbuster within the entertainment industry.However, in my eyes, the single film addressing the topic of identity in the most striking way is without any doubt Woody Allen's "Zelig" of 1983. The high quality of "Zelig" and much of its charm are due to the fact that it is based on a unique idea: Zelig is a character without a character. Zelig's identity is simply to have no identity at all – or, rather, to adapt to the identity of anybody around him so quickly and indistinguishably that he totally blends into his surroundings, and even produces a feathered headdress when standing next to Native Americans for just a moment. But then the attractive psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) takes care of Zelig. The therapy is severely complicated by the fact that Zelig turns into a psychiatrist every time Eudora comes near. One day, however, she comes up with a simple and great idea. She tells Zelig that she is not really a psychiatrist, that she had just pretended to be one. At that very moment, Zelig's reference system falls apart, his pseudo-psychiatrist persona crumbles, and the healing process can begin.Of course, it could be said that "Zelig" is an illustration of the Jewish trauma after centuries of pogroms and the Shoah, and of the will to survive under the pressure of adaptation and assimilation in the diaspora. But the film offers a lot more than that. It could be held that it parodies the criticism with the essentialist notions of identity. In its openly regressive positivism, it can also be read as a comment on social roles in a much more general way.Zelig exists only as a collection of different masks that he incorporates in varying situations, whilst the core of his identity seems to be annihilated, a zero. Of course, the name "Zelig" is an additional bitterly ironical comment on this situation: "selig" means "blessed", and blessed is he who is not burdened with an identity of his own. When the police take Zelig to the hospital, they find two photographs in his apartment, the only hints to a presumably "real" identity behind that of the sheer chameleon. Elisabeth Bronfen bases a highly interesting analysis of what identity is on these two photos: "Im Gegensatz zu den vielen anderen Selbstbildnissen als Szenen, die Zelig/Allen im Verlauf des Filmes vorführen, inszenieren diese beiden Photos die Verflüchtigung des Subjekts, indem sie die Grenze zwischen Schauspieler und Charakter sowie die zwischen historischer Vergangenheit, Gegenwart des Zuschauers und der Szene der fiktionalen Wiedergabe gänzlich verwischen. Wenn man davon ausgeht, daß dies die einzigen zwei Selbstbildnisse sind, die Zelig aufbewahrt hatte, können wir sie als die beiden quasi-anderen Selbstbildnisse lesen, mit denen dieser chamäleonartige Held sich identifiziert, wobei sie bezeichnenderweise beide Phantasieszenen vorführen, in denen es um die Identifikation mit dem künstlerischen Prozeß geht."11 This reminds us of the pictures taken by the psychiatrist and photographer Jean Martin Charcot of patients in the Salpêtrière, a psychiatric clinic near Paris, in the years after 1870. Those patients were real patients suffering from hysteria. However, at the same time they also functioned as models and actresses for the photographer. They had to act out and represent hysteria for the photo shoot and freeze in a position in the middle of an especially spectacular, picturesquely twisted movement. In the late 1800s, exposure time was still very long, so the models – true examples of what Jean Baudrillard later would refer to as "simulacra" – had to hold still for a long time. Like those patients – and actually like everybody else, only more so – Zelig exists as a nodal point between his own history and a defensive fantasy mask of his self. Like the patients in the Salpêtrière, writes Bronfen, Zelig can stage his truth, his identity only inbetween his own traumatic history and representational masquerades dictated by the outside world. At the point when he is about to be reborn at the Manhattan Hospital under the guidance of Eudora Fletcher, the indeterminateness of his identity is mirrored in the indeterminateness of two self-portraits. It cannot be taken as a matter of coincidence that these self-portraits define Zelig as an artist. They show Zelig/Allen as Eugene O'Neill resp. the clown Pagliacci12. So, Zelig's only reference to "real" identities is to that of artists, whose profession is a continuous process of producing ever more volatile personae – and whose own identity disappears behind that of the characters they have created.Identity has become a very powerful notion in film and, one must assume, in popular culture in general. However, where does this concept of identity come from?

1 Bob Dylan: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (1965).
2 Jeremy Fernando: The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death. (2010).
3 David A. Hollinger: Identity in the United States. in: Mahmood Mamdani, Nadia Tazi et al. (eds.): Keywords Identity. For a Different Kind of Globalization. Other, New York 2004, p. 29.
4 Sylvia Goldstraß: Zur Rezeptionsgeschichte der Kategorie Identität. Der Andere, Tönning, Lübeck, Marburg 2008, p. 256). ("The categorization of individuals takes place in the media mostly through collective assignments of identity. From the view point of the politics of domination this makes it easier to control them." Transl.: AS).
5 Pavan K. Varma: Being Indian. The truth about why the 21st century will be India's. Penguin, New Delhi 2004, p. 154 f.
6 "Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler – Ein Bild der Zeit" (1922), "Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse" (1933), "Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse" (1960), a series of Fritz Lang movies continued by Harald Reinl and others.
7 Jeremy Fernando: The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death. Atropos, New York and Dresden, 2010, p. 172.
8 Elisabeth Bronfen: Die Vorführung der Hysterie. in: Identitäten, p. 232. ("This kind of affirmation of the self, first yielded by painting, could be continued in the course of the 19th century by new media of representation like photography and film. This new medium allowed the self to look at itself from as many angles as it desired, to recognize itself, to study itself, or to become an object of such experiences for others." Transl.: AS).
9 Jürgen Straub: Personale und kollektive Identität. Zur Analyse eines theoretischen Begriffs. in: Aleida Assmann and Heidrun Friese (eds.): Identitäten. Erinnerung, Geschichte, Identität 3. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1999, p. 93. ("In the search for identity nothing can be found that is already 'there', simply given in some place arcane and waiting to be discovered. Whoever has successfully 'searched' for his identity has produced whatever he had looked for in acts of creation. [...] All kinds of lingual and other ways of behaviour are the media and means of expression for such acts. Everything comes into consideration, from describing and arguing to the (most meaningful) telling of stories and dreaming [...]." Transl.: AS).
10 Emmanuel Renault: European Conceptions of Identity. in: Keywords Identity, 111.
11 Elisabeth Bronfen: Die Vorführung der Hysterie. in: Identitäten, 264 f. ("In contrast to many other portraits as scenes picturing Zelig/Allen in the course of the film, these two photos stage the volatility of the subject by entirely blurring the lines between actor and character as well as between the historical past, the present of the spectator and the scene of the fictional representation. If we assume that these are the only two self-portraits Zelig had kept, we could read them as the two quasi-other self-portraits this chameleon-like hero identifies with. Then it is symptomatic that they both show imaginary scenes dealing with the identification with the artistic process." Transl.: AS).
12 see Bronfen, 267.

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