Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Collective Identities, Part I

As some people might already know, collective identities represent one of my main research interests. After I manage to get my book on the Bildungsroman genre published, I hope to finish my project on collective identities. So here are some of my thoughts.

In its capacity of an imagined community (Benedict Anderson's definition), collective identities need to create feelings of common interests and solidarity between people who have never met. This is, of course, a project that cannot be carried out through reason and logic. Applying the light of reason to identity will lead to its destruction. So, what's left? Emotions, feelings, passions. You manage to make people emotionally attached to their identity, and they will never stop to analyze its failings.

One of the easiest ways of creating emotional attachment to an imagined community is by fostering a sense of a common grievance. If the persecuting Other does not exist you need to create it. There cannot possibly be a collective identity without an Other (both external and internal).

After the Other is created (or chosen), you need to ascribe a certain set of characteristics and a certain discourse to it. Usually, the Other serves as a site onto which you can project the desires, the beliefs, the actions that are your own but that you don't wish to recognize in yourself. Think about the whole "Jews are greedy" stereotype. This characterization has nothing to do with the Jews. It has to do with non-Jewish people wanting to distance themselves from being perceived as greedy.

After the Other is located (or, rather, appointed) and endowed with a set of characteristics, you need to create the narrative of oppression. It doesn't matter how much grounding in reality it has (it can have a lot or none at all). What matters is that it should be as incendiary as possible. In view of a common grievance, people will put aside their differences and unite around what they perceive as a shared slight.

But what's wrong with this? one might ask. People will unite and defend their collective interests. That certainly sounds as a good thing.

Well, first of all, who's going to say if they have common interests and what those might be? And then, what do we do with the Other that we created and turned into the sum of all evils? And that our group now hates so deeply? Remember, we had to abandon reason and logic in order to create our group identity in the first place. How can we now hope to turn reason back on in order to promote a political agenda that will be REASONABLY satisfying to all of us?

(To be continued).

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Anonymous said...

I was reading Terry Eagleton and I thought about your post on collective identities. I thought you might appreciate this chunk from Eagleton's After Theory:

There can be no falling back on ideas of collectivity which belong to a world unravelling before our eyes. Human history is now for the most part both post-collectivist and post-individualist; and if this feels like a vaccum, it may also present an opportunity. We need to imagine new forms of belonging, which in our kind of world are bound to be multiple rather than monolithic. Some of those forms will have something of the imtimacy of tribal or community relations, while other will be more abstract, mediated and indirect. There is no single ideal size of community to belong to, no Cinderella's slipper of a space. The ideal size of a community used to be known as a nation-state, but even some nationalists no longer see this as the only desirable terrain. (21)

While Eagleton does not turn his back to community/collective belonging, his idea of new forms of belonging seem to me a bit enigmatic. Multiple rather than monolithic? Would that form of beloging prevent from demonizing the Other? Really?

Clarissa said...

Thank you for the quote! I love Eagleton but this definition looks a little toothless to me. I have looked at a lot of recentt research on identity and this platitude that "today identities are multiple and fluid" doesn't do anyhting for me. They are, so what? People pronounce this "multiple and fluid" stuff liike it's some extremely profound discovery. I don't see how it changes much, however.