Why plumage matters

This book presents the rich fabric of language, clothing, food, and architecture which forms the diverse religious, political, cultural and ethnic identities of humanity. The colour of a scarf, the accent of a conversation, can unite people or divide them, and the smallest detail can play its part in signalling who are allies and who are enemies, as much for elites as for citizens in a democracy. Human identity is neither rigidly determined nor unpredictable and spontaneous, but between those two extremes is the forum on which the public life of humanity is generated. After a century in which an assumption was held across the ideological spectrum from left to right and from Marxists to economic individualists that the rational pursuit of material gain underlay social and political activity, the fundamental importance of the cultivation and preservation of identity is re-emerging across the whole spectrum of politics in which Britain is one example only. Yet while identity is the dimension in which public life is conducted, it is inherently paradoxical: on the one hand people cultivate their identity by association with a group, or religion, or nation, whilst on the other hand they distinguish themselves from their associates within those groups by presenting an intensified or purer form of the qualities which otherwise unite them. So identity simultaneously generates equality and inequality, between identification by association, and identity by exclusion and differentiation; it is both the engine of public life, and the cause of its confusion and conflict.

This Open Access edition was funded by London School of Economics and Political Science.

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In describing identity, everything counts, no human activity is trivial or meaningless. There is a paradox in the continual tension between identity as association with some group, ideology, or vision, and identity as distinction by contrast within such groups. The constraints and opportunities which form the context of choice in the cultivation of identity are themselves the product of human choices and actions. Identity and interest are not alternative ways of describing individuals or groups, but are concepts describing different aspects of social life, so that the phenomena to which they refer stand in a symbiotic rather than a causal relation to one another, each presupposes the other, and an account in terms of one is not a denial of the reality of the other. General theories or narratives provide the necessary ingredients for complex or qualified accounts of real circumstances, not a sufficient or full account of what is going on. For this reason plays, poetry, cinema, or novels, are contributions in their own right to description and explanation.

in Cultivating political and public identity
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Replying to Burke’s apologia for monarchy and aristocracy, Tom Paine famously complained that Burke pitied the plumage, but forgot the dying bird. But without the plumage, the bird is not a bird at all, and observing plumage is one of the first ways in which we try to see what sort a bird we are looking at. Human plumage is not limited to clothing, but consists of the whole complex cultivation of both conduct and environment, from all the visible and audible elements of individual identity to the created physical environment which its members inhabit. Clothing and cuisine, language and architecture, form the plumage of humans in all places and at all times. The paradox of identity is the tension between identification through association with others, and identity by individual distinction, the one sustaining equality, the other inequality.

in Cultivating political and public identity
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Public identity consists of every aspect of the life of a person or a group or association. Democratic empiricism dismisses nothing, not even deception or hypocrisy, as superficial or merely rhetoric. Human social life is composed of all the aspects of its identity, each one of which contributes to the whole; take them all away, and nothing, no essence or founding principle, remains. Coherence of this patchwork is always sought, seldom attained. Identity is cultivated in circumstances which provide both limits and opportunities, but those circumstances are themselves the result of human choices. So the word ‘cultivation’ is important as describing neither untrammelled choice nor determination by circumstance. The manner in which people are seen by others can be a factor in shaping identity, the ‘Medusa Syndrome’ as Appiah has called it, or dynamic nominalism in Hacking’s account. Interests and identity are not distinct, and one cannot be described without the other. Cultivation involves the paradox of on the one hand association with a wider community, and on the other distinction within it.

in Cultivating political and public identity
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Association and distinction in politics and religion

Leaders exemplify the tension between association and distinction, cultivating an identity which draws on a wider community or character, but which is intensified in order to achieve distinction.

Religious leaders claim the ultimate association, but as with all other elements of identity the expression of identity is composed of specific human actions and artefacts, so that the divine, like the secular can speak only with human voices.

Elites cultivate identity both towards their subjects and supporters and for their own enhancement, and whilst this does not distinguish them from other people, the intensity with which they do so does. This cultivation differs between unmobilised and mobilised societies.

The difference between the various identities of a person can be greatest within an elite which has resources of both power and privacy.

in Cultivating political and public identity
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The oddity of democracy

The unique ambivalence of democracy as a form of government and politics is the identity of the mobilised population as both rulers and subjects. Democracy depends not only on good government or good governors, but on the political role of a demos of active citizens. A democratic polity requires a democratic society, characterised by equality of identity in all its dimensions. The ideal identity of a democratic citizenry is composed of polite but limited deference, and robust scepticism of authority.

The possibility of disrespect and satire is both least necessary and most possible in democratic societies, with demonstration and, in its widest form, carnival as the last resort for asserting democratic identity.

The collision between equality and inequality, association and distinction can be vigorous in democracies, as representation not only exemplifies but exaggerates identities cultivated through association.

in Cultivating political and public identity

In uncertain times, any aspect of plumage can be a marker of friend or foe. There are four ideal types of responses to uncertainty or instability, though in any single time or place events will be partial or mixed instances of these four: new plumage, the introduction of new forms of identity or the adoption by individuals or groups of different identities; iconoclasm, the attempt to destroy or discredit current practice as one part of the creation of new identities, plucking the old plumage; tradition, the attempt to effect change by presenting new identities as continuous with or re-assertions or developments or fulfilments of old or existing manners and customs, which manners and customs may be real or invented; and conservatism, the assertion or re-assertion of existing customs and ways of life. In each of these aspects of response, the initiative begins with minorities or elites.

in Cultivating political and public identity
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The people and the places to which the title ‘Britain’ have been attached have shifted and changed across time. The identity of Britain is composed of all the various identities of its members, and is orchestral or patchwork, not fractal. The identity of any particular inhabitant or group of inhabitants is not a microcosm of a collective identity, but a mixture of some, and necessarily only some, of the elements which constitute the identity of Britain as a whole in terms of clothing, food, language, or religion.

As a mobilised society moved towards democracy and the formal distance between elite and mass became both smaller and less mined with obstacles, the identity of rulers shifted in engagement with the shifting identities of the ruled and the growth of a culture of citizenship. Mobilisation was both from above cultivating subjects, and from below cultivating citizens. The changing public presentation of the people was complemented by a shift in that of monarchy, military, judiciary, legislature, church and executive.

in Cultivating political and public identity
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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.

in Cultivating political and public identity