Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: The Intrinsic Desire for Identity, as Illustrated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I'm reading Dana Anderson's Identity's Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversation. Anderson spends a good deal of the introduction to this book preemptively defending his practices and project in the face of postmodernism. He notes that a "pronounced effect" of postmodern perspectives has been "the virtual abandonment of 'identity' as a valid theoretical concept" (5). Identity is, at best, something that we can ignore as a non-issue and at worst a canard that distracts us from the real concerns of rhetorical and philosophical inquiry.

Anderson, though, notes that the impact of identity and belief in it has not faded with identity's theoretical validity. Common sense and observation demonstrate that we depend on identity in a very practical sense (whether we "believe" in its existence or not). I may very well have no authentic or core identity. Postmodernism may very well mean that I am so unstable and constantly changing as to be no "I" at all, but I still called upon an identity to write these words, and you are still imagining a me when you read them.

Not only that, but we care about identity. It isn't just a convenient placeholder that lets us wrap our minds around individual moments of communication. It is something we invest in, put time in, and commit to both in our independent lives and as a collective culture.

As evidence, I'd suggest a quick view at the current New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Here we find Unbroken, Wild, Dick Van Dyke's My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, The Andy Cohen Diaries, Amy Poehler's Yes Please, and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl.

We are hungry for stories about people becoming who they are (or who we see them as), about the transformations that people undergo throughout their lives. We place value in these narratives, and Anderson believes it is because "narratives about conversion are more than just interesting stories about identities in transformation. They are stories of transformation that would transform us as well" (57).

We look for models for our own identities. We seek out inspiration in becoming. We want a sense of self, but it is always bound by a sense of others. This is why postmodernism cannot displace the practical function of identity even if it discredits the technical definition.

Anderson illustrates this by turning to the very influential and incredibly dense Kenneth Burke. I'll illustrate it by turning to the also influential and phenomenally entertaining Joss Whedon.

More specifically, I want to talk about Season 6, Episode 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Tabula Rasa."

In this episode, Willow is in a fight with her girlfriend Tara because Willow has been using magic to manipulate the people and things in the world around her, including Tara herself. Willow promises not to use anymore magic, but she has trouble keeping her word and instead decides to cast a powerful spell to make Tara forget about the fight and the promise. When her spell gets out of hand, she ends up erasing the memories of all of her friends and herself. They wake up in a magic shop with no sense of who they are and no memory of their former lives.

While this would be an unfortunate situation for any group of people to find themselves in, it is particularly dangerous for this group of monster-fighting friends.

What's important is that as soon as the group realizes they  have no memory or sense of self, they immediately start to seek out identities.

The first place they turn is the environment around them. Willow notes that they're surrounded by "weird stuff in weird jars" and "weird books with weird covers," finally coming to the realization that they're in a magic shop and that magic is probably responsible for their predicament.

Giles, the patriarch of the group, rejects their surroundings as a helpful clue. Upon hearing himself speak with an accent, he notes that he "appears to be British, and a man" then he feels his face and notes "with glasses." He is seeking his own corporeal being for a sense of self, but he comes up short, sarcastically saying, "well that narrows it down considerably."

With these quick, simple scenes, the characters have demonstrated one of the main problems of identity: it cannot be sussed out by our own physical presence or our surroundings. We have no sense of self just because we inhabit bodies and spaces. The sense of identity comes only once we start forming relationships with other people around us. We know who we are when we can identify what makes us like and unlike others.

The gang immediately start exploring these identity-forming possibilities even though in this case it's a ludicrous proposition. No one knows who they are. How can figuring out a potential connection to someone else possibly help? Nonetheless, that's precisely what they start doing.

When Spike starts speaking and realizes he's also British, he and Giles jump to the conclusion that they are related: father and son. Spike then says that he must hate Giles because he chose such a young "trollop" to date (Anya, whom Giles was leaning against when they awoke). Anya then notes that she's not a trollop because the ring on her finger (which is actually a sign of her relationship to Xander) demonstrates that she and Giles are engaged. Within moments, these people have started concocting a world that is completely fabricated. They yearn for firm roles that explain their connection to the other people around them.

At some point, they think to look for official identification. Xander finds out that he is "Alexander" Harris, which results in him being referred to as "Alex" for the rest of the memory-less time. Anya mispronounces her own name. Spike believes that he is "Randy" because he finds the name written in a coat that he doesn't know he's only wearing as a disguise.

When Dawn despairs that she doesn't have a wallet, Buffy points out the necklace she's wearing that proclaims she is "Dawn." Buffy is also without identification, but rather than let this point of uncertainty further deter her from placing herself in the reality that is quickly being constructed around her, she makes the bold decision to name herself. "I'll name me . . . Joan." When Dawn says her name is "blah," Buffy gets defensive, feeling like she needs to defend an identity that isn't even hers.

Buffy and Dawn begin bickering, which leads them to (correctly) assume they are sisters.

Moments later, they are bombarded by a vampire attack, but since they didn't know vampires existed, they don't react too well. Buffy stumbles upon her natural slaying abilities, and then notes that she knows why she's "the boss" because "Joan's like a superhero or something."

The rest of the episode revolves around the back and forth sway between humor and suspense as the characters try to figure out who they are while avoiding certain death. Eventually, Xander steps on the crystal at the center of the spell, and they all get their memories back instantly, leaving them in some awkward positions.

The thing that I want to focus on is the way that the characters so fully took on their newfound roles. Giles, calling himself "Rupert," gives "Randy" a hug goodbye because he feels it is his fatherly duty. Anya and Giles actually kiss passionately since they believe they are engaged.

I'm calling them by the names that they have during the rest of the show, but is that right? In those moments, wasn't that "Rupert" kissing "Ann-ya"? Wasn't "Randy" surprised to learn  he was a vampire? Wasn't "Alex" impressed with his ability to fight to protect his girlfriend Willow?

While there are several hints to their previous personalities throughout the episode (Anya, ever the capitalist, has to protect the cash register; Giles senses a disappointment in Spike; Buffy takes the lead and makes a plan), who's to say what these characters would have done if they had never gotten their memories back? Maybe Rupert and Anya would have had a glorious marriage. Maybe Alex and Willow would have lived happily ever after. Maybe Randy, the vampire-with-a-soul, would have had a long and happy life of crime fighting. And if anything would have disrupted this newly constructed reality, it would have been someone external announcing that they had made the "wrong" connections. Without someone else coming into the equation (or the physical remnants of someone else in the form of pictures and documents), they would have no way of disrupting this narrative.

In many ways, we're supposed to feel amused and a little frustrated that these characters are not behaving like their "real" selves, but in such a short period of time (mere minutes after awakening), they have already started constructing completely separate selves.

This is all the more important when we consider this episode's place in a series that frequently plays with identity and authenticity. We learn elsewhere that Willow has a vampire version of herself in another dimension. Xander is split into two different versions of himself in one episode. Buffy runs away from her friends and takes on a different identity as a waitress named "Anne." Later, Buffy has to choose between two competing versions of reality: one in which she's the vampire slayer and another in which she's a patient in a mental institution suffering from a severe psychic break with reality.

Perhaps most telling of all is the existence of Dawn. Dawn appears in the show out of nowhere: a fifteen-year-old sister who we have never heard of or seen in five seasons. The other characters treat her as if she is a normal member of their world, but it is jarring to the audience who "knows" better. It turns out that Dawn is a key made out of energy that was put in human form for Buffy to protect. The monks who transformed her created an entire history full of memories, personality traits, and--above all--human relationships.

When Dawn finds out that she is a key, she understandably freaks out, questioning who she really is, but the others assure her that she is real because of who she is to them. It is her status as daughter, sister, friend that make her a person, not her genesis or even the veracity of her memories.

If Dawn could become a real person simply because those around her accept and respond to her various relationship statuses, so too could "Rupert," "Randy," "Joan," and "Alex." The Buffy-verse has already established that it is not the "truth" that makes the person who she is, but the connections to those around her.

I think that this episode does an amazing job of illustrating the very problem that Anderson is fighting against in her introduction. The postmodern condition tells us that identity is fluid and ever-changing, and the characters in Buffy definitely illustrate that instability and malleability, often to a terrifying degree. However, we also see that identity--even as unstable and explosive as it may be--matters. These characters seek it out and want it so badly that they will construct entire realities to create it.

If identity is not the truth, then we can never find the truth because identity is all we have to find a way to look in the first place.

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