Friday 9 September 2011

I is for Identity Crisis

Zygmunt Bauman once expressed that “belonging and identity are not cut in rock, that they are not secured by a lifelong guarantee, that they are eminently negotiable and revocable; and that one’s own decisions, the steps one takes, the way one acts – and the determination to stick by all that – are crucial factors of both”. Identity and identity crises often create interesting narratives in fiction and, in the consideration of socio-political speculative fiction where the individual will often confront identity issues, this can contribute to the concerns of The Future Fire. Think also toward many of the genres covered in these blogs already and you will find a number of such which compliment the exploration of identity.

A brief example of identity crisis probably familiar to many might be that of Case in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It could be argued that Case is addicted to the matrix. His enforced removal – via mutilation which left him unable to enter the matrix – has left him discontent with his physical identity. Case subsequently suffers from an identity crisis and his quest to be able to return to the matrix to rectify this, drives him in many respects. This has been described as having a ‘bimodal’ identity but he primarily identifies with his online self more than his somatic one, to which he refers derogatively as ‘meat’.

Socio-politically it might be noted that identity is questioned in Neuromancer when we contend that the characters in the story are indirectly manipulated by the artificial intelligence known as Wintermute. If dystopian futures can be perceived as satirical, then this might suggest, for example, that inferior contemporary agents such as individuals can, and are, being manipulated by a governing elite.This kind of conclusion sets individuals against themselves, asking on the one hand whether they have free will, and arguing on the other what is left of their identity in either case.

Further exploration of identity crisis, and in particular the socio-political ramifications of identity, might be examined in texts that have already appeared in The Future Fire. Take, for example, the crisis of identity faced by the protagonist of Edward W. Robertson’s ‘10%’. Tom Marley is a minor felon who, as part of his sentence, undergoes a process whereby for a period he is controlled by an unseen corporation, an activity called ‘The Corporate Works Program’; he remembers nothing of his activities during the time he is controlled. However his curiosity is repeatedly sparked by his realisation that he has acquired new skills, of particular worry is his ability to fight so effectively. Here we could note that Tom’s identity crisis derives from his awareness of being used. There is conflict in that the identity he is aware of; girlfriend, daughter, friends seems so much the opposite to the identity he would appear to undertake when he is ‘under’. Such crisis drives both Tom and the narrative.

There might be parallels drawn between how Tom is used and how Case is manipulated in Neuromancer. The socio-political machinations of both environments; the unseen corporation in ‘10%’ and the artificial intelligence Wintermute in Neuromancer ultimately control both our protagonists and their fates. It can additionally be argued then that identity crises can create valuable frameworks for authors to engage with their audience. After all, as readers we perhaps must, in some respects, ‘identify’ with our protagonists.

Identity pervades all manner of genres and literary tropes: coming of age stories (bildungsroman), travel stories, romance stories, supernatural tales and so forth. Science fiction gives us the opportunity to explore ideas in new and unique ways. Subsequently science fiction which has a speculative socio-political thematic presents the opportunity to consider how individuals fit within that society. Dystopian stories, for example, commonly place the protagonist at odds with their society and their identities become tortured by this conflict. Think of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The identity crisis he faces is arguably a significant driver of Orwell’s novel. Should he remain loyal to Big Brother or pursue his individualist existence? If we step back from this analysis we might further be able to ask what it means to be a member like Winston? What choices does he have that the proletariat do not? What does this infer for his identity? As he stands watching and listening as the singing proletarian Mother hangs washing, it might be argued that Winston’s identity is at a very fluid point. He perhaps craves that simplicity, wishes his identity was able to reflect the same innocence and nobility.

Identity crises can be a narrative method to help the reader identify with the protagonist. We all wear different identities; brother, sister, father, mother, colleague, customer, friend, cousin, neighbour, pedestrian and so on. We are further defined by some by our religious beliefs, our political persuasion, our sexuality, our race, our gender or our dis/ability. Subsequently our reflexive nature constantly asks us which defines us the most. While perhaps is not always an identity crisis, we find it easy to recognise the conflict faced by protagonists. Bauman therefore is right to suggest that identities are not cut in rock and the unravelling of identity and subsequent crises are often important factors in not only plot but also our empathy with a text’s main characters. Identity therefore is not only important – in some cases it might be one of very few factors a reader might be able to relate to in a story which relates a heavily futuristic universe – but it also permits a framework for stories to be told, for progressive narratives to be understood and for the message of socio-political texts to be not only heard but felt.

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