In typical Bryn Mawr English major nerd fashion, some friends and I share a favorite quote by Michel Foucault: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” In moments of stress, realizations that those ten-year-plans we set freshman year might change, and mini-identity-crises (e. g. “I’ve been a vegetarian for five years but feel I must devour a steak right this second”), we like to remind each other that whatever is going on now is okay because, you know, we’re just “becom[ing]” who we are. (I know that you’re so wishing you could sit at my table in Haffner Dining Hall right now.)
While Foucault said this in 1982, Hegel theorized about “becoming” almost two centuries earlier, and Judith Butler expands on his work in “Desire, Rhetoric, and Recognition in Hegel.” In this piece, Butler again challenges us to reconsider another entity we usually consider stable: our very selves. While as subjects we might experience a “stable reality” (45), this “stab[ility]” disguises an “inherent movement in ‘being’” (49)—rather than being, we are always “becom[ing]” (49). Subjects are at once both destructive and generative—as the self “becomes,” what the self was is lost, but that self is now something new that it was not before.
It’s a notion that’s simultaneously calming and unnerving: “becoming” implies growth and change. Considering that I cringe whenever forced to remember a past version of myself, whether that be the me of ten years ago or ten hours ago, that who I am is always changing does make me produce an absurdly huge sigh of relief. The unnerving part is that it suggests the “I” experiencing the world around me isn’t fixed—and if “I” isn’t fixed but always “becoming,” is there any essence or constant to this “I?” Who am I, if anyone, anyway?
The impulse to pin down a fixed subject is certainly there, and Hegel claimed that we succeed (at least to ourselves) in fixing that subject by looking outside ourselves to know (or rather, learn of) ourselves. We are always in relation to the outside world, and others in that world are responsible for helping us make these literal self-discoveries and become these selves. To exist, we need an “Other who confirms us” (83).
While part of me wants to be resistant to this idea—a consequence of my Western upbringing that upholds the development of the individual as paramount, to be sure—it’s hard not to acknowledge all of the places where I’m guilty of trying to “know” myself by looking to something outside of me. Whether turning to friends, my horoscope, or one of Facebook’s many obviously-telling-and-totally-accurate personality quizzes, I often look to the outside to “confirm” or figure out who I am (or who I think I am, or who I want to be, or who I am not). There is almost a pleasure, even a relief, in the being told—I give information about myself and in return receive a coherent, stable, “figured out” identity.
Of course, it’s not just Facebook and friends who tell me who I am—these projects exist on larger scales. Those things that we think are most natural about ourselves are often actually results of what we’ve been told about who we are. While Hegel acknowledges that our consciousness mediates our interaction with the world and thus means that we help create the world, the world is also creating us. If we don’t have a say in that creation, then can we ever be sure we’re “becoming” who we want to be? How much control do we really have over these selves we grow into? What people and/or institutions are in charge of our “becoming?” How much possibility is there, then, in who we can become?