Identity in Question: The contemporary self as philosophical by-product

Who are we today? We seem to know. Witness the array of identity markers typically festooned on the profiles of X (formerly Twitter) users: the parades of emojis, particularly flags, as well as verbal signifiers of ethnicity, sexuality and place, political, religious and astrological alignments, even medical diagnoses, as well as the increasingly obligatory preferred pronouns. Such listing combines with a username and a profile picture to produce an identifiable individual. Curating such a persona, likely across multiple platforms, is addictive—one might even say ‘empowering’—insofar as we are given the licence to thereby define who we are.

I would suggest, however, that our alacrity in answering questions about our identity is a case of us protesting too much. Rather than showing that we actually know who we truly are, we mistake our selves for a constructed image of them. To an extent, of course, it has ever been thus. As Jacques Lacan taught, human beings are cursed with the ability to identify with their own mirror image, and thereby to understand themselves on the model of the impossible ideas of personhood they get from observing the solidity of figures around them, such as their parents, mistaking their image of these figures for an attainable model. Human beings have always fundamentally misunderstood who we are. Lacan, moreover, points out the extent to which we must misunderstand every facet of reality, including ourselves, given that all our understandings are mediated by language, which will always be inadequate to expressing the fullness of the real.

The peculiarity of our current situation, however, is the extent to which related insights about identity, derived from the critical analysis of language, society and psychology, have themselves come to inform our identities. That is to say, we are today aware that we have identities, and that these identities are important to us, and also malleable, whereas in the past identities were based on understandings of oneself and one’s place in the universe that people took to be simply factual. The question of who they were was satisfied not by the kind of nebulous concepts we answer this question with today, but by basic facts: who their parents were, where they lived, where they were born, and so on. Sex, social class, religion, even political alignment and sexuality were for most people most of the time givens that they acquired by dint of their origin and did not question. People certainly deeply cathected such facts in understanding who they were and, from this point of view, people have always had some kind of artificial, socially constructed identity. However, they did not recognise the existence of the social construction of identity as such, and hence did not experience identity as an insistent and persistent question, but rather, I would suggest, only questioned it in limit cases.

Today, the network of identifications that once anchored us has been deliberately smashed in a search for freedom. As Samuel Moore’s English translation of the Communist Manifesto aptly summarised things, ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’. This smashing is eminently understandable inasmuch as people have felt and continue to feel that the identities supplied to them restrict and mischaracterise them. If there is a basic mistake here, however, it is in thinking we can entirely free ourselves in this regard, precisely because language as an identificatory matrix always constrains us once we are either involuntarily assigned or voluntarily assume any label it provides. The palliative that our society has increasingly adopted to deal with the vicissitudes of identity is to make the restrictions of society negotiable and allow people increasing sovereignty in relation to the labels that are applied to them. This is perhaps most obvious in rights to specify our preferred names and pronouns, but also in a more general principle whereby groups may determine what descriptors of them are acceptable for others to use.

What this has given rise to, however, is an endless quest for us each to determine our identities. If the destruction of old certainties forces people to face reality as Marx and Engels had it, it also gives them the practical task of constructing a new raft of ideas on which to navigate the real. Because today no identity is supplied to us, identity appears to us as a question, and one moreover that will never receive a final answer, given that the individual is themselves now the determinant of the truth of their own identity and hence will never find an anchor for this identity outside themselves. Rather, in looking inside ourselves for certainty, we will only ever encounter a changing mass of thoughts and feelings, much as David Hume realised when he faced reality unfiltered by a framework of religious belief, such that without social anchoring, we can never finally ‘find ourselves’.

Identity in theory

The historical development of our relationship to our selves is doubtless not a simple story. One could certainly link current mutations of identity to economic, political and technological developments in turn. Here, however, I would like to trace the effects of certain strains of recent philosophical thinking on our identities. While in general I do not believe that philosophy has a great deal of direct influence on historical events— ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world’, as Marx and Engels said—I think identity is a special case inasmuch as our contemporary relation to our identities depends on a form of self-awareness that derives directly from the Western philosophical tradition.

Western philosophy has been influencing our relationship to our selves for the best part of three millennia. The most recent mutation in our relationship to ourselves has been particularly influenced, in varying ways, by the insights emanating from my own primary area of expertise, the golden age of twentieth-century French philosophy, specifically the work of such luminaries as Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Derrida, in particular, via his popularising Anglophone interpreters (principally the preeminent contemporary philosopher of gender Judith Butler), has been influential in instilling a kind of insouciance about the vicissitudes of identification: we are never who we think we are, so identity becomes a venue for playful experimentation. While appealing on paper, such an approach belies the desperation of the search for identity today. We do not merely list our identifiers for fun, but rather, as Lacan understood, in a desperate attempt to secure ourselves in the face of anxiety.

While our current situation represents a betrayal of the promise of a long history of experimental libertinism going back at least to early twentieth-century Bohemianism, it is far from clear that the liberatory promise of Bohemianism ever had any other possible trajectory than the reestablishment of absolutes on a different plane. As Lacan remarked to radical students in the 1960s when they disrupted his lectures, there is in such iconoclasm a longing for a master.

While people have always pretended to be things they are not, the Derridean-deconstructive move here elides the distinctions between who we actually are, who we think we are and who we pretend to be by denying that there is any non-arbitrary component to identity. This implies a paradoxical tendency to abolish identification itself, inasmuch as it anchors the subject to something extrinsic.

To completely abolish identity is impossible, however: human beings need to identify withsomething outside ourselves. Yet today, denuded of the certainties of external identifications, we have fallen into ourselves, and ended up with a situation that none of these philosophers espoused: the principle that identity is inherent to the individual. This derives not from radical philosophy, but from our pre-existing liberal fantasy of self-sufficient individuality, deeply embedded in the contractual presuppositions of capitalism. However, since we cannot be entirely self-sufficient, the removal of the social strictures that used to govern identity exposes us to the perverse tyranny of an external compulsion to invent ourselves. We are absolutely individualised and individually absolutised, forced by a dearth of guidance to determine who we are for ourselves and then obey our own interpretation to the nth degree, even though in the final analysis all of this must have a source outside ourselves. Indeed, the absolutism of individualism is now socially enforced. We see a kind of social coercion (cancel culture), with the backing of the state in the last instance (via laws that frame the verbal denial of others’ identities as a form of violence), to enforce the absolutes introduced by the new identitarianism. Boundaries must come in somewhere, it seems.

Foucault, though often grouped with Derrida as a ‘postmodern relativist’, in fact took a diametrically opposite approach in many ways. In his last years, Foucault appreciated the depth of the problem here as a form of spiritual crisis. In modernity, we have adopted a universalist and scientific approach to the self that understands the self as an object of discovery. As such, our contemporary ability to determine our identity does not imply actual power over ourselves, but only the right to discern as privileged observers who we are, which is to say, to assign us potent responsibility for confessing our true identity. While we de facto now have the power to say who we are, only a psychopath can enjoy this inasmuch as we are supposed only to identify in accordance with whatever our true nature is: since it is impossible to finally discern the truth of ourselves, those with consciences have only acquired, then, an interminable responsibility. The Butlerian dream of playfully ‘queering’ our identities has in practice given rise to a deadly serious insistence on the objectivity and immutability of identities, paradoxically including soi-disant ‘queer’ ones, inasmuch as queerness has ended up as just another letter added to the parade of LGBT+ sexualities.

It turns out that we can be anything we want – but only the thing that we authentically are. The difficulty presented by authenticity was well recognised by an earlier generation of French intellectuals, in particular the ‘existentialist’ Jean-Paul Sartre. Later, ‘structuralist’ thinkers like Lacan and Foucault sought to evade the trap of absolute responsibility for the authenticity of the self by acknowledging the extent to which we are, as selves, at the mercy of broader linguistic and historical forces: we can only understand ourselves through the vocabulary and concepts furnished by the society into which we are born.

Artless Self

In his last work, Foucault ventured a solution to our spiritual impasse in the restoration of a lost, ancient art of the self, by which the ancient Greeks in particular deliberately fashioned their selves as works of art. In this, they were not overburdened by any idea that the artwork had to conform to a preordained truth. Foucault hoped we might create a new art of the self on this model.

While this might appear to be something like the contemporary focus on ‘self-care’, Foucault was at pains to distinguish it from such preoccupations already apparent in California, where he spent a great deal of time, in the 1970s. For Foucault, the ancient art of the care of the self had been lost via a process by which it had, in the Roman empire, degenerated into an indulgent cult of the self before being displaced by a Christianity that denigrated any focus on the self as such in favour of spiritual exercises of self-transformation in relation to a search for the truth. In European modernity this Christian spirituality was in turn replaced by a scientific quest for truth that saw no need for individuals to transform themselves to get access to it, instead understanding the truth as composed of propositions and evidence that any subject could comprehend.

Forty years on from Foucault’s death, there is no reason to believe that an art of the self has reappeared. Rather, despite some post-Foucauldian enthusiasm for experimentation with identities, these are now treated increasingly, once again, as a matter of scientific verity, in an era in which the cult of scientific truth has—perhaps rather surprisingly—reasserted itself as official dogma. To give one important example, look at the way in which science’s relation to being transgender has shifted from the gatekeeping role of the psych- disciplines in determining that certain persons have a mental disorder (‘body dysmorphia’) that licenses surgical interventions, to scientists now adopting wholesale the concept of gender and asserting instead that gender is a fact determined by individuals’ consistent self-identification. While the newer orientation of science in this regard is vastly more sympathetic to trans people, both rely on science’s ability to discern an underlying psychic fact that validates trans identities. In this way, science serves as a guarantee of identity.

The difficulties of deferring to science to tell us the truth about ourselves are manifold. Science is changeable: it yields contested and developing results. Relying on science to define who we are means having to reckon with constant new information or, alternatively, with ossifying science in an entirely unscientific way. While conservative voices argue that science can settle such issues, for example with a return to binary biological sex as the basis for identity, it is far from clear that science is fit for this purpose. Science after all consists of hypotheses and observations. It can neither ground normative imperatives nor give meaning to its statements. While scientific pronouncements do typically come with normative valences, this indicates nothing so much as science’s lack of self-sufficiency and its need for an occluded value system to buttress it, such as in the scientific community’s enthusiastic adoption of discourses of diversity and equity.

Indeed, our contemporary value system at large pretends to objectivity while being arbitrary and subjectivist. For example, those who take issue with modish claims about race and gender are told they need ‘education’; spreading such claims is, conversely, itself cast as mere ‘training’ and duly publicly funded and mandated. These claims are not, however, purely scientific, but rather normative valuations that supervene on science in the name of equity, determining what can be said and who can say it. The paradox of the discourse of diversity is that it is a universal credo of anti-universalism: it demands we all acknowledge the significance of particular experience, that we can discern in advance based on who is speaking the value of their words.


German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has long argued that ‘post-traditional’ societies such as ours without a shared truth continue to function on the basis of a shared agreement to use the market and democracy to make collective decisions. However, there are increasing signs that this liberal-democratic social compact might be deteriorating. For one thing, many in our society have value systems fundamentally at variance with the principle of self-identification that is now being hegemonically enforced in our society. For another, this principle itself (therefore) potentially conflicts with the principles of liberal democratic deliberation: if the majority will not allow self-identification, the majority are deemed fascist and hence their decision illegitimate. This can be seen in the general tenor of the liberal American reception of the Trump presidency (even if Trump himself has even more flagrantly rejected the legitimacy of his electoral ouster). We are in an increasingly bizarre situation in which settled norms of Western constitutional governance are themselves now generally considered ‘white supremacist’, and so on. The monarchy is one example of this: while it continues to exist as the constitutional basis of the Australian and Canadian states, it unmistakably is a legacy of colonialism, which is in turn considered entirely illegitimate in this context. An even more serious contradiction exists in the United States, the civic identity of which is premised on its constitution, the framers of which are now derided in polite society as a conclave of white male slave-owners. Societies that disdain their constitutions are on dangerously thin ice, with political norms increasingly disaggregated from their legal frameworks.

Of course, the obvious solution to this contradiction, which many would surely welcome, would be a revolution. However, it is unclear what could lie on the other side of such a revolution. While many Marxists have adapted themselves to contemporary ‘woke’ discourse, the negativity of its demands does not obviously translate into a new social order. In this, one might see an echo of Marx’s own negativity in defining communism principally in terms of abolition and Aufhebung. However, unlike classical Marxism, our contemporary cultural revolution does not make a demand for universal liberation via the liberation of the enslaved portion of humanity but a form of liberation from norms that castigates those people previously deemed normal as the bearers of the old norms. Far from being a simple liberation of what was previously pathologised as abnormal, this new normalisation amounts to a reinstallation of a nosography as a new set of norms—insisting positively on categories of race and sexuality, for example, which developed originally as means of subjugating the people they described—that are therefore continually shadowed by the old norms in relation to which they were originally pathologised.

The ‘woke’ moment is thus not the liberation it purports to be, but rather the paradoxical installation of abnormality as norm. The apparent liberation from old norms in fact has led to an inordinate profusion of new ones to which we are tied. Embracing our ‘true identities’ from this point of view is no liberation, but something that binds us ever more to circuits of normalisation that, moreover, appear to us not as impositions but as our own free choices. Unlike an older normalisation that was clearly external to us, emanating from disciplinary institutions and expert knowledges, our new normalisation is one that is largely autonomous, distributed through networks online and then validated ex post facto via social institutions and sold back to us as a consumer product. All this is to say that we are not subject to some grand conspiracy here, but are voluntarily subjecting ourselves.

Foucault’s forlorn enjoinment of a return to the Greeks followed in the footsteps of the philosopher who was perhaps his greatest single influence, Friedrich Nietzsche, who perhaps more than any other thinker presents an optimistic prognosis for culture after the ‘death of God’ (which is to say, the demise of cultural certainties) in the individual’s ability to rise above cultural determination and become a ‘superhuman’ who fashions their own meanings. Nietzsche championed such a path not only in opposition to religion as such but what he saw as the sublimated religion of science, which, like religion, seeks to establish human values on a heteronomous rather than autonomous basis.

In this advocacy of individual autonomy, Foucault and Nietzsche, despite their reputations and contrarianism, continue the great quest of the European Enlightenment classically traced in philosophy to Immanuel Kant. Despite dispensing with Kant’s moral universalism, they retain the ideal of freedom. At this point, however, I believe there is reason to suspect that the quest for autonomy simply fails to deliver anything beyond a simulation. While individual autonomy has clearly become a hegemonic value in Western societies and indeed more broadly, precisely for this reason, it is illusory insofar as it is a socially imposed value, and one that inevitably takes particular forms that are overdetermined by social and psychological factors in every individual case. The abandonment of universal values, far from ending our bondage, in fact robs us of the principles that might allow us to resist the latest cultural trends. Trying to determine for ourselves what our values should be, we inevitably either alight somewhat arbitrarily on ones we come across outside ourselves, or fall into a vicious inward spiralling that can terminate in despair.

While I believe philosophy is primarily an analytical enterprise ill-fitted to putting the world to rights, I would venture that the only appropriate course left to us is to affirm a commitment to universal Truth, not as something we actually understand, but rather apophatically: as the opaque telos that lies beyond what we do. This allows us to assert its existence outside usas a point of orientation for our lives, while adopting a stance of epistemic humility that prevents us imposing on others our tentative attempts to grasp the truth. The obvious alternatives—namely, to say either that we actually have grasped the truth of the world or that there is no truth outside our own personal ‘truths’—I have suggested, collapse into one and the same position inasmuch as both end up relying on the transparency of truth to experience. I enjoin this course, moreover, not only as a social but also as a purely individual maxim: we should cleave to fidelity in the truth even if refusing to validate fashionable shibboleths sees us pilloried, on the basis that the loss of orientation to the outside is more dangerous to us subjectively than any downsides to maintaining that orientation. In all this there is a final paradox that, in the context of a compulsory individualism, the greatest demonstration of autonomy and individuality must become opposition to hyperindividualism itself.

About the author

Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly teaches philosophy at Western Sydney University. His most recent book, Normal Now: Individualism as Conformity, was published by Polity in 2022.

More articles by Mark Kelly

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