Identity & assemblage

I’ve stumbled on three clusters of ideas over the last couple of years that all seem to point in similar directions but which belong in different domains of study. On the one hand, I find these ideas really useful when thinking about the evocation of self in reminiscence and visual art activities. On the other hand, I could be mixing up ideas that shouldn’t be. (It’s my blog and I’ll write epistemologically unsound things if I want to.)

All three (sets of) ideas talk about assemblages. The first comes from ethnography. There’s a lovely paper by Bailey & Biggs (2012) looking at community identity amongst older adults in North Cornwall. I came across the paper whilst trying to get my head around the ideas of community and belonging. In the paper, Bailey and Biggs (citing an earlier paper by Crang & Cook, 2007) state that “a person’s identity can be understood as an assemblage of thoughts, feelings, memories, ways of doing things, possessions and so forth which does not fit together in a dedicated pattern but is always a compromise, always pragmatic, always in flux and never pure.” In a sense this is not anything new but the clarity and succinctness of the statement is great. In this case, Bailey and Biggs are talking both about a person’s understanding of their own identity, the ways that they perform their identity in public and the ways that they sustain that identity through material culture.

{They also go on, “conversations [are] active, creative exchanges: ‘Just like memory, the narrative itself is not a fixed text and depository of information, but rather a process and a performance… in orality, we are not dealing with finished discourse but with [dialogic discourse in the making].’” This speaks to my current bug-bear of unifying reminiscence and creativity but that’s a digression.}

The next set of ideas I’ve mentioned in previous posts is about the way that identity is represented mentally. It emerges out of the field of cognitive semantics and the work of Struiksma, Noordzij & Postma (2009). Their work indicates that the idea of an object (technically the spatial relationships between two objects but we can extend this to objects and people) can be made up of multiple elements drawing on different perceptual modalities, affective states and propositional information. The idea that the idea of a thing contains draws on different modalities is fairly uncontentious but there is little consensus over whether the representation is actually amodal, modal or supramodal (see also Harley, 2013; Shallice & Cooper, 2011). The fine detail is fascinating but not essential, our representation of another person’s identity can be thought of as an assemblage of elements which is open to, and enriched by, our experiences with that person (Taylor & Zwaan, 2013). If this is correct then there should be some correlation between the content of our identity-assemblage of another person and that person’s performative assemblage of identity, though they exist in completely different registers.

Just recently, I’ve been trying to get my head into phenomenology. It’s already become clear that there are multiple schools of phenomenology (Pernecky, 2016) and this next bit is typed with trepidation. Thus far, I’ve spent most time with an introductory text by Sokolowski (1999), who identifies himself with an ‘East Coast’ (American) interpretation of phenomenology and what follows is my reading of Sokolowski. For Sokolowski, phenomenology undertakes to overcome the cognitive turn in psychology by positing that consciousness is always consciousness of a thing which is beyond ourselves. The world and the things in it are given to us and we are “the datives of manifestation” (I love this phrase!). What comes across clearly is that the idea of an object is not singular but, rather, the identity is a rich (potentially, ever-unfolding) manifold. Sokolowski takes a strong position that the identity does not exist as an idea in our head but is outside of us and, in some register, is a property of the object. Other approaches are, I suspect, available (Pernecky, 2016). What appeals to me about Sokolowski’s phenomenology is that it (a) identity in manifold expresses in a more nuanced way something of the identity-assemblage I was trying to get at earlier and (b) seems to offer a bridge between performative and cognitive identity assemblages.

This is a bit of work-in-progress but I find that it offers a way to talk about the richness of human (& object) encounters that museums staff and researchers are variously facilitating and studying. It allows me to think about how, for example, carers read so much from the behaviour of the person they are caring for whilst they are engaged in art activities. I’ve definitely not got the phenomenological angle pinned down yet but there is mileage in it.


Bailey, J. and Biggs, I. (2012) ‘“Either Side of Delphy Bridge”: A deep mapping project evoking and engaging the lives of older adults in rural North Cornwall’, Journal of Rural Studies, 28(4), pp. 318-328.

Harley, T.A. (2013) The psychology of language: From data to theory. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Pernecky, T. (2016) Epistemology and metaphysics for qualitative research, London: Sage Publications Ltd

Shallice, T. and Cooper, R. (2011) The organisation of mind. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sokolowski, R. (1999) Introduction to phenomenology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Struiksma, M.E., Noordzij, M.L. and Postma, A. (2009) ‘What is the link between language and spatial images? Behavioral and neural findings in blind and sighted individuals’, Acta Psychologica, 132(2), pp. 145-156.

Taylor, L.J. and Zwaan, R.A. (2013) ‘Fault-tolerant comprehension’, in Coello, Y. and Bartolo, A. (eds) Language and action in cognitive neuroscience. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 145-158.

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in art, Cognition, identity, reminiscence. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Identity & assemblage

  1. MD Crosby says:

    Thanks Bruce, this is a nice article!

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