Moving Identity & Textual Fluidity
This piece discusses based on an essay of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "White Glasses", that can be found here.
The modern word "identity" comes from the Latin term idem, literally meaning "the same". The contemporary acceptation of "identity" appeared during the XVIth century, to describe the "quality of being identical" (Oxford Dictionaries, "Identity"). Identity thus is comprised of three implicit functions. First, identity is the bounding membrane of individuals' uniqueness. Second, identity implies a form of substantial permanency, namely both a spatial and a temporal coherence, that insures individuals' continuity. Third, identity clearly circumscribes individuals' interiority as distinct from the outer reality.
However, in "White Glasses", Eve Sedgwick defines her identity "as fiercely transitive" and highlights her "thirst for [...] identifications that might cross the barriers of what seem[s] [her] identity" (p194). Instantaneously, she refutes each feature of identity stated above. By using the plural form of the word "identification", Sedgwick insinuates that identity is the antithesis of uniqueness. Furthermore, the crucial choice of the word "transitive" introduces the notion of provisional temporality, which contradicts identity's allegedly substantial permanency. Besides, by employing the verb "seem", Sedgwick brings into focus the porous essence of identity, and the potential confusion between individuals' inwardness and their external environment.
To that extent, "White Glasses" is not about Sedgwick's friend Michael Lynch. It is rather an inquiry led by the author to unveil and encircle her own identity. An inquiry sustained by the structural analogy between the moving substance of the author's identity and the fluidity of the text in itself. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how is writing a decisive medium in which Sedgwick may grasp her identity.
The starting point of Sedgwick's search for her identity is emptiness. Witness the words she employs to describe herself wearing white glasses: "banally and invisibly" (p195). On a white woman, "white is [...] no color, the color of color's own subtraction and absence" Sedgwick uses the negative form "no color" to mirror through her language her experience of absence. Furthermore, the oxymoron "white [...] is the color of color's own subtraction and absence" defines white as a negation and as a lack. This rhetorical figure reveals Sedgwick's struggle to escape the concept according to which women do not primary exist per se, but as "that-thing-that-is-not-a-man" (p203). And yet through the text, Sedgwick seems unable to give a positive definition of herself. When she writes: "Now, I know I don't "look much like" Michael Lynch", the structure of her sentence implies that her friend Michael is the reference in comparison with which Sedgwick must define herself, in order to fill the emptiness consubstantial to her identity.
The author's next move is to veil her gender, and to play with this ambiguity sentence after sentence. Indeed, at first, the reader is tempted to think of the author as a woman, as she is named Eve and as she uses the pronoun "I". But, when she writes "the I who met Michael and fell in love with" (p194), she plants seeds of doubt: as Michael is gay, is the author a man? In the next paragraph, she claims: "I must refuse to identify with a woman on this ground. As a woman, I [...]". This unexpected rhetorical twist, which consists in employing successively the same term (ie woman) to describe two opposite identifications (ie refusing to identify with a woman, versus being a woman), enables Sedgwick to reveal the multiple realities that a single word gathers - just like a gender combines various identities. This wavering reflects the author's attempt to detach herself from the binary system that opposes women, sensuality and softness on the one hand, and men, virility and strength on the other hand.
This oscillation is the space within which the author explores her identity. Indeed, Sedgwick's identity takes root in uncertainty. It is not a fixed, but rather a constantly restructured-identity, by a mechanism of self-projection through time and space. Sedgwick writes: "I for[m] my identity as [a] prospective writer" (p196). In this sentence, the author brings into focus the close link between her identity and her writing: being a writer is the potentiality upon which Sedgwick builds her identity.
Moreover, the structure of the text in itself reflects Sedgwick’s “thirst [...] for identifications” (p194). Indeed, the different stages of the author's quest for her identity are not linear, but rather diffracted through the paragraphs. When engaging with the text, the reader can identify three main paradoxes that shape Sedgwick's identity throughout the paragraphs. First, as analyzed above, it is about being a "queer but long-married young woman" (p194). Second, it is learning how to "deconstruct [her] sick role" (p195). Third, it is questioning the stability of her identity through time, witness the expression "prospective writer" (p196). Rather than exploring one by one each of these paradoxes, Sedgwick mixes them through the text. For instance, the theme of the "white glasses", which symbolizes Sedgwick's desire to "feel like Michael" (p195), is the starting point of the essay. However, in the second part of the essay, the author seems to move on to the question of "Michael's legacy" (p195). Yet suddenly, at the beginning of the third part of the text, the author unexpectedly comes back to the "White Glasses" theme. And so on during the rest of the essay. This example reveals how the fluidity of Sedgwick's identity is embedded by the structure of the text.
If Sedgwick eventually provides a palpable definition of her identity, it is only through successive shrinkages, hesitations and identifications. When she writes: "identification [...] falls across gender [and] sexualities", she is pointing out the intricacy of her identity. The verb "fall across" implies that Sedgwick builds her identity through diverse identifications that are not straight lines from the author's interiority to external group identities. On the contrary, these identifications draw a complex network of interpenetrating paths that link Sedgwick's identity to her environment.
Through this prism, the quotation of Judith Butler's analysis of the mask's function (p198) can be understood as a way to legitimize Sedgwick's desire for multiple identifications. Indeed, in the passage cited, Judith Butler explains that: "refusal [of love] is a loyalty to some other bond [and] [...] simultaneously [a] preservation", namely that to identify with one element implies the refusal of other identifications, and that this disavowal causes "melancholy". Precisely because Sedgwick refuses to fall into this melancholy, she tries to maintain and to gather various bonds. However, the result is that the author "has never felt less stability in [her] gender, age and racial identities" (p208).
The tension of "White Glasses" lies in the triangular relation between Sedgwick’s identity, its changing nature and the fluidity of the text. “White Glasses” is thus a space of circulation, in which the reader is compelled to query the intimate logic of the text to understand how Sedgwick uses her writing as a way to grasp her identity. However, the more Sedgwick explores her identity, and the more her identity proves to be fundamentally and essentially unstable. This paradox constitutes the core of Sedgwick's essay and identity, which are, finally, one and the same.
© Rosalie Calvet, October 2015
- "Identity" Def Origin, Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2015
– Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve, "White Glasses", The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol 5, N° 3, p193 - 208.