Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Search For Identity

Identity permeates every aspect of our lives. From the informal social dealings as to how (and who) we present ourselves as to other people. Through art as many artists explore notions of identity. All the way to politics as under-represented groups advocate for more visibility or equal treatment and status.

As a writer I tend to steer my work away from questions of identity. In politics I see it as atomising and preventing of any useful consensus that allows us to get things done. However, I fully recognise I can only state this from a position of privilege; that is my identity is not overtly under threat from others and is not ostensibly one that feels under-represented or unequal in society. While this seems the only pertinent argument for identity politics to me, it does also place the whole question within a negative context, one of asserting one's identity in order to overcome prejudices and barriers towards it. That such searches and struggles for identity are inevitably and irrevocably wrapped up and often defined against the prevailing majority identity it is contesting with.

However, I can't help feeling that such questions about identity do not address the real deep issues of what is means to be human. The questions of 'who am I?', 'what have I done?' and 'what am I here for?' that philosophy rather seems to have given up trying to figure out. Existentialist questions. Given that we are mortal and finite, what is the purpose for living a life? The philosophers starting from the Ancient Greeks, picked up by the Christian theologians, took us down quite a narrow path by asking 'what does it mean to lead a GOOD (moral) life?' The humanist philosophers also addressed themselves to this same question, Hobbes and Locke minimising the role of the divine and instead musing how man could live in societal groups without killing one another, from which developed the modern concept of the rule of law.

But these questions it seems to me address only the second layer of fundamental existence- How do we live together? What about the first layer, why are we even here to live at all? It is taken as a given that we exist at all, therefore the consideration is how to maximise the quality of that life on a practical/organisational level. But it is very much not a given and any answer would definitely feedback and inform the notion of how we live our lives. Leaving aside the religious answer of 'to glorify god' which doesn't hold much truck in our contemporary age, little has been done to explore these greater questions. Of course it is entirely possible that there is no answer to the 'why do we exist?' questions. Science and cosmology may not be able to furnish an answer. The blind, motiveless mechanism of DNA reproduction may forever remain blind and impermeable to our understanding. The human brain remains the most complex and unknowable organ in nature, for all our advances in its study. Notwithstanding all this, our current level of inquiry into identity I feel still misses the bigger picture, by remaining firmly rooted within the cultural sphere and finding one's place within that. Somehow we need to root the question in the species sphere.

Over to the artists rather than the philosophers and scientists now. Albeit from an acknowledged position of privilege...

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