The poetic, playful and prophetic musings of quintessential voices trying to keep up with life

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Souls and Stories: Identity, Batman and Doctor Who

I read comic books. So far they have not been mentioned on this blog and thus far a cisgendered male has not written here either, so today I break two molds and hope to begin a discussion on identity - who we are, how we define ourselves, how others define us, and what all that means, if anything. But bear with me, because to get started we have to talk about comic books. When I was in grad school I rekindled my childhood love for superheroes by reading Batman, Batwoman, Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Robin, and every other comic featuring the Batfamily. The mythology found in comics, the ethical struggles that oscillate between nihilism and teleology, the question of evil and the hope of a better future mirrored much of my seminary education; comics were just more fun to read than Augustine’s Confessions. I was never much of a Superman person simply because we all know that in a fight Batman would win, every time. Batman, Batwoman, Batgirl et al. have had better writers, artists, story lines, movies, along with the best villains in comics, not to mention the GLAAD award wining lesbian hero, Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, and the first openly trans person in mainline comics (spoilers though, it was in the recent Batgirl 19, you’ll have to read it yourself).

However, it has been Superman’s identities as Clark Kent and Superman that have been philosophized over, and I blame Kill Bill 2 for popularizing that. 
What sets Superman apart is the alter ego that according to Bill all other heroes have. Batman is really Bruce Wayne. In Bill’s line of thought it is Bruce that becomes Batman when he puts on the costume, yet underneath it all he is still Bruce. Superman, on the other hand, is always Superman and the costume that he wears is that of Clark Kent, the bumbling, lacking confidence and somewhat unreliable journalist. Dressing like a human with a suit and tie (without as much class as JT mind you) is the costume that covers Superman. Bill assumes that there is within us and Superman a self, an identity that is lasting, something that makes us us, something that we do not become but are born with. Even if we sometimes wear a cape and tights with our underwear on the outside to cover our identity up, the core of our identity remains nevertheless.

I took a lot of philosophy and religion classes in college and suffice it to say, college ruined my life. The seemingly simple realties of existence were no longer as effortless to understand as they had once been; even the complexities of our existence that I had learned to live with through my adolescence in Iowa were now more convoluted than I imagined.

I remember learning the phrase, “Cogito ergo sum”, I think, therefore, I am. My professor, who came to class with neat and combed hair that became more and more uncouth with each new thought said to us, “I am a thinking thing, a thing that thinks, but I cannot know that you think and you cannot know I think. I think, I am, you, I’m not so sure about.”

I think, and so I am, you think, I assume, and so you are. But what exactly are we? What is this I; who are you? Does Bruce Wayne become Batman when he changes clothes, or through the course of his life has Bruce transitioned into Batman and is only, truly, himself when fighting crime on the streets of Gotham? Is there a core to our being, some immutable essence to us that makes us us or is the self the result of approximately 100 trillion cells functioning together while electrons fire to and fro, connecting synapses that create an illusion of consciousness and a semblance of the self?

You may have noticed that most paragraphs have began with “I” statements, “I read”, “I took”, “I remember”, and “I think” and if you’ve made it this far I hope you are wondering who does Nate think he is? How dare he write in such a self aggrandizing and narcissistic style on Her/Story about comic books and Kill Bill! Well, I am a straight, white, middle-class, United Methodist pastor currently living in Fairfield, Iowa. I have two sisters, one older and one younger making me the middle child, not only of siblings but of generations, found in the space between but also within generations x and y. Currently I have two cats, even though I had dogs as a kid. I grew up with both of my biological parents and they are still living, though none of my grandparents are. I am in a loving and life-giving relationship that is, for now, long distance. I like camping and I think manicures feel great. Whenever I shave I use a preshave oil and a badger brush to apply shaving cream followed by a moisturizer under eye cream because I like how it makes me feel and look. Whiskey may be my favorite drink, especially ryes, but when I go out to a bar I usually get a Guinness. Most days I go to the gym. My Myers Briggs personality type is INFJ. I am a right handed and a progressive, feminist, liberation theologian with an appreciation of queer theory that reads comic books, but you already knew that. I play video games from time to time and care more than a person in their late twenties probably should about their social media presence. These attributes point to aspects of my personality and identity, yet on their own, none of them makes me me. Some of these traits are shared with many other persons, others are not. In the realm of personality typing INFJ is the least common, shared by maybe 5% of humanity, yet within this 5% exists innumerable possibilities of personality and definitions of identity. Whatever I am, however my identity is found and developed, both through my own self-definition and the ways that others define me, is found in the totality of these, for lack of a better word, things.

All of these things mean something to me, and you, regardless of whether you share a trait or attribute with me or not, you understand the word as a representation of said thing. Our understandings, however similar, may be different. Take the word, “Queer.” In an essay on queer theory Annamarie Jagose wrote, “If a potentially infinite coalition of sexual identities, practices, discourses and sites might be identified as queer, what it betokens is no so much liberal pluralism as a negotiation of the very concept of identity itself...queer is less an identity than a critique of identity.” (emphasis was the authors). For myself, queer is a continual critique of what I understand to be normative, a way of embracing myself as a masculine and feminine person while remembering that masculine and feminine are socially constructed. For others this may not be the case and probably isn’t. Some persons that claim queer for themselves my not see my life as queer at all. My identity is not the same as it is for others that identify as queer, especially as I understand myself to be a cisgendered male that is attracted to females.

For example, contrast my identity and understanding of queer with that of Jack Halberstrom.
Jack is a professor of English and she is also the director of the Center for Feminist Research at USC. He teaches courses in queer studies, gender theory, literature, art, film and has written many books, recently on “Gaga Feminism”. Now, I switched back and forth between the pronouns “she” and “he” originally for Jack, but from now on Jack will be he because as he said in an interview, “You know, people are kind of calling me he nowadays. I’m going with that.” While Jack goes with he, he is also known by a few folks as Judith, others call him Jude and Jack has found comfort in the mixing of names, pronouns and identities, allowing them to be what they are. Jack identifies himself as butch but readily admits that when he started using the term in the 1990’s it meant something to him that it may not mean to people now. There are assumptions about “butch” that seem to point to some masculine ideal, yet an ideal creates a normative classification where there is one real butch identity at the center with other butches on the margins only attempting to be truly butch. The idea and identity of butch has been colonized for some, though for Jack butch is a term and idea without a center. This is similar to Jack’s gender identity. Jack calls himself a “blanket” saying that he is blank in terms of gender and just added the “et” to it. Jack’s queer identity if found in the space between Judith and Jack, where masculinity and femininity meet and overlap, separate and dance together in whatever ways he wants them to and whatever ways feel right and speak to his identity at that moment in time and space. There are some similarities between Jack and myself, yet we are nevertheless different when it comes to our understanding of what it means to act on our queer identities. Jack sums up why this is ok, but still complicated, “Nobody should accept one standard way of saying things, but I want this to be clear too, that at the same time you can’t have endless varieties of people naming themselves, we do live in a world of categories. Some of these categories have contemporary currency and some don’t.”

It has almost become cliche in postmodern conversations of identity to view ourselves as the sum of our social relationships and to use these relationships to define ourselves in such a way that does not present one stand way of saying things. We are the culmination of our DNA combined with the interactions we have had, a mix of nature and nurture, we are the persons and situations that we have loved, hated and felt indifferent about. Who we are can be understood through the lenses of our socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, education, ethnicity, and so on. For me, it is jarringly peaceful to realize that I have been, and continually am, shaped and developed by forces beyond myself. I am, whatever I am, becoming who I am and will be through this ever growing sum of social relationships. Identity, it seems, is about becoming, developing and changing.

But what of the narrator of our story, the internal editor that seeks to make sense of our social relationships, that attempts to integrate the new experiences of who we are becoming with who we have been? What is it that creates continuity and stability in this ever changing and ever becoming self? To make sense of this I have to consult the Doctor.

Doctor Who has been around for 50 years now and the Doctor has lived through a number of transitions and changes through the centuries of his life. The Doctor’s body changes with every new incarnation, as does the Doctor’s style and personality. My favorite Doctor is 11 and I am partial to Amy and Rory as the best companions ever, plus, bow ties are cool.
Throughout all of the incarnations, the various changes, the transitions from being known for wearing a long and multicolored scarf to an overcoat with a suit and chuck taylors to bow ties and a fez, something of the Doctor has remained constant. The Doctor is always the Doctor. In the recent episode, “The Rings of Akhenaten” this continuity through change was witnessed. The Doctor, and his new mysterious companion Clara Oswin Oswald, save a young girl from a Sun that is worshiped as a God. The “old God” sometimes called “grandfather” feeds on the souls of others, which in this episode means their stories. It is our stories, our memories, that shape us and make us who we are.

Our identity, the essence of who we are, may be found in who we have been, the stories that shape us, and all of the experiences that bring us to where we find ourselves now. It is the story of the Doctor, the stories of those hundreds of years and adventures that has made the Doctor who he his and the memory of these stories, the chapters that keep getting added, create and continue his ever evolving identity and soul.

We all have a unique story to tell, and in it we come to know our ever becoming identity. I may not know who I am, but I know who I have been and I have a sense of what I want to become, what stories I want to live. Memory can be a fickle thing, but without it, who would we be?

So who are you? What story will you tell and how will your soul, that spirit of you (that I still believe in even if I can never exactly say what that ineffable essence is) that creates continuities between all your stories, edit, revise, and become who you are invited to be?

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