Look How Tall You Are!

Picture1The ease with which identity is presumed to be an inner trait projected outward is pretty easy to document, which makes critiquing it something less than a challenge. For example, I thought about writing a post on the new film “Inside Out” and the popular folk understanding of identity as being an internal quality only subsequently expressed outwardly, such that the social interaction is the effect of a prior and private sentiments.

But that just seemed too easy.

And, besides, the film seems kind’a fun.

Despite this being the commonsense model we all probably have of ourselves, this blog has consistently tried to press an alternative model, one that argues for the self as being a social product through and through. It’s counter-intuitive, sure, but there’s plenty of mundane sites where you can experiment with reconceptualizing identity in this alternative way.

Case in point: I bet lots of us had our heights measured and marked, from time to time, against a wall or door post as we were growing up. I certainly remember my parents doing this. What’s useful about this example is how nicely we see the way a subject’s identity is formed by the application, by others, of a grid or classification (or, we could also say, value) system (in my case, it was a yardstick — the metric system hadn’t yet hit Canada’s shores).

It’s an instance of what Louis Althusser termed interpellation, no?

Picture 8For the child probably is not naturally rushing to measure his or her height, for they likely don’t even know that they’re growing and changing — it’s so gradual, who can see it happening to themselves? But mom and dad know changes are coming, and they’re the ones who are keen to know if their child is ahead or behind the curve (How early did they talk? When did they take their first steps? What grade did this get in math?). So the application, by others, of a grid not of our choosing (does the young child even know what an inch is, much less a decimeter?), results in a little pencil line and a date write on the door frame (not insignificantly in someone else’s handwriting, by the way), against which we quite literally learn to measure ourselves at some future point in time. And sooner or later we find enough marks there that we can start telling a developmental narrative about ourselves, about then versus now, which anticipates a future that’s not yet even happened.

Picture 9And it is that narrative, given to us by others, created by means of devices not of our making, that unseats the taken-for-granted and uninterrupted existence of the young child, in which life occupies the eternal present; it’s an existence shattered no less by persistent “What are you going to be when you grow up?” questions many adults seem driven to (im)pose — questions that unsettle the innocence of the youthful present by judging it in comparison to a future for which the question-asker cares far more than the question-recipient.

Picture 10So that little child, stands up straight against the wall (the one who now feels proud concerning how “tall” they are [“Look at you: you’re a big girl!”], or “short” and so a little dejected) is a good example of the social fabrication of the self, of a specific site of identification, of the manner in which others create the subjects we then learn to take ourselves to be by placing a grid on us and plotting us in relation to their concerns — people who are themselves being measured in countless ways and asked questions of their own by yet others who have concerns of their own (“What will you do with that degree?” “How much do you make?” or “When will you retire?”).

And so on, and so on. All the way down.

That this all might have something to do with quantum physics is a connection I leave for others to make.

Picture 11

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