Is there an intangible essence that might embody who we are? What positions do memories hold in forming one’s identity? Do our physical bodies suffice in representing us? How much of our sense of self relies on the reflexive process that governs our interpersonal relationships? HK-born Faith Monsod commits her graduation thesis to her quest.「我是誰」可以被理解為無形的實質嗎？例如，記憶能賦予我個人身份嗎？我的身體足以表徵我時誰？我的「自我意識」有多少是由我與別人的變動中的關係所衍生的？出生於香港的 Faith Monsod 用一個21分鐘的畢業作品去回應。
Liminality and the Full Stop that Never Came (2021.05)
Briar Faith Paez Monsod
2021.05 | 21’11” [to watch video on Vimeo]
In surveying the multifaceted nature of identity through an academic lens, I equipped myself with the tools to investigate and accept the liminal state of existence, utilising personal experiences as the primary mode of navigation. The endeavour to understand oneself heavily involves the processes of introspection and self-evaluation, and it is a process that is universally undertaken at many junctures in one’s lifetime. In the moments that I had confronted the matter regarding my own personal identity, I found it difficult to earnestly align myself to any type of label, since there appeared to be none that represented me. In an attempt to escape the void of alienation, what arose was a continual search for belonging through a concrete sense of self, persisting throughout high school and university. Abundant questions have helped to shape and guide my journey. Is there an intangible essence that might embody who we are? What positions do memories hold in forming one’s identity? Do our physical bodies suffice in representing us? How much of our sense of self relies on the reflexive process that governs our interpersonal relationships? The goal in formulating this video around identity is to recognize the building blocks for personal identity, as well as come to an understanding of what may or may not be at the core of who I am, communicated through an experimental video.
image courtesy of the artist Faith Monsod
Academia and the elusive “self”
The discourse surrounding personal identity is approached from a plethora of angles, varying in the way that the core of the self is characterised. These viewpoints are integral, as they have aided in constructing the foundation that supports the conceptual stability of the work.
The first piece of field literature that I consulted was the first chapter of Beyond Personal Identity: Dogen, Nishida, and a Phenomenology of No-Self by Gereon Kopf. The book outlined the prevalent theories of personal identity: essentialism, bodily continuity and psychological continuity. Essentialism subscribes to the belief that there is an “underlying, unchanging unity” that persists throughout one’s life; bodily continuity defines people as complex bodies capable of thought; and, finally, psychological continuity embodies personal identity through memories.
A contemporary view brought about by R. Scott Webster relates personal identity to one’s values. The article first made a significant distinction regarding ‘identification’ and ‘identity’, using ‘superficial markers’ such as name, ethnicity and occupation to demonstrate the former. The connotations behind superficial markers generate their meanings through norms that have been culturally circulated and accepted. This idea is in tandem with the structuralist perspective on language, which states that words, in isolation, cannot be understood; the meanings attributed to the words are arbitrary and are upheld through practice. When individuals embrace the labels that they apply to themselves, they believe that their personal identity strongly corresponds to the meaning that is associated with the label. However, through Kierkegaard, personal identity is understood as a task that is not a “predetermined condition defined by others.” Alternatively, personal identity is gained by the extent through which an individual can convey what they believe in, in a way that is genuine. As Dan Zahavi puts it, people change in proportion to their adherence to their beliefs.
Vikki Bell’s article, which outlines Judith Butler’s notion of “performativity,” states that identity is inherently performative in nature. This stands in contrast with the essentialist concept discussed earlier, which claims that there must be some innate entity that allows us to be who we are. According to the notion of a performative self, identity is mobile and is always the result of action, as opposed to being the impetus for it. Following from Butler’s understanding of agency, Mariam Fraser maintains that the diversity across different identities should not be problematised. Instead, there should be a collective movement away from the model that categorises people and their experiences in a simplistic manner.
image courtesy of the artist Faith Monsod
Reflexive identity is a sub-branch of identity studies brought about by Anthony Elliott, who outlines the dialogical process of gauging oneself through others. As suggested by the term “reflexive identity,” identity formation involves a constant monitoring of the self in order to develop its dynamic, individualised facets. This is similar to the ideas of asserted by Erving Goffman, who compares social life to a dramaturgy, whereby individuals are actors that represent and evaluate their identity through their performance, thus sharing the sentiments of Butler’s performativity.
The final chunk of research that I conducted involved the idea of “liminality,” that is, “in-between spaces.” The concept pertains to the presence of a “boundary” understood as “threshold,” derived from the Latin term limes. Thinking of what is liminal, Bernhard Giesen follows a structuralist line of thought similar to Webster’s: whereas key structuralist semiotics figure Ferdinand de Saussure underscored the relational nature of words, in that they cannot be understood separately from other words, Giesen argues that the meaning of one concept cannot be comprehended without its respective opposite. Like Saussure, Giesen highlights the significance of “distinction and classification” in cultural order, especially the relationship between opposites. To overcome established binaries, cultural sociology has hypothesised a third “other” that yields hybridity, one that exists “between inside and outside”. Rather than perceiving such an “other” as an anomaly or disturbance, the sociology of ambivalence welcomes it as an imminent, essential piece of classification.
My research process has taken me to the realization that my selves are dynamic, performative, and embracing the liminal as threshold-crossing yielding hybridity.
image courtesy of the artist Faith Monsod
Deep diving into identity: the experience
Many revelations in my research process have contributed to the final shape of my video; alongside my creative journey was that of my personal growth and acceptance. The concerns of identity had been bound by semantics — to find the correct word into which to fit myself, or one that already encapsulated who I was. I had always been unsatisfied with superficial markers (e.g. my name, ethnicity, sexuality, mental health status, etc.) in discussing my identity, because I felt as if I only existed within the gaps or unidentifiable spaces of those categories. I viewed myself as adrift in a society that grew increasingly rich in novel concepts and labels. The drive to want to understand myself was charged by a pursuit to depart from social estrangement, and move toward certainty and absolution. It was within the frame of vulnerable contemplation that I found the resources and materials required to create the video, allowing the misplaced expectations and unachieved goals to guide the course of the tracks.
The first few tracks ostensibly manifest the uncertainty, nostalgia, yearning and guilt that I have carried with me in my journey of knowing myself. One main difficulty in building the work through this method was the looming pressure that I had to come to an orderly conclusion. I envisioned a clear beginning and middle for the video when I commenced the editing process, but as each track came to a close, I was faced with the reality that I did not know how to finish it.
However, there was a pivotal moment that changed my approach — discovering liminality. I was finally able to place myself within the strange abyss of fixed identities, without being boxed into a word that I could not fully align with. A state of being in-between that is validated and accepted as is, without alienation and exclusion. The final track of the video symbolises this epiphany, gaining a sense of peace that tonally contrasts the other parts of the video. The visibility of the subject matter is significant in widening the scope of representation, enabling those who similarly do not fall within the neat binaries of “this or that” to feel real and welcomed in society. Within liminal existence and the different theories of identity, there is a comfort situated in the knowledge that there is no permanence in who we are, and that change is what grants individuals the freedom to simply be. People adapt their identities in accordance to their environment, their society, their culture and their experiences, showing one facet in one context while uncovering another facet in another; plurality and transformation are at the core of identity. In the vehicle of life, liminality is one’s license to grow out of, grow into and experiment with new selves, redefining the relations between different identities.
Barry, P. (2009). Structuralism. In Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (3rd ed., pp. 38-72). Manchester University Press.
Beech, N. (2011). Liminality and the practices of identity reconstruction. Human Relations, 64(2), 285–302. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726710371235
Bell, V. (1999). Performativity and belonging: an introduction. In V. Bell (Ed.), Performativity and belonging (pp. 1-10). SAGE Publications Ltd, https://www-doi-org.ezproxy.cityu.edu.hk/10.4135/9781446219607.n1
Čapek, Jakub, & Čapek, Jakub. (2017). Narrative identity and phenomenology. Continental Philosophy Review, 50(3), 359–375. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-016-9381-5
Elliott, A. (Ed.). (2019). Routledge handbook of identity studies. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Giesen, B. (2018). Inbetweenness and Ambivalence. In Horvath A., Thomassen B., & Wydra H. (Eds.), Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality (pp. 61-71). New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books. doi:10.2307/j.ctt9qcxbg.7
Kopf, G. (2001). Beyond personal identity: Dogen, nishida, and a phenomenology of no-self. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Thomassen, B. (2017). Liminal landscapes: Travel, experience and spaces in-between. In H. Andrews & L. Roberts (Authors), Liminal landscapes: Travel, experience and spaces in-between (1st ed., Contemporary Geographies of Leisure, Tourism and Mobility Ser., pp. 21-35). London ; New York: Routledge.
Webster, R. S. (2005). Personal identity: moving beyond essence. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 10(1), 5–16. https://doi-org.ezproxy.cityu.edu.hk/10.1080/13644360500039162