Identity and Meaningful Action

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In analyzing the masculinity of academic discourse we begin by recognizing that it is one of the primary functions of a culture-specific discourse formation to mediate the construction of identity for self and others. Academic discourse primarily mediates the construction of the identities of middle-class, early to late middle-aged, eurocultural, heterosexual, masculinized males, both historically (which matters more to the persistent forms of the discourse) and contemporarily (which matters more to how the discourse is deployed).

We will assume here that discourse always functions as an aspect of material activity, serving to mediate interactions among persons, technologies (artifacts-in-use), and elements of the local ecology, regarded as both material systems (bodies, objects, elements) and as meaningful units or signs (e.g. persons, tools, foods); cf. the actant-networks of Latour. There is no foundational mentalism in this perspective, no ideas or concepts which operate in any other realm than that of customary physical space-time and its matter-energy relations. We do however also assume that material processes construe meanings, that such semiosis is a general feature of complex, evolved, far-from-equilibrium systems (and not just of humans or even of evolutionary late animals), and that we need to look at very large networks or systems of interdependent material-ecological interactions among persons, artifacts, etc. in order to understand in material terms how social and cultural meanings are made in communities.

Fundamentally, people participate in activities which are both material interactions and meaningful practices, and which tie our ecosocial webs together. Participation in a form of activity, among other effects, both constitutes and shapes (a) identity choice, (b) identity display, and (c) identity construction. Over biographical time individuals who tend to participate in similar kinds of activities, taking similar roles in them,develop common dispositions (cf. Bourdieu's habitus) toward further action of the same kind. Such dispositions are features of communities, and over historical time, of cultures and their constituent and token subcultures. They give rise to recognizable sociotypes, i.e. to a statistical tendency for persons who acquire dispositions of one kind in one aspect of human activity to also acquire culturally associated dispositions in other kinds of activity. Thus social stereotypes are like self-fulfilling prophecies: if we learn to believe we should act in certain ways, then acting in those ways is liable to make us into stereotypical persons. Sociotypes are the dynamical attractors of habitus-creating activities; the sum of social forces shaping our behavior tends to lead us toward one or another of them. The system of sociotypes, which are meaning effects rather than instances of material discrete entities (you can construe a real person as an instance of a sociotype, but you cannot actually point to an embodied sociotype as a material entity), provides the semiotic resource system for the construction of identity. It defines the differences that make a difference in who are we to ourselves and to others. We may seek a certain identity defined in these terms (identity choice), we may display the features that index such an identity (identity display), and we may work in activity to construct ourselves and others as persons with the dispositions to choose and display these features (identity construction).

Discourse features are an important subset of these resources.How we speak and what we say, in relation to various topics and occasions, helps to define us as tokens of various possible sociotypes. In fact of course we produce vast amounts of discourse, not consistently with regard to any such ideal types, so that if we take frequency of production as a measure, we construct for ourselves some degree of membership in contrasting social categories. Our identities are always mixed from the point of view of the ideal social types, and they may be relatively more consistent in some settings vs. others, or even may construct different (and from the viewpoint of the culture, conflicting) identities in different activities.

Identity is thus a positioning of self or other in a system of meaning-relations and in a network of material practices, including a system of power relations. One of the most important such systems of meaning relations are those which define the salient social categorization of a culture. For the culture I am examining here, these appear to be primarily based on distinctions said to index: gender, sexuality, social class, age, and ethnicity or race. In some cases distinctions with regard to religious affiliation or occupational group also play a role, but in the broad picture a lesser one. All of these distinctions form together a single unified semiotic system of social categorization. It posits discrete and contrasting, and invariable value-hierarchized categories, and tends to marginalize, ignore, or stigmatize as abnormal or unnatural all exceptions, hybrids, feature-combination anomalies, and matters of degree. I will call this semiotic system the SOCIAL CASTE system. Discourse in general serves to construct identity and positioning with respect to this system of meanings. Academic discourse serves to reinforce a particular identity and position with it.