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A warning to apprentice anthropologists: on “identity” in the New York Times

The New York Times is a major adult education institution in the United States. Mostly it educates implicitly but, quite regularly, it gives mini-lectures, in the style of encyclopedia entries. On December 15th, Max Fisher posed the question “What is national identity?” And then he made authoritative statements like a college professor might do. In brief, Fisher taught “The concept [of identity], scarcely 200 years old, holds that humanity is divided among fixed communities, each defined by a common language, ethnicity and homeland. Those communities are nations; membership is one’s national identity” (New York Times, Dec. 15, 2019).

Identity, community, nation are thereby collapsed into each other, authoritatively.

What Fisher did not do is acknowledge that other professors might teach that such a collapse does not make much sense. Worse, it is altogether dangerous for students in the social sciences where these concepts are indeed very commonly (mis-)used. A professor, that is ‘I’, will first note that concepts are abstractions that cannot be the cause of anything. At best, concepts can help one look for who and what does produce history. They should make us wonder about the history of the concepts, their uses and institutional embodiments, and their consequences on the lives of those who must live by them. And thus, I would then note “nationalism” and “identity” have different histories as they were embodied in different symbols, performances, discourses and, above all, disciplining and punishing practices. These are the means by which something happened that the concepts might index, dangerously.

Classic apologists for “nation” disagree and point at signs of “national” discourses as early as the 10th century in various parts of Europe.

It is the task of historians to trace the constitution of institutions and the discourses evolved to justify them. On the basis of their work, there is a general consensus in anthropology that the modern nation (but not identity) was made up “200 years ago.” As anthropologists now teach, all nations were imagined before they became fact (Anderson 1991). They then became inescapable things for billions through determined political action led by the most powerful states of the world. Prussia and France may have started the movement. And then everyone else participated in universalizing it. The United States was a prime mover as Woodrow Wilson, and then Franklin Roosevelt more successfully, among many others, destroyed colonial empires by insisting that the world now be organized on the new principle of one people/one language/one nation/one State. For more on this see my earlier “Who imagines nations?” (October 2019) This produced, among many many other institutions, the “United Nations” that remains supposed to counterbalance the reality that “nationalism” has proved extremely explosive. That it is dangerous is now common sense among many—but that is a different story.

“Identity” has had little to do with “nationalism” — until recently. For the first half of my life “identity” indexed what makes ‘I’ unique. The basic idea is several thousand years old, constituted both through the Greek “know thyself” and through the Christian affirmation that salvation is personal. ‘I’ predates any identification that it may then be burdened with. That ‘I’ might be hidden and difficult to get at is the foundation of European philosophy as it evolved from a religion into an ideology of individualism where ‘I’ can affirm that ‘I’ is this or that. The caricature of ‘identity’ is the “cards” (passports, etc.) about all human beings must now show the powers-that-be (both State and commercial powers) when they need to do about anything or go about anywhere. Every human being must now keep proving a (unique) identity based on a set of State imposed characteristics. Up until rather recently, the French State did this by noting sex, place and date of birth, eye and hair color, and a thumb print. With computers, this has been expanded in altogether mysterious ways since all the information the State now requires is written on magnetic strips or chips only machines can read.

But something strange did happen to the word “identity.” Sometimes in the 1980s or 1990s, first in various corners of the social sciences, and soon everywhere in the political imagination of more an more people in various positions, the word started appearing in contexts where words like “self,” “personality” or “character” used to appear. Pragmatists like G.H. Mead or Dewey, building on earlier German philosophers, had affirmed that all human beings are made up in their apparent individualities. They are made up not by themselves but the many others who frame their experiences, privileges, identifications, etc. This affirmation became the foundation of about every theories in the behavioral sciences: social psychology, “culture and personality” anthropology, the Parsonian attempt to bring all this together. This affirmation took new forms through Geertz and Bourdieu (among many others). This enormous intellectual machinery was deployed against earlier theories of what makes human beings human. They have become the ideological and hegemonic consensus in Euro-America. This consensus asserts that the radical ‘I’ is a cultural illusion. There are no “I’s”, only “me’s” produced by the intersections (to jump forward 50 years) of all sorts of social encounters. That product of these encounters is now labeled an ‘identity’ which, far from capturing a uniqueness, rather captures all the ways that makes ‘me’ “identical with” many many others. Thus, Hervé Varenne’s identity is “French” (and white, male, and so on and so forth).

I suspect that Fisher was taught in college that the word “identity” does refer to what makes people the same rather than what makes them unique. Thus “French” is MY “national identity.” I capitalize ‘MY’ to suggest that there is something bizarre in making a State controlled matter (whether or not I am a French citizen) something that I own. It is all the more bizarre that there is an evolving consensus (certainly among the writers and readers of the New York Times) that there are many French citizens who are not ‘French’ in the same way as I am. Some are Muslim, some are queer, some speak German and arguable they all have separate identities… And yet they are also all citizens of France for most State purposes around the world. They carry the same “identity” card that, by law in France, do not mention any of the matters that, in the imaginations of some (including journalists), actually shape their “identity.”

Since I first noted, somewhat in the mid-1990s, the morphing of “identity,” I have protested—totally unsuccessfully. Colleages and students listen but they are caught, just as ‘I’ is by the hegemonic powers of those who keep trying to make ‘me’. I hope that the next generation of anthropologists will be more successful.


Anderson, Benedict   1991     Imagined communities. New York: Verso. (First published in 1983)

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