Power and Identity

At several points in my writings, I have referenced the importance of personal identity, both within Paganism and sexuality. I have been long fascinated with identity and self construction, and the vast majority of my artwork and creative process has addressed these themes explicitly or implicitly. As such, I try to be deeply aware not only of the way that I consciously construct myself, but how other people make choices regarding their own identities and the presentations thereof.

I think that we frequently make a mistake when talking about personal identity in presuming that it is entirely personal. The other day at Pittsburgh Pride, I saw a performance poet speaking about how her presentation and appearance says nothing about who she is as a person, and how those around her have neither the right nor the capacity to judge her based on those things. I think this is a fundamental misstep, regardless of the sort of identity you are discussing. While it is true that one is only capable of exercising so much control over their flesh (one’s face will always be one’s face, if you are short or tall, there is not much you can do to change that), but there is a great deal under our control which we do, in fact, consciously manipulate. Hairstyle, manner of dress and deportment are all things which allow us a great deal of reign in presenting ourselves and attempting to manipulate and guide the judgements of those around us. There are cultural signifiers which are constantly attached to us by society, which, being aware or, we can manipulate and alter. Of course, we cannot absolutely control the effect our manipulations will have, but we are fully capable of addressing our identity in such a way that our presentation reflects it. I am not saying that we must always express our identities at all times, merely that we have a great deal more control over the judgements of others than a lot of people want to allow.

Of course, one should not be judged as being a lesbian/gay/pagan/republican/democrat based on the style of one’s hair or dress, but the issue at play, I feel is not so much that people are being properly or improperly tagged, but that their is a cultural value assigned to that tagging. If one is gay, being properly identified as such carries different values depending on the context. Ideally, no one would care. Sadly, we live in a world full of judgmental bigoted ass holes, and there is only so much one can do to change their minds. This is not an issue of identity and judgement, but one of Power, in the Foucauldian sense.

Being able to control our presentation, we have a certain amount of control over the way Power is exercised upon us and by us. I recognize that I am making a dangerous argument, and I am not telling people that they must pass when interacting with society at large. Indeed, passing has a long history of oppression and violence both from within marginalized communities and societies in which they are forced to pass. My claim is merely that, being aware of the cultural signifiers which are attached to us, we must be able to manipulate and address them to allow us access to that very same Cultural Power network.

I firmly believe, for example, that one can attack and critique the fundaments of society merely through their presentation. Punk Rock is based almost entirely on this idea. The style of dress which Punk Rock adopted served as a very direct and basic critique of society at the time. Distressed, do-it-yourself, and full of momento mori, Punk style served to express the frustration and anger with the political and social pressures of the late seventies and eighties. Punk, in fact, by disregarding traditional ideals of beauty empowered itself through the cultural network of Power by denouncing the ideals upon which it was built. Punk inverted and collapsed Cultural Power and transformed it into an incredibly powerful and threatening tool which was reliant at every step of the way upon the cultural network in which it was embedded. The subsequent appropriation, sanitization, and commodification which the culture at large then inflicted upon Punk only serves to highlight the threat which it perceived (i.e. Avril Lavigne, and the slew of Pop Punk acts that have sprung up in the wake of Punk Rock).

The moral of all of this, I suppose, is that being aware of our identity, and of the identity which we wish to portray, we have a great deal of control over the judgements and societal forces which surround us.

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