BEYOND IDENTITY (Overwriting identity, overriding identity politics)
(Translation of a statement for a debate held in Leuven on November 19 2013 with Peter De Roovere, Chief-Politic of Doorbraak (Breakthrough) and Honorary President of the Flemish People’s Movement (now co-opted in the mean time by NV-A ), and Adreas Tires, from Liberales, a (neo)liberal think tank, in the Delta Foundation - a think tank inspired by Alain De Benoist, one of the main thinker of the so called ‘nouvelle droite’, the new right … Of course it is also and above all a philosophical open letter to Bart De Wever, leader of NV_A, a separatist, neoconservative party then about to become and became the biggest party in Belgium in ‘the mother of all elections’ – May 25 2014.)
Upon close inspection, identity does not exist. It is a dangerous fiction. For three main reasons. Firstly - simply put: you are not, you become. The term ‘identity’ tries to fix this ‘becoming’ into ‘being’. Hegel understood this. In his ‘Logic’, he rediscovered the ancient dialectic: it is true that day and night are complete opposites but, equally true is: day is on its way to become night and night is on its way to become day. Dialectical becoming. Seeing the identity (on a higher level) of the contradictions between matter and spirit, between the ephemeral and the eternal, between husband and wife, etc., is what since Lao Tze is called insight. But even there, in the deepest and highest regions of thinking, identity is still dangerous. Contrary to Hegel, Adorno has made ‘the non-identical’ one of the key concepts of his thought: in all identifications the concrete, the different, the deviant, the marginal is silenced.
So for the sake of clarity: it is good to choose. In this debate about identity, I consciously choose the becoming, the non-identical, the deferring of the difference (with Derrida): the delaying of the difference, the refusing to fixate the difference into an identity. Men are…, women are…, the Flemish are,… the Dutch are… - this kind of identities, based on differences, deliver nothing but clichés and nonsense.
This contradiction between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, is reflected in the almost equally ancient and heated discussion on Nature and Culture. Of course there are the genes (nature), but there is equally as much history (culture). In debating nature versus nurture, we have to choose nurture because many of the stereotypes are naturalized for instance in the question of gender: male/female-patterns are mostly cultural constructs and the result of a process of socialization. Identity is the naturalization, the projection and fixation in a ‘nature’ of cultural socialization and processes of becoming.
This brings us to the second point: identity (I don’t change every day, so there is indeed a continuity, a ‘being’ underneath the ‘becoming’) is ‘multi-level’, so more of a plurality. It seems almost superfluous to explain this on the basis of an example, but okay, here we go: beside man, I am a father, Pater familias but also bon vivant, maybe even libertine. I think in a ‘Flemish’ way (as I am formed by the patterns of my mother tongue and habitat) but also in a Greek way (as a philosopher) and even a Jewish way (as I studied many Jewish thinkers as well as the gospel, the Kabbalah - read hundreds of pages of Scholem - and finally Marx and Freud, and Benjamin and Adorno and Derrida). I am beside an activist also an aesthete. While I am heterosexual, I have an eye for the bisexual in all of us and in all our relationships. And so on. In short: it is not about fixating identity, but about enriching it. Identiy is a palimpsest, a text in several layers on top of each other, so would call it a lasagna. In a sense enriching your identity is overwriting your identity.
This is why ‘identity’ is also a relational concept: it is constructed in relation to others (which is emphasised by Alain De Benoist, well known within the Delta Foundation, in his lecture ‘On Identity’). Identity is basically a social mask. Therefore I say to the youth: ‘do not seek your identity, but set yourself free from it by enriching your identity as much as possible, by assuming other identities and turning your identity into a plurality. Do not try to become the image that others have of you, but break through the social mirror. Resist conformism, even your own tendency to conform to your models, fashion, etc’.
Collective identity is, according to the same Alain De Benoist, unconscious until the advent of modernity which blots out the old traditions. Modernity with its universalism and progress, means a loss of tradition, loss of identity. So, in modernity identity, and primarily the collective identity, becomes a problem. Capitalism has a deep tendency to erases all difference through the universal equivalence of money. Alain De Benoist too points to capitalism as a major culprit to the loss of (collective) identity. It is difficult to deny. This has been aggravated thanks to globalization: There will always be a loss of identity in globalization. This is why the wave of identity politics which we now experience is a reaction to globalization (as a uniformity). We experience indeed a sort of epidemic of identity politics. And this brings us to our third point: identity is a dangerous word because it is the basis of identity politics.
The unconscious identity is deliberately used in identity politics for political purposes and thus becomes a caricature of itself. Sociological (or anthropological) plurality (or plural individuality) is politically forged into identity, in many cases national but it may as well be a religious or ethnic identity, through fictions and fixations. Fixations: the hardworking Flemish versus the lazy Walloon, the Burgundian Belgian versus the stingy Dutch. Fictions: the heroic national history and its own greatest cultural products are ‘nationalised’ - Bruegel for instance lived long before Belgium existed and he has therefore little or nothing to do with Belgium or even Flanders.
Identity politics are always a bad romance: it does not want a broadening but a fixation onto a largely fictional national, religious or ethnic identity: the invention of tradition, the invention of a grand history with heroes like Jan Breydel and Pieter Deconinck, two legendary, largely fictional leaders of a historical uprising, recast as a ‘Flemish’ uprising against the ‘French’, in the nationalist classic novel ‘The lion of Flanders’ by Hendrik Conscience. It is forbidden to laugh about it. Tom Lanoye, our famous writer, is, according to Bart De Wever, leader of the separatist party, not allowed to say ‘De Leeuw Van Vlaanderen’ is a ‘shit book’. And the proposed name change of the Deconinck Square in Antwerp (from ‘Pieter’ to ‘Herman’ – alluding to poet who a recently died) made him furious. But art does not lend itself to national myths and constructions of identity. Culture should project a national identity. Because, to stick to our example, novels are precisely the genre par excellence of inwardness, ambiguity, complexity, doubt. Nationalist novels are like the history paintings hidden in the cellars of our museums: bad art. Art in service of cultural national identity is fake art (,Mister De Wever). Cultural identity politics are trying to silence the artists and intellectuals for the sake of the political purpose. And that is objectionable. Arts and culture ain’t no lubricant.
One could minimalize this: historical myths and famous figures of the past are politically used to create a (continuous, transhistorical) identity throughout the centuries. Nothing wrong, you could say. But. Identity becoming political is extremely dangerous. All politics is based on adversaries facing each other, identity politics however think not only in terms of us and them, butgives it a sort of deep ontological, religious and often ethnic root, that precludes all dialogue. Political Islam, fundamentalism, is a caricature of Islam, but this is what makes it dangerous: pagans or renegades, these ‘others’ have to be killed to establish the pure identity of the religious utopia, the Caliphate. Identity politics become murderous very quickly (after the wonderful essay of the great novelist Amin Malouf: Identités Meurtrières - as a Lebanese Christian Malouf knows this topic very well). One can also think of Ku Kux Clan or the ruthless fanaticism of Jewish colonists, whih is at the same time nationalist, racial and religious. Identity politics are feeding civil war and is feeding itself with civil war. Examples: Rwanda, Iraq, Syria. And that, precisely that is what we do not need at this moment in history.
Once identity becomes political, it ends up in a murderous logic. In Iraq, Sunni and Shia were marrying each other, but once identity politics (introduced by the Americans by the way) got the upper hand, these couples had to divorce as civil war began. This civil war is still latent, or according to some, continuing: ethnic cleansing, systematic abduction and killing of Sunni academics, etc. That is the problem with the civil war: once the evil spirit is out of the bottle, it simmers latently. Think of Beirut. It could explode at any moment. In each house there are weapons… To make a long story short: politics is about avoiding civil war.
The difference between Shia and Sunni is almost incomprehensible or at least minute to outsiders. This is what Appadurai (with Freud) calls: ‘the narcissism of the smallest difference’: I hate the other because he is not entirely what I am. He is so similar to me, that he threatens my identity. The difference between the Flemish and the Walloons? I would not know. Then what is the difference? Try to explain it to a foreigner. Good luck. Not that we should erase differences, but by thinking them, not in terms of identity thinking but in terms of ‘deferring’ (differentiation is not only a difference but especially a delay – as Derrida suggested). For example: men and women are different, but please let us not objectify this difference, reify or naturalize into a fixed identity but ‘defer’ it, delay it.
A similar debate as the one between becoming versus being or nature versus culture, is the one between Romanticism or Enlightenment. Enlightement defended universality and progress to a brighter future, Romanticism stressed the loss and the value of particularity, national identity, the charms of the past. What we need is a dialectic between Romanticism and Enlightenment. The one cannot exist without the other. Is Rousseau Enlightenment or Romanticism? Both of these. We should not desperately cling to a lost identity which we project in an idealized past or a utopian future out of romantic sentiments (as a recovery of history, such as nationalism or mutatis mutandis the fundamentalist caliphate). We should multiply our identities by embracing the diversity and affirm the genesis of globalization. We don’t need to say farewell to our identity, but we have to go beyond it.
Therefore, three conclusions, three programmatic targets: 1) against identity thinking (or identity philosophy) 2) in favour of ‘plurality-thinking’ (not thinking in ‘identity’ but in ‘becoming’, ‘differentiation’ and ‘plurality’), and 3) radically opposing any form of identity politics! Identity politic have to be, especially at this moment in history, philosophically (!) exterminated. Or else we will exterminate each other.
Lieven De Cauter
(translation: Geoffrey Roose - and with thanks to my other students of the master at RITS, school of arts, for their suggestions and the good discussion).