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Introduction: Transformation in Progress

What do we mean when we say 'transformational identities'? The term has no origin, as far as we know, within academic theories of identity or popular notions about the self.
Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell, Issue Editors

Issue #19, March 1995

What do we mean when we say 'transformational identities'? The term has no origin, as far as we know, within academic theories of identity or popular notions about the self. We first came across the term in a conversation at a Bad Subjects public meeting, in which we discussed a paper delivered by Native American Studies scholar and fiction author Gerald Vizenor. In this paper, he called attention to the difficulty Americans experience imagining identities which are based on change and transformation. Vizenor noted that such identities are, however, commonplace within Native American oral traditions and literature. Essentially, we are admitting that we came up with the term 'transformational identity' informally; it stuck with us, and became the theme for this issue because it seemed to articulate something which is ubiquitous — and yet unnamed — in cultural fantasies about ourselves and our places in society.

Broadly understood, transformational identities are those identities which refuse to remain fixed or categorized. They belong to people who are open to the possibility of change, even painful change, particularly in the service of socially constructive impulses. In our everyday lives and common culture, transformational identities are most often represented as wildly improbable, or supernatural. This suggests that we regard fundamental social and individual changes as an unattainable dream, but one we long for repeatedly in our acts of fantasy.

Wildly popular children's show The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is a perfect example of the way transformation gets built into stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be human. The show concerns a group of five young adults who attend high school and, when they transform into the Power Rangers, defend Earth against various fantastical forces of evil. Turning into the Power Rangers gives them super-human powers, and the ability to merge into a single, collectively operated being which can perform feats the individual Power Rangers cannot. That Rangers is a show made for children underscores how we consider narratives about transformation to be fairly basic ones which introduce 'beginners' — i.e., young people — to the idea of selfhood. Indeed, childrens culture is filled with stories of transformation: Alice goes to Wonderland and changes size; childrens folk tales from many cultures feature characters who can become animals or plants; and contemporary TV programs such as Transformers and Robotech feature transformation through technology. More importantly, however, these are stories told by adults to children, and hence bear a great deal of resemblance to stories adults tell about themselves. The theme of transformation pervades 'adult' culture, with narratives in popular genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror frequently telling a story through characters who are transformed by technology, nature, or some kind of evil force.

One of the reasons these kinds of narratives are so compelling is that they offer us a sense of possibility about personal identity. These stories, rightly, allow us to realize that our sense of self is not fixed at birth, but rather is something which is constantly changing, and something over which we do have some control. To realize that we can, in fact, alter our identities is extremely liberating, because it provides a space for playful — or what has recently been called within theories of gender as 'performative' — identities. Parody, drag, or other gender-bending identities, for example, call attention to the fact that we can choose how to present ourselves within different social spaces and can 'perform' a gender or sexual identity that may be different to one with which society has labeled us. These kinds of identities also provide us with a sense of pleasure and fun. Performative identities, however, still suggest a stable core identity with merely the 'outer surface' being changeable. The altered identities become like layers that can be added or removed at will. Importantly, therefore, narratives about transformation challenge the essentialism of much social theory, particularly those theories which base their understanding of oppression upon fixed, and often self-marginalizing, notions of what it means to have a minority identity

But when we think of changing ourselves, we cannot help but do it in the context of our everyday lives. Because social groups and individuals often identify themselves through money and the things it can buy, we may end up viewing change as something we can buy too. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, so popular as a transformational narrative, are even more popular as product tie-ins. Rangers action figures, books, calendars, posters, and videotapes sold out of stores everywhere during the 1994 Christmas season. Capitalism, after all, offers a variety of commodities aimed at helping us change or feel changed. Therapies, anti-depressant drugs, exercise equipment, role-playing games, and even soap are marketed as objects or processes which can transform us. Marx called capitalism a revolutionary economic system because it is renewed constantly through the faster and more widespread production of commodities. Today's consumer culture demonstrates this tendency by offering 'new' objects, 'new' fashions, and 'new' information at a frighteningly rapid pace. But what cannot be changed in a capitalist system is capitalism itself. Commodities change, but the need to buy them never changes. Economies grow wealthy or poor, but the antagonism between the upper classes and the lower classes remains constant.

Our temptation may be to shrug and say that we can never change capitalism, so we might as well enjoy the kinds of transformational possibilities it offers us. To a certain extent, this may be a wise coping strategy, for we cannot simply drop out of capitalism altogether. It's nearly impossible to live without buying things, and sometimes the kinds of 'change' we can buy — such as therapy or games — actually do make us feel better and happier. However, capitalism tends to encourage change only on an individual level: because most people buy things as individuals, what you buy is intended for individual use. A game may generate enjoyment for one person or a small group, but ultimately it will not help us solve pressing social problems affecting us on a daily basis. In other words, consumption offers only superficial transformation. The individual who 'feels better' is still asked to cope with society at its most troubling. She encounters warnings about global violence, pollution, overwork, unemployment, disease, and war regularly. Clearly, she and nearly everyone would like to change the world to make these problems go away, but making individual changes or buying the right thing will not create a safer, healthier, and more just world. The solution to most of our problems is social, and capitalism is incapable of manufacturing it.

Transformational identities, at this point in history, are more of a wish than a reality. Without making fundamental changes in our social world, there are very concrete limits on our ability to become the people we would like to be. As the contributors to this issue point out in their articles, individual consumption tries and fails to provide the satisfaction of collective transformation. Often, popular culture sells us narratives about the social changes we want so badly in order to keep us coming back to buy more. Many consumer items promise social change but deliver only individual distraction. Yet, as bad subjects, we maintain hope for the future because it is clear — from our buying practices — that most people do desire social change. That is, they know what they want, but don't know how to get it. As educators and as public citizens, bad subjects can help transform the social world by speaking out about the pitfalls of capitalist individualism, and by forming collectives which challenge it. If we can change ourselves, we can also change the world.

Copyright © by Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell 1995. All rights reserved.