Identity and Community as Interpretive Limits

“You end up creating your identity by defending the thing people think you are.”

“People still think I’m Jewish….I look and act like a person they know, but deep inside I’m the person they hate.”

“In the end, well, people say it’s just because I’m Edward Said’s daughter.”

-comments by Najla Said, left out of context

This essay is not a normative critique of anyone’s identity. Rather, I want to bracket the questions we ask about identity: questions about details, dynamics, relationships with discourse and power, about our own identities and those of others. Placing these (questions about identity) in a bracket, I want to ask: what is signified by these questions? Why is ‘identity’, even a specific person’s identity, considered a legitimate object of interest, of discussion, of questioning? Following along this line of thinking I will question the implicit effects of framing questions in terms of identity rather than community in relation to a recent presentation by Najla Said and Spivak’s essay on the subaltern.

If we de-familiarize ourselves from the normalcy, the average-everydayness of such questions in the humanities, we might notice that there is a slight feeling of taboo that accompanies these questions. Perhaps feeling that we are straying a little too close to something private, perhaps also a sense of vanity – why, after all, is this ‘identity’ so important? 

It is not as if the notion of identity is the only way which the phenomena inquired into by identity discourse can be framed. In fact, we can’t talk about identity without talking about community. We articulate our individual identities by referring to the communities to which we belong. Or do we? What I want to suggest is that by framing a question as a question of identity, the moment of the subject acquires an invariable priority over the moment of community. This has an impact, not only on what gets revealed and concealed as a result of that prioritization, but also on the prioritization of subjects (with identities/who belong to communities) in the first place.

I want to suggest that framing a question as a question of identity causes us to be interested in examples of identity which stretch between categories of belonging, which transgress and blur the lines between communities. The reason is simple: if we ground our question as a question about the identity, i.e. the self-same being of a subject, it should be no surprise (but of course it is because of the inadequacy of our confrontation with Nietzsche) that beings are not self-same, that people don’t ‘fit into categories’. This is nothing surprising or revolutionary, it only another example of evidence that we do indeed live in an age of “nihilism” in Nietzsche’s sense, which means all values de-value themselves, or, nothing lives up to its own standards. The very act of positing a distinct attribute as true, coupled with the decline of institutions that can guarantee that truth against doubt (i.e. the Church), results in a kind of inevitability of negation. Or, if we don’t want to rely too heavily on Nietzsche, the same analysis follows, only more slowly, from Descartes’ re-positioning of the human as “subject”; as soon as the human is the subject, that which lies at the bottom of the inquiry, we will find that it escapes all the attempts to graph it in terms of things that are in advance assumed to be less primordial.

But are the inscriptions of identity in fact less fundamental than the ‘subjects’ onto which they are inscribed? Or, to radicalize the question, are human beings ‘subjects’ at all, perhaps communities are subjects and humans are the objects (that which is thrown over against) of those subjects? This question is actually far more radical than any question I want to ask – I am happy to remain at the level of hermeneutics rather than ontology. So I will ask the question again at the level of the relation between interpretative frame and the direction in which inquiry is motivated: how does re-framing questions about identity as questions about community change what are are interested in (when we ask about people’s identities?) when about people and how they understand the aspects of themselves over which they do not choose, or do not understand themselves to have chosen?

I can not offer anything like a substantive answer to this question, but I will venture a few preliminary remarks. First, I believe that if we ask questions about belonging by asking about community we shift the focus of interest away from the particularity of the individual towards what is shared between people. In fact in a community we might not any longer speak of people as “individuals”, but as members. Membership is an activity of participation, one which may or may not essentialize belonging as an intransigent category. And even in cases where a community represents belonging as something fixed, that “description” is really a normative prescription which is likely obeyed less than all the time.

Second, I believe that focussing on communities of belonging shifts the motivation of inquiry away from “problematization of categories” talk, which relies on the supposition that communities function like logical categories, a species of Russellian disguised definite descriptions which must obey the law of excluded middle. Taking communities as communities and not as disguised logical concepts (which is a pretty weird assumption to make) subtracts the negativity from paradox – after all, why should we assume that communities are logically consistent? In other words, why assume that the kind of gathering that a community bears within itself, would be a mathematical consistency? The tendency to this assumption, and the commonality of its appearance in conflict situations is perhaps a product of the impact on individuals of communities under stress which inscribe in/out boundaries. But even in conflict situations, if we focus analysis at the level of communities, we see even those communities which prescribe strict in/out boundaries are in fact much more complicated and less coherent than they may represent themselves to be. (And in fact, the way communities are represented in foreign media is yet a thousand fold even less complicated and with a thousand times more appearance of coherence).

I want to reflect on Najla Said’s talk tonight (part of an online course with the Global School of Advanced Studies), not so much to comment on the content of her talk, but the fact of it, and perhaps more significantly on the fact of the interest of researchers with her identity. There felt something mildly pornographic, not about the presentation, but about the way it was watched and responded to. Why are we interested in the identity of Najla Said? Is it because of Edward Said? Is it because of Palestine? How does it relate to the issues presented in Professor Carter’s lecture (the previous and first session of this online course), especially the question of the ‘human’ and the limit of the ‘human’ as the unthought/unthinkable? Is there anything unthinkable about Najla Said’s identity, or is her identity, like the identity of her father, precisely the form of Palestinian-American identity which is recognizable, which is thinkable, which is not subaltern at all but rather that opposite of subaltern: widely published

Perhaps these questions are uncomfortable and annoying, so I will ask a different one: how might we have approached the situation differently if we begin with the concept of community, rather than the concept of identity? I will answer this question not in relation to Najla Said, but our next exemplar of transgressive identity: Bhubaneswari Bhaduri (the ‘subaltern’ from Can the Subaltern Speak):

A young woman of sixteen or seventeen, Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, hanged herself in her father’s modest apartment in North Calcutta in 1926. The suicide was a puzzle since, as Bhubaneswari was menstruating at the time, it was clearly not a case of illicit pregnancy. Nearly a decade later, it was discovered, in a letter she had left for her elder sister, that she was a member of one of hte many groups involve din the armed struggle for Indian independance. She had been entrusted with a political assassination. Unable to confront the task and yet aware of the practical need for trust, she killed herself.

(Gayatri Spivak, cited from “A Critique of Postcolonial Reason” page 307)

Spivak goes on to be unnerved by the “failure of communication” when Bhubaneswari’s sisters continue to believe, even after the letter is discovered, that her suicide was a case of illicit love, and it becomes the basis of her claim that the subaltern can’t, in fact, speak. But what voices lays silent in the very asking of the question ‘can the subaltern speak’? If we approach the situation framed as a question about community, then suddenly we are no longer asking about a failure of communication between an individual and their family, but a question about the hermeneutic gap between an armed anti-colonial resistance group and family which is not supporting the resistance. When we frame the question at the level of community, it is no longer the specific position of Bhudbaneswari which must account for the failure of communication, but simply her family’s emotional relation to the resistance, specifically as “I can’t believe a member of my family could be a member of the resistance”. Yes there is a failure of communication, but framed in terms of community we immediately empower a whole range of actors as potential agents of communication and interpretation; we might ask what if a member of the armed organization had approached Bhudbaneswari’s family, would they still not be able to believe them, believe her, to ‘hear the subaltern speak’? What if a community reconciliation were to take place between the family and the group? What if the family changed their political outlook and they themselves became involved in the resistance? The point is, when we frame the question as a question of identity, when we pursue the identity of Bhudbaneswari rather than question concerning the communities she was a member of, the hermeneutic gap between self and others is cashed out in terms of a fixed structure; community difference is interpreted as a logical framework). Whereas, when we focus on the question of community, we can look at communities in their complexity and we don’t interpret that complexity as necessarily a problematization of community, as if the normative form of community were simplicity or coherence.

Finally, I want to suggest that there is an alternative which isn’t an alternative to listening to Edward Said’s daughter speak about her identity. Of course, our interest in Edward Said’s daughter follows from our interest in Edward Said. If we were interested in the Palestinian issue in a different way, we might instead be interested to listen to, not Edward Said’s daughter, but Abu JIhad’s (Khalil al Wazir) son. Abu Jihad was second in command of the Palestine Liberation Organization, recognized to be Arafat’s main military advisor between the launching of the Palestinian Revolution in the late 1960s and his murder by Israeli agents on April 16th 1988. If Edward Said represents a form of Palestinian identity which is particularly aware of Orientalist discourse, a form which explicitly and perhaps purposively avoids the identification of “Palestinian” with “terrorist”, Abu-Jihad represents the opposite extreme. Abu Jihad’s son, therefore, does not have the luxury of being born to the man who deconstructed the Orientalist discourse that dismisses Palestinian political aspirations in favour of Israeli security concerns – instead, his father too was busy creating Israeli security concerns.

Is there is a parallel to be drawn between Spivak’s focussing on Bhudbaneswari as “the subaltern” (identity) at the expense of Bhudbaneswari as a member of an anti-colonial armed organization (community), and the unthinkability of inviting Abu Jihad’s son to speak about his life story? This is what I want to suggest. This doesn’t mean I am so arrogant as to call for this limit of think-ability to be transgressed. It would be a mistake, for example, to think that the unthinkable is unthinkable only because of a limit imposed from outside, a kind of power which we could resist against. But that is not true. The limit that renders limits to thought is not primarily in some external force, but in discourse. In other words, it is in the things that people do when they talk. We can name it easily enough. But naming a limit is not a crossing, but only the beginning of readiness for becoming open to such a crossing should the opportunity take place. 

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