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Persons and Personal Identity

Difference and Identity

Stefan Gandler
Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro

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ABSTRACT: While I am socially defined as "white," "male," "European," and so on, my theses are not formulated to affirm the social position(s) attached to these attributes but, rather, to indicate some of the limitations implicit in the concepts of identity and difference. Interestingly, two hundred years ago, the overcoming of oppression followed the concept of identity, whereas today the concept of difference is central. Why is this change not discussed in the present debates on difference?

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Preliminary Observations: (1)

a) The following ten theses have as their context the present efforts to face racism and sexism, and another forms of repression towards social minorities or groups which have the position of minorities, without being. The right to selfdefence and to fight oppression cannot be denied to any oppressed social subject. However it is valid to make some critical observations on the forms portrayed in the eager pursuit of emancipation. The author, socially defined as "white", "male", "European" and so on, formulates these theses not to affirm the social position that he might perhaps have, due to these attributes, but rather to indicate some limitations that are implied by the use of concepts of identity and difference in the search for emancipation.

b) Two hundred years ago, the concept of equality was utilised in the same way, that nowadays, the concept of difference is, that is to say the overcoming of oppression, or the pursuit of emancipation. The interesting thing is, that this change is practically not discussed at all in present debates on difference. What is the reason for this?

c) There is a parable that counts of an old society in which it was taken as fact, that the world rests on the backs of four gigantic elephants. All the philosophers and wise people discussed without ceasing a question that worried them a lot. Namely what color were the elephants? Some were convinced that they were pink and others that they were grey, while another philosophical trend defended that they were either pink or of different colors. Might it be that the current debates on equality and difference resemble these elephantine discussions?

1. The concepts of difference and identity have the same historical and logical origin as the concept of equality, with which they argue, i.e., the illustrated thought or enlightenment philosophy, the liberal culture, the bourgeois society and the capitalist form of reproduction.

Bourgeois individualism developed exactly at the moment, when the real differences between regions, cultures and so on, were lost, due to the overwhelming masification of all the social relations and their subjects.

The capitalist form of reproduction is necessarily based on the double game of equality, which is expressed in the value, or values of change, the social character of production and producers on the one hand, and inequality that is the difference on the other hand. The difference is expressed in the value of use, and the private character of the production and the producers. That is to say the double character of the merchandise and of its producers is the unity of equality and difference, or in other words, the unity of identity and not-identity, which is the base of the whole existing social formation.

2. The self-appointed "postmodern" positions, which insist on the difference and identity of each in opposition to the identity of the other, are in the final analysis nothing other than a variant of the incapacity of modernity to understand itself, i.e., an inability to comprehend the double character of its social relations which are necessarily equal and unequal at the same time. There are basically two forms of this incomprehension. On the one hand the classic position vindicates the right to equality, or equality before the law, but in this position it is ingenuously forgotten that equality is also a necessary base of the present exploitation and repression. On the other hand the "postmodern" critics of equality, who celebrate difference, forget, that this difference is also an indispensable part of the present repressive and exploitative social and economic system.

The internal contradiction or double character of capitalist modernity can not be overcome, by either forgetting difference, nor by forgetting equality, but only in the critical analysis of the dialectic relation that they have between them. That is to say, the overcoming of the limitations of present modernity is not found in the supposed exit from it, (using exaggeratedly the prefix "post"), but rather, it is necessary within the existing modernity to analyze as deeply as possible the false base of the current capitalist modernity.

Surplus value can be generated in the present economic system solely on the basis of the, at the same time real and fictitious, interchange of equivalencies at the moment of the purchase-sale of the basic merchandise of capitalism, i.e. the workforce. This interchange is, on the one hand, one of equivalencies in the meaning that it is paid to the worker - in general - the value of the merchandise that he has to sell, in other words his capacity to work. On the other hand, simultaneously, this exchange is not one of equivalents because the workforce has a capacity, that no other merchandise with which it is exchanged necessarily has; the capacity to generate value.

The complex game of equality and difference is also the secret of the present international relations, especially between the countries of the so called first world, on the one hand, and countries of the so called third world on the other hand. The equality, expressed in international contracts such as NAFTA, guarantees the free flow of merchandise and values. While the difference, for example in the levels of education and technological development that are reflected in differential levels of salary, guarantees a degree of exploitation, that in each different case reaches its maximum and is not restricted by any equality, for example in labour rights. The legal impediment against establishing binational (or multinational) Workers Unions, is the differential counterpart to the equality of conditions for the investors of the member-countries of NAFTA. Only this perfectly developed combination of equality and difference realizes the eternal dream of certain social classes, namely maximum profits. The concept of difference does not scare them. No, they like it, as did their bourgeois predecessors two hundred years ago, who also did not fear equality, but fought for it as conditio sine qua non of the capitalist form of production.

It might even be asked, if the concept of difference does not coincide in a certain way with the present bourgeois cynicism, that no longer wishes to remember the historical promise of happiness for all; a promise with which they mobilised the popular masses for the revolutionary-bourgeois fight. As in the collective memory these promises are intimately linked to the concept of equality, the rejection, even with intentions of emancipation, of this concept and the vindication of the difference could even be applauded from the bourgeois perspective.

3. The concept of difference has another deficiency. In general it is considered, that hatred of the other, as it is expressed for example in racism, anti-Semitism, or sexism, is a hatred of the stranger, the unknown, the unfamiliar, that is to say the "other" in the fullest meaning of the word. This version falls in the trap, of believing in the racist, anti-Semite or sexist, but they are not necessarily true, the words and other expressions of this kind. Rather deep study of the most central reasons for the hatred of the so called other is necessary.

If the racist says that one of another color is lazy and does not want to work, intending to justify that the one of another color of skin does the dirty and heavy work instead of him, then really it is a hatred of the other? If the anti-Semite says that the Jews only think about the money, perhaps as justification, for his own get rich quick scheme utilising the "Arisierung", that is the expropriation of the Jews in benefit of the anti-Semites, really the anti-Semite hates the other? If the sexist says that women are weak and irrational, as justification for the fact that a woman has to organize him all his life, because he is not capable of even the simplest daily rational organisation, really the sexist hates the other?

Our thesis, that we appropriated from Horkheimer and Adorno, is that the so called hatred of the other is rather a hatred of the too much known in oneself. (2)

In the present society there is practically no place for self-criticism or selfreflection, as a result the hate that one has for the parts of oneself that one cannot accept due to certain social rules, is really projected as hatred of the supposed other, the other that is in reality nearest to oneself. What is hated in the other is not the unknown, but is rather the too well known. What one would, according to the current logic, have to hate in oneself, is actually projected and hated in the other.

A very outstanding historical example is the destruction of the European Jews, organized from Nazi Germany. There are few cultures in Europe, which are so intimately linked and mutually influenced like the German (in general) and the Jewish. All German culture is full of Jewish traditional influences, and at the same time the Jews of the east of Europe speak or spoke yiddish, a language that resembles and has one of its strongest roots in the German language.

To distinguish the German culture (in general) from the Jewish in Europe is extremely difficult and to a certain degree impossible. (This was so at least before Nazism, the Nazis did everything to make that forgotten.) Therefore, it was not the distance between the German Jews and the other Germans or the Germans and the European Jews in general, that made possible the most perfectly carried out genocide in history, but rather the nearness between the German and the Jewish culture. The Germans, who considered themselves the norm, did not hate the German Jews and the other European Jews because they were different, but rather because they were too similar. Due to this nearness the Jews were the group that (only for the fact of its existence) most questioned the Nazi ideology of "racial pureness" and the supposed "insurmountable racial differences" At the same time the nearness made easier the aforementioned false projection. These were two of the main factors which caused them to be the group predestined for the policy of destruction of the Nazi's.

4. The recognition of the other is then, in last instance, the recognition of oneself. That is to say, hatred of the other cannot be surpassed with acceptance of the difference of the other in comparison to oneself, rather it is obtained as a result of acceptance of the internal contradictions that each one has and so with overcoming dependency on the social rules that are repressing us all.

5. The concept of identity, that is used in a cardinal way in theories which are critical towards certain repressive characteristics of the present modern society (racism, sexism...), implies not so much the possibility of rescuing ones own internal difference, but rather a resurrection of the negation of internal contradictions. The identities, as in general they are thought and tried of carrying out, tend to wipe out the internal contradictions, in what is personal as well as in what is social or with respect to groups. A strong concept of identity does not result in the acceptance of the other like another identity, but rather in the repression of the internal contradictions, and with this the desire to project repressed desires onto the other, and so in the hatred of the supposed other as the elected representative of the other internal that is prohibited by the strong concept of identity.

The human being is identical with himself only as dead man. While he lives, all his experiences, the influences from outside, the fantasies and the dreams, the satisfactions and the disappointments, even the biological process of the growth of children, of maturation and the aging process cause that at no moment he is identical to what he was at the previous moment. But the problem is still deeper, even at the same time there are undeniable internal contradictions. Somebody can, for example, be generally heterosexual and suddenly have homosexual desires or the other way round. But in general no group accepts these extravagances with easiness. Not even minorities or oppressed social groups, such as for example homosexuals, agree in general, if suddenly one of them leaves the definition of his identity of group.

But people in general neither allow themselves such breaches of the identity. Although all know, that one day they may wake up, for example desiring to make love with a certain woman, and another day they rise with different desires, for example to make love with a man, almost nobody allows himself the luxury, of breaking each morning with the identity barely previously established. Nearly every morning we wake up as somebody different, but only in very few cases do we accept that at the moment of opening our eyes.

The lack of a constant identity is considered in our society as madness or at least as lack of coherence. This corresponds to the logic of social control. In this logic the worst thing are attitudes which cannot be clearly characterised. A marriage can be placed in the statistics of the administrations just as easily as a gay couple can be, but a person who is not defined, necessarily makes things less and less foreseeable, and resultantly is a true threat to the clinical-sociological eye which needs the ruling classes to know what is happening with its subjects.

But also the society itself asks for the control of fixed identities. If people no longer dream about the possibility of a free society, they want justice at least in some other way. "Nobody should be less repressed than the majority", this is the new motto of our society, a motto that has one of its expressions in the forced identity. (3)

6. The overcoming of racism, anti-Semitism and sexism does not consist so much, in the acceptance of the other (external) and the construction of an alternate identity, as the so called postmodern theorist's would have us believe. It consists rather in an analysis of the intimate relation that the concepts of equality, difference and identity have in our society, and with that an analysis of the characteristics of our society that take an overly aggressive position, which in last instance is not an aggressiveness against the other, but rather a self-destructive tendency that implies necessarily our irrational and destructive social formation.

7. The exaltation of the difference and the identity, far from being beyond the capitalist modernity (in the sense of "post"), objectively makes the conceptual fog thicker and prevents us seeing the internal contradictions of the present society. This recycles, once more, the absurd fantasy that the self-destructive tendency of the bourgeois society could be surpassed within its limits.

[The postmoderns are for the modernity, what the Jesuits were for the catholic church: they are radicals in what is visible and weak in what is conceptual and essential. They rescue by their pseudo-radical criticism what has been destined to disappear, this invalidates the radical critique, which one brings in danger the persistence of the oppressive reality. This can in certain cases perfectly coincide with the subjective will of surpassing the domination of the human being by the human being, which does not change the effects, which are in last instance negative, for emancipation.]

8. The debate, if the equality or the difference, the national or "ethnic" identity, or perhaps (why not?) the individual identity, are the secrets of a less repugnant society, than the one from which we are part, is (in last instance) a scholastic debate, because really it is nothing other than a debate among different limited perspectives on the same total phenomenon: the bourgeois society, that has as it's necessary basis forced equality, forced difference and forced identity.

The different individual begins to arise historically at the moment when the masification of the society begins, the particular identity is celebrated just in the moment when it tends to vanish. The solitude of each different and identical individual is the necessary base of the masification, that is, the forced equality is based on the forced difference.

Simultaneously the generalized masification provokes the desire and the social obligation to be distinguished in such important aspects as the mark of the used car, the revered football team, the applied perfume, the favourite soap opera or even the chosen hobby. At international level the national difference is exalted more and more, whereas it is known perfectly well that it is in fact disappearing at an accelerated rate. The forced equality provokes forced difference.

9. The solution to a certain form of absence of freedom cannot be another form of absence of freedom. The repression, that implies necessarily the forced equality, cannot be surpassed with the forced difference. The lack of freedom, that implies the forced national identity, doesn't have its antidote in the forced "ethnic" identity and even not in the individual identity, which, in spite of being nearer to the emancipation than the other identities, cannot exist in the present society without an element of coercion. But, in the bourgeois society the reclamation or the imagination of a freedom - even the most limited and ephemeral one - provokes necessarily the loss of another freedom.

10. Freedom is not reached sacrificing it, it sounds as if it were common knowledge, but it is not. Freedom is only reached by surpassing its nowadays principal limitation, that is the bourgeois-capitalist society. Equality, difference and identity can only be developed freely in a free society. The secret of the emancipation of the indigenes, of the women, of the homosexuals, of the lesbians and of all the ones called by the majority "others", is the emancipation of the society as such. Everything else is nothing other than the perverse attempt to surpass a repression with a new one. Of these attempts human history is full, and it makes no sense to repeat it once again.

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(1) Richard O' Flaherty from the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway helped me with his very valuable observations about the linguistic correctness of this english version, and I also discussed some points of these theses with him.

(2) See: Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente, in: Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 5, especially the chapter: Elemente des Antisemitismus, pages 197-238, here page 211: "Was als Fremdes abstößt, ist nur allzu vertraut." The english version of this text is: Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno: Dialectic of enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. [New ed.]. London : Verso, 1979.

(Horkheimer and Adorno refer here to: Sigmund Freud, "Das Unheimliche", in: Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke, Frankfurt am Main, 1968, vol. XII, pages 254 and 259 and others.)

(3) Also see on the problem of the identity: Bolívar Echeverría, La identidad evanescente, in: Bolívar Echeverría, Las ilusiones de la modernidad, México, D.F. UNAM / El Equilibrista, 1995, pages 55-74.

Echeverria makes in this text, starting off from the theory of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the proposal "to conceive the universality of the human in a concret way", with what it could be rescued, using our concepts, the equality and at the same time the difference (page 58) ["concebir la universalidad de lo humano de manera concreta"].

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