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date: 03 December 2020

Identificationlocked

  • James PurdonJames PurdonUniversity of St. Andrews, School of English

Summary

The term “identification” denotes both a social procedure (the act of recognition by which a person is acknowledged, formally or informally, to be a specific individual) and a genre of text (the marks, signs, or documents, such as signets, signatures, passports, ID cards, and birth certificates, which formally record and enable that procedure). Like many forms of literary narrative, the genres of identification are explicitly concerned with questions of the stability—or mutability—of the self. Who is this person? Do people change? If so, what, if anything, remains constant: how can we be confident that this is “the same” person? How much control do individuals have over the recording and representation of their personal characteristics? And how do those objective records relate, or fail to relate, to lived experiences of unique subjectivity? One distinction to be drawn between literary narrative and identification is the different value each has tended to give to temporality. Put simply, an identificatory technique is deemed to be the more effective the more capable it is of excluding from the process of identification those personal characteristics that might alter over time. Fingerprints and DNA, for instance, are among the most valuable identificatory tools because they remain constant from before birth until after death. Photographs, meanwhile, possess some identificatory value, but many factors can cause rapid and drastic changes in an individual’s physical appearance: this is one reason passports and similar documents include expiration dates and must be renewed. Narratives, on the other hand, are by definition temporal structures. They tell us that certain things happened or failed to happen. They frequently register and explore change and transition, and even narratives concerned with stasis and changelessness are obliged to acknowledge and account for the passage of time.

In this sense, identification and narrative would seem to be at odds with one another. Identification exists to formalize the attribution of identity by rendering narrative irrelevant: the border guard who demands a valid passport will not accept an autobiography in its place. Yet several features of identification complicate this apparent antagonism. Firstly, identification documents function not only to record identities, but actively to constitute both individual identities and the broader concept of identity in a given society. They become not just records which diminish the significance of narrative, but constituent parts of the way individuals understand their place in society and by extension their own experience. Identification becomes part of the stories that individuals tell themselves, and tell about themselves. Secondly, because officially ratified forms of identification have a unique probative force, they themselves have become powerful tools in the production of stories and selves. The criminal who wishes to manufacture or steal a new identity must become adept in the deployment of official documents as a way of authenticating a fictitious claim to recognition. Finally—as countless scenes of identification trouble in fictional works suggest—the moment at which citizens are obliged to identify themselves by recourse to the data contained in identity documents frequently generates a reaction in the form of a heightened sense of individuality. The modern citizen is never more conscious of the complexity of their own story than at the moment when they hand over the misleading simplification, printed on passport or ID card, which constitutes their “identity.” Over the 20th century in particular, as modern systems of identity management became ever more technologically complex and bureaucratically stringent, literary works found new ways to describe and explain the effects of such systems on individuals and on the societies they inhabit.

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