Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Nina Berman at the Whitney, Personal Identity and Deleuze

Nina Berman's set of photographs called "Marine's wedding" is for me the strongest work of all shown in this year's Whitney biennial. It is a startling fusion of social and personal matters, politics and private life affairs, heroism and daily life survival, an extraordinary will to succeed and a failure - all in a single narrative and with the most modest means of a casual photograph. The earliest photographs of the disfigured Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel have been taken by the artist in the weeks preceding his wedding with his fiance Renee Kline. The tension in the relationship, the pressure of mutual obligations and growing estrangement are palpable in these images. The wedding portrait is especially striking. Still, the work would not have been complete without the photographs of Ty taken by the artist a little later, after his divorce with Renee. They are both reassuring and disturbing: they show Ty settled in his new life more or less comfortably, accepting his condition - and also embracing the military culture despite the cost (a photograph of him holding a gun with his right hand and the stump of his left hand is especially unsettling). These images raise so many disquieting questions - of the crime of war, the notions of duty, and of our inability to believe that a personal sacrifice to a great cause might be a mindless blunder. The issue that resonates most with me, however, is the one of personal identity and change, which Berman's projects evokes in such a painful way.

Is the disfigurement of the body affects a personal identity? Is Ty recovered after the bombing the same Ty his fiancee had known before? Does the moral obligations towards the "old" Ty still hold towards the "new" Ty? What is the personality, after all? Is it in the body, in the mind, in the sum of person's experience? How is the self-identity preserved despite the changes in the body or mind? The questions of identity and personal identity are among the central themes of philosophy, but as any philosophical question, they never get resolved or even explored sufficiently. One of the earliest views (e.g., Plato, Descartes) suggests that the personal identity is associated with immaterial substance (soul or mind), which is independent, though closely related to body and controls it in a way rather similar to how a pilot controls a his ship. A rival (materialistic) view would of course posit identity of a person in the substance of his or her body. In the late 1960s John Locke proposed a novel approach to thinking about personal identity and identity in general. He distinguished between the identities of atoms, groups of atoms and living thins. An atom does not change over time, so its identity is self-determined at any moment. Identities of groups of atoms are defined by their constituent atoms, regardless of the ways in which they are organized. Identities of living things (and more broadly, functional objects) are defined by their functions. The functions may persist in the objects despite changes in their structure: so a computer with a new mouse or a keyboard is the same computer; while the non-functional collection of the computer's part is not the same computer anymore. The most important function for living things is the continuation of life; regardless of structure and organization, the same life provides the criterion of identity for anything living, be it a dog or a bee. Therefore, the identity of a man is defined by his living body. This view, clearly, shifts the question of identity from substance to function.

However, Lock proposes an additional criterion for personal identities of humans. The identity of a person (as opposed to "man", a biological organism) is defined by psychological continuity: a person A before a certain event is identical to a person B after the event if person B is psychologically evolved out of A. Therefore, personal identity "depends on consciousness, not on substance". A thought experiment, in which a a prince's mind which enters the body of a cobbler, may be used to illustrate this view: a prince's consciousness in a cobbler's body defines his identity as that of prince's, despite his body being identical to that of the cobbler's. The definition of personal identity based on the psychological continuity, however, raises other problems. For example, if a person is unconscious or asleep, how is his identity determined?

Deleuze's lifelong project was his attempt to establish the ontology of difference. In a traditional view, difference is thought of as a relation between two terms with predetermined identities and as such is subordinated to identity. In Deleuze, on the contrary, difference is a transcendental principle. Different terms are related through difference itself, without any reference to identity. Accordingly, personal identity for Deleuze is in the process of individuation (notion derived tom from Gilbert Simondon's theory). His view seems to agree with many of our personal intuitions about ourselves. We would not equate ourselves with the infants that we had been at some time in the past. In some instances, we feel strongly that our personal identity is drastically different from that a year or 5 years ago as a result of an accident, a move to another country, or a decisive change in life such as a death or birth of someone dear to us, etc. Our bodies and minds are in the process of continuos transformation, which defines what we are in every single moment. At the same time, many ethical questions seem to be inseparable from the notions of stable identity. After all, what justifies our holding a person morally responsible for some past action? And what would be the moral obligation of and towards a person ever transforming through the ongoing process of individuation? Deleuze seems not to be particularly interested in ethical questions that arise with the process-based definitions of identity, but this may be a rich a challenging subject for Deleuzian philosophers. I can only vaguely imagine the principles of of such process-based ethics (a fascinating and possibly terrifying view).

Below is the link to Nina Berman's personal website with the photographs from "Marine's wedding"



  1. Photographs by Nina Berman are protected by United States and international copyright laws and first require the permission of the artist before posting, as is stated on her website. If you would like to discuss further, please Meanwhile, please immediately remove the images from your blog.

  2. I apologize for not asking the permission of the artist; thanks so much for the reminder.