The death of identity has been announced in so many corners of academic life that it seems miraculous anyone has the courage to defend such a concept. But this is what Stephen Frosh and Lisa Baraitser did a few years ago. Their paper ‘Goodbye to identity?’ (published in Identity in question, ed. Anthony Elliott and Paul du Gay) makes the argument (via Erik Erikson, Judith Butler and Jessica Benjamin) that ‘identities may be precarious and unsettled and may require constant analysis, deconstruction and reconfiguring, but it is perhaps too soon to wish them goodbye.’
This is a carefully argued position, one that doesn’t feel the need to sidestep concerns over multiplicity, instability and insecurity (when did Erikson ever really argue for a stable identity anyway?). This desire to confront sees them pull no punches when it comes to performativity. Yet at the same time they provide a more nuanced account of one of its key contemporary figures, Judith Butler, specifically via her essay ‘Violence, mourning and politics’ published in 2004. In the essay Butler explores the intersubjective nature of grief for the loss of loved ones and what this means for notions of selfhood. According to Butler, ‘what grief displays is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain.’ According to the authors, deeply felt loss of the kind Butler is writing about, communicates ‘the way that with every loss something dies inside because our inner world consists of connections with others.’One of the reasons why grief is so difficult to manage and cope with is precisely
because of this sense of loss – the loss of self. ‘Part of you dies’ is a well-worn phrase but as is so often the case carries with it a ring of truth. To suggest this is the case however is not to diminish the nature of mourning – to turn it into some kind of selfish performative narcissism. What it does suggest is that the loss of someone else, someone close, is simultaneously the loss of self. But what happens when we lose part of ourselves – what kind of process takes place when part of you dies? This is an awkward question to be confronted with, but this awkwardness doesn’t diminish its importance. To be faced with the death of oneself, even in a partial way, can only be construed as a form of ‘living death’ – living death as good a phrase as any to describe what mourning actually feels like. Because it’s not just someone else that has passed away – you can also feel yourself passing away, losing grip on the solid and knowable.
The solid and knowable – about yourself and your own worldly parameters – even for the most flighty constitutes an essential requirement of functional existence. When part of what is solid melts away, living and dying inevitably confront one another, a confrontation that can only end in tears.