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Identity: Defining the Indefinable

Photo by Jason Schneider

The concept of Identity has moved to center stage of today’s social, political, and philosophical discourse. It is the explicit or implicit subject of countless articles, books, papers, blogs, and social media posts on such broad subject categories as history, nationality, gender, ethnicity, economics, and sociology. And it lurks tantalizingly along the edges of cosmology, mathematics, and quantum physics. Like many words in any language, “identity” provides us humans with the reassuring illusion of specificity, but it is really an abstract concept whose essential nature remains elusive and ever-changing, like Proteus, the ancient Greek god. Pinning it down is complicated by the fact that identity is inherently dynamic, fluid, and above all, contextual.

The first recorded use of “identity” as an English word occurred around 1560-1570. It came into English via the Middle French identité, ydemtité, ydemptité, “the quality of being the same, sameness,” from Late Latin identitās (inflectional stem identitāt- ) “the quality of being the same, the condition or fact that an entity is itself and not another thing.”  Identitās, from the Latin adverb identidem “again and again, repeatedly,” is a contraction of idem et idem (“the same and the same”), and the “ity” suffix in “identity” is equivalent to the English noun suffix “-ness,” so its root meaning is “equalness,” “sameness,” or “equivalency.”

The most common current definition of identity in the generic sense is, “One’s personal characteristics, or the sense of who one is, as perceived by an individual or by others.” This meaning dates from the early 18th century. Since that time, issues of personal identity, especially sexual and gender identity, have provoked discussions about one’s overlapping roles in society. The phrase identity politics, “political activity based on or catering to the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or social interests that characterize a group identity,” was coined in 1973. And one’s financial or transactional identity (the banking, credit card, telephone numbers, usernames, passwords, confirmation codes, images, etc., used to verify safe payments in online purchases) is enshrined in the name of the pervasive modern crime known as identity theft.

Unlike concrete nouns such as table or strawberry, the noun identity doesn’t denote or describe anything specific — because identity is an idea, not an object. The first concise definition of identity appearing in Oxford Languages is, “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” That may not qualify as an actual tautology, but it comes mighty close. It suggests that the word points to a constellation of possible meanings, all inherently referential, that can be expanded or narrowed with modifiers. For example, I identify (that is, hold to be the same, equal, or true) as a non-observant Jew. This identity suggests that I have an emotional connection to my Jewish heritage and ancestry but do not attend services, keep Kosher, observe the Sabbath, etc.

However, the totality of my Jewish identity is a lot more complex, encompassing, among other things, my spiritual beliefs, and religious practices, e.g., my belief in a transcendent eternal spirit (though hardly the engaged, personal, and sometimes vengeful male God of my forefathers), celebrating Hannukah and Passover at home, or even surmounting my Christmas tree with a Star of David! So, checking the box for non-observant Jew is a lot different from, say, sitting down with a rabbi and having a three-hour conversation about my Jewish identity. The same distinctions would, of course, apply to one’s gender, racial, or cultural identity, all highly complex, varied, nuanced, and dynamic concepts. The fact that a word like identity is amorphous or suggestive rather than dispositive doesn’t render it useless, but it’s essential to be cognizant of the word’s limitations, one’s own biases, the knowledge base and proclivities of the reader or listener who receives it, and to use it with great care.

Photo by Jason Schneider

The problem with a word like infinity is that it attempts to define an abstract concept that cannot adequately be expressed in words by referencing its opposite, namely “finity ” or finiteness, defined as that which can be counted, enumerated, or measured. This gives the concept of infinity a name or marker, so we can talk about it, but as a concept it’s verbal sleight of hand, a kind of linguistic magic trick. Identity has a different problem. Since it is rooted in the concept of sameness or equality, it implicitly refers to aggregations or groups of things that are assumed to be equal or true in some sense, either by common consensus or historical precedent. In other words, when I use the word “identity” I assume you know what I’m talking about, that we’re on the same wavelength, and are operating in the same context.  For example, today it’s widely accepted that one of the most egregious depredations of chattel slavery in America was that slaves were stripped of their cultural identity, their native language, traditions, rituals, foods, social status etc. as well as their autonomy and human dignity. However, if I hope to convey the very concept of cultural identity to others, I must assume they have a substantial knowledge base already in place even to grasp the concept—in short, more than half the meaning of the term is in their heads!

It all comes down to language itself, a simplified verbal or written representation of the complex reality we all experience as human beings, and to the immutable law of representation, namely that reducing any complex entity to a symbolic representation (e.g. to facilitate communication, calculation, etc.) inevitably entails a loss of content. Some great examples of this unwritten law are found in spoken and written language, mathematics, physics, and musical notation. Whether language is the greatest human invention of all time, or merely the inevitable consequence of the abilities imbedded in our cerebral cortex plus the physical structure of human lips, tongue, larynx, etc. that gives our species a unique ability to produce and modulate sound, is irrelevant. Language is inevitably a radical simplification of our perceived reality, but it has the great advantage of being able to focus the attention of the listener or reader on that which the speaker or writer wishes to communicate. Among other things, this provides us humans with an extraordinary ability to engage in coordinated action, thought, and dialogue at a much higher level than other species on Earth. Clearly, this has had and will have a crucial role in our survival on this planet. 

The concept of identity is also enshrined in correlative words, all based on concept of “ident,” the same or equal in Latin. Identify is a verb whose literal meaning is “make equal,” and it refers to being able to find, name, prove or recognize who or what something or someone truly is—its essential character—by referring to known criteria or accepted confirmation data. The noun form, Identification, refers to the process of identifying someone or something. A classic example: “Americans pride themselves on not having to present a government issued identification card (carte d’identité),  proof they are regarded as sovereign individuals, not creatures of the state.” And who can forget the first verse of Emily Dickinson’s transcendent Poem No. 936 positing the relativity of human consciousness itself:

This Dust, and its Feature—
Will in a second Future—
Cease to identify—

Rough translation: This stuff or matter before us, and its observable characteristics, now certified as valid by generally accepted criteria, will, in a future time not accessible or possible to extrapolate from this vantage point, no longer be identifiable. This is like an existential/epistemological thermonuclear explosion, which is why I call it the E = mcof semiotics. 

Identical (equal or the same) is an adjective defined as “exactly alike; similar in every detail” and obviously entails a close comparison of like objects or living organisms. Identical twins, two babies developed from a single fertilized vum that splits apart, are always the same sex and usually strikingly similar in appearance. However, parents of identical twins generally have no problem telling them apart, their appearances often show a greater divergence as they grow older, and they generally have different personalities or ways of being in the world. In other words, identical twins are not truly identical; each one has a distinct identity.

Photo by Jason Schneider

Personal Identity

Identity also refers to our self-perception, our sense of who we are as individuals or members of social groups or society at large. It also encompasses our sense of how others may perceive and label us. An individual’s sense of identity is based on social interactions, especially with people who are close to us like family, friends (in the flesh and online), and classmates, and is also formed and moderated by interactions with broadcast media, movies, books, advertisements, and the Internet, especially social media. Social identity refers to your sense of who you are based on membership in certain groups, including, but not limited to economic class, gender, nationality, language, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

Professional identity, a subset of personal identity, refers to a specific type of social identification, a sense of oneness with a profession (e.g. law, medicine, plumbing, construction, teaching, etc.), and the degree to which individuals define themselves as members of that profession. Professional identity includes the individual’s alignment of roles, responsibilities values, and ethical standards to be consistent with accepted practices in their profession.

Photo by Jason Schneider

Identity Crisis: A (Relatively) New Name for an Ancient Malaise

An identity crisis is defined as a period of uncertainty, confusion and unease in a person’s life that occurs when one’s personal identity becomes insecure or unstable. An identity crisis can occur at any time in a person’s life, but it often happens at a time of major transition such as the loss of a job, divorce, or breakup, becoming a new parent, the death of a partner, forced migration, the onset of a serious or terminal disease, etc. Most human beings, even those who are successful and have a strong sense of identity, will question or wrestle with their identity at some point in their lives, and practically everybody’s identity evolves over time. What can you do if you’re facing an identity crisis? Here’s a link to Madeline Miles’ excellent April 27, 2022 online post, “Are you going through an identity crisis? 5 ways to cope.”

Photo by Jason Schneider

Identity Politics

Can identity be a malign concept? You bet!

Identity politics, defined as political activity aimed at promoting the welfare and values of a particular social group to which you see yourself belonging to (identifying with), is as old as the hills and as American as apple pie. And it’s a strategy and tactic that has been employed over the entire political spectrum, left, right, and center. However, the current internecine rivalry between Republicans and Democrats on the national stage is disempowering to the electorate at large and is a threat to democracy because it defines one’s opponents not simply as being wrong on policy or facts but as having evil intentions and, therefore, worthy of total annihilation. This is not what identity politics was supposed to be about, and it’s a perilous trend, whatever your political persuasion. Diplomacy has been sardonically defined as “war by other means,” but if politics also degenerates into war and violence all the citizens of this fair Republic are ill-served. Let’s hope that the voices of reason and compromise prevail—and that loyalty to one’s “identity” does not supersede loyalty to the transcendent founding principles of our beautiful and beloved country. 

Photo by Jason Schneider

Identity in Portraiture

When masterfully executed, portraiture can rise to the level of fine art. Great painters and sculptors have been creating timeless and compelling portraits and self-portraits for thousands of years, and skilled photographers have done the same ever since the inception of photography roughly 175 years ago. The reason the likeness of a human face can have such power is simple but profound—every human being bears the indelible stamp of their state of being and consciousness in their physiognomy. And if the artist can capture even a small percentage of the subject’s identity in a portrait, it will convey some part of that individual’s personhood through time, even after both the subject and artist are deceased. To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about I’ve included a selection of impromptu on-location photographic portraits I’ve shot on film over the last decade, all with the aim of conveying some part of the subjects’ identity. I’ll let you judge whether or not I’ve succeeded in my mission, but you may rest assured all were executed based on the same underlying philosophy—“The subject is everything; I’m only the photographer.”

Photo by Jason Schneider

Online Identity: Is There an All-Powerful Avatar in Your Future?

In the broadest sense, your online identity is nothing more than the totality of your online names, postings, and interactions, so it’s inherently multidimensional, contextual, dynamic, and constantly evolving—a scintillating synthesis akin to “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” In essence, the online identity or “self” you present on TikTok may be quite different from the one you use on Facebook, Instagram, or Linked In, the ones you put out on online dating sites to attract potential partners or present as your online banking profile to facilitate loans, purchases, and other financial transactions. 

The myriad synthetic selves you create as Internet personae all began back in the ‘80s and ‘90s with a simple name, nickname, portrait and/or fixed representational icon. but they’ve morphed into a collection of complex entities that may have an underlying consistency, may be totally disparate, or something in between. In short, your online identity parallels real life, where people inevitably prioritize or emphasize certain aspects of themselves and de-emphasize others when interacting with others, depending on the situation, the target, and what they’re trying to achieve. Of course, whether it’s face-to-face or online, this may go well beyond simply polishing your image and devolve into deliberate deception, lying, and outright fraud. The Internet is replete with malevolent actors whose main aim is to gain control of your information, create a plausible simulated online identity in your name, and use it to drain your bank account, max out your credit card, steal your money, or blackmail and harass you in other ways. As previously mentioned, this is generally known as identity theft and it’s a crime that’s a lot easier to prevent than to prosecute. The best ways to make sure it never happens to you: never give out any personal information unless you are 100% sure that the person or entity requesting it is legitimate, use a VPN (virtual private network) or other data encryption system, and delete and block suspicious messages and their senders.

In the early days of the internet, we represented our identities with usernames, but in 1996, inspired by interactions taking place on video games, AOL launched instant messenger and introduced “Buddies,” figures to represent us in chat rooms, and in 2004 Yahoo! brought forth its version, presciently named Yahoo! Avatarswhen messenger version 6.0 was launched. The pendulum swung the other way when Myspace and Facebook appeared, and users reverted to using profile pictures instead of avatars for a more personal touch. The first use of the word avatar in a computer game was in 1979 in the role-playing game Avatar for PLATO, and in 1985 the game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar users were asked to think of the player as themselves as they pursued their quest, marking the first time avatar was used to mean an on-screen representation of the user. Richard Garriot de Cayeux, the game’s creator and a founding father of the videogame industry, concluded that the stakes would be higher if the user literally saw themselves in the game, and since then, video gaming avatars have become a lot more sophisticated and are moving from 2D to 3D. Second Life created by Philip Rosendale, The Sims, and World of Warcraft all ask us to design avatars, and this trend is rapidly spreading to social media sites.

Photo by Jason Schneider

The Past, Present & Future of Avatars

The word Avatar comes from the Sanskrit word avatāra, meaning a manifestation of a deity in bodily form on earth, such as a guide or teacher. A classic example from the epic tome, the Mahabarata is Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, the great Hindu god of preservation and human salvation, who appears as the charioteer to the warrior prince Arjuna and urges him to fulfill his destiny and do his duty by slaying his corrupt uncles who are despoiling the land. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “Do right action and don’t be attached to the outcome,” timeless good advice that’s easier said than done. In a generic secular context, the word avatar refers to an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea. However, since we typically encounter avatars in the digital space, we now generally define them as  little “people” you choose to represent yourself in video games, on social media, or in web forums. At this very moment, avatars are becoming more sophisticated, capable, and all-inclusive and are poised to take us to exciting new places heretofore unimaginable. For example, imagine creating an avatar unlimited by bodily constraints, one that lets you travel through time and space, visit countless cultures, traverse vast distances instantly, be in multiple places at once, manifest as many selves, do things that your spatial-temporal selves could never accomplish, and even solve crises and help humanity survive and prosper. It all sounds like science fiction, but we’ve already been using alternate versions of ourselves to cross vast borders and exponentially expand our knowledge base on the Internet. The upside potential of avatars is enormous as we increasingly integrate avatar technology into new and unimagined aspects of our lives.

We will explore the concepts of online identity and avatars in much greater detail in future posts so, as we used to say back in analog radio days, stay tuned!