Cultural Literacy, Binaries, and the Self

I just started a training module called Cultural Literacy for the writing center at my local university. We watched a TEDTalks by novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who says:

“All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Often times (with wiggle room for context), one outlook on a large topic also benefits a small one. While we may see the world, continents, countries, cultures, and people as an entity with one story, we can also compartmentalize ourselves. Someone told me I hold an unhealthy attachment to labels. If my behavior threatens the definition of a label, instead of reexamining what constitutes the label, I jump to the conclusion my behavior is proof I’m not worthy of that label. This startling behavior then becomes who I am. I remember all the previous aspects of myself but none of them make up for this new character-defining behavior. None of them make me feel as if the new behavior is a part of the whole — it is the whole.

It’s a problem.

Similarly to my previous post on Black Mirror and the Self and the Perception of the Self, gender theorist Judith Butler defines how gender roles isolate and categorize specific traits that separate sexes; masculine traits exclusively for males, feminine traits for females. Masculine men and feminine women are then separated into a binary opposition of superior and inferior terms. However, Butler argues these binaries are unnatural and not only oppress the negative person in the binary, but also confine people to “identity categories” that, inevitably, restrict the full range of our identity. For example, when reoccurring traits cease to repeat (if a man starts acting a tiny bit feminine), he attempts to reestablish the Self — what Butler calls the “volitional subject”— by repeating traits considered to be of superior stature (he makes it his purpose to consistently act masculine). But this is a futile procedure because if our personality requires repetition to convince ourselves of its authenticity, the Self must only exist on the surface. We’re acting out a “performance” of an identity we believe to be pretty well-intact, but is actually always in flux.

We don’t have a center/core. We aren’t inherently anything. It is important to honor the fluidity of our Self. We are biological creatures, after all, who are intelligent, conscious, and great at adapting. We cannot allow traits or behavior to compartmentalize the Self.

Back in 2012, I wrote an opinion article called “Straight from the Hartsock: You: Then or Now.” Who I am, really, seems to be an ongoing issue that I haven’t always consciously wrestled through. The latter half of the article resonates well with this blog post. I invite you to read it and share your thoughts.

Note: Binary opposition and its superior and inferior roles is not isolated to sex and gender; philosopher Jacques Derrida utilized binaries in the literary theory deconstruction. For him, a binary consisted of presence and absence (the original and the non-original). The original is identified as superior, while the non-original is missing parts of the original. The inferior is seen as incomplete, instead of different.

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