17. Identity is not what it seems

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Salvador Cardús
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and member of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans


In ‘Je, nous et les autres’ (Le Pommier, 1999),the anthropologist François Laplantine argues that the concept of identity is as ideologically powerful as it is epistemologically weak. He is absolutely right. We talk about the identity of countries, age or gender groups, political parties, or individuals as though we knew what we were referring to. We refer to alleged identity conflicts as though they were the cause of most of the current major confrontations. As Ferran Sáez explained in “Ara tot són conflictes identitaris” (El Temps, 23/05/2016), there has been a shift from seeing ideological clashes everywhere to seeing them as being based on identity, almost without our being aware of this. A great deal of literature from the social sciences, but above all plenty of political analysis and journalism, resorts to the idea of identity to describe social processes, but such works always end up at—or start out from—a blind spot: knowing exactly what they are talking about.

Common sense, often aided by simplistic theories, implies that identity is something profound, and that it answers the question about “what is” Catalan or to be Catalan, or Spanish, or young, or a woman, or a socialist or so-and-so. And to do this, people turn to a series of content that supposedly is not only common to all involved in this identity but also consistent and sufficiently internally coherent so as to be characterizable. And, of course, a certain stability is supposed, without which there would be no way for these elements—which are about “character,” “culture,” “mentality” or who really knows what—to really constitute something shared. And yet, there is nothing as impossible as making this list without falling into stereotype, caricature or cliché.

The error of these approaches is precisely this: the question about identity that helps us to know what we are talking about is not the “what is being” this or that. In other words, the error is to consider identity as an essence or as content, whether this essence refers to the past, a tradition or a history, or whether it refers to the future, a project or a desire.

One could be radical and kill off debate by saying that identities do not exist, as Laplantine asserts. After all, dead dogs don’t bite. But let’s be clear: what does not exist is identity as content—essential identity—whether as a past, present or future. On the other hand, what do exist—and then some!—are discourses on identity. And they all refer to a system of social relations in which there is a fight for recognition and, therefore, for a space of social power. That is, they are discourses in a powerful sense of the word: expressions of a will to power. And, to demand this recognition, a supposed “essential substance”—one often attributed with an almost sacred, untouchable character—that apparently must justify the space of power occupied is turned to. We might say, paraphrasing Benedict Anderson (‘Imagined Communities’. Verso, 1983) when he discussed nations, that identities are also “imagined.” That is, we tell “stories” or narratives that serve the fight to exist socially, whether we are talking about nations, gender identifications, age groups, institutions, ideologies or individuals.

If all this is the case, it is possible to arrive at some conclusions that I soon hope to develop through an essay of a length that a line of argument of this gravity requires. First of all, it seems obvious that debates on identity are debates on crises of recognition. If recognition is satisfactory to both parties—the recognizing party and the recognized one, generally on a reciprocal basis—then there is no concern regarding identity and there is indifference toward it, as Albert Sánchez Piñol masterfully explains in the article “La metàfora del Pigmeu” (‘La Vanguardia’, 16/11/2014). Second, and paradoxically, it is necessary to realize that identities are only exacerbated and expressed so explicitly, and sometimes violently, if they lack recognition. I say paradoxically, because recognition is what makes them invisible, or if one prefers to put it another way, unquestionable and, in short, obvious.

Third—and perhaps this is the most amazing consequence for the common approaches—recognized identities do not exhibit themselves but instead hide. That is, they avoid the impossible mission of saying who or what people are. As individuals or as a social group, we usually comprise diverse, contradictory and confusing elements. And the elements that are not confusing often make us the same as the people from whom we attempt to differentiate ourselves. The day when we Catalans can go around the world and answer the question “What are you?” with a simple “I am Catalan” and instead of receiving the usual reply of “And what is being Catalan?” we simply get an “Ah!” of positive recognition (whatever the implicit assumptions of this “Ah!” may be) will be the day when our identity problems are over.

Fourth, and consequently, identities only recognize rather than know one another. Successful coexistence—the result of respecting everyone’s social spaces—is not based on a thorough knowledge of the other, but simply—and precisely because there is mutual recognition—on overlooking the other’s identity. Or, as Manel Delgado puts it more accurately, it is based on respecting the other’s “right to indifference,” which is what is required to regulate and guarantee the public space. That is, it rests on there being no obligation—on the part of individuals as such, or of men or women as a gender, or of nations as a cultural or political unit—to give an explanation of what they are, why they are what they are, why they want to be what they want to be, and so on. To put forward an example that I have already argued in favour of at other times: a good relationship between various faiths that occupy the same public space does not involve undertaking complex—and well intentioned—processes of interreligious dialogue and gaining a deep understand of each belief system (a perfectly respectable goal from other points of view). Instead, it is simply a matter of getting to a point where such personal affiliations are not the object of interest and may be deserving—if I may put it thus—of an Olympian indifference. Precisely what we appreciate so much about a secular society is that nobody has to give explanations of whether or not he or she is a believer, or of “exactly” what he or she believes and why.

Certainly, there are identities that kill when they are affirmed by denying those before them, as Amin Maalouf says (‘In the Name of Identity’. Arcade, 2012). But there are ones that become an instrument of self-defence and that save and allow survival in the face of genocide attempts against peoples, languages, cultures, gender identifications or people individually considered. All this is based on the understanding that what kills or saves is not any specific content but rather the type of relationship that is established to annihilate others or to gain recognition that they must be saved.

In view of the above, my thesis is that identity is a skin. This metaphor greatly facilitates an understanding of this alternative analytical perspective that makes current debates on identity much clearer, and it is one that I am happy to expand upon for anyone who may be interested.

Stanford University. November 2016