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Ben Capobianco

Dr. Sarah Kornfield


Consuming Identities
Rhetorical Identity Paper
04.10.14
Rhetorical Identity
Culturally Constructed

What is identity? Despite the seemingly simple nature of this question, the answer
remains elusive. Numerous theorists have come to numerous conclusions, and clarity appears
just as far off. However, identity as rhetorical appears as a common thread throughout the work
of different identity theorists. Rhetoric by its very nature, constantly shapes and molds identities.
Essentially, the ways in which people experience the rhetoric of interpersonal interactions,
media, and even their own thoughts, serves to craft their identities. The idea of identities as
rhetorical comes in direct conflict with the notion that people have specific, unchanging, singular
identities. This commonly accepted view of identity affects society negatively and contributes to
unnecessary individual pressure to find ones true self. This inaccurate understanding of
identity demands correction. Identity does not operate as a static inner self. In reality, an identity
acts as a rhetorically constructed, constituent part of the self. While most theorists would agree to
a constructed idea of identity, they do not all contend that the same actor holds responsibility for
this construction. In this essay, I will argue that culture holds sole responsibility for the
construction of identity.
In order to properly address this deterministic claim, culture must be defined.
Fundamentally, culture refers to the set of beliefs, values, and practices of a society. With this

idea of culture in mind, identities must be addressed not as abstract things that operate within a
culture, but rather as tangible creations of that culture. Therefore, religious institutions, movies,
music, social media, political ideologies, and much more, all contribute to the identities of
individuals. The culture possesses great power. Jonathan Grays work Show Sold Separately:
Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts addresses the power of culture, specifically media,
to shape individuals identities. In his discussion of paratexts and media, Gray often references
fans. Everyone acts as a fan of something; it is a fundamental aspect of life, or in other words,
identity. The degree to which the role of fan shapes identities varies significantly based on the
individual, but I would argue that every single individual identifies as a fan of something.
Furthermore, it often acts as one of the first things individuals declare about themselves. In a
more specific sense, people often declare their favorite music or movies when asked to talk about
themselves. In a broader sense, clothing, and mannerisms often reveal what genres an individual
identifies with. Individuals can identify with specific media genres (horror, adventure, romance,
etc.) because the media they consume shapes their identities. In some cases, individuals can
plausibly assume that someone likes, for example, science fiction. Media shapes individuals
humor, style, mannerisms, and even actions. However, the culture is comprised of much more
than media. While media may operate as a more conventionally understood aspect of culture, I
argue that the ways in which people talk to each other, and even the ways in which people think
operate as constituent parts of culture that contribute to shaping identities. In other words,
individuals who identify as members of the ghetto culture interact with each other differently and
even think differently than individuals who identify as members of the hipster culture. Culture
shapes, and absorbs interpersonal communication and thought process as a part of the accepted
set of beliefs, values, and practices that define what culture is.

In his book Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative, Paul John
Eakin writes about how the telling of ones story to both themselves, and to others, actually
shapes identity (Eakin, 2). In light of this truth however, I argue that the act of telling ones story
does not entail control over the shaping of ones identity. The sharing of narrative certainly
shapes identity, however, culture regulates those narratives. Therefore, culture regulates our
identity. Eakin clearly agrees with this idea. In fact, in the first chapter of his book he writes,
Despite our illusions of autonomywe do not invent our identities out of whole cloth (Eakin,
22). While Eakin argues that autonomy is an illusion, he does allow for a certain degree of it.
Later in his work, Eakin posits the notion that while individuals may not possess independence
from the identity-shaping cultural forces, they still make their own choices, and tell their own
stories (Eakin, 147). Essentially, he claims that individuals have control over their own identities
to the extent that they choose how to act within a culture over which they have no power or
independence. In other words, while individuals do not choose what maze to walk through, they
do choose the path they take within the maze. I argue that identities are completely culturally
controlled. Unlike Eakin, who allows for the hope of autonomy in identity crafting, I argue that
the individual has no control over their identity. The culture dictates the individuals very
choices.
Marcia Alesan Dawkins addresses the individuals control over his/her own identity in
her book, Clearly Invisible: The Color of Cultural Identity. Taking a unique approach to the
topic, Dawkins works with the idea of passing. While people pass for a number of reasons,
discussed in her work, True Irony occurs across the board, in many forms of passing (Dawkins,
191). Dawkins concept of True Irony refers to the phenomenon that occurs when an individuals
object of hate or dislike shapes their very identity. Essentially True Irony occurs when a woman

passes as a man in order to accomplish something she would otherwise lack the ability to
accomplish. The very patriarchal oppression she fights shapes, and regulates her identity as a
rebel. When rebels and activists engage in war with the system put in place by the culture in
which they live, that very culture actively dictates their actions. Some might argue that rebels
actions oppose the prescribed actions of the culture, and therefore, the culture does not dictate
the identities of said rebels. The simple truth remains, without the cultures systems the rebels
would be acting differently. One must conclude then, that identities, even those in direct
opposition to culture, are determined by culture. Dawkins idea of True Irony serves to support
the fully deterministic theory of rhetorical identity for which I argue.
The question remains: Why do some people act differently than others? Eakin would
argue that people make choices, and therefore identity exists as something other than completely
deterministic. Why do some people choose to act as rebels while others choose to conform? I
argue that this element of choice, while clearly present, does not require a free will interpretation
of identity. Individuals choose different things because they possess different narratives. All
the factors that contribute to an individuals totality of experiences come to a head in each
decision, and that totality of experience holds responsibility for the decision made. I argue that
this element of choice may, in fact, not actually be choice. Each experience contributes to the
decision that an individual makes, and culture regulates each experience. Vanessa Beasley
addresses the ideas of inherited identities in her work You the People. Specifically, she discusses
certain aspects of American identity inherited directly from ones Americanism. This serves as
one example of a much broader idea. Identity is dictated by culture, particularly the location of
an individuals birth, the socioeconomic standing given to them at birth, the schools they
attended (or did not attend), the activities their parents prescribed for them, etc. This endless list

of specific elements at play in the life of an individual, all contribute to the decisions they
make in life. I argue that even the outliers, who reject the path their circumstances would dictate,
do so because of some experience, or idea formulated from an experience, and all experiences
are culturally determined.
In conclusion, identities are rhetorical creations constructed by culture. Despite what
some theorists, like Eakin, say about the possibility of free will in identity creation, I argue for a
deterministic understanding of identity. By first understanding culture as a powerfully pervasive
set of beliefs, values, and practices, it becomes clear that culture includes media, structuralized
institutions, and interpersonal elements as well. Culture profoundly affects identity, however
arguments can be made for self-constructed identity. Eakin argues that individuals make choices
and craft their own identities to a certain degree through the sharing of their narratives. However,
by examining Dawkins concept of True Irony, and by applying Beasleys ideas of inherited
identity, a deterministic understanding of rhetorical identity becomes more unavoidable. People
make choices in a certain context over which they possess no control, and they make those
choices for specific reasons. The culturally policed narratives and experiences determine the
choices people make, lending to the idea that people may not make choices from their own
free will. By drawing from theorists like Gray, Eakin, Dawkins, and Beasley, I am convinced that
rhetorical identities are completely constructed by cultural forces. While many posit theories
leaning more towards a free will, self constructed understanding of identity; I argue that those
theories fail to accurately grasp the true nature of rhetorical identities. Identities exist as
rhetorical constructions controlled and crafted not by the individual, but by the individuals
culture.

Works Cited

Beasley, Vanessa B. You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential


Rhetoric. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2004. Print.
Dawkins, Marcia Alesan. Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural
Identity. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012. Print.
Eakin, Paul John. Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2008. Print.
Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.
New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.