Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Megan D. McCabe, "Authoring Adoptee Identity"

Megan D. McCabe

Authoring Adoptee Identity

The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb "to be," but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction "and.and.and." This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb “to be.”
—Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Today, we tend to conceive of identity as a work-in-progress, something that is changeable and fluid rather than stable or pre-determined. While we have moved away from understanding identity as essential and fixed, postmodern critiques of identity politics offer little guidance for understanding how identity as process, identity as work-in-progress, might be lived out in people’s everyday lives. How do people create identities that are fluid and dynamic, especially as much of the social and political environment still favors that which is stable, coherent, and classifiable?

In this essay, I suggest that even within a “post-identity politics” intellectual milieu, theoretical work that takes seriously the ways people live and experience identity/identities is not only relevant but also vital to cultural studies. That said, I suggest not that cultural studies recuperate past essentialist or unitary models of identity; rather, I argue that postmodern views of identity as fluid and dynamic are not only fitting, but also necessary, for contemporary subjects who negotiate multiple, often contradictory definitions of experience, heritage, and knowledge. Here, I focus specifically on Korean-American adoptee identity. Like other so-called “hyphenated” identities, Korean-American adoptees might be regarded as emblematic of current, accepted notions of identity as multiple and heterogeneous. At the same time, Korean-American adoptees also illustrate the pragmatic difficulty of articulating and living identity as multiple, fluid, and process-oriented, especially in the shadow of what has proved to be an intransigent model of identity as unitary, fixed, and rooted in essences. While international adoption is an increasingly common method of family formation in the United States, adoptees continue to be constructed as liminal subjects, described as caught between two different cultures, histories, or nationalities. Thus, even as recent theoretical understandings of identity have tended to move away from an emphasis on essential origins and toward constructions of identity as dynamic and process-oriented, adoptee identity is still overwhelmingly associated with the reclamation of roots, heritage, and lost origins.

The question, then, it seems is one that asks, “How?” – How do Korean-American adoptees articulate the multiplicity, fluidity, and inconsistencies of identity in a way that nevertheless recognizes the continued political and social currency of identities that are coherent, articulated, and intelligible? In other words, how do Korean-American adoptees carve out and inhabit a space in “the aporia between identity and difference”?
[1] In this essay, I suggest that technologies of representation and communication offer not only an answer as to how subjects can articulate complex identities, but also that these technologies offer valuable means by which to understand more fully how identity is and can be theorized.

I propose hypertext, a virtual and nonlinear medium, as a tool for illustrating identity as fluid and process-oriented and, in authoring my own hypertextual autobiography, explore its possibilities for representing Korean-American adoptee identity specifically. While notions of identity as multiple, changeable, and fluid are commonly invoked in culture today, they are too rarely embodied or tangibly represented. This essay attempts to address this omission, suggesting that, through hypertext, a theory of identity as dynamic and in-progress may be put into practice and, in so doing, be greater understood.

Hypertext: Representing Adoptee Identity

Technologically, hypertext is not new; its particular qualities, however, make it a simple and well-suited tool for exploring Korean-American adoptee identity and the process of identity formation, or identity authorship, itself. Theorist N. Katherine Hayles writes that electronic media such as hypertext translate “materially resistant text” into “text-as-flickering-image,” a transformation that challenges certain binary constructions such as stability and instability, presence and absence.
[2] Adoptee identity, which is often associated with absence, with a lack of origins or roots, is simultaneously also described in terms of presence, of the adoptee’s presence as the highly visible racial/ethnic other. Hypertext, which problematizes binaries such as presence and absence or difference and belonging, is thus well-suited to the contradictions and paradoxes involved in adoptee identity construction.

As a Korean adoptee, I acknowledge the power that particular constructions of origins, which locate identity in biology and authenticity in origins, still hold over many of our cultural definitions of self. I propose a view of adoptee identity that recognizes the pull of biology, but that simultaneously resists the notion of an exclusive or essential origin as the locus of “true” identity. Central to this view is the role of creativity and the creative process in identity formation. Hypertext becomes a metaphor for identity, its authorship echoing the creative process involved in exploring memory, experience, and self-representation. The authoring of hypertext involves the nomadic movement through varied texts; its piece-by-piece creation resonates with an understanding of identity-construction as a piecemeal enterprise, a putting-together of many, heterogeneous elements from disparate sources.

Hypertext’s ability to link pages of text and image allows for juxtaposition and the different, even contradictory, representation of meanings within the same (hyper)textual space. For example, in my hypertext, I quote, on one page, a
brochure produced by a summer camp, “Camp Sejong,” that caters to Korean-American adopted children and their families:

Internationally-adopted Korean-American children straddle two different worlds: American in culture and lifestyle, but Korean by birth. Most of these children have never been back to Korea and many have had little or no contact with other Korean-Americans. Camp Sejong provides an opportunity for these children to make a critical link to their Korean heritage.

The quote expresses a dominant construction of adoptees as caught between “two different worlds,” divided and rootless. The page links, via the word “link,” to another page, titled “
Stitch,” which features a poem about the act of hyphenation (as in the term “Korean-American”). The poem seeks to re-define the hyphen, interpreting it not as a division or as indicative of a tear in the seamless fabric of identity, but as an act of suture. The poem re-imagines the hyphen as “a stitch, a bit of thread,” which works ambiguously:

is like a stitch, a bit of thread,
holding together
two continents.

Maybe it extends forever,
a line segment, invisibly shooting
straight out from both ends to infinity.

If you cut it straight through
perhaps you'd get two stitches: twins,
clones, an even number at least
or the start of a pattern of stitches,
a seam.
you could suture
a long and jagged tear.
you could mend something,
you could close a gap, something ugly,
something lovely.

The page relates to 1) the act of adoption, as a “stitching together” of family, 2) to adoptee identity as a heterogeneous suturing of cultures, geographies, and temporalities, and 3) to the creation of hypertext, itself, which involves the non-linear linking together of text and image through electronic space.

The choice to link text from a camp brochure to a poem about adoption and the feeling of being rent, sewn, opened, and closed highlights the surprising, associative meanings that reside in apparently disparate texts. The act of linking performs a productive, purposeful mis-reading which I see as one way adoptees can re-author identity in unexpected ways. The poem “
Stitch,” for example, inhabits the textual space of the camp brochure, literally using it as a doorway to its own unfolding, to a new opening up of space that extends creatively and spontaneously.

Importantly, the mis-reading from which the poem emerges (mis-reading the word “link” in the brochure as “stitch,” and then re-imagining it within the poem) is a productive but not destructive act. The poem does not erase, obscure, or degrade the camp brochure text, even as it interprets that text in non-expected, even deviant, ways. The mis-reading approximates theorist Gilles Deleuze’s notion of difference as creative and positive rather than negative, annihilating. Difference assumes the form of poetry, of creativity in a newly opened space. It upends “official” adoption discourse (the camp brochure), but in a way that is not violent, that does not seek to annihilate its interlocutor which, after all, is its own dwelling-place. Such an interpretation of difference acknowledges the adoptee’s need to live not only with, but through contradiction, and indicates an ecology of liminal spaces and subjects of which adoptees take part.

The page titled “Stitch” also links, via the word “twins,” to a page called “Sister.” “
Sister” narrates my memory of meeting my biological sister for the first time, both of us adults:

When I first saw my sister, whom I had never seen before but whom I instantly recognized, I found that suddenly I could not sense my own body. It was as though there was a rule: either she or I could exist – not both, but either the one or the other. And so, there I was – bodiless, a bundle of nerves released of their flesh…

Here, the hypertext skips through space and time, performing, in a sense, the multi-temporal, multi-spatial process of stitching together adoptee identity. Such a view of identity rejects definitions that fixate on a singular and essential origin, instead contending that identity is dispersed over many temporalities and many geographies, all in a continual process of reference and counter-reference.

The content of “
Sister” is about recognition and embodiment and also, about a paradoxical moment when I saw, in my Korean sister, the image of myself reflected back to me. On one hand, I identified my sister as other, as not-me; on the other hand, however, it was the first time I had encountered someone to whom I bore familial resemblance. The effect was paradoxical, for unlike the image of myself in the mirror, which serves to affirm via its status as “image” my reality, my sister was not an image. She was real – and her flesh-and-blood reality seemed to confuse my own sense of embodiment. The ironic statement: “And so, there I was – bodiless…” registers as an indication of the paradoxical, contradictory nature of that experience.

Deleuze and Guattari have a concept of a “Body without Organs” (BwO) which is virtual and “deterritorialised” – that is, stripped of signification and subjectivity, a purely potential body that is continually “becoming,” and which is thus theorized as an infinite event (“you are forever attaining it, it is a limit”).
[5] Hypertexts represent bodies without organs; like the BwO, the hypertext is deterritorialised. It moves its reader nomadically, through a virtual, electronic space that is extendable, mutable, and that is continuously in the state of becoming. Representing adoptee identity through hypertext becomes an exercise, then, in theorizing identity as a BwO. It is an ironic gesture toward a dis-embodiment and de-materialization of the self that is, according to Deleuzean theory, redemptive rather than reductive or annihilating. As the hypertext instantiates, dis-embodiment and de-materialization do not necessitate an erasure of identity; on the contrary, the move toward a deterritorialised notion of self is creative, spontaneous, and productive.

Donna Haraway’s
cyborg is similarly deterritorialised and, in the language of Haraway’s Manifesto, is “illegitimate,” the unintended offspring of contemporary political and social systems. The cyborg becomes an appealing model for a new construction of adoptee identity that similarly appropriates and inverts the language of illegitimacy. Korean adoptee and author Rebecca Hurdis has poignantly reflected on the tenacious hold that the discourse of illegitimacy continues to have over adoptee subjectivity:

I have inherited not only the black hair, round face, small hands, and full lips of my birth mother, but I also have inherited the lineage of illegitimacy. My birth mother's illegitimacy flows through my consciousness just as her blood does. First and foremost, my existence lies in the exploitation of my birth mother. I am a product of the transnational relationship between Korea and the United States because I am their creation and their capitalist commodity. But despite my initial location in Korea and my relocation to the United States, I am destined to remain an illegitimate subject.

Hurdis’s statement is testament to the pervasive power that ideologies of biology and nature hold over the experience and construction of adoptee identity. Through the appropriation and revision of discourses of illegitimacy and origins, however, adoptees can create new, habitable identities.

In my hypertext, I include an
image of my “Social and Health History” document, which was issued at the time of my adoption. The document indicates, with an “x,” that I was “Illegitimate” and “Abandoned.” The document testifies to the immense definitional weight the label of illegitimacy carries with it; yet, it also illustrates the absurdity of categorization and the constructedness of kinship systems in general. The document, in its terseness, in the strangely totalizing and violent way the “x” figures on the page, represents the powerful and yet strangely arbitrary way such classifications define our constructions of identity. My choice to include the document is in recognition of the power of labels such as “illegitimate” and “abandoned”; yet, it is also to gesture toward an appropriation of those terms, an understanding of adoptee identity as the process of living, not “with” or “despite” illegitimacy, but through it – through the appropriation and reinterpretation of illegitimacy as a creative, deterritorialised, and fluid space for identity formation.

In the hypertext, my BwO, I gather the texts and images that have come to define me and, with that act of gathering, that act of adopting, I see-saw back against my own construction, authoring myself anew. The adoptee identity, then, becomes an adopt-ed identity – non-essential, mutable, fluid, and creative. The hypertext allows me to continuously add to it; the process of weaving identity is on-going, and the ability to differentially enter and re-enter the text supports a notion of identity that can be both familiar and secure, as well as mobile and spontaneous. With these intentions, dreams, and imaginings in mind, I invite you, the reader, to enter the space of my hypertext and to explore it as a virtual representation of adoptee/adopted identity – identity that is multiple, heterogeneous and continually in

Works Cited:

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Foucault, Michel. D. F. Bouchard, ed. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

“Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16:1 (1986): 22-27.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers,” October 86 (Fall, 1993): 69-91.

Hurdis, Rebecca. “Lifting the Shroud of Silence: A Korean Adoptee's Search for Truth, Legitimacy, and Justice,” in Kathleen Ja Sook Bergquist, et al., eds. International Korean Adoption: A Fifty-Year History of Policy and Practice. New York: The Haworth Press, 2007.

McComiskey, Bruce. “Composing Postmodern Subjectivities in the Aporia between Identity and Difference.” Rhetoric Review 15:2 (Spring 1997): 350-364.

Online Sources:

Camp Sejong,


[1] Bruce McComiskey, “Composing Postmodern Subjectivities in the Aporia between Identity and Difference,” Rhetoric Review 15.2 (Spring 1997): 350-364.

[2] N. Katherine Hayles, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers,” October 86 (Fall, 1993): 69-91.

[3] As Donna Haraway writes, we are “not born in a garden,” possessing a “unitary identity.”

[4] Camp Sejong (Camp Brochure). Accessed at www.koreanfocus.org/kffiles/sejongbrochure05.pdf on November 3, 2007.

[5] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. 149-150.

[6] Rebecca Hurdis, “Lifting the Shroud of Silence: A Korean Adoptee's Search for Truth, Legitimacy, and Justice,” in Kathleen Ja Sook Bergquist, et al., eds. International Korean Adoption: A Fifty-Year History of Policy and Practice. New York: The Haworth Press, 2007. 178-179.


Megan D. McCabe received a Bachelor's degree from Cornell University and a Master's degree from Georgetown University. She continues to explore cultural constructions of identity, origins, and representation in her academic and creative work. Megan lives in Washington, D.C. with her very small hamster, Pastina.

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