Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Me, You, They

Book Reviews by M.L. Raina

Identity, Culture and the Post-modern World
By Madan Sarup.Edited by Tasneem Raja
University of Georgia Press, Athens, USA
pp.xvi+192. $15.95

Strangers to Ourselves
By Julia Kristeva
Translated from the French by Leon S.Roudiez
Columbia University Press, New York
pp.xii+230. $15.50

For starters let us consider the following three statements. The first from the addenda to Samuel Beckett’s Watt: “For all the good that frequent departures out of Ireland had done him, he might as well have stayed there”. The second by the first Duke of Wellington. Asked what his identity was, he curtly replied: “Sir, one is not an ass because one is born in a stable”. The third statement occurs in Naipaual’s Among the Believers to the effect that even though all Muslims are perceived as brothers in Islam (ummah), no Muslim country allows access to the citizens of another Muslim country without a valid visa.

None of these statements is to be found in the above books, but each one of them has a direct bearing on the subject of identity and representation which occupies the attention of Sarup and Kristeva. Whereas Beckett sees identity as fixed (like our Hindutva zealots), the good Duke regards it as changeable. For Naipaul identity shuffles between private and public domains and is constantly renegotiated at the frontier. As individuals or subject positions (in the hip argot of post-modernism), we go through pulls and pressures of all sorts to claim our identity. All the more reason, therefore, to engage with Sarup and Kristeva who have in differing ways grappled with these questions with renewed earnestness. While Kristeva’s is a historical angle in that it studies the changing attitudes to the ‘Outsider’, the ‘Not-ourselves’, Sarup’s is an effort to synthesise social, political, and psychological notions of identity into a comprehensive statement, leavened with a dash of personal history to give his statements a solid grounding. In the event, an intellectual analysis is shot through with real experience of birth, dislocation and adjustment—pivots on which to hang identity.

Madan Sarup taught at London’s Goldsmith College until his death some years ago. A post-modernist down to his tonails, he will be remembered for his masterly introductions to Lacan and post-structuralism, apart from his work on race and education in England. Unlike his previous work, this last work is more inward-looking. Expository in nature and hitching his own ideas to those of contemporary European thinkers, it introduces a disturbing element into an academic exercise—namely, the decision to examine his own evolving consciousness within a general rumination on the whole range of questions about identity and belonging.

Though his brief autobiographical descriptions are linked to a strictly theoretical discussion, they somehow seem to stand apart from the objective and logical debate carried on in the major chapters of the book. If the editor Tasneem Raja is to be believed, the premonition of impending death must have impelled Sarup to first weigh the arguments about identity in contemporary social and political theory, and then to try and understand it all through an existential disquiet about his own sense of the dissolution of the self. This is not a new phenomenon and Sarup is not the first to mention it. A significant contemporary example is to be found in Louis Althusser’s memoir, The Future Lasts For Ever.(New Press, New York) written in a mental home after he murdered his wife. True, Sarup’s book lacks the delusive clarity with which the French Marxist philosopher probes his own wrought psyche. Nevertheless, by punctuating what are certainly well –argued points with scenes from his own life, Sarup brings an introspective strain into his discussion. This procedure allows us to juxtapose the theoretical and the strictly personal parts of the book without the author pointing to any predetermined conclusions. The author’s post-modernists strategy couldn’t have been more usefully marshalled.

As one of the most accessible observers of the contemporary scene, Sarup’s principal interest is not to offer a new view on identity and the self, but to introduce and annotate a range of contemporary thinkers who have pondered these questions... Given his allegiances, he is naturally drawn to the founding fathers of post-modernism: Lacan, Foucault, Braudillard, Freud and David Harvey. Beginning with the premise that identity is fabricated rather than given, he sets out to discuss what he calls the various ‘technologies of the self’ that shape it. Assuming that the entire ensemble of race, class and gender determines who we are, he engages with his chosen thinkers in their exploration of various strategies of self-creation in society. In the process he rehearses the debates of the past two decades and clears much confusion surrounding the issues of identity and the self... Sarup concentrates on ideology, ethnicity, unconscious and narrative that he regards as the major determinants of identity. His attempt is to see if a viable notion of the self can come out of a welter of possibilities opened up by these determinants. He makes his position clear in these words: “Identity in my view is a mediating concept between the external and the internal, the individual and society, theory and practice. Identity is a convenient tool through which to try to understand many aspects—personal, philosophical, political—of our lives”. In his recent book on identity Amratya Sen offers similar arguments. After making identity a ‘tool’, Sarup is able to grasp the technologies that fashion this tool from time to time. No wonder his discussion of Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’ is the best part of the book. Foucault, as we know, uses these ‘technologies’ to demonstrate the disciplinary mechanisms that effect identity formation.

Like Nietzsche before him, Foucault destabilizes fixed identities by invoking technologies of production, sign-systems and power which permit us to produce, manipulate and transform things. Even though Foucault fails to clearly define ‘self’ and ‘subject’, his analysis of different discourses that regulate the self establishes the fabricated nature of identity. In this view we are mere subject positions, appropriated by the disciplinary apparatus of the state and that the idea of a free willing subject is a chimera—a position supported by Althusser in his ‘interpellation’ theory. Our religious, ethnic and social identities are all that we have.Doesnt seem to be a far out idea in the light of the polarization of Indian society on these issues.

But the questions that need answers are: is that all there is to identity? Are we only what others think we are? Are complexities of human nature so many simulated goods, pure products of the totalizing discourse of the state? Has the debate between sincerity and authenticity (Lionel Trilling’s exemplary terms) lived out its relevance?

It is here that Sarup’s autobiographical incursions into his expository project assume significance. Deeply concerned about his own post-modern proclivities, he cannot openly cast doubt on his expository claims. The autobiographical passages manage to do this job for him. They act as instances of what Isaiah Berlin in a 1957 essay called ‘lower levels of reality’, intuitively providing a bedrock of experience not to be fitted into the publicly accepted figures of identity. There is sufficient evidence in the main text that for all practical purposes Sarup is English—in taste as well as in his professional attitudes. But the fact of his Indianness, conspicuously present in the portrayal of his Panjabi father and brothers, keeps pressing on him... Of course he does not feel the psychic rift with the same poignancy with which Althusser questions his own identity. (“I did not really exist, I was simply a creature of artifice”) in his memoir.

All the same, there is a nagging unease framing a robust intellectual analysis of the question of identity. There definitely is a latent self-division, a feeling of Freudian unheimliche that Sarup in the later part of his exposition acknowledges rather grudgingly, leaving identity and representation to oscillate between autonomy and artifice, between, on the one hand , a syncretic and parodic invention, and ,on the other, a core self which refuses to go away do what you will. A tragic impasse that no amount of theorising can gloss over!
The idea of the outsider is closely tied up with the question of identity. Since human identities are organised under race, gender and group identities, those who do not conform must stay out. Julia Kristeva, French feminist and psychoanalytical philosopher, throws considerable light on the fate of the outsider in European history from the Greek times to the present day, something the German Marxist philosopher Hans Mayer
also attempted in his erudite book Outsiders (M.I.T Press, 1982). Her curiosity to study the fate of the outsider culminates in a replication of the Freudian credo that in the long run we are all outsiders to ourselves—a conclusion significantly different from Mayer’s.

Every society safeguards its identity within well-defined codes of bevahiour. The Greeks ostracised the barbarians because they did not speak the same language as themselves. ‘Barbarai’, before it acquired the current stigma of slavery, was a person who spoke an alien language. By trying to guard the purity of their language—the very glue that held communities together—they created a privileged identity for themselves (shades of Raj Thackeray here!). Today, however, the notion of the foreigner is endowed with a legal meaning. It refers to one who is not a citizen. In ancient Greece foreigners were accepted if they came as suppliants (as in Aeschylus’s play of that name. That ancient Greeks could play identity politics to the hilt is proved by their treatment of the Amazons and the Danae. They were excluded because they threatened the polis (a point sure to raise the feminist hackles) The story of the metic, the useful tradesman who was admitted, gives a clue to the pragmatism of the rulers who never let anyone bringing trade to the polis go away. Is this why the Americans give visas to foreign skilled workers without treating them as citizens? Their hypocrisy in this regard can be benign to the point of boredom!
Exclusionary as it may seem, the Jewish people’s covenant with God is an outgrowth of choice founded on the Torah which Israel accepted and others repudiated. The chosen race forbade Amonites and Moabites to acquire rights because they were aliens (remember Keats’s Ruth amidst alien corn?). The Biblical narrative assumes that being chosen imposes a conception of sovereignty based on the rejected, the unworthy, the outlaw or, as Kristeva suggests, the dalet, the latter term meaning the poor and not its Indian sense of the untouchable depressed class. In practice the myth of the chosen race is put on its head by Hitler’s anti-Jewish pogrom as well as by the Zionist outrage on the Palestinians.

Kristeva’s central thesis is that states have sought accommodation with aliens throughout history. Indeed the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution have been climactic epochs in which the abstract Rights of Man and the rights of the citoyan were hotly debated. The universal autonomous individual is challenged by small localisms and a special entity, cosmopolitanism, is born that seeks reconciliation between the native and the foreigner, the chosen and the peripheral. An affirmation of concord ignoring marginality and oddness is constantly made. What Montaigne had said in his time and for his time became the guiding principle of the new creed: “Any strangeness and peculiarity is to be avoided as inimical to social intercourse and, and unnatural”.

From this follows respect for the otherness of the alien, now included in the universal naturalness of enlarged, diversified and tolerant individuals and communities... Kristeva brings into her discussion the views of Diderot, Fougeret and Voltaire in support of the thesis that the age of reason precipitated the debate between Man and the Citizen, leading to the cult of the World Citizen as well as to Bertrand Russell’s later campaign on behalf World Government. “My wilful spirit leaps from limbs to limbs without setting on any one’, declares Fougeret.

As Simon Schama, historian of the French Revolution observes, the debate put the issue in a modern light as it established the need for civil society—an ideal state every country, at least in theory, aspires to. Its contemporary incarnation is the dubious goal of globalisation aimed at dissolving, if not fully eliminating, the cultural specificities of each community along with their social, political and economic independence. The information highway has only blurred the boundaries between states, not eliminated them, as Naipaul would say.

As Julia Kristeva pilots her discussion towards contemporary France—having voyaged through Aeschylus, Dante, Diderot and camus—she inclines more and more to the belief that the present day corporatist societies of the west have developed means of homogenising local identities. “ We are called upon,” she says, “through the pressures of the economy, media and history to live in a single country, France, itself in the process of being integrated into Europe”. But unsuspecting confidence in globalization is always undermined by doubt. There is the final schism within ourselves that can never be resolved (Dante’s exile is an apt illustration of it). Being strangers to ourselves is our destiny, as Freud had diagnosed in 1927 when he described the civilising process itself tending to conformity. Even the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs could not be sure that alienation would disappear in the Communist utopia. (See his observations on Solzhenitsyn).

Perhaps this is the price we have to pay for allowing our inherent sense of homelessness to be neutralised in order to make the return of the repressed plausible, acceptable, even pleasurable. Sartre would have found us guilty of bad faith on this account. But for Kristeva, as for many of us, this may be the best way of living in a conflict –riven world where identities keep sprouting like floating roots in a mangrove pond.

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