Collected Selves and Bookshelves’ Identities

In response to my “Collection as Identity” post, I received a few questions.

A woman reads in front of bookshelves, with her book mostly obscuring her face.

Source: LollyKnit at

First, from a fellow graduate from SLAIS: is there any aspect to identity which cannot be imagined as a collection?

Second, from my mother: what about bookshelves or other collections that are put together by a group? Do individual circles intersect in this case? I presume she was thinking about a household or a lineage or a similar set of people here. After all, the photograph for the post was from a bookshelf in her home, with books chosen by various family members (including me).

Rather than tackling these independently, I think I should make a broader observation: when I was writing about identity, I was doing so in a quick, unreflective, shoot-from-the-hip sort of way. I certainly did not bother to define what I meant by identity beforehand; unfortunately, in order to answer more complex questions like those these readers have posed, we would need to define identity. This is an enormous task.

I do have some more granular responses:

  1. There are probably aspects to human identity which cannot be imagined as a collection, especially the underlying systems which give rise to the elements which can be catalogued, itemized, or more literally collected (as in memories or neuroses).
  2. When I was thinking about a person’s identity, I had been thinking about something much more like self-expression or self-presentation, though not necessarily self-aware expression.
  3. A person who talks about movies rather than themselves can become “the person who talks about movies rather than themselves.”
  4. I had been thinking of the collection itself as having an identity independent of the person or people making it. People leave traces on each other’s identities, but that is not the same as intersection. The bookshelf’s identity is simply the books on the shelf, not who put them there; of course, the bookshelf’s identity would not be what it is if not for the people who put the books there, but those people are not part of its identity, at least not as I had been describing the situation. (There might be other ways of describing the situation.) The library collection has its identity independent of the collection managers.
Bookshelves that include frame insects and photographs of children.

Source: Anders Sandberg at

Personally, I find compelling the existentialist claim that we are all individuals separate by the gulfs of our subjectivity and agency: I can never know what you think and I must make all my decisions for myself. This creates a hard limit on identity: it is enclosed in particular ways. Also, I cannot take your risks for you: I can only die my own death, and you can only die yours. But I also find compelling critiques against post-Enlightenment individualism: Judith Butler notices the way people become emotionally entangled, so that by losing someone important to you, you lose part of yourself; Douglas Hofstadter believes that people are the patterns of their behaviour, and so I exist in a diminished form wherever and whenever someone thinks about me and thereby recreates part of the pattern that is Christian Hendriks. Notice that the important thing for all of these questions comes down to the very complicated issue of what identity is: how do we define it, and how should we define it?

And that is a very big question, one far bigger than one post will allow. I respect that that answer is a cheat, but I think I have to leave it as a cheat for the moment.

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