It’s not so easy to talk about identity. First of all, the concept itself is an abstract one. What does it mean for something to be something else, anyway? And even beyond the discomfort that can result from talking about our own or wading through the thicket of clever labels that always crowd out someone else’s, there’s the fact that the English language is fighting us the whole time, perpetuating the awful illusion that identity is stable.
The main culprit, I think, is the verb “to be,” which is identical for the eternal and ephemeral and allows me “to be” a human being and hungry without differentiation. It seems to fix all with the same stamp of perpetuity. And the stock phrases we casually employ are little better. To talk of finding, discovering, understanding, or even constructing this thing, identity, all suggest “identity” to be a lump of ore to be mined, smelted, and finally crafted into an easy-to-read signifier: straight, gay, introverted, extroverted, boring, fun, hip, square, et cetera.
When I find myself employing these terms carelessly, a quote from John Fowles’s The Collector comes to mind. In the novel, Fred Clegg, a drab bank teller, thinking himself in love with the beautiful and vivacious artist, Miranda, kidnaps her and keeps her hostage in his basement. Because this is a novel, Miranda keeps an eloquent journal of her captivity and writes of the situation, “I am one in a row of specimens. It’s when I try to flutter out of line that he hates me. I’m meant to be dead, pinned, always the same, always beautiful. He knows that part of my beauty is being alive, but it’s the dead me he wants.” And seemingly, that’s how our language’s quick phrases want identity as well—as frozen and lifeless as taxidermy.
We can’t alter the structure of the language to try to better convey what identity may be. But a little contemplation can often get us beyond what’s available during the vicissitudes of the day-to-day—and that’s where The Bad Version comes in.
On reading through the pieces for this issue, a number of shared attributes, such as concerns with family and place, kept recurring. However, at the most fundamental level, there was this preoccupation with identity’s slippery movement. The pieces ask question after question about the identity of people and places—how they come about, what they’re made of, what it all means.
The opening essay of the issue, Teddy Martin’s “Broken Records,” a meditation on the youth revival of obsolescent vinyl, investigates the formation of identity through cultural consumption. By choosing the record, might it also be that we are choosing for ourselves the Socratic life of attention and self-examination over the mindless immersion in sound that the mp3 makes so easy?