Rodney Barker
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People cultivate a public identity both by association with others and by distinction from them. They do so within constraints and possibilities which are themselves the consequence of earlier choices by themselves and by others. They can too be moulded by other people’s recognition of them. The more precisely identity is established, the greater the possibilities of either exploitation or enmity as other people are either conscripted as auxiliaries or demonised as alien. Because of this, whilst competition over resources will become increasingly central to the politics of the twenty first century, identity will be the language through which that contest is conducted, and by which the participants and their interest are shaped, recruited, and assigned. The resurgence of religion is the most intense instance of this.

If human nature is all the behaviour of humans, far from precluding ethical judgment, this observation makes it possible since there are no grounds for imposing one person’s identity on another. Identity will remain both the motor for human progress and the source of human conflict, a generator of a perpetual tension between equality and inequality.


Masks and faces: what you see is what you get

Shakespeare's King Lear appears to complain that the artefacts with which people clothe, house, and surround themselves conceal their true nature: ‘robes and furred gowns hide all’.1 But the public performance is at least as real as any private one. It is conducted in relation to other people, and is the one which affects them and with which they have to deal. It is not secret selves, but active, overt, social selves that constitute the human environment. When Lear tore off his clothes he was not revealing a true nature which lay beneath the robes and furred gowns, but cultivating or dramatically bringing to birth a different, additional, or differently stressed nature. His denunciation of authority can be read as an analysis of authority, not as a revelation of a reality beneath the surface:

Thou hast seen

a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?

And the creature run from the cur? There thou

Mightst behold the great image of authority: a

dog's obeyed in office2

The robes and furred gowns which constitute the human dogs against whom Lear roars are part of, not props to, the social identity of rulers and command givers. A dog in office is still, amongst other things, a dog, but not merely a dog.

To observe that human identity is cultivated in this way is the very opposite of saying that it is a mere mask. A mask can be put on and put off at will, whereas human identity is the face, the reality which is seen and heard, and the more it is cultivated, the more it is composed of many elements, each one of which constrains at the same time as it identifies. In that sense, ‘cultivation’ is a more illuminating word to use in relation to social identity than ‘construction’ or even ‘creation’, since what is cultivated begins with but is not constrained or determined by already-existing components; it grows and becomes entrenched, and develops as the context and condition of its own existence and future growth. The complexity and potential dynamism of human nature are such that art – whether as fiction, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, or film – can often express or indicate what bare theory can only point at from a great distance. Cultivation provides, too, an alternative description to an account of people as trapped in a choice between intentionality, where everything that is done is part of a plan, and spontaneity, where actions burst suddenly from nowhere.

The irresolvable paradoxes of cultivated identity and the possibilities of autonomy, action, and choice

Feathers are part of the bird. But the bird's plumage will change only with the shifts of evolution. People choose their own plumage, but they choose it in circumstances not of their own making; human feathers are chosen, or chosen within limits. That is one of the enduring tensions of identity. We may cultivate our own identities, but they are at the same time cultivated for us.

There is another paradox to add to the conflict between human agency and the unavoidable role of circumstance and social situation: we make identities by association with collectivities, whilst at the same time seeking to distinguish ourselves from others – the two dimensions of what Veblen called invidious comparisons.3 Veblen does not develop this tension, but it is a part of a dynamism which means that identity is never fixed, but is always shifting and adjusting. Identification is cultivated by association with a real or imagined group, whilst at the same time negative contrasts are devised which distinguish one group from another. The impetus for distinctiveness does not stop at the boundaries between groups, but operates within the group as well, so that whilst in relation to other groups an individual cultivates an identity as a group member – a Christian, a Muslim, a German, an Italian – within the group the cultivation of individual identity distinguishes one Christian from other Christians, one Italian from other Italians. Identity is pulled in two directions, towards association and towards distinction. Identity is subject to continual adjustment, both to its own internal contradictions since no identity is ever wholly coherent or internally consistent, but is composed of competing and potentially conflicting elements, and to the inherent contrasts and comparisons with others and the tension between association and singularity. And while the individual is not sovereign nor autonomous in this continuous flux, he or she nonetheless has possibilities of action and choice, however those may be shaped and constrained by circumstance. Such action is composed of both emulation and distinction, following examples, and distinguishing oneself from them. Association with others cultivates equality; individual distinction cultivates inequality. Both for individuals and for groups and associations of individuals, equality and inequality are forever exercising their contrary gravitational pulls.

One feature in particular of identity and its cultivation enhances the potential for significant human action. The more a person cultivates and enhances his or her identity by collective identification, the greater the complexity and plenitude of that identity. And therefore the greater its individuality, since the more aspects there are to an identity, the more unique it becomes. This means that it makes good sense to talk of human action and human will. Whatever the constraints, what humans are is what they do, and every action therefore confirms, develops, departs from, or transcends their identity as it was up until that point. This claim allows for human agency including, crucially, the agency of the self, of an individual who is, in however restricted a way, making decisions and pursuing choices. Identity is constructed out of many circumstances and many actions and events, and whilst that means there is no single lever which can steer everything, any single change will alter the character of the whole, not necessarily radically, but in reality nonetheless, and such change is always a possibility for human innovation, invention, reform, and even transformation. How identity is at any current moment does not determine everything that follows. However small the openings for identity-shaping action, they are always there. Consequently all the things that people do can be of significance, and giving an account of them is far more than simply stating that that is how things are, since the qualification must always be an acknowledgment of the ways in which things can be otherwise through the continual response to tensions and contradictions. Such an account, far from being merely descriptive, is an identification of the flux and flexibility of human identity, and of the perpetual possibilities of change, both benign and corrupting.

Such changes in identity can be slow and imperceptible, or sudden and dramatic. Michael Rosen has discussed the latter in examining the circumstances in which significant numbers of people may reject the orthodoxies within which convention, convenience, or coercion have constrained them. Such can be the force of convention, or of a rational calculation about the likely success and possible penalties of individual as opposed to collective dissent, that it may require what can appear as irrational or even deranged dissent by a minority before a larger number will together act in a way which they would previously have been deterred from but can now pursue because circumstances have been altered by eccentric or irrational individuals. Eccentric irrational individual heterodoxy may be the necessary detonator for collective change with which an individual may then associate, shifting identity from passive or powerless subject to active citizen or insurgent.4 But such instances not only require a revision of conceptions of rationalism to accommodate the rationalism of eccentricity, they also require a broadening of the perceptions of identity and interest which are the starting point for any rational action, whether conscious and reflective, or instinctive.

The description and prediction of human nature and the limitations of universal theory

Whatever metaphor is used, whether of fauna or flora, all appearances and all aspects of appearance are relevant in an account of identity. By their fruits ye shall know them, but by their fur and feathers as well. And one element in cultivating identity, which the biological metaphor points up, is the environment within which an identity is cultivated. But the function of conditions beyond an individual in cultivating identity does not mean that there is an absence of choice. All factors are dependent upon each other, but they are not determined. Choices can be made, but their outcomes cannot be predicted. They are still worth making. This creates difficulties in the way of a science of human action, or even of human behaviour. The fullest account will always be a particular one, having more of the character of history or a novel than of a scientific treatise. That does not mean that general analyses have no purpose. Their contribution is to refine the language which is then applied to specific phenomena. Nor does it mean that, in any particular circumstances, predictions cannot be made about what might happen next. But they will be predictions in terms of the particular and unique situation about which they are made, and will always be tentative since any one general consequential relationship is likely to be qualified by others, so that its contribution will be just that, a contribution, not a determinant.

This makes a universal science of human conduct unlikely or unreliable, and predictions dangerous. It is better to expect unexpected and creative identities. This limits the usefulness of both Marxism and utilitarian rational-choice accounts. The jibe has been made that social history was no more than the history of the crinoline. But that underrates, entirely misses, the character of identity both individual and social or political. People will die for an article of clothing, a word, or a culinary detail. This is not to dismiss materialist or rationalist accounts of history, past, present, or future, but to insist that humans are more than physical survivalists, that the purposes which are a dimension of their identities, without being arbitrary or transient, are varied and not readily predictable, and that generalisations can never go beyond setting out the range of expectations, and limitations on expectations, which can be brought to the understanding of actual instances, actions, and situations.

The role of elites in the cultivation of identity

Identity is cultivated rather than created insofar as creation suggests making something from nothing, and unless actions or initiatives are taken spontaneously by large numbers, they will be taken in the first instance by small numbers or by individuals. In that sense, action is always the action of elites if the term ‘elites’ is used to indicate minorities. But the law of small numbers is also a claim which is justified only if the effects of individual or small-group actions are evident in the eventual actions of large numbers. While it can be claimed that identity is cultivated, and is most actively cultivated by elites of one kind or another, the reverse statement may be more accurate: those who devote most energy to the cultivation of identity constitute an elite. It is the initiative in cultivating identity which makes the label ‘elite’ appropriate. Nonetheless, a dominant or powerful role in the cultivation of identity is one of the characteristics of groups who are in this and other ways marked off from the majority and enjoy a privileged position in relation to that majority. Once again the image of a mask is misleading, however contrived actions, constructions, and ritual and rhetoric are. Asking whether the cultivation of identities by an elite is a deliberate manipulation of identity to serve other ends is to fragment human action unrealistically. The celebration of military heroes in the statuary of St Paul's Cathedral was part of the cultivation of a narrative of national virtue and glory.5 One of the many accounts given by those whose efforts placed the memorial statuary was that national character, national achievement, and national aspiration were thereby expressed and recorded. But whilst this contributed to a public imagination of empire, it is inadequately understood if it seen as only and entirely a conscious and manipulative strategy to promote that imagination. The conscious strategy may be there, but it is part of a wider action, and an action which both cultivates and constitutes the identity of the actor. The imagination was already there in the character of the memorialists. There may have been an expectation that the celebratory statues would promote national pride and deference to heroic leaders, but the pride and the deference were also there in the act of artistic creation and the concepts which drove artistic intentions.

If, as Herbert Morrison remarked, socialism is simply what Labour governments do, so is human nature what humans do.6 That is not an observation which goes very far, since it is qualified both by the limitations of contingent context and by the possibilities of human action, but it can exclude the need to spend time on biological or social determinism, or on the concept of untrammelled agency. It identifies both constraints – humans cannot fly unaided or spend long periods underwater without artificial breathing apparatus – and opportunities – human nature is not confined to what can so far be observed. The observation is morally neutral in that it has both liberating and corrupting implications: nothing that humans do and no aspect of human identity can be dismissed as unnatural. Nor are any aspects of human identity excluded from critical appraisal. Democratic empiricism does not preclude ethical judgment, it rather requires it.

Talking the world into existence

Because human identity is cultivated, the cultivators are both the possessors of the identity and those amongst whom they live. There is not therefore a single identity for any person, since the identity as perceived by one will be different from that perceived by another. And since all we can ever know are accounts of identity, it is misleading to seek a true or real identity beyond the accounts given of it by people – the statements, actions, sights, sounds, and artefacts which are experienced and reported.

None of this means that human identity can be constructed or altered at will. But it does mean that there is no single character that can usefully be described as an essential human identity. Nor can an account of human identity be anything more than an account of what, up to now, can be said about accounts of identity in all times and in all places. Identity is in part the sum of what a person does. But what a person does is in part what a person is seen to do. There is thus a further dimension to identity, which is pointed out in the perception of things that Ian Hacking has described as ‘dynamic nominalism’.7 The lenses and filters of social perception cultivate and create identity; they are part of the circumstances in which identity is nurtured and pollarded. This power of naming is dramatically, indeed melodramatically, portrayed in Ray Bradbury's short story ‘Referent’, where the infinite potential relationships and patterns of sensed phenomena are shaped and constricted by the perceptions of observers. A traveller through space is trapped in an alien (human) culture by the perceptions of the small child whom he meets, and by whom he is identified, and hence shaped and trapped, as a small child.8 A referent is similarly imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in which a parallel world of phenomena both natural and social is brought into existence by being described and recorded in an encyclopaedia.9 It is precisely for this reason that Anthony Appiah has raised queries and objections in the debate over ‘recognition’, arguing that he does not wish to be ‘recognised’ by others as an instance of social categories, since this constrains and distorts, and even more radically shapes and forms, a public identity which is not of his choosing.10 A distinction in practice between affirmative recognition and constraining or oppressive presentation or description can be as finely balanced as, within theory, are the linguistic distinctions between recognition and reification, and expression and distinction. Yet the clarification of language is necessary if at the level of practice the cultivation of identity is to be carried out by individual persons, rather than imposed on them. Theologians have always been aware of this dimension: ‘In the beginning was the word’,11 and the very title of their discipline, theology, the word of God, gives the divine word creative primacy.

Humans are builders and makers, but so are beavers. But there is an added and transforming dimension: humans reflect on and describe what they have made, and in so doing describe and make themselves, and others.12 It is in the addition of ‘and others’ that the further dimension, and possible tension, arises. There may or may not be a tension, but there will necessarily be a conversation or some degree of dialogue, between who I am to myself and who you construct me as. Human nature is in part what humans describe themselves as being, or as not being, and that is not only the construction of the costumes and the set that cultivate human identity, but the comments of the audience and the critics. The story told instantly becomes part of what it purports only to describe. This both extends the complex contingency of identity and extends into language the opportunity for continual cultivation of identity by individuals and groups, not only by the linguistic dimension of identity, but by the ability of that dimension to shape other aspects of the social world. Everything that is done, and every description in whatever form, has consequences for the ‘moving target’ of identity. There is no certainty in those consequences, but there is a certainty that there will be consequences, and that stasis is impossible. So human responsibility remains, and inaction is only a particular species of action. There is no such thing as ‘a mere observer’ and the highest and shiniest of ivory towers is as much a part of the human market place as the loudest huckster's stall.

The dimensions of identity and the character of change

To argue that the accounts we give instantly both affect the objects and persons to which they refer, and themselves become a part of that which is described, the reference becoming a referent, is already to have provided answers, or partial answers, to some of the questions which immediately leap out from the account of cultivated identity. The most obvious questions will be two. First, what is the function of the costumes and scenery and ways of acting which constitute social identity in human life, and if they are not epiphenomenal, how do they change? Second, is there an escape from saying that everything is affected by everything else, and that there is no single independent variable or cause, that all we can ever say is that at one moment and place these are the identities which can be observed, and at another, others?

One response, or one starting point, is to say that the costumes and scenery are not an indication of, or cause of, or sustainers of something else, they are something in themselves, the major dimension of reality. That means that identity cannot be divided into accidents and essences. One qualification to this might be that there may indeed be a distinction between ‘pretended’ identity and ‘real’ identity, an instance of incoherence which is not only accepted, but consciously cultivated. People may deliberately present one identity to one audience, and another to another. But the theatre of deceit can be more transparent than its protagonists realise. Those who strut on the political stage saying they are the people's friend can be judged by all their strutting as well as by all their words. It is necessary to ask about other components of their identity: how and where they move in relation to their subjects, whether on foot or in convoys of large black limousines; what kinds of spaces they inhabit, and who else has access to those spaces and on what terms. Sometimes the rupture between one identity and another may be deliberately concealed. There are those who seem consciously and for effect to construct a public personality which is different from their ‘private’ or ‘normal’ self: Blair's public good temper, Wilson's pipe. But it would be a mistake to conclude that one identity is real, the other false. Both are real, but are severed from each other by the different functions which they serve.

But whilst costumes and scenery, walking and talking, constitute identity, no particular evident component has a universal significance. What appear as similar feathers can relate to other, very different, aspects of behaviour. As Darwin realised when studying the Galapagos finches, context is crucial. And whilst the feathers are important, they do not constitute the entire identity of the bird. There may be a difference in ideology between Leninist/Stalinist architectural monuments and Nazi ones, whilst the systems and relations of power which they compose are closely similar. And in considering the similarities and differences between identities, any answer depends on the criteria used for the taxonomy. If the whole constructed identity is built into the taxonomy or the comparison, then there are real differences as well as real similarities. And if no identity can be reducible, or adequately understood, by giving an account of one only of its dimensions or features, if attempts at parsimony of any kind are like playing a piece of music written for choir and orchestra on a single penny whistle, then identity is never a matter of some dissected-out feature or features, but only of the whole.

Insisting on the complexity and contingent location of identity, on identity as composed of many aspects in relation with each other, might appear to make change difficult or impossible. The opposite can be the case. An entire identity, because of its complex variety, will be characterised by tensions, contradictions, and discord. It will be constantly subject to a gravitational pull towards coherence, though a pull which is never resolved, which is forever shifting the objects on which it operates, and the intensity with which it exerts its demands. A wolf in sheep's clothing is as rare as a sheep in wolf's clothing. In most cases what you see is what you get, provided you know what to look for. This constant impetus towards coherence, in circumstances where complete coherence can never be achieved and where, therefore, the impetus will never entirely expire, provides the dynamism for identity to change.

If the relation between identification and meaning and justification – feathers and nests and foraging – and other dimensions of social action is symbiotic rather than causal, how is change explained? The answer is that the relation between the various dimensions of action is never entirely coherent, and that the search for coherence will involve adaptation of one dimension or another, so that the symbiosis is dynamic, and its tensions and incoherencies never fully resolved. All variables are both dependent and independent in this sense, and whilst a political intervention to change one dimension of identity may well lead to other changes, it will not have the status of an irreversible and iron causal injection, since it will itself be subject to continuing adjustment to other dimensions of the situation. The history of interventions, whether medical or social, political or economic, illustrates not only that the expected effects of x on y can frequently not accurately be predicted, but that x may have effects on other aspects which had not been imagined.13 Even worse, the character of x will be a feature of its relationship with other factors, and in influencing those other factors and hence its own environment, x, too, will change. An explanation, therefore, unless it is of a severely limited event and chronology, will always be an interpretation, narrative, or description. To fully describe a change is not to explain why something happened, but to give the fullest account of what did in fact happen. This is all that is possible, though it is no small thing, and all accounts which claim to be explanations are more accurately seen as fuller accounts or descriptions. So, for instance, an account of the changed character of the Japanese polity and of the place of the imperial family in it is not explained by talking either about the different presentations of the family, or about the check to Japanese power, or about the post-war US occupation, or about the growth of democratic sentiment, since all these are elements or dimensions of the whole complex and dynamic history, elements in the complex weave, not causes of something other than themselves. They are fuller answers to the question ‘What is meant or indicated by the phrase “changes in Japan”?’

The conclusion of such a narrative is not a cheerful, or lugubrious, ‘que sera, sera’. Some regularities, or at least recurrences and familiarities and ubiquities, can be observed, though the most powerful prediction that can be made is that there are no grounds to expect that a single-factor account of identity will apply universally, or even in any particular instance. Such assumptions about what can be said cannot avoid being informed by value judgments or by preferences which are the starting point of speculation, not its conclusion. So I will state a preference for freedom, variety, tolerance, and innovation. All of those involve both planning and a refusal to plan. Innovation cannot be planned for since, as Humphrey Lyttelton allegedly once replied to a query as to what the future of Jazz would be, ‘If I knew that, I'd be there.’ But the circumstances which make innovation, variety, and useful choices more likely require equality of possibility with the avoidance of any orthodoxy as to outcome. The starting point, though not the conclusion, of an understanding is that nothing is peripheral, and everything that people do should be considered.

The importance of context

Rituals and actions possess different meanings as parts of identity in different circumstances. The parading of the liberty cap, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century was treated by government as subversive and challenging, would, a hundred years later, be either incomprehensible or quaint. A similar flexibility is enjoyed by carnival, which can function in the way that Simmel envisaged conflict functioning, or can be, as in the late sixteenth century in south-eastern France, a vehicle for rebellion.14 It can, also, be neither of these things, but a means of pursuing grievances in unconventional ways which, while challenging custom and hierarchy, do not confront or threaten established government or social order.15

Because artefacts and feathers, stage props and scenery, are made or chosen, none of them have any inherent meaning. A swastika which symbolises well-being in its Sanskrit and Hindu form, symbolises something entirely different in its Nazi employment. Dark glasses can express laid-back casualness, or authoritarian reserve. Murals of the mythical hero Cúchulainn depict him in one part of Northern Ireland as the defender of Ulster and an ancestor of loyalists and unionists, in another part of the country as the symbol of nationalism.16 Analyses remain in an abstract realm until they are applied. Once they are applied, the resulting account is distinct in two ways: first, it is specific and contingent, in that the total mix of aspects or dimensions identified by analytical categories makes each interpretation unique. Second, as with ‘A sharp’, which is and is not the same as ‘B flat’, the presence of other dimensions and the relation between the dimensions forms the character not only of the whole but of the dimensions. Mark Anthony's description of Caesar's assassins as ‘all honourable men’17 takes its meaning from all the other things which he said, and the occasion on which he said them, and the audience to which they were addressed.

Identity and autonomy: auxiliaries and the ethics

Humans are social beings, and identity is cultivated not only in isolation but also in relation to others. There is a constant and continuing tension between the cultivation of an individual identity and the attempt to both sustain and distinguish that identity by shaping the identities of other people, on the one hand seeking to shape them to the individual's view of the world and of his or her own character, on the other seeking to cultivate an inferior though not hostile identity in others as an expression of the individual's superiority. Identity by association always limits difference by cultivating others within the association, however inferior they are presented as being, as friends and allies. Other associations, by contrast, can be presented as antagonists or enemies whose negative qualities throw into relief the virtues of one's own community.

There is an inherent conflict in the manipulation of the identity of others as a means of cultivating one's own, though one which rarely reaches the point where the entire enterprise collapses. The greater the claim, the greater the effort invested in cultivating the identity. When the claim is to political or collective identity, the effort can be immense. And, paradoxically, the cultivation of the identity of others may then be pursued by excluding them and marking them off from the identity of leaders, rulers, or elites, as readily as enlisting them as auxiliaries to the identity at the top of the political hierarchy. This exclusion, in its most extreme form, can lead to a cultivation of identity which is solipsistic and narcissistic. However, at this point the two dimensions of identification conflict, since some common identity is a feature of society and polity; the distinction of an elite or a leader has become isolation. If everyone speaks a different language there is no society.

There is no resolution of the conflict between the desire to enrol or subordinate others in the cultivation of a person's identity and the presumption that the individual is sovereign over himself or herself, apart from severe liberal restraint in the face of a constant temptation. Far from precluding such restraint, a recognition of the nature of human identity cultivation provides the foundation for it. If there is no human essence, whatever exists or has existed is human, and the condemnation of unnaturalness fails. It would seem at first as if this commits one to accepting any and all forms of life and conduct, however abhorrent. But this is not so. If there is no universal humanity, there is no justification for determining the life of anyone but oneself. Tyranny over oneself is a personal choice; tyranny over anyone else lacks any justification. Individuals may define and cultivate their own identities, but only insofar as that does not require the subordination of others to their self-identification. This is not because of an inalienable right to determine one's own identity and therefore not to have it determined by anyone else, but because, since the only human reality is the actions of individuals, there is no principle which privileges any one individual to subordinate others’ identification to his or her own, or treat them as auxiliaries to his or her identity. In that sense, the only person who can impugn or challenge individual honour or esteem, is the individual himself or herself. The actions of others are irrelevant to it. This individualism conflicts with the ways in which identity is cultivated. But an understanding of human identity cultivation which precludes any conception of essential human nature also precludes any justification of impinging on the autonomy of others, or subordinating their identity to one's own. The absence of empirical universals does not block the making of ethical judgments – it makes them possible.

Interests and identity

It may be that the politics of the twenty-first century will increasingly become a series of contests, often bitter and violent, over natural resources: water, oil, minerals, and land capable of producing food. In a world approaching or entering a time of limited resources and continued population growth, the contests for food, water, and fuel could become a dominant element in human action. In that case it might appear that a politics of identity will be replaced by a politics of interest or of biologically grounded needs and responses. That would be to misrepresent the relation between interest and identity, and between ubiquitous needs and their particular expression and pursuit. The preceding discussion has presented human life as being about meaning, justification, identity, and esteem. The acquisition and use of material goods has been presented as carried out as part of this activity, not as a separate or prior or fundamental activity. It might seem a cruel luxury of the richer parts of the world to treat identity as important when for large portions of humanity, life is a continual and stressful effort to secure enough food, water, shelter, warmth, health care, or education for minimal survival. But the accounts given of the varied classes and categories of humanity, and of the distribution of rights amongst them, would be matters of identity cultivation, creation, and description. Narratives of identity would provide the language for the distribution, and the restriction of the distribution, of resources between the various classes, groups, and categories into which competing claimants divide the human population. Identity would be a means of restricting access to resources which are insufficient to provide subsistence for everyone. Identification will not cease to be a human concern or a human activity, but its function and its relation to other dimensions of life will alter. Humans wish to survive, and to survive and flourish physically, materially. But the way in which they wish to survive and flourish can be as important to them as the mere fact of survival and flourishing. This is the point of Hegel's master-and-slave parable, in which the slave initially submits and the master does not, because for the master flourishing, and flourishing through a constructed and articulated identity, transcends mere physical existence.18 Material survival is never simply material survival with no further human dimension, it is always the survival of real people, whose life is cultivated in their identities amongst the deprived no less than amongst those more fortunate sections of the world's population. Human political activity will never be a simple reflection of objective and universally recognised and accepted economic interests. The parties to any contest will be shaped by shared identities, and the resources for understanding the world and for justifying aspirations, aversions, and actions within it will be used and developed in the cultivation of identity. Human identity, as an infinitely variable and changing presence, will shape and constitute human action as it has always done.

In times of hardship, explanations for distress are sought in the supposed actions of those whose identity differs from that of the distressed: foreigners, or subordinate or marginal categories of people. The narratives may differ, from witches in the seventeenth century to immigrants in the twenty-first, but the demonisation reflex of seeing alien identities is the same. Identity cultivation as a dividing up of humanity is the language of conflict over material resources. This takes the form of both invoking alien identities as threatening, and of subordinating and exploiting those whose identity is contrasted with that of the more fortunate. The continual recruitment of others in the cultivation and use of identity, either as auxiliaries or as contrasting subordinates or aliens, suggests that the competition for scarce resources will be conducted with the armoury of ideology and all the passion of identity, raising conflicts over material well-being or survival to the level of cultural survival. The sanctity of identity provides justification for expropriation and exploitation. Battles over water, or food, or energy will be ruthless even if they are only market commercialism carried to extremes, but they will be shaped, justified, and enhanced by conflicts between identities which will raise them to even more intense levels.

The destructive power of identity

A recognition of the apparently irrational, eccentric, or deranged element in identity cultivation can make sense of all the ‘hopeless’ insurrections, resistances, and protests from the Pilgrimage of Grace to the 1989 revolts in Eastern Europe, which Michael Rosen presents as the ‘irrational’ catalysts of transformation, or at least of disruption.19 Such eccentricities are irrational only within the limits of a narrow conception of interest and a narrow conception of identity. But they can also point towards an understanding of movements such as radical Islamism, which appears to place no value on any beliefs, practices, or persons other than its own, and to pursue a policy of the physical destruction of those alien beliefs, practices, and persons. Patriots do not wave flags because they are patriots; they are patriots because, among other things, they wave flags. ‘Patriot’ is a shorthand way of describing all the things they do. This is to say more than that a person is what they do. They are also what they make, cultivate, and preserve. It is because what people do constitutes who they are, and is not reducible to some deeper or more ‘objective’ or material reality, that religion is again and again so prevalent. Associating who one is with a human society gives solidity and dimension, but associating who one is with a superhuman or metaphysical dimension gives something else again. Genuflexion is grasping the hand of infinity. But it is always human beings who do the grasping, and whether one sees religion as a human creation, or sees knowledge of the divine as necessarily expressed through and by finite human capacity, all that can be known is human action. The question of both the cultivation and maintenance, and the destruction, replacement, and change of human identity is thus answerable only in terms of that identity itself, making understanding and interpretation possible, if difficult, but explanation and prediction a rainbow's end. The resurgence of militant, coercive, and intolerant religious movements in the twenty-first century demonstrates in murderous and destructive form the overwhelming power of the search for and the cultivation of identity, and of the unavoidable dependence of even the most apparently anti-materialist persons and movements on evident action and tangible resources.

Beyond face to face

The resurgence of religion is not the only set of events which has made identity both fluid and unpredictable. Visible identity has grown and become both more accessible and more frequent. Portraiture enabled a few people to see a fabricated image of an aristocrat, a monarch, a cleric, crafted, if the sitter was powerful or fortunate enough, to show piety, heroism, beauty, or wisdom. Photography placed sometimes less manicured images before a wider public; cinema and then television gave the images life, and made even more, potentially, fragile the image which the object of the vision sought for. But that slow erosion of control by the subject over the image was reversed with the rapid expansion, from the end of the twentieth century, of the Internet. Social media enabled all with access to a computer, a phone, or a tablet to present whatever images they wished of themselves, to the point where the gap between what could be seen in face-to-face contact and what was presented in an electronic world of virtual reality was so deep and broad that any evident connection between one side and the other disappeared. The conclusion of this chasm between the face-to-face person and the electronically presented person was the avatar in a virtual world of computer gaming.

But a potential universal power of not simply identity cultivation but of identity creation was challenged, as it developed and spread, by increasingly well-funded and extensive operations, principally though not exclusively by the rulers of states, to control, limit, or suppress a form of creation, cultivation, and publishing abroad over which, unlike all other forms of identity cultivation, they had no immediate control. The challenge which a freely accessible World Wide Web made to autocracy was not only the free dissemination of information and ideas, but the free proclamation of identities.

Paradoxes of identity

The man who, when delayed at the theatre box office, demanded ‘Don't you know who I am?’ was illustrating one of the many paradoxes of identity. On the one hand he was claiming the superiority of his identity, on the other revealing that it depended on recognition from those whom he considered below him. Human identity is full of tensions and contradictions. People cultivate identity both by associating themselves with others and by distinguishing themselves from them. Underlying competition for material resources is the paradox of public identity: individuals not only identify themselves in the sight of others, those others are frequently a part of the scenery which they construct or cultivate for the performance of their drama of identity. But in so doing, they subvert the equal dramatisation of those others. Mutual recognition is difficult when it involves recognising and acknowledging that others have identities which do not confirm your own preferences and values, and when, therefore, confident identity is reliant principally on a drama without a stage or a supporting cast.

So the cultivation of political identity, of persons, nations, and rulers, is an instance of a wider human activity, whereby identity is cultivated across the whole plane of individual and social life. And just as in political life, others are constantly being recruited, coerced, or attacked as part of the supporting cast of the drama, so in all the other dimensions of human life, authority can mean not only the autonomy and sufficiency of an author, but the extension of power over others. The cultivation of identity is not innocent. It gives meaning and justification, but frequently does so by privileging some cultivated group at the expense of some other cultivated group. The positive features of such identities are sustained by contrast with their negative reversals in the cultivated identities of dominated, managed, or controlled groups. These positive and negative identifications most familiarly are shaped as class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or nationality. The practices by which others are treated as auxiliaries to identity can vary from shaping the identity of those who can be controlled or managed, to telling stories about those who are beyond the narrator's control or influence. In the first case, members of the dominant person's group, community, or nation are subordinated to his or her identity. In the second case, narratives are cultivated about those who may live in other communities or countries, or who may not exist at all. The two practices can overlap or merge when people within a state are placed in geographical or social ghettos both to subordinate them and to cultivate an identity both alien and stigmatised. This subordination and exclusion can then be further intensified by a narrative which links people to real or imaginary external or supernatural enemies.

To observe the negative function of identity is not to condone it or be unable to affect it

What has been said and argued in the preceding chapters is not a claim about causes but about character. The various dimensions of human action which have been described are presented as constituting social character, not causing it. In that sense, an explanation is presented not in terms of causality but in terms of the various components of identity which, while they may sustain each other, do not have temporal precedence over each other. The more the particular character of an identity is described, the more elements are identified any one of which, by its absence, would have meant that the identity was different, and so whether seen as cause or constituent of the identity, each part or aspect is essential to the character of the whole.

People cultivate identity both by associating themselves with others and by distinguishing themselves from others. This creates a perpetual tension. The more precisely, despite these difficulties, an identity is established, the greater the contrast with surrounding identities. In these circumstances, distinguishing involves both describing and heightening a difference from others, yet the greater the difference, the more others can be seen, paradoxically, not as by their difference sustaining one's identity, but as threatening it by the very authority which their own identity enjoys. At the same time, their alleged difference is supportive of the identity with which they are contrasted by the very illumination, through contrast, of the identity from which they differ.

Recognition of the function of identity cultivation does not preclude either recognition of the harm it causes, or the making of ethical judgments about its operation and consequences. It both perceives the nature of the difficulty and provides incentives and justification for confronting it. The insistence on the possibility and reasonableness of equal respect for all identities qualifies the demand for recognition by excluding some of its forms. If others may not be subordinated as auxiliaries to identity or treated unequally because of differences of identity, recognition is available only from an equal, and the difference between the recogniser and the recognised strengthens the identity of each by combining the authority of an independent and different identity with the illuminating contrast which that difference entails. This provides for the possibility of applying ethical judgment, though not of empirical solutions, to the likely negative or harmful functions of identification in the twenty-first century. To record these processes and tensions is not to condone them, and an appreciation of their character makes possible an ethical assessment. This will not solve let alone remove the problems, but it provides a reason and a justification for confronting them. But in order to confront them effectively, it is necessary to recognise the role of identity cultivation, assertion, and preservation in providing the language and the perceptions within which competition for resources is carried on, which are the elements that enable it to be carried on. Confronting these tensions is thus an intensified instance of the universal and ubiquitous need to confront the paradoxes of identity, whose cultivation is the generator both of human progress and of human conflict.


1 Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, Scene 6.
2 Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, Scene 6.
3 Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 40.
4 Rosen, On Voluntary Servitude, pp. 261–2.
5 Hoock, Empires of the Imagination.
6 I am indebted to George Jones for this information. The remark is reported to have been made by Morrison at a seminar at the London School of Economics in the late 1950s in response to a question from Ralph Miliband.
7 Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Hacking, ‘Making up People’.
8 Ray Bradbury, ‘Referent’, in The Day it Rained Forever (London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1959).
9 Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1970).
10 K. Anthony Appiah, ‘Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction’, in Charles Taylor and Amy Gutmann (eds), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 149–63; Appiah, Ethics, pp. 105–10.
11 The Bible, Authorized King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), John 1:1.
12 It may not be possible to assert with unqualified confidence that no animals do so. But it is possible to assert that humans do.
13 Helen Roberts, What Works in Reducing Inequalities in Child Health? (Bristol, UK: Policy, 2012), pp. 40–1.
14 Humphrey, The Politics of Carnival.
15 Humphrey, The Politics of Carnival.
16 Bill Rolston, Drawing Support 2: Murals of War and Peace (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 1995).
17 William Shakespeare, ‘Julius Caesar’, in The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), Act III, Scene 2.
18 Taylor, Hegel, pp. 153–7.
19 Rosen, On Voluntary Servitude, pp. 261–2.
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