Identity is too complex an idea to try and deconstruct and provide an explanation for. It would be imposing and reductive to suggest identity is a word with a constant definition, one that is the same in every situation for every person. So for this article, I will focus on the identity game of reading books/wearing slogan t-shirts in public and what this can reveal about our interactivity with others and our own sense of self.
The text you display in public is always a statement of identity. As soon as we are in public, the titles and authors of the books we read (or the slogans on our t-shirts) become an object of someone else’s perception, even if this belies our own intention. What we read and what this can reveal about us is an area of discourse often discussed in universities and in popular culture. There are entire blogs dedicated to the books fictional characters read, reading lists of novels that characters read on TV. In popular culture, the books read tend to characterise the person on screen. There is no other reason for Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) to be reading Sylvia Plath other than to suggest her character is a cool and well-read feminist. Because we know Sylvia Plath’s identity and poetry, the connotations of reading her literature reveal a likeness or relevance to the individual reading her. But we are not flat fictional characters. No one is typing out our identities for us. So why are our public displays of reading an object of conversation?
It seems outrageous to suggest any kind of identity can be formed in what we read. We may hate the book we’ve decided to pick up, or what we read could be a bad recommendation, or we could just be exploring a different genre or style. Irrespective of this, the onlooker will still, consciously or subconsciously, make an assumption. This reminds me of the Twitter storm in which everyone publically shamed the man captured on the train reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, more specifically, it reminds me of my own frustration at the people criminalising this internet stranger. Why wasn’t the person taking the picture, the intervening onlooker, in the firing line for being unjustly assumptive? The man could have been reading that text (a text seen as controversial to those who disagree with Peterson) for many different reasons other than the clear and easy assumption of bigotry. Of course, in defending the reader, I also ascribe his identity myself. In assuming many possibilities for his readership, all but one of which would be wrong, I myself ascribe his identity as an onlooker. Because I will never know why he is reading it, nor do I need to, even speculating or defending a reader’s intention becomes imposing and assumptive.
Naturally, it becomes increasingly more difficult and complex to think about anything anyone reads at all. But what we can extrapolate is that the action of assuming an identity based on what someone reads is a kind of voyeurism. This voyeurism is well exemplified by the phase in which people invasively took photos of attractive men reading on the subway and posted them online, a time in social media I’m sure everyone is more than pleased to see the back of.
Deliberately or not, the act of reading in public creates a kind of framework for a relationship between onlooker and subject. Whoever is witness to someone reading, and therefore a witness to a person’s inclinations and interests (or not), becomes involved in the reader’s display of identity. They become the audience for which the identity is, inadvertently or advertently, for. There is a tourism in being an onlooker to another person, one that is ingrained in our perceptions of others and our everyday existence. As people, we are constantly looking, and by implication, we are constantly displaying something for someone else to look at. If we are watching, we are being watched.
Why we wear certain brands and why we read certain things in public are aspects of identity that are bound together. But what we display is, of course, open to interpretation. Not only is there an ethics in the voyeurism of looking at others, but there are also facets of identity lost in translation. How we present ourselves can be, and most commonly is, received differently than we intend. Or even if we don’t intend to display any identity, an identity is prescribed to us. Whether we try or not, whatever we do in the eyes of the onlooker, our identity becomes public information for others to determine.
There is an action from both sides of the dynamic. A statement is made by the subject, an assumption is made by the onlooker. Whether we deliberately present a kind of identity in what we read or whether we as onlooker ‘mean to look’ is beside the point. If we deliberately read a certain book or wear a slogan t-shirt, we take the same action as someone who does so unwittingly. You can either be careless and unapologetic in displaying your identity or you can try to control it, but either way is an active stance. Caring is the same as not caring in the eyes of the onlooker. They don’t know how much thought has gone into the decisions behind your t-shirt or the book you are holding.
When we read a classic novel or wear a slogan t-shirt, we are making a statement as to not have a statement made for us. In the same way that someone in the press for a scandal tries to control the story before anyone else does, we are active in presenting our identity to garner control. And perhaps, in the act of controlling identity, there is a sanitisation in process. Instead of the conservative, outdated stereotype of bold hair dye and piercings as a contentious means for self-expression, youth identity is more often concerned with branding and literal displays of identity (as in linguistics). In language, we unearth a weapon of control. We don’t want to have to figuratively point to our own identity in easy-to-stomach-stereotypes, so we hint at ourselves through text to make it clear who we are not, but not entirely clear who we are.
Whatever we do or say has an inverse. By saying who we voted for in an election we are actually saying who we didn’t vote for. And the inverse of everything we do, what we don’t do, perhaps does more to manufacture our identities. Below is a t-shirt that Frank Ocean wore on stage in 2017. It became instantly popular for its impactful stance on identity politics. As for the language of identity, in wearing this t-shirt, more is said about what the individual isn’t rather than what they are. Evidently, they are not only not racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic, but they are deflecting attention towards the people who are. This is a literal example of the identity game I have mentioned, the dialogue that any public display of identity creates with an onlooker. This t-shirt is a display of cultural awareness that, through its rhetorical language, controls the relationship between onlooker and subject. Its meaning is not open to interpretation. It is (quite literally) black and white.