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Conceptualism, Identity Politics & Globalization: A Response
The following is a response to “Arif Khan,” who took issues with my introduction to the Flarf & Conceptual Writing feature, in particular with my statement “Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s?” Mr. Khan stated, “Any one who claims to be above their identity is, of course, a liar. Much of this subjectless/agentless identity talk is performed by white, middle class folks who have nothing better to do with their time. It is really more of the white, transcendental ego marking identities as it elusively escapes interrogating its own presence.”
You can read my introduction and Mr. Khan’s comments in their context and entirety here.
The identity politics battles of the past twenty years have done wonders and have given voice to many that have been denied. And there is still so much work to be done: so many voices are still marginalized and ignored. It’s a long road ahead and every effort must be made to be made to ensure that those who have something to say have a place to say it and an audience to hear it. The importance of this work cannot be underestimated.
Identity is a slippery thing and no single approach can nail it. Also, citing the need for difference, we’re never going to feel the same way on anything — a good thing. We all come from different places and circumstances, which is something to be celebrated. To be prescriptive or to make generalizations regarding circumstances of economies, classes, religions and races is counterproductive.
I really don’t think that there’s a stable or essential “me.” I am an amalgamation of so many things: books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, televisions shows I’ve watched, all the exchange and sharing of thoughts during conversations with people — the melding of our minds, the song lyrics I’ve heard, the lovers I’ve loved. The discussion that we’re having right now is changing and challenging who I thought I was profoundly. And for that I’m grateful.
In fact, I’m a creation of many people and many ideas to the point where I feel that I’ve actually had very few original thoughts and ideas; to think that any of this was original would be blindingly egotistical. Sometimes I’ll think that I’ve had an original thought or feeling and then, at 2 a.m. while watching an old movie on TV that I hadn’t seen in many years, the protagonist will spout something that I had previously claimed as my own. In other words, I took his words (which, of course, weren’t really “his words” at all), internalized them and made them my own. This happens all the time.
Often — mostly unconsciously — I’ll model my identity of myself on some image that I’ve been pitched to by an advertisement. When I’m trying on clothes in a store, I will bring forth that image that I’ve seen in an ad and mentally insert myself and my image into it. It’s all fantasy. I would say that an enormous part of my identity has been adopted from advertising. I very much live in this culture; how could I possibly ignore such powerful forces? Is it ideal? Probably not. Would I like not to be so swayed by the forces of advertising and consumerism? Of course, but I would be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that this was a huge part of who I am as a member of this culture.
As a previous commenter mentioned, transgendered persons are deeply committed to not being what they were born into. So many people who are not thrilled with the way they were born courageously labor their whole lives to adopt new and fluid identities. Others, such as transsexual persons are in a constant state of remaking themselves. I feel inspired by such fluid and changeable notions of identity.
On the internet, these tendencies move in different directions. With much less commitment than it takes in meatspace, we can project various personas with mere stokes of a keyboard. In this chatroom, I’m a woman; on this blog, I’m a political conservative; in this forum, I’m a middle-aged golfer. And I never get called out for not being authentic or real. On the contrary, I am addressed as “madam,” or “you right-wing asshole.” In fact, Mr. Kahn, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were writing under a pseudonym right now. Not only would I forgive you, I’ve come to expect that the person I think I’m addressing on the internet isn’t really “that person.” Fascinating, no?
If my identity is really up for grabs and changeable by the minute — as I believe it is — it’s important that my writing reflect this state of ever-shifting identity and subjectivity. That can mean adopting voices that aren’t “mine,” subjectivities that aren’t “mine,” political positions that aren’t “mine,” opinions that aren’t “mine,” words that aren’t “mine,” because in the end, I don’t think that I can possibly define what’s “mine” and what isn’t.
BUT — and here’s where subjectivity enters — it’s my choices that make the work “mine.” I have chosen — for some specific reason — a certain text to appropriate or to reframe. For example, in a recent piece of mine, I have appropriated the entire interrogation session between Senator Larry Craig and the policeman who arrested him. I haven’t done a thing to the text, I’ve just reprinted the whole thing. Why? I thought it was such a revealing text, full of prejudice and hypocrisy from both sides. It was something much more profound — even surreal — than anything I could ever have invented. In the end, it’s a beautiful piece of writing.
Sometimes, by reproducing texts in a non-interventionist way, we can shed light on political issues in a more profound and illuminating way than we can by conventional critique. If we wished to critique globalism, for example, I can imagine that reproducing / framing the transcript as from yesterday’s G8 summit meeting where they refused to ratify climate control threats would reveal much more about the truth of the situation than I could possibly say. Often, I feel it’s better to let the text be what it is — generally, as in the case of the G8, they’ll incriminate and hang themselves with their own stupidity. I call this poetry.
I feel as writers we try too hard. No matter what we do with language, it will be expressive. How could it be otherwise? In fact, I feel it is impossible working with language not to express oneself. If we back off and let the material do it’s work, we might even in the end be able to surprise and delight ourselves with the results.