Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Constructing the self

I'm reading Judith Butler on how the self is constructed out of normative gender. It reminds me of a Channel 4 TV series for older teens that I saw when I was a younger teen - I don't remember the name of the series or any details like character names, all I remember is this one scene. Nevertheless, I appreciate this scene as an example of our intuitive understanding that gender categories are closely tied up with the stability of the self. The scene somehow makes more sense because of the portrayal of the character as outside of hegemonic norms of embodied gender presentation.

The protagonist is an enigmatic, dark, 'alternative' and tomboy from that lovely time when the hottest alternative fashion was baggy clothes, chunky criminal damage jeans and dirty blonde dreadlocks. She's had a massive row with her long-term boyfriend and is now alone in her tiny flat, distraught, on the verge of doing something really stupid. Behind a cupboard door is a huge collection of minidisk recordings of her psychotherapy sessions. She picks out disks at random and listens back over hours and hours of conversations about her subconscious, her childhood, how she relates to others... and then she finds that one is missing. She realises that her boyfriend must have been listening to them, eavesdropping on her most intimate conversations. He was just feeling shut out and wanted to take part in her emotional life.

I love this scene as an illustration of the problem of making sense of the self as both the agent and object of enquiry - her self-discovery and self-control are mediated by her therapist and her boyfriend, each with differing effects. Here the construction of the self - or maybe a reconstruction or a re-envisioning of an already constructed selfhood - is carried out by a process of documentation and the compilation of an archive. The minidisc collection sprawls out over a huge amount of wallspace. It is colossal, too immense to be taken in all at once, but through the process of archiving an attempt has been made to tame and control it. The invasion of the romantic other has interrupted the archive, upseting the whole construct.

However, is this scene's value as an example limited by the fact that I have no idea what the context is? I cannot give the TV series a name, or the character. Nobody can go and view this scene and give their own reading of it, except by re-interpreting my own description of the scene filtered by my own memory of something I saw over ten years ago. The specific self being discussed here is not a real human being or even a complete fictional character, but an incomplete fragment of a self, remembered and reconceived by my mind in pursuit of my own subjective interest in the questions of selfhood and gender.

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