In my readings on social identity theory, I find myself disputing the purely postmodern Butler-isms, which posits that identity is a fiction, and all that exists are performances. Neither do I believe there is an essential self – a hoary old idea best left to the Freudians – but certainly our belief in a self holds us together. A phrase that resonated with me is how Anselm Strauss, always interested in the relationship of history with identity, described selves as “islands of stability.” How to reconcile the stochastic Butler perspective with the stability of the Strauss?

Janelle Wilson, in Nostalgia: Sanctuary of Meaning, describes nostalgia as impacting identity creation by providing a semi-biographic narrative to draw from. It is easy to posit that nostalgia has a negative impact, as seen in mythologizing around 1950s America, which is seen as a safe and familiar realm, despite that it placed many (non-whites, LGBT, women) in terrible circumstances. Yet, little thought is typically given to the positive benefits of nostalgia to identity. Wilson makes a convincing argument linking identity work to everyday practices of individuals thinking about their own relationship with the past, particularly through objects.

Cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and sociologists alike have found that we selectively interpret the world. We are endless perspective-takers in how we recall information, as well. Suffice to say that our own personal histories figure prominently in our thinking. Wilson states, “we seek the authentic because we want to regain something lost; we wish to make our own existence more credible” (p. 58). In effect, when we are nostalgic for a perceived authenticity, we are smoothing over the unseemly facets of our identity to make for a more coherent whole. This harkens back a bit to Simmel’s desire for a balanced identity, the exact tolerance of which varies by the individual.

Wilson goes on to describe how collecting objects links individuals to communities of collectors and engages individuals in identity work. The use of objects, especially in times of personal change, enables identities to be both relatively stable and differing based on context. One example might be an immigrant’s prominent placement of an object from her country of origin as a reminder of her past, even if in everyday life she comes to adopt a different, hybridized identity. In other words, “objects are used in the emotion work of the individual,” as well (p. 123).

I might add that I believe there is a kind of internal conversation going on with individuals during identity work, replacing Mead’s “I” with a complex internal process. The more we learn about how the brain works, the more I am convinced that there is a large private world known only to the individual, an idea generally reflected in the truism that that you cannot know everything about a person. David Eagleman, for instance, described the finding that the unconscious mind is active during even mundane activity as a “team of rivals” where multiple impulses (conflicting or otherwise) lead to a single action (trapped as we are in one body).

Strauss, A. (1997/1959). Mirrors and Masks: The Search for Identity. Transaction Publishers.
Wilson, Janelle L. (2005). Nostalgia: Sanctuary of Meaning. Bucknell University Press.