Finding a Voice

When I write privately – in a journal or a notebook – about personal thoughts and experiences, it is almost impossible to find a voice. What I mean by this is that I cannot find a style of writing adequate to the content of my private life. Most of the time, I use one of three languages: formal English in academic essays, colloquial English full of obscenities and idiomatic puns in conversations with friends, and (bad) French with my girlfriend. In other words, I – ‘I’, my identity – spans these three basic worlds, which means that when I come to write my ‘private’ thoughts (no thought is ever truly private – which is also part of the problem) I have to navigate between these three domains.

The difficulty is that no one discourse ever feels totally appropriate to the other two. Formal philosophical or theological jargon doesn’t seem to capture the nuance of, for example, a lover’s exchange, and nor does a filthy joke about one! There are two consequences of this, which are secretly one. Firstly, it means that my identity is not unified or integrated: ‘I’ is the particular interstitial gap generated by the mismatch of these three languages. Secondly, the historical epoch is such that an integrated identity is denied me. Life is so decompartmentalized that no one discourse seems capable of encompassing the totality. The first of these is history from the view of the subject; the second is history on the side of the object.

Perhaps the novel is still important for this reason: that it can provide symbolic resolutions of such real antagonism.


7 thoughts on “Finding a Voice

  1. Mike Cantley says:

    I appreciate your thoughts on this. I agree that our identity spans a variety of domains, and that one discourse can hardly articulate to all audiences. To attain that unified, appropriate discourse would shatter (or subsume) otherness, it seems. You would become a strange, singular pole in a radically reductionist binary, with the only “other” an unresponsive receiver for a monopolized “conversation” of sorts. For the other to respond at all–assuming that you do maintain your own thoughts and abilities as we get into this scenario–would again stir this variety of domains and discourses you rightly identify as so elusive regarding unification. In effect, we would kill off everything but our (unified and integrated) self to pull this off.

    Your “novel” analogy reminds of Moltmann’s discussion of the total person. Is it in The Coming of God??… It is likely that we have to think teleologically or eschatologically to nudge our identities toward a unified narrative or a complete and coherent discourse.

    Your consideration of the depths of identity caught my attention for here. I would invite your thoughts regarding how identity relates to care, or self understanding and how it translates into literal, physical attending of others. Your citing the different domains of identity raises good points to ponder for my project. Maybe instead of “Finding a voice,” I’m after “Who am I to care?”

    Mike C.

  2. Daniel Hartley says:

    Hi Mike, thanks for your comment. I must admit that I’m not a theology student, so have never read any Moltmann (or any other major theologians, to tell the truth!). I’m a literature/ literary theory student, so very much the theological amateur. That said, if I understand what you’re saying, then I think I agree with the overall thesis regarding the consequences of a unified self. It’s interesting – I’d never really thought of a unified self as a potentially bad thing! Maybe the key is the drive towards (eschatologically speaking) a unified self that will never actually materialise. In fact, a drive towards unification is only possible so long as the self is already split; once unified, there’s no self left to appreciate it…maybe.

    That said, we should perhaps draw a line between ‘healthily’ split selves and alienated selves.

    My initial thoughts on care and identity are very simple and oft repeated. If I imagine myself as a finished whole, as a single complete monad, then it is unlikely I will look to others either as carer or to be cared for. An identity which is perceived as complete is almost necessarily closed off to other identities. If you’re looking at international affairs, then surely ideology must come into this. Ideology in this case is what tells a poor white worker that the blacks in his community are coming to threaten his entire ‘way of life’ – the latter left conveniently vague. This ‘way of life’ is what ‘we’ have secret knowledge of, but which ‘they’ threaten. ‘We’ are complete, our identities are like fortresses against foreign invaders…

  3. Daniel Hartley says:

    …What this ignores is that any identity produced by conscious, linguistic animals (i.e. we humans) is necessarily not-at-one with itself, it is inherently incomplete and constantly open to others. The role of ideology is to hide that openness, to make us think we are closed and finished, to force us back inside the fortress of ourselves and keep the enemy at the gates.

    Unless you tackle this, caring is out of the question. So perhaps one way of keeping this open is precisely what I discussed in my article as a potentially negative thing (ironically): the various discourses which interweave to produce my sense of self.

    Hope those brief, unsystematic thoughts help!

  4. Mike Cantley says:

    Hi Daniel, and yes it helps! I appreciate your feedback. You’ve given me some good things to work on here. Not least of which is the paradox of the “unified self.” I’m like you, somewhat surprised to find a downside to unification, but articulating these scenarios helps me imagine better aspirations and ends for our “selves” too. That’s the piece that reminded me of Moltmann. (BTW—I’m a rookie theologian, so my sketch is neither sacred nor sure!) Moltmann said something along the lines of God being able to see the total person—the effects of a life on others and everything. That’s a fascinating perspective to consider the unified self. But good, bad—whatever—it quickly takes us into other fun theological and epistemic pools.

    One example: Can we, through God’s grace, give all of those domains of the self to the glory of Christ, knowing only his Way in every dimension or domain?

    On a different note, but still spurred by your reflection, think of how the domains of identity, vivified by the actuality of others and genuine otherness, point toward an amazing Creator. To set otherness in motion at all would be a decision to give up that monopoly we talked about!

    I will visit with you more (already jotting…). You’ve got good things for me to work through!

    Mike C.

  5. Mike Cantley says:


    You’ve still got me brewing on goodies from your original post. The variety of domains for identity surely wouldn’t dictate dis-unification or disintegration unless we elect to be something different in each domain. Even changing voices is not changing the sender qua sender, is it? Rethinking our original thoughts from that angle might reframe who ‘I’ am as well. Instead of “‘I’ [being] the particular interstitial gap generated by the mismatch of these three languages [or different domains],” ‘I’ can remain the sum of those domains and interstitial gaps. Whether you are writing or I am playing guitar for varied audiences, the communication takes bringing our participation—bringing our very identity–into the domain. But here is the delineation you rightly nailed from the get-go: This is a matter of voice variation. I simply needed to include for my project the clarification that this is not identity variation.

    You also said, “Secondly, the historical epoch is such that an integrated identity is denied me. Life is so decompartmentalized that no one discourse seems capable of encompassing the totality.” Pressing all of this further, I think you are likely (and rightly) meaning the integrated voice is what is denied us in the historical epoch. The historical epoch presses us into reality and participation, and otherness calls forth the varied voices.

    Another “rethink” for me has been on my initial response to your post: I said, “To attain that unified, appropriate discourse would shatter (or subsume) otherness, it seems.” I’m definitely now distinguishing this singular, monopolized voice now from the–very different–unified identity. I was conflating the two as I responded initially. Now, I’m thinking the unified self is a grand goal, especially giving our selves and attending the domains to be found “in Christ” (as per Philippians 3:8-21), but the singular voice or monopolized voice would be the ideology you mentioned. The ‘healthily’ split selves and alienated selves you brought out is excellent stuff to flesh out here. And you’re right on with how the closed identity excluding care. This is the likely one of the foundational elements of my whole gig.

    Throw me a bone if you think of more goodies for my project! Thanks again,
    Mike C.

  6. Mike C. says:


    Thought of you today…Just read Carol Newsome’s brief piece on Bakhtin in Handbook of Postmodern Bibilical Interpretation, ed. by A.K.M. Adam. More interesting goodies on voice I thought you’d dig.

    Mike C.

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