Constructing identities

I spent some time at the Denver Art Museum last week, and one of the current exhibits is a landscape exhibit which, according to the DAM, will show how various artists have blurred “the distinction between ‘observed’ and ‘constructed’ imagery.”

Observed vs. constructed is an interesting binary. Has the artist who took this simple (yet stunning) photograph below merely created something we can observe? Or is there an element of construction there?

One could certainly observe and move on. But I think the fact that the photo is in muted tones and that an image was chose that features an asymmetrical breaking wave is an element of construction. It makes me feel like I’m looking at a wild, stormy ocean. It’s beautiful, but fearsome. It should be admired, but also respected.

I would even argue that the color of the wall that the DAM chose to hung it on adds to/emphasizes that construction. Would the photo have felt different if it was hung on the beige wall instead of the gray one? What if it was hung on a red wall? Does that change the context?

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It fits well with an article I read that heavily references Ian Hacking’s work that looks at the discovery vs. created binary.

Essentially (and I’m oversimplifying this), Hacking says that when we assign categories to people based on things we discover, we’re not just putting a label on something – we’re also creating it. That is to say, creating an identity.

The article references various types of mental health disorders, things that are meticulously categorized. Have we merely discovered and classified them over the course of the 20th century? Or has there also been an element of creation in there?

As the article says, “When we ‘discover’ depression, it becomes possible to be a depressed person and act depressed. Arguably, before this ‘discovery’, that was not possible.”

Now, that’s not to say people didn’t have symptoms of what we would now call depression. Melancholy was once thought to be caused by an excess of bile, so clearly feelings of chronic sadness or a feeling of being down were happening in the days before we knew what depression was. But the point is, creating a category or a label doesn’t just describe something – it also creates something.

I don’t have melancholia due to excess bile. I have depression due to a life situation, or due to a chemical imbalance in my brain.

Let’s twist this a bit.

A long time ago, but also not so long ago, most women’s issues were categorized as “hysteria.” Even with better understanding of how women’s bodies work, the word “hysterical” is still often used to describe women’s reactions and emotions – the connotation is meant to minimize them or imply that they’re ridiculous or overwrought. It’s a dismissive word. It’s often wielded as a rhetorical weapon.

Categories, and what they create, matter.

That led me to thinking about how people describe themselves, and how they describe others. When asked to introduce ourselves, or write a bio, we talk about the categories we fit in. We describe ourselves and discover others, at least initially, though the descriptions and categories which we use to understand ourselves.

I’m a 38 year old PhD candidate from Denver, CO specializing in qualitative research. I also work as a full-time analyst/researcher and write fiction. I’m bi, married, childfree, and have several dogs. I have a chronic illness and I’m also a survivor of both child and domestic abuse.

That gives you an idea of who I am. I’ve identified a number of categories I fit into: Grad student, analyst, fiction writer, bisexual, married, childfree, spoonie, abuse survivor.

It’s the categories that help you get an idea of who the writer of this blog is. And every single one of those is a part of my identity. All of them are things I discovered I was, or wanted to be – and then I Was.

It would be harder for you to figure out who I was I minimized categorization and wrote something like…I hang tapestries on my walls, I compulsively smell things, I like adult coloring books, I hate onions, I have blue hair, I burn scented candles, I don’t know what to do with modern art, I find Henry James unreadable. It’s not that this is bad information, but it’s likely harder to build a profile in your mind with just that. It’s harder to put me into easily understandable categories.

(From here you can delve into the philosophy of language, and how language creates meaning and reality, whatever reality is.)

The writer of the article I linked to above concluded that knowledge is a moving target. I think that’s important to remember. Categories evolve (i.e., hysteria isn’t a diagnose condition, but it is a behavioral attribute.) And just because something can’t be described doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Which is to say, we’re malleable and capable of evolution. Which, I think, is comforting.

What’s a bit more uncomfortable is the idea that creating a category or a description can pave the way toward creating an identity. An observation can become a construction. (The passive becomes the active.)

There’s a power in that, and that power can be easily abused. In this age of fake news and bad data, it’s frightening to think what sorts of things are being defined and described that then take on identities, or are used to assign identities, that are damaging. (Immigrants as criminals who are stealing jobs. LGBTQIA+ people as sinners responsible for moral decline. Women as vindictive harpies who falsely accuse men as revenge, or exaggerate experiences of sexism/harassment. Millennial as entitled crybabies who want everything handed to them and are “killing” various stores/markets/industries. Etc.)

There’s real, palpable power in these ideas, because information is now so easy to disseminate. And too often, we repeat information without question.

How does the observed become the constructed? How the discovered becomes the created? How does the creative become the identified? What it even means to observe or discover? Who gets to decide? Who gets to assign or claim an identity? Who gets to define identities? These are (some of) the questions that underlie the anxiety and hostility of our times, and they’re shatteringly important ones.

(Or maybe I’m just being a hysterical female.)

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