What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.
Identities – a subject’s self-relations, self-understanding, and self-interpretations – have gradually developed over the last few decades in academic and artistic discourses into a fragmented, highly complex, and disputed terrain. Already in the 1980s and 1990s there were critical or deconstructive theoretical approaches dedicated to dismantling and untethering collective identities – be they national, ethnic, gender, or class identities – and these enforced a radical break with stable or even essentialist models of identity. In particular, the political, feminist, and post-colonial theories of this time – partly starting with Jacques Lacan and his psychoanalytic conception of the human self, partly from Jacques Derrida’s concept of différance – define identities as psychosocial and symbolic-discursive constructions, which are produced, at least in part, through linguistic and visual representations, through “articulatory practice” or performative repetitions. Identity constructions and social interpellations, representations and practices are likewise shifted in their inseparability into a dynamic process of becoming, the contingent and relational character of which would seem to be more appropriately described by the term identification than by the term identity. Above all, however, this increases the focus on technologies, strategies, and conditions that normatively stabilize identities and that have to be undermined or suspended in order to break down compulsory identities and encrusted power relations.
Above all, since the end of the eighties these theoretical discourses on identity have been flanked and extended by contemporary art, which has been intensively engaged with the social construction of identities, with their discontinuities and transversal hybridities (Renée Green, Bouchra Khalili), as well as their central constitutive factors such as language (Rainer Ganahl, Susan Hiller), narrative (Olu Oguibe), and visual representation (Fiona Tan, Lorna Simpson). The artistic aim has consistently been to analyse and deconstruct visually manifest racist and gender stereotypes, as well as the visual fixity of identities that feed on prejudices and generalizations, which has also been addressed in various ways since the end of the 1960s by post-colonial theorists such as Stuart Hall and more recently by Homi Bhabha or feminist theorists such as Rosi Braidotti. So, for instance, Rosi Braidotti’s call to work through the stock of cumulated images, concepts, and representations of women and of female identity in an effort to liberate and redefine female subjectivity beyond its fixed, and visually based, qualities finds a counterpart in Henrik Olesen’s installation and artist’s book Some Faggy Gestures (2010) and his reinterpretation of representations of masculinity that were previously identified as heterosexual. By combing through, rearranging, and recontextualizing artworks from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Olesen dispossesses visual material that is considered to be the foundation of a Western, heteronormative self-conception, incorporating narratives of transgenderism and sadomasochism with ironic undertones and at the same time calling into question the binding force of every representation of gender identities.
The fragile, contingent, relational, and fluid concepts of identity in academic and artistic approaches in recent decades, however, do not originate from a purely theoretical and aesthetically grounded practice of resistance without presuppositions. Rather, they are deeply anchored in a reality that, over the course of neoliberal globalization, of anti-colonial struggles since the 1960s, and of advanced Western capitalism, was and is subject to severe social and cultural upheavals. Individuation, flexibility, virtualization, global interdependence, emigration, migration, and ethnic hybrids are among the central phenomena that characterize our present society and that dismantle old role models and fixed belongings. The in-between spaces, cleavages, and inconsistencies that result from this offer an important, delocalized, open basis for the attempts mentioned above to get beyond naturalized restrictions on identity. On the other hand they also require increased personal initiatives from individualsand complex, thoroughly ambivalent, and contradictory processes of identification, which can have an overextending, unsettling, and threatening effect. In the social sciences as well, a debate has been going on for more than two decades about identity “from the perspective of a diagnosis of crisis,” in which the risk of failure and the possible psychological ‘side effects’ of current identity work are being addressed.