Against Identity

by Leon Wieseltier | November 27, 1994

Every culture has its preferred description of the human distinction. These descriptions are analytical and homiletical. We call ourselves not only what we are, but also what we seek to be. This is stirring, but it is also corrupting. It allows us to see the one in the other, to mistake what we aspire to be for what we are. A good rule of thumb is: we are never already what we should be.

In our culture, the preferred descriptions have included: the soul, the nous (and other appellations for the mind), the self, the ego, the person. In our time, the preferred description is: identity. In America, but not only in America, we are choking on identity. And not only on the identity of others; we are choking also on the identity of our own. What if the disgruntlement of America is owed to something deeper than reading lists and admissions policies and schemes of preferment? What if we are presenting ourselves to each other, and to ourselves, in a manner that simplifies, and distorts, and provokes? What if we are preferring a coarse and troublesome description?

"I seize the word identity," wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1965, "It is a key word. You hear it over and over again." A few years earlier there appeared a book that portrayed the United States as The Identity Society. Identity, according to Erik Erikson, writing in the 1950s, is "vague," "ambiguous," "unfathomable," "colloquial," "naive," "all-pervasive." Identity was certainly one of the most repercussive contributions of the social sciences to American culture. But what was it? For many intellectuals in post-war America, identity was what alienation was not. For Erikson, it was a slogan for the end of childhood, for the crucible of adolescence, for the success of socialization. Identity smelled like teen spirit. (The crucible of adolescence: that is an example of Eriksonian sentimentality.) Finally Erikson's influence on the American obsession with identity was less a theory than a mood. He made identity into a romance.

The idea of identity originates, of course, in logic. A = A. This is an assertion of sameness and an assertion of difference. An object is the same as all the objects that are like itself, and it is different from all the objects that are not like itself. Now consider an analogy between the logical relation and the social relation. A = A. The question, What is your identity?, is really the question, Who are you like? Identity, in other words, is a euphemism for conformity. It announces a desire to be subsumed, an eagerness to be known primarily by a common characteristic. I say primarily, since identity need not be perfect to be strong. Logicians talk of "identity in difference." Objects that are the same with respect to one criterion of identity may be different with respect to another criterion of identity. And it is never the case, even with simple objects, that there is a single criterion of identity. The ascription of identity, then, is the consequence of a choice among the criteria of identity. We have many likenesses, but we do not reward them all with significance.

A = A. This is also a way of saying that A does not equal B. Which might bruise B. There is solace, to be sure. It is that B = B. But this is also a way of saying that B does not equal A. Which might bruise A. Identity is very social, but it is not very sociable. For the definition of the individual that it provides is not least a negative definition, a definition not only in terms of what one is, but also in terms of what one is not; and such a definition of the same will often be experienced by the other as a rejection. Identity is an insulation; a doctrine of aversion; an exaltation of impassability. The bad news (and for democrats, the good news) is that the insulation is never adequate. The borders are permeable, and strange gods slip across.

Identity is not to be mistaken for individuality. Individuality is ancient, identity is modern. In his last essay, in 1938, Marcel Mauss observed: "It is plain that there has never existed a human being who has not been aware, not only of his body, but also at the same time of his individuality, both spiritual and physical." It is more plausible to think of identity as the solution to the problem of individuality.

It is never long before identity is reduced to loyalty.

An affiliation is not an experience. It is, in fact, a surrogate for experience. Where the faith in God is wanting, there is still religious identity. Where the bed is cold and empty, there is still sexual identity. Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity, the louder.

The hardest thing in America is to be what one is softly.

Private identity is an oxymoron. Identity is public; it is how one is known. Secret identity, by contrast, is entirely possible. It is not a reflection of inward realities, but of outward realities. Secret identity is a stratagem for survival, the characteristic improvisation of a minority in danger. It has a long, bleak past.The history of the Jews is replete with instances of desperate and dignified self-concealment, most dramatically in fifteenth-century Spain, and so is the history of homosexuality. (For all the African American anxiety about "passing," it is one of the defining hardships of this minority that its identity cannot be hidden.)

Identity in bad times is not like identity in good times. The vigorous expression of identity in the face of oppression is not an exercise of narcissism, it is an exercise of heroism. And those qualities of identity that seem vexing in good times -- the soldierliness and the obsession with solidarity, the renunciation of individual development in the name of collective development, the reliance on symbolic action, the belief in the cruelty of the world and the eternity of struggle -- are precisely the qualities that provide the social and psychological foundations for resistance. For this reason, it is impertinent to address the criticism of identity to those whose existence is threatened. Still, justice sometimes comes. And when it comes, it is sometimes bewildering, because it proposes peace to selves that have been arranged for war. The identity that altered history yesterday is redundant today. The outer discontinuity demands an inner discontinuity, which is wrenching. Unless a rupture of identity is accomplished, there will be justice, but there will not be peace.

Identity is too eager to commemorate itself. (Or is this just Jewish identity?)

Who are you? Even when you know the answer, it is not an easy question.

The spell of identity is not difficult to comprehend. Hume's nightmare, we might call our situation. With his pained discussion of personal identity, Hume ended his quest for "the uninterrupted and invariable object." He failed to find it. He found instead that "the mind is a kind of theatre.... Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment." There was nothing steady, nothing firm, nothing solid; only associations and patterns of associations. Hume's pages were written in a tone of affable despair. And this was two centuries before our bacchanal of associations! The stimulations have never been faster or fiercer than they are today. The technology of information from which we prosper, and from which we suffer, makes the clutter that perplexed Hume look like order, and his mind's theater look like a place of repose. We are unprecedentedly dispersed and unprecedentedly distracted. Hume took some comfort from the operation of memory, which confers a sense of continuity; but memory in the modern world is disappearing beneath the assault of associations. We are carrying too much. We are falling out of our hands. We need a basket. The name of the basket is identity.

We have a craving for specificity, but we love also to sneak away from specificity. We want to be one thing, but not any longer this one thing or again that one thing. We have a fear of being nothing and a fantasy of being everything, but we do not see that everything is a busy version of nothing. So one cheer for identity: it imposes discipline. It is the enemy of "the protean self."

A proponent of "the protean self" praises it for its "radical fluidity, functional wisdom and a quest for at least minimal form," which is the appropriate response to "the flux of our time." "The protean self," says Robert Jay Lifton, is characterized by "serial equipoise" and "rolling configurations." It "can transcend time and space -- to contain simultaneously elements from highly divergent historical periods and equally divergent geographical and cultural places. The protean self need not be just here or there but can be here and there...." And so on. Lifton is right that the self is resilient; but surely resilience is the antithesis of malleability. To change is to survive, but it is not to resist. And "here and there" is not an easy trick. There is a difference between living doubly and living promiscuously. The "protean self" is the promiscuous self, the suave and shallow self, the self that adopts the standpoint of the consumer as an ideal of life, the self that views tragedy as a variety of stress, the self that stands in dread of silence. Lifton has provided the psychology of post-modernism. (And Clintonism.) Proteus, remember, was not resilient, he was slippery. He had an objective in transforming himself into a lion and a serpent and a boar and a tree, but it was not the cultivation of his personality. He assumed his shapes in order to escape answering Menelaos's questions. He was, in sum, a dodger: a fine post-modern god of the sea. Identity, at least, is prepared to take questions.

Every inheritance is an accident. This is what religious, sexual and ethnic identity is designed to make one forget. For a feeling of contingency, it substitutes a feeling of necessity. But it is not necessary to be necessary, if one is ready for work. There is no shame in being accidental. I am not ashamed that I might not have been a man or a Jew. Indeed, the consciousness that I might not have been a man or a Jew prepares me with a patience for the many things that I might have been. A feeling of contingency is a useful impediment to vanity. Anyway, it is possible to be proud of one's luck: not as one is proud of what one has made, but as one is proud of what one has understood.

Identity is toasty. It imparts a feeling of the inside; but this feeling is imparted to us from the outside. The inside and the outside should be correctly mapped. The outside is vast. The country to which I belong is outside. The people to which I belong is outside. The family to which I belong is outside.Inside, there is only my body and my soul. From the beginning, I recognize this family as my family and this people as my people and this country as my country; but not in the way that I recognize this body as my body and this soul as my soul. I am not estranged from my family and my people and my country, but neither are we the same. I must bring them from the outside in, if I am to love them for a reason greater than circumstance. Circumstance is a poor reason for love.

Identity thrives on facts: you are the child of this woman and this man, this neighborhood, this town, this people, this faith, this country. But there is one fact to which identity is oblivious, and that is the fact of individuation: you are nobody else and nobody else is you. And there is no sharper experience of facticity than the experience of individuation, from which the only release is sleep.

It is not fair to attack the group for failing to banish loneliness. But it is also not fair for the group to promise that it will banish loneliness.

In one of his discourses Kierkegaard says that it is easier for somebody who is not a Christian to become a Christian than it is for somebody who is a Christian to become a Christian. I am always at a disadvantage toward my own tradition. I am not only quickened by my intimacy with what I have been given, I am also dulled by it. I lack the wakefulness of the stranger. I should conduct myself toward the tradition to which I have fallen heir like an actor who has played a scene poorly: I should go out and come in again.

To know that a thing is yours is to know little about it.

There is the excitement of discovering one's own, but there is also the excitement of discovering one's difference with one's own. The study of medieval Hebrew texts taught me this. So many of them were so profoundly unfamiliar to me. I experienced the shock of a lack of recognition. In order to understand many of these peculiar, vivacious, turgid and beautiful documents, I had to learn to imagine Jews. I acquired this skill by leaving my "Jewish identity" at the door of the seminar room. For it is an axiom of that identity that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew; but the study of history showed that this axiom was a necessary fiction. We were not only one thing, we were also many things. The complication was delicious. Here was diversity, but on the inside. As a boy, I had been taught that it was my duty to choose Jewishness, and I have always warmed to the choice; but I was thrilled to understand that it was my duty also to choose among Jewishnesses. This made the tradition vital. And so I set out to gain the knowledge that would be required for the judgment of my own patrimonies. A few years later, in the same room on the top floor of the library, I read this sentence in a story by Hawthorne: "Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages."

It is important to distinguish between identifying oneself and justifying oneself. Identity in America is so fitful and so flexible not least because it is so often cobbled together for the purpose of self-justification; and this constant clamor for self-justification is a drain on American dignity. One must defend oneself, of course, if one is attacked for being a black or a homosexual or a woman or a Jew or a Catholic, but one must dream of being more than a defender of oneself. To assert your right to be something is not yet to be something.

The lure of identity is the lure of wholeness. It proposes to bind up the parts and the pieces of a life and transform them into a unity, into a life that adds up. This provides a mixture of psychological and aesthetic satisfaction. But is there really nothing worse than a life that does not add up? Surely the life that does add up is the easeful one. Erikson was right to remark that "an increasing sense of identity ... is experienced as a sense of psychosocial well-being," but he was making a damning admission.

The desire for wholeness is indistinguishable from the desire for death. Only religion is candid enough to say so.

In the modern world, the cruelest thing that you can do to people is to make them ashamed of their complexity.

A life that does not add up is not a life of irony. Quite the contrary. Its accomplishment is to contain within itself many things that do not go together, all of them unironically. Irony used to have an aspect of courage, in an age in which inconsistency was an occasion for pain. But this is an age in which inconsistency is an occasion for pleasure. (The name of that pleasure is post-modernism.) And so the aspect of courage is to be sought in literalness, in taking words and ideas and things for what they are and following them far.

Two cheers for identity: it is the enemy of irony.

I hear it said of somebody that he is leading a double life. I think to myself: Just two?

In America, the tribunes of identity are the tribunes of diversity, but the joke is on them. Their ends are contradictory. Diversity means complexity. Identity means simplicity. Anybody who takes diversity seriously will see that identity is an illusion. The multiculturalists will reply that there is no contradiction, that America is a complex society of differently simplified individuals, a multicultural society of monocultural people. But they misunderstand America. The American achievement is not the multicultural society, it is the multicultural individual. And the multicultural individual is what the tribalists and the traditionalists (they are not always the same people) fear. Identity is a promise of singleness, but this is a false promise. Many things are possible in America, but the singleness of identity is not one of them.

Not: my identity, but: my identities. There is a greater truth in the plural. There is also a greater likelihood of decency. The multicultural individual is a figure of moral friction. In such an individual, the mocker, and the hater, and the killer, may hit a bump.

For Erikson, "identity formation begins where the usefulness of multiple identification ends." But the usefulness of multiple identification never ends.

The absence of coherence is not yet incoherence.

On what grounds does one accept one's identity? If the grounds are internal, then one's identity is weak. If the grounds are external, then one's identity is strong -- but then there is a principle in the world more powerful than identity, to which we must all appeal.

The fervor with which a proposition is believed tells nothing about its truth. Except for its practical consequences, passion is beside the point.

The multiculturalists are Herder's children. (The Afrocentrists especially.) They have created a cult of incommensurability. But if the differences between individuals and groups were as thick as the multiculturalists think, then not even multiculturalism would be possible. Everybody would be shut up in subjectivity. There would be only total silence or total war.

Misunderstanding, prejudice, conflict: they are all twisted tributes to the possibility of objectivity. They occur on, and mar, a common ground. That is why they can be corrected, refuted and resolved.

The secret of universalism is that it works.

If I cannot explain myself to people who are not like me, I lose my pleasure in explaining myself to people who are like me.

There is no point in leading the others to what you cherish, if you believe that they cannot follow you. Pride in one's difference makes no sense if differences are blinding, and the others cannot see.

"The reason why all water is said to be specifically the same as all other water is because of a certain likeness it bears to it, and the only difference in the case of water drawn from the same spring is this, that the likeness is more emphatic." This, from Aristotle's discussion of sameness in Topics, I, 19-22. What a beautiful expression of tolerance, for the universal and the particular. Unfortunately, you cannot make a politics out of a metaphor.

Authenticity is a paltry standard by which to appraise an idea or a work of art or a politics. Authenticity is a measure of provenance, and provenance has nothing to do with substance. An idea may be ours and still be false. A work of art may be ours and still be ugly. A politics may be ours and still be evil.

Authenticity is a reactionary ideal. And speaking strictly, it is an anti-ideal. It says: what has been is what must be. It is the idolatry of origins.

A = A. Big deal.

In the discussion of multiculturalism, there has been a good deal of indignation about the relativism among traditions; but there is also the relativism within traditions. The latter is a consequence of multiculturalism that has not been sufficiently noted. When an expression is judged for its authenticity, distinctions of value inside a tradition collapse. I have observed this in the American Jewish community, where food and philosophy are sometimes appreciated almost in the same spirit, since they are both Jewish expressions, and so they fill the same need. Not in the same individuals, of course, but in the same group, which is what counts. But Maimonides is not like a bowl of soup. Maimonides was one of the most extraordinary minds in the history of human thought. Those Jews who kindle to The Guide of the Perplexed because it is the work of a Jew are not wrong, but they are impoverished; they rob themselves of the exquisite satisfaction of coming upon something of universal importance in one's own midst.

I sit in my room, a white man, and listen to East St. Louis Toodle-oo and Lull at Dawn and Things Ain't What They Used to Be and Blood Count. I am certain that I do not hear these pieces the way a black man hears them. But I am also certain that I hear them rightly, that I hear them as music. If you prize Ellington for the reason that he was a black man, you do not have to listen to him. You would prize him just as ardently if you were deaf.

"I love it because it is mine." This is the language of identity. Properly translated, this means: I do not love it, I love me.

You can change your religion but you cannot change your grandfather, said a nineteenth-century German Jewish liberal, who changed his religion. This pronouncement repels me. It is cheap, in the way that identity can be cheap. It expects the fathers to do the work of the sons. This man disgraced his grandfather and then counted on his grandfather to save him from disgrace. The finality of one's origins should not secure one against the judgment of one's actions. Also, it should be harder to change your religion than your grandfather.

It is a part of the glamour of identity that it is received. Otherwise one could not enjoy the sensation of being a link in the chain of transmission. But this passivity is partly a conceit. Worldviews are not only given, they are also made. In recent years historians have written extensively about "the invention of tradition," some of them a little too breathlessly. It is not exactly news that people put things into their past and then claim that they found them there. Still, the historians have a point. Identity has a role for the receptive attitude, but it is not the receptive attitude by which traditions grow. A tradition that is transmitted more or less as it is received will not live long.

What is made should be celebrated as much as what is given, not least because it is made out of what is given.

Perhaps identity is a kind of realism about human affairs. Perhaps the alternative to identity is a preposterous Nietzscheanism, according to which we must, as we brush our teeth in the morning, start all over again and devise the foundations of our world. Who, really, is like that? (Not Richard Rorty.) But this is an unacceptable choice. The world is not completely stable and it is not completely unstable. The same is true of the self. The uninflected life of identity asks too little; but the inflection of identity is not an insignificant thing. It should be honored. And a blessing on the ones who begin at the beginning.

Identity is a fixative, and it works on the elements of a life the way a fixative works on the elements of a drawing: it holds them together and it helps them to withstand the light.

Erikson drew a distinction between the notion of wholeness and the notion of totality. "To say it in one sentence: when the human being, because of accidental or developmental shifts, loses an essential wholeness, he restructures himself and the world by taking recourse to what we may call totalism." This was written in 1954, when the analysis of totalitarianism was in full swing. Identity, in Erikson's view, allowed for the realization of "a much-desired wholeness"; but totalitarianism was an inhibition of identity, for which it substituted regressive formations of totality. From the standpoint of politics, however, Erikson's distinction between wholeness and totality is trivial. Seek wholeness and you will likely find totality. The hunger for wholeness always plays into the hands of the hunger for totality. The monsters of modern history, in other words, had a use for identity. Before the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s, there was the identity politics of the 1930s and 1940s. Sarajevo is the capital of this continuity. The city teaches that the relationship between identity and morality may be a crushing one.

Wholeness is unreflective, but totality is clever.

Identity will always look suspiciously on selflessness. But selflessness does not mean that you do not know yourself. It means that you have been drawn out of yourself. It is the self-denial of the strong.

Purity is the opposite of integrity.

Only one in possession of an identity would understand why one would wish to be rid of it.

This article originally ran in the November 28, 1994 issue of the magazine.

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