reasons for blogging no. 10

Adding to my regular theme of reasons for blogging I’m adding  procrastination when deadlines loom. Assignment title: How useful is the ‘subject of language’ approach in helping us to understand identity?

The bible is full of aphorisms. Some are less useful than others such as ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ plus long lists of other shalt nots (fornication,  idolatry, adultery,  etc). But the most useful edict of all appears at the start of genesis; ‘in the beginning there was the word’.

We make sense of our left-brain world through the logic and lists of language. Via agreed consensus, it names our realities and is the tool for defining knowledge.  Semiotics; the first science of linguistics proposed by Saussure, bought us the triple S of signifier, signified and sign through which we see that meaning is never fixed. When Gertrude Stein wrote ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ she wasn’t being obtuse; she was using repetition in an attempt to pin the language down. The word rose has multiple significations (romance, valentine, beauty, interflora) so we use it in a notional way, we evoke the idea of a rose; recognisable to each of us in individual ways. We can’t capture a rose; we can only create a linguistic category of rose-ness. The single rose in our hand is a rose – but the word itself is conceptual and its meaning dependent on the cultural surround. 

Language is cultural, it reflects dominant social constructs. The language of gender is one of the best examples of this. As sex is fundamental to identity it’s clear that the language we use to ‘know’ ourselves is constrained by the environment in which we live. Boys don’t wear pink’ not because of the colour pink is pink is pink but because of the associations of the word.  It’s difficult to escape language. Even if we become subjective, work on intuition, develop sensory perception, adopt Zen, we have little control over the ways we are seen by others. Is the subject of language approach useful in understanding identity; yes, you could say that. I just need a few more thousand words in which to say it.

OU week 5: knowing ourselves

We’re sexed at birth. Then it’s rarely mentioned again. We introduce ourselves with what we do rather than Hi I’m Sue, I’m female. We only see ourselves through the medium of reflection. Our identity is the face in the mirror or how we are seen by others. The accuracy of this depends on how honest we are. They say the mirror doesn’t lie but we have nothing to compare it with. We can’t ‘see’ ourselves from the outside; we only ‘feel’ ourselves from within. This split lies at the heart of Lacan’s theory of identity construction. The child sees itself in the mirror as a whole image but feels it is made up of disparate parts. Somehow it has to reconcile the internal consciousness with the social and cultural expectations of the external world. Subjectivity is achieved through identification with external discursive practice which in turn is produced by linguistic signs. A fundamental aspect of identity is sexual difference; we wear it like a precursor of future expectation and opportunities. Freud’s in here too; Lacan reinterprets the Oedipal struggle as the child aligns itself appropriately and represses all that insatiated desire into the nether regions of the unconscious. All this theorising about subjectivity is just theory; somehow we develop from screaming egotistic bundles into functioning sociable individuals but there’s no consensus of agreement on how we do it.

I don’t know how old the study material is but there’s no mention of the Internet either as a source of information or as having cultural influence on identity; the opportunities it gave for ‘performance’ has been written about since the 1980s (Turkle, Borstein etc). The only medium is film with a focus on Hitchcock; nothing about gay cinema and although Butler’s Queer theory gets a mention,  the word gay is hardly used; instead the repetition of homosexual makes the text sound stilted in a repressed British sort of way. There’s no mention of intersex, transsexual or transgender, all integral to identity construction and the tiny reference to French feminism doesn’t do justice to the powerful challenge it presented on traditional male structures of dominance and control. In contrast with the other units which have been totally up to date this ones seems to be lagging in a bit of a time warp.

OU week 4; suturing identity

Week 4 and repetitive reading is increasing familiarity with the core ideas in Block 1. The A4 pages are my constant companion along with articles the OU call Offprints. The set book ‘an Identity Reader’ is a heavyweight not designed for carrying about. Considering most chapters are short I would have preferred these as A4 pages too. Surrounded by annotated, highlighted sheets of paper, I’m learning to re-appreciate hard copy. Still no word from my tutor. I expected something along the lines of How am I doing? Have I any problems? Am I dead? But no, welcome to the loneliness of the long distance learner. The isolation must impact negatively on learning. It runs contrary to Wenger’s virtual communities of practice whereby learning is situated in the sharing of experience and there are none of Laurillard’s online conversational frameworks. Instead I have to rely on my captured car-share colleagues for the sharing of ideas and application of theory.  

This week includes Suture; the method through which film replicates Lacanian identity theory; or Marxist ideology, Foucouldian discourse or any other theory of social control and power structure.  Suture is the process whereby the subject (created through language and culture with no independent existence) absorbs and relates to dominant power relations as through for example the ‘male gaze’, theorised by Laura Mulvey where women are portrayed as objectivised objects. Through suture we ‘believe’ or are ‘taken in’ by the portrayal of the plot and in doing so we fail to question the ‘reality’ of what we see. Identification with gender roles or behaviours, or merely being present by watching the film, especially without being aware of it, we accept without question what we see.

I would query a theory that doesn’t appear to allow the viewing of film as escapism; or accept that the view may be actively seeking an entertainment experience. For me this is also the problem with the ‘subject of language’ approach to identity; it assumes identity has a single dimension but I know that I is not me; that I is the language I use to identify me meaning I am only I through language. I know the ‘real’ me can’t be spoken of – or transmitted – other than through language. I disagree with the Lacanian idea that says we panic and identify with the subject position offered by language because we have no alternative. Not only does Lacan not account for where consciousness is before the process of self construction, he also doesn’t allow for any later processes such as education or other life experience, that leads the individual to challenge their earlier conceptions about themselves.  The problem with Lacan seems to be that no one else has yet come up with an alternative theory.

OU Week 3; identity matters

I’m easily distracted. Show me an assignment title and I’ll find something unconnected. Like Enneagrams, not the nine-sided star polygon but the nine personality types theory. You can test yourself here. Thanks to Google it’s clear that enneagram personalities are polymorphic in nature. Interpretation varies depending on the intention of the author (although Barthes would disagree).  Even Wikipedia  calls for more clarification on its Enneagram of Personality page. My main personality type is 5 and my highest behavioural tendency is detachment with 90%.  Detachment has multiple meanings.

Fluidity is at the core of semiotics. The more you try to pin something down the more unstable it becomes. The nature of truth and knowledge shifts from ‘reliable’ to at best an agreed consensus of meaning; one that’s continually shifting and open to reinterpretation. As a result, that which we need to rely on such as our identity, and our place and purpose in the world,  become equally unstable. We are produced in and by the subject of language; or are we? Enneagrams bring me back to my starting point. How useful is the ‘subject of language’ approach in helping understand identity?

The danger with any analysis of identity is the shifting sands scenario; we live within a framework of social discourse that encourages behaviour without question. Take gender; babies are sexed with a cursory glance at the genitals then the weight of social construction kicks in. Dress a baby boy in a pink and it will be universally assumed ‘he’ is a little girl. These powerful beliefs rest on perceived biological difference with no reference to individualism; do we ask our children how they feel? We take the sex/gender dichotomy for granted. It’s only when you encounter ambiguous genitalia or transgender personality that you realise all may not be what it seems. The core of our identity is constructed for us.

Language is a tool and like any tool it’s how you use it that counts. Without language we would need to explore alternatives. Sara Maitland  describes six weeks in a remote cottage on Skye in the pursuit of silence. The book brings together accounts of other experiences from Antarctic explorers to round the world lone sailors; those who have experienced long periods away from people and the sounds of civilisation. These suggest that once we move beyond language there are other inexplicable ways of being; ways we don’t have the appropriate words to explain. This suggests that what we know is constrained by what we can describe. The world still exists for the deaf and blind but is experienced in a different way. Reality is not constructed by language; only interpreted by it and through it. There is still much that is missing; experiences where language becomes inadequate or culturally specific like the French jouissance. The ‘subject of language’ approach may be useful in the study of identity but navigation through the dense theory doesn’t tell the whole story. Language is not only fraught with instability, it’s inadequate too;   some of the most intense lived experiences are those which are the hardest ones to find the words to describe.

OU course blog post 2

Following on from OU course blog post 1  the sum total of work in week 2 is close to zero. It would be easy to blame the lack of online communication. If I were an analogue learner I might find it alien to use a virtual environment, but accustomed to group collaboration through the OU forums, just me and my A4 printed pages are feeling a bit lonely.

There’s little stimulation from printed text. This is when the power of multimedia hits home but through its absence rather than its presence. I listen to the OU cd-rom but it’s only audio; I miss not just the visuals of video but the simple interaction with my laptop.  Listening is all too passive. I want to be involved in my learning. All I can do is read and make notes which is way too texty, I’m a ‘words’ person but here I am surrounded by them and the learning isn’t happening.

So I’ve started drawing mind maps; breaking up the mass of text into more visual learning environments; the shapes and colours on the page really seem to help. Here are the main theorists: Saussure (pink square) who started the whole theory of language as a cultural phenomenon. Lacan (purple circle) who applied Saussure’s structuralism to his own brand of psychoanalysis devising the concept of the Symbolic and the Other but unable to explain the state of pre-awareness. Althusser (orange rectangle) applied structuralism to his Marxism through Ideological State Apparatus (ISAs), the means by which capitalist norms are consented to and reproduced. Finally Foucault (blue ellipse) who has us all situated within discursive practice, externally mediated by the institutions of the state which are disguised mechanisms of control – Phew! You wouldn’t believe how much chunking all the information into separately coloured shapes is helping. I wonder if a mind map will be acceptable as an alternative mode of assessment!

D853 Identity in Question (OU course blog post 1)

 This week I officially begin Year 3 and Unit 5 of my MA in Open and Distance Education. The subject has enhanced and deepened my engagement with my work, given me a theoretical background and opportunities to meet and debate relevant issues with a wider audience; I couldn’t have had a better subject to work with. Unit 5 is Identity in Question. This takes me back to the research of my first MA in Gender Studies and forward to issues I want to research in the future; social and cultural attitudes towards difference. I’m looking forward to re-engaging with the theoretical baselines and testing their application to issues around to student’s perceptions of themselves in relation to higher education.  

The first four Units were delivered online but this is a traditional distance learning course and already I feel isolated. I’ve got used to the textual introductions and emoticons, the sharing of photographs, of where we are and what we do. I’ve actively taken part in the creation of Wenger’s community of practice, the first stages in Salmon’s 5step model, constructing Laurillard’s conversational framework, building Garrison and Anderson’s Social Presence. I’ve experienced, tried and tested, all these theories over the past two years but this is going to be different. I’ve had one email from my tutor about dates for ‘telephone tutorials’ but no reference to how this will take place. I’m assuming Skype but I don’t know for sure. In previous units we used First Class but have no software this time. I don’t like telephones. I don’t even have one at home. I prefer the keyboard. In previous units we’ve been encouraged to blog, to build an electronic portfolio and collaborate through wikis as well as use the traditional discussion forum. Suddenly all of that is missing. How can I ‘learn’ interactively with my colleagues when we are not virtually connected? The loneliness of the distance learner will be exacerbated by the lack of digital engagement. It feels like a backward step into a pre-internet world. Without the regular logging on to see what others are saying about the week’s subject matter, how will I stay motivated and engaged?

The benefit of blogging is the provision of a unique forum for reflection. The reality is it takes time. I know that multiple blogs will not work so this blog will become my work and my study blog. The integration will be interesting process.