‘Identity’ and our past – the breakfast debate.

Burgundy Breakfast 

One of my high points in July was meeting up with the eloquent French champion of ePortfolio movement – Serge Ravet on his home turf in Burgundy. Serge is always good conversation (in French or English) and he has a way of using his Gallic charm and intellectual energy to deliver thought- provoking and sometimes quite outrageous statements.  True to form he really hit a nerve this time half way through my first cup of coffee as he came out with some quite outrageous statements on the construction of identity.

 Disagree and agree

He was making two related points, firstly that in defining individual’s identity we place far too much weight on considering a person’s past and indeed this is not ‘natural’ but a socially imposed view of identity. Secondly he was calling for greater emphasis on creation of one’s own identity .

The second is quite empowering and I concur with this, but having studied and witnessed the power of psychodynamic counselling to help people understand who they are and how they got there,  I am quite sure that the creation of an identity is dependent on understanding of one’s past .  Indeed, failing to take account of the past can be quite disasterous.

Identity is ‘relational’ to past, places and people.

Our English Word identity comes through the French identité which in turn comes from the Latin identum – meaning ‘sameness’ –indicating that  identity is relational, that is we define our identity by our degree of sameness or difference to others and this process of definition is dynamic and ongoing.   The work of Yi-Fu Tuan on Topophilia has also shown the power of long association with place as being a significant element in identity.

Sorry Serge, I enjoyed the second cup of coffee and the marmalade,  but I just don’t buy your argument. In establishing our sense of identity we ignore our individual and collective pasts at our peril and we risk creating a half-baked distorted view of ourselves.   Pour une fois je t’ecris dans ma langue maternelle – l’appretissage du quelle pendant les années 50 fait une partie de mon identite! 

 Identity goes global

Of course the complex modern world gives us multiple public identities and the digital manifestations of these identities will offer some reflection of their true identities and indeed the challenge  for us all is to take control of these public manifestations of how we are seen online.

Maybe our next breakfast will take us on to this challenge? – I suggest a ‘Full English’ at the Tor Cafe in Cromford, Derbyshire!


10 Responses to “‘Identity’ and our past – the breakfast debate.”

  1. nivekd Says:

    Sacrebleu! Un échange complètement cérébral! Merci bien! Thanks, Alastair and, Serge, perhaps I can detour via Burgundy some time if it means this standard of debate!
    Amitiés à vous deux

  2. dontgetlost Says:

    Merci a toi Kevin. Mais la question est – as-tu une identite qui viens de ton passé (l’experience Scouse etc ) our bien as-tu la crée toi-meme dans le present?

  3. Serge Ravet (@szerge) Says:

    My feeling is that we are overloaded with a number of misconceptions regarding identity and its relation to self and others, past and present. For example, looking into the past as a means to find explanations for the present and possibly predict a future does not lead to very different outcomes than reading tarot cards or interpreting the feces of an eviscerated chicken. It depends on one’s beliefs system…

    The importance of our past in the formation of our identity is not natural but culture-led: a class society is looking for the reproduction of its components and will create the myths necessary to its reproduction. As John Steinbeck notes: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The American Dream…

    If we look at identity from the point of view of classes, it cannot be limited to a static definition (belonging to a social group) but must include a dynamic dimension (a group who wants to transform itself and/or society). The disappearance of the ‘working class’ is not so much the disappearance of a sociologically defined group but of a group that was aiming at the transformation of society into a classless society (and failed to do so). What defined the working class’ identity was its future, its culture created through battles fought and lost, not just a contractual status. The past and present were meaningful in relation to an anticipated future.

    Sarkozy, our previous French president, tried to impose a debate on the meaning of “French identity” that rapidly became the pandora box for xenophobic statements (including from our French State Minister (ministre de l’intérieur)). There was a clear cut between the tenants of a definition linked to the origins (christianity, kings, revolution, wars, etc.) and those believing that French identity was invented and should continue to reinvent itself. The meaning of the past was strongly correlated to the vision of the future —and I don’t recall anybody claiming that there could be multiple French Identities…

    If we accept that the future is a space where new meaning can be created, where the past is re-interpreted, then it provides another degree of freedom to our lives: we are free in our futures AND our pasts! It is a much more optimistic approach than believing that we are the products of our past. Our pasts could be the byproducts of our futures!

  4. Steve Says:

    In Britain, and I suspect in France as well, this discussion is particularly relevant because of the demise of both personal and national identities. This can appear paradoxical when, as Serge points out, we also live in a world of such freedom in terms of creating our own identities. We are no longer, in a historical context, defined by race, class, gender nation etc. We have multiple identities in the increasing fragmented worlds we inhabit, online alone I probably have three or four ‘identities’. Yet this ultimately leaves people unsatisfied and cast adrift, lost in the noise of 21st century living and unsure of who they are, what they were or where they are heading. We have clearly lost connection with the past in terms of our identities, so in a way Alastair/Serge the battle is already lost/won. Both The Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Festival of Britain of 1951 were celebrations of British industry, culture and to some extent identity. Compare that with the Millennium Dome of 2001, built as a celebration of ‘Britishness’ at the turn of the century that became a divisive ‘white elephant’ that now parades as a conference/concert venue. A dismissal of the importance of the past, of the shared national journey leads us to only one place, a bleak wasteland of O2 arenas, Walmarts and Starbucks.

  5. Serge Ravet (@szerge) Says:

    I do not see the “bleak wasteland of O2 arenas, Walmarts and Starbucks” as the result of a dismissal of the importance of the past but of the inability to invent our futures. It is the corporate version of the punk slogan “no future.” The Great Exhibition of 1851 was about possible futures. Industry was transforming society at a rhythm never experienced before. Entrepreneurs were leading the party. They still are, to a certain extent, despite living in a world dominated by finance and corrupt bankers (as John Stewart said: “Never trust anything that rhymes with wankers”). There is no such thing as ‘the past’, as some kind of immuable object. Our pasts, depend on our futures. Our past is subject to constant reinterpretation. If we have no futures, then we tend to hold to one past (singular) as a means to reassure ourselves. The “dismissal of the importance of the past” is more the consequence of the inability to invent our futures than the result of some kind of escape into the present. Pasts and futures walk hand in hand, so one needs to walk… towards possible futures… to create meaningful interpretation of the past.

  6. Terry Loane Says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. I particularly like your idea, Serge, that ‘our past is subject to constant reinterpretation’. We constantly re-invent the past so in a very real sense, as you also say, Serge, the past (or our perception of it) depends on the future rather than the other way around. I live in a constitutional (and nominally protestant) monarchy, yet I was brought up as a catholic and my ancestors were Irish republicans; so I am all too aware of how the past can be viewed in terms of simplistic and inaccurate mythologies. As you put it, Serge, ‘society… will create the myths necessary for its reproduction’. And the coincidence this year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the London Olympics has provided ample opportunities for myths about national identity to be developed and reinforced here in the UK.

    But for me another important issue comes out of this discussion; the relationship between group identity/past (e.g. class, nationality, religion) and individual identity/past. I guess that you are perhaps thinking more about individual identity, Alastair, when you talk of how psychodynamic counselling aims to help one understand one’s past. And even at this individualistic level I think there is disagreement in terms of how importance the past might be. On the one had we have the European psychodynamic tradition which is very much about the need for an individual to come to terms with repressed behaviour and emotion from their personal past in order to have a better future. On the other hand there is the American tradition of psychological therapies, including CBT, which is about starting from the ‘hear and now’ and moving ahead to a better future without dwelling on the past. As the American self-help writer Anthony Robbins put it:

    “Your past does not equal, nor does it dictate, your future. Focus on where you want to go not on what you fear.”

    (The second of these two sentences is surely an utter denial of the Freudian psychodynamic approach.)

    I’ll finish with three questions:

    1. In this individualistic world are we each able to construct our own individual identity (or multiple identities, as suggested by Steve) that is independent of class/national/religious/communal identity?

    2. To what extent do powerful individuals and corporations (the ‘1%’ of the Occupy movement) seek to control our perception of identity, and to what extent have they been successful?

    3. How important is Starbucks (shorthand for ‘brand loyalty’) as an aspect of identity in the contemporary world?


  7. alastairjclark Says:

    This subject really has stirred up some thinking hasn’t it! amasing what comes out of a breakfast conversation!

    Terry, I believe that you are ‘spot on’ when you make the distinction between individual and group identity. We are used to sociology being concerned with the group and psychology being concerned with the individual in this regard and my focus is on the individual identity – or more properly ‘identities’ plural. My value system (a big part of my identity) points me to a focus on individual identity and a rich understanding of this comes from a proper interpretation of the past (for once I agree with Serge – don’t worry it won’t last!). I am wary of the CBT approach as a route to identity – it may be fine for dealing with ‘problems’ but identity is not all about malfunctions – it is about celebrating who we are and who we want to be.

    Who we are has to include an interpretation of our past and the notion that the past is one of the ‘byproducts of our futures!’ is frankly bonkers (I warned that I would not be able to agree with Serge for long), our past is the raw material of the future and our task is to be skilled artisans in using that raw material.

    Incidentally I think the role of young history teachers like Steve in helping young people to discover their collective pasts is crucial and the discovery methodology of history teaching becomes a wider transferable skill in the road to self identity.

    Now to the homework. Terry’s 3 questions:

    1. In this individualistic world are we each able to construct our own individual identity (or multiple identities, as suggested by Steve) that is independent of class/national/religious/communal identity?

    A No and nor would we want to be independent of the things that are a part of us.

    2. To what extent do powerful individuals and corporations (the ‘1%’ of the Occupy movement) seek to control our perception of identity, and to what extent have they been successful?

    A in a a quite superficial way – but the world moves towards the superficial!!!

    3. How important is Starbucks (shorthand for ‘brand loyalty’) as an aspect of identity in the contemporary world?

    A Different for different people – this really is the key.

  8. dontgetlost Says:

    I Just came across the American project called Story Corps. Their aim is to:

    Surely our life stories are key elements of our identities (although Serge may not agree). This project seeks to celebrate the voices of all and they have now over 40,000 recordings all now sent to the Library of Congress as a snapshot of American life.


    In the UK the BBC and has a similar deal with the British Library and is conducting the Listening Project. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jqb90

  9. Terry Loane Says:

    By coincidence, Alastair, I have had a triple ‘hit’ of identity-related experiences today. First of all I was looking through Etienne Wenger’s websites: http://www.ewenger.com/ and http://wenger-trayner.com/etienne/. He is very ‘big’ on the importance of identity in learning. As a social learning theorist he describes himself as ‘ trying to understand the connection between knowledge, community, learning, and identity.’ This made me think that we (or at least I) have not given sufficient emphasis to the concept of identity in considering how and what people really learn. No sooner had I finished reading Wenger than your comment appeared in my inbox. The ‘Listening Project’ programmes certainly support your view Alastair that our identities are very much founded on our past, both individual and at a community-level. Even if you think of those who have formed an identity by consciously rejecting the past (e.g. the artists of the Bauhaus or the ‘working class’ aiming to transform society, to whom Serge referred) they have to have some knowledge of the past (even if it’s based on myth) in order to reject it.

    The third thing that got me to think about identity today was being with a couple of young apprentices that I am supporting through their apprenticeship. In the past I think that being an apprentice was as much about developing an identity as developing skills. One didn’t just learn how do plumbing, plastering or pattern making, one BECAME a plumber, a plasterer or a pattern maker; one’s identity changed as a result of the apprenticeship. But in 21st century Britain many so-called apprenticeships have been reduced from several years of identity-building to several months of box-ticking. Have we lost something in a drive to make apprenticeship more ‘efficient’? Or is it inevitable that people’s identity these days will depend less on the job they do than it did in the past?

  10. dontgetlost Says:

    Wow Terry – your life seems to be taken up with ‘identity’ . Is this issue now coming to define your identity?

    Just picking up your third point, I believe that your point about vocational training eventually defining the person, for example as a plumber, has been very much more the case for men than women.

    You ask

    Well, I say yes, as fewer people in Europe are working and when they do they are developing portfolio careers rather than staying in one profession for a whole working life.

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