In its common concept, autobiographical anamnesis presupposes ‘identification.’ And precisely not identity. No, an identity is never given, received, or attained; only the interminable and indefinitely phantasmatic process of identification endures.
Jacques Derrida, The Monolingualism of the Other
I could, I suppose, identify myself as a cancer survivor, yet it is far too early in the game to make such a definitive claim. For me to really think of myself as a survivor, I must wait a minimum of five years but, perhaps, ten years would be better. Additionally, I could identify myself as a professor (retired of course), teacher, husband, father, American, Jewishish, scholar, author, thinker, critic, world traveler, artist, or any number of other things that make up my overall self. None of these would, alone, ring true and all together they cannot provide an adequate description of my identity, of who I am as a human being.
I could hyphenate, say that I am a Jewish-American, but that fails to encompass the idea that I am, at the same time, a Jewish-Atheist. Are the two compatible? To be Jewish and an atheist implies cultural values and religious values that perhaps are contradictory; yet, upon a closer examination, belief is not an integral part of Jewishness, rather actions, doing before understanding, are the foundation of what it means to be Jewish. Can I claim to be Jewish if I do not keep any commandments, not a single one? Can I claim to be Jewish without belief in revelation and the God who revealed its commandments at Sinai? Yet, I am clearly culturally Jewish, meaning that I identify with and cast my lot with the Jewish people. I am also fond of Jewish cuisine, especially the cuisine of the Jews of Eastern Europe. I live for Passover in order to eat matzo until the five-pounds are gone. I no longer check the race box on forms as “white” because I discovered immigration documents listing my grandparents race as Hebrew when they entered this country. I consider myself acculturated and not assimilated much in the same way that W. E. B. DuBois argued for the notion of acculturation as opposed to assimilation. I choose the personal identification as Jewish even as that identification continues to evolve as I dive more deeply into Jewish thought as I learn to think in Jewish.
I could spend time making certain that my academic credentials are well known, an act I might think about as arrogant outside the walls of the academy. While I earned a doctorate in language and literacy, I only use the title to which I am entitled when I think it might just serve as an advantage in a conversation. I could also spend time flaunting my photographs to enhance my own identity as an artist or make a big deal about the publications I authored to enhance the identity of scholar. In short, I could fragment myself, be a chameleon, showing only the identity that is expected of me in any given social situation or I could simply work to remain whole, presenting myself without the strings of an identity imposed from the outside world.
Identity is wrapped in a package of taken-for-granteds, of external definitions that we simply accept without unpacking their meaning. Identification, on the other hand, is the process of the self unpacking what one would otherwise take-for-granted. Let me explain. I am writing this piece in English, the language I speak, but is that language my own? My parents and grandparents spoke English but they also spoke Yiddish, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. My grandfathers, more so than my grandmothers, also understood biblical Hebrew. I too, can read and understand much of prayer book Hebrew but I wouldn’t dare to assume that I am fluent in any other language than English. English is the lens through which I see the world. It provides me with a way of thinking that excludes other linguistic contexts, yet I am also connected to Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic, languages I have exposure to but no claim to. English is a package of taken-for-granteds for me, even given the fact that I spent much of my adult life exploring and unpacking the foundations and structures that make English what it is. My identity is imposed on me through the ubiquity of the English language yet my self identification is a product of my unpacking those taken-for-granteds that wound me, that tear at the fabric of identity leaving gaping holes that need to be filled.
Identity is imposed from the outside, sometimes by career choice, by religion, skin color, shape of eyes, height, weight, and so on. Identification, on the other hand, cannot be imposed but is, rather, the difficult and endless commitment to unpacking the taken-for-granteds that are imposed from external sources in order to craft a self that accepts being-in-the-world without embracing the negative values of imposition. Identity is the reduction of the self into the same while identification is developed through ethical relationships with the other in which one embraces the absolute uniqueness of the other without reservation. The aporia lies in the truth that we both accept the taken-for-granteds imposed upon us by our role or by others while, at the same time, we work to unpack that acceptance.