What makes it possible to recognize ourselves? The answer is the narration of our story, that is, the presence of a discourse.
A discourse may be thought of as a different way of referring to or constructing knowledge. At the same time, it can be thought of as the elaboration of ideas, images and practices associated to a topic in particular, such as identity, for example.
This is because there are always stories in an identity. There are messages. However, an identity is not just a novel, a film or a song but a chain of things like musical notes, which are written on the body and mind of the person. This things, what Barthes called the “anchorage points” (Barthes, 1973: 39), attaches some kind of meaning to the participants in sign usage. The registers become attached, attaching words in personal, political, and cultural discourses, and thus producing through its interwoveness, something that can be thought of as an identity.
Regarding collective identity, Lacan, at the end of his life, focused on issues of identity and discourses. He linked discourse with the idea of intersubjectivity, understanding it now as an articulation of reciprocity and symmetry in this dual relation of one with another. In this respect, it can be likened to a person with their image in the mirror, but now a person with an enlarged image of himself, an image integrated by the people that compose a supposed collective identity, a collective identity made through common discourses.
Let take an example: in a given country there is a productive crisis in rural areas while the industrial area is growing. This fosters the mobilization of people that live in the rural areas to the industrial ones in order to maintain sustenance. Therefore, people come from different places and meet in a now common environment, with new references, requirements, jobs, general conditions, food, housing, employers, the police, hospitals, rights and obligations in common.
Their children are born and now they add to these conditions their education, the stories about the origin of their new town and nation, the relevance of their parents’ job, and of the supposed future ahead of them. These children will practise these through their games or their lives. They will imagine, too, how their society is and they will learn its meaning, as well as the meaning of the relationships, danger and opportunities in it. They will learn myths and stories. They will have common memories. These children will start dreaming similar dreams in the language they have acquired as their own. They will put their personal hopes into that language, as it is a language that encompasses them all, as well as the experiences, possibilities and especially the discourses that create a part of their being.
A part of all that is reflected in their friends, their partners, or their neighbours. They can also suffer from something that differentiates them from the rest, for instance, having all been contaminated by the pollution of the nearby factory where their families have always worked. What’s more, they could also rejoice with the factory’s sports team triumph in a game over another factory’s teams.
Thus, these children’s identity, as all identities, will also be composed of discourses that do not belong to one of them only. This can be defined as intersubjectivity.
But something is needed to ensure a collective identity through time. Something that structures people’s identity. Thus, let’s assume that these former schoolmates reflect upon the cause of a common asthmatic suffering due to the factory contamination. Then, the asthma outbreak will be able to provoke a reading of the ‘us’ as the ones that are not being cared for, and a ‘they’ -the factory’s owners for instance- who only care about their business.
That is to say, from an element’s reflection people can reach an interpretation of the cause of asthma. Let’s say the asthmatic’s identity is supported and justified by the behaviour of the responsible ones, from their way of ostentatiously dressing, eating, travelling and laughing at a humble ‘us’. In a possible conception of an interest-divided world, between one and another, between polarized and exclusive identities, they think, the conditions of their being can be interpreted and imagined. They structure a collective identity among others; they create resistance communities, communities of those who share something other than daily life, if not a place and a common interpretation of the society.
Yet, Althusser’s concept of ‘interpellation’ offered precisely the possibility of collective identity and subjectivity. Interpellating, described as summoning into place of the traces of what something is. Then, an idea or an ideology interpellates individuals into subjects and one becomes a subject by a sudden recognition that one has always been a subject, in this case that one always has been suffering from the behaviour of the interest of that factory. That brings this interpellation a sort of objectification of the subject and its conditions as part of something that is beyond the individual but that subjects the individual to a wider discursive formation. This allows the discursive formation to be the cause of being of the person with the risk of further suffering.
Thus, as Althusser put forth, “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals with their real conditions of existence (Althusser, 1977: 75). That is to say, it is also necessary for the existence of a collective identity to imagine some sort of ideology, as a representation system that would explain the causes and effects of the lived experience or that which is being lived, in order to generated the good and the evil among us.
©Sebastian Guerrini, 2009
One thought on “Identity and discourse”