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What is identity and why is there so much of it?

Any cultural production can be viewed through the lens of its socio-historical circumstance. To ignore such contexts is to deny the social truths of the work. Yet such contexts are inadequate to establish a work’s identity.

Identity is a play, according to Gertrude Stein in “Identity A Poem,” her 1935 reworking as a play for puppets of some parts of The GeographicalHistory of America Or The Relation Of Human Nature To The Human Mind. Stein’s puppet show shows identity as an acting out rather than as an inner state; externally animated, not innately fixed.

Stein did not narrativize her otherness any more than she naturalized it, and that makes her a suitably uncomfortable subject for those who would read her in terms of group-identity poetics. Stein’s work eludes thematic and biographist projections in its demonstration that forms, structures, syntax, and style may also signify identity’s puppet show. This may begin to account for how Stein’s triple distance from the ascendant culture (gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity) is related to her radical breaks from traditional notions of meaning, literary tradition, explanation, and linearity.

Stein questions identity constructions; she does not affirm identity. Her syntactic and grammatical investigations show how language forms consciousness, how our words make as well as reflect experience.

In literature, genre, with its etymological roots suggesting both [End Page 485] genealogy and gender, is a fundamental site of identity politics. Throughout her career, Stein plays with, in the sense of reforming and reformatting, genre, genealogies, and genders. “Identity A Poem” is an essay, a play, a poem; it mixes verse and prose lines.

In Boundary of Blur, Nick Piombino contrasts self and identity, noting that writers like Stein may fragment and rearrange representations of self in pursuit of new identity formations: “I contrast identity and self . . . because it is possible to understand the entire being of a person as a dynamic process of becoming when one aspect of being, which I am calling identity, may be visualized as potential and virtual, and [the] other aspect, self, as actual and thus biographically determined (historical). . . . Identity represents all that is potential to the self . . . . Self represents that which is finite and observable in awareness” (43–45).

I am I because my little dog knows me, even if the little dog is a big one, and yet the little dog knowing me does not really make me be I no not really because after all being I I am I has really nothing to do with the little dog knowing me, he is my audience, but an audience never does prove to you that you are you. . . .

No one knowing me knows me.

In Stein’s terms, self belongs to human nature and identity to human mind; though for Stein, as well as Piombino, identity’s play is confined neither to mind nor nature. Identity of/in human mind is fluid and underdetermined; forming rather than final. The human mind at play is the site of identity’s continuous becoming. Grammatically, identity’s play is registered by the present participle (the continuous present)—an active, verbal principle. When identity enters human nature its chimerical unfolding gets boxed up as explanation, labels, naming, nouns. Human nature, insofar as it obscures human mind, is duplicitous; but when nature and mind remain at play, duplicity melts into the multiplicitous. 1

My doggie knows my name, my smell, but not the thought that cleaves my nature, making me part of its world, part next. Beside myself is that being that belongs neither to my past nor to my self. This is language’s tale and identity’s possibility. Here a rose arises and is read. [End Page 486]

Of course anyone choosing to avert her identity is immediately subject to the suspicion that she has something to hide or that she suffers from self-hatred, as if skepticism is the same as rejection.

Such a writing beyond identity is utopian. But then only someone who has felt trapped needs to imagine freedom.

Human mind represents for...

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pp. 485-488
Launched on MUSE
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