Today, we have a guest post featuring an interview with Gerald Izenberg, Professor Emeritus of History at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the recently-published Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea, among other books. Identity is the first comprehensive history of identity as the answer to the question, "who, or what, am I?" It covers the century from the end of World War I, when identity in this sense first became an issue for writers and philosophers, to 2010, when European political leaders declared multiculturalism a failure just as Canada, which pioneered it, was hailing its success. At the same time the book is an argument for the validity and indispensability of identity, properly understood. The interview in today’s post is republished, with generous permission, from the Swedish journal Respons, which recently printed it in Swedish translation along with a review of the book.
Your research has centered on the history of the self for many years and the history of identity seems to be a kind of logical end. I would like to hear your thoughts on the relationship between identity and modernity, and especially secularization. Is not the search for identity a substitute for an experience of loss of transcendence?
This was certainly Charles Taylor’s argument. As I tried to show, however, whatever date or event we assign to the beginnings of “modernity”—the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution—identity in its contemporary meaning as self-definition, the answer to the question “who (or what) am I” appears much later: as an issue not until the years following World War I, as a word not until the work of Erik Erikson after World War II. I am among those who consider secularization a central feature of modernity since the Enlightenment, though many historians argue that the loss of religious belief in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been much exaggerated. But even in the absence of religion, gender, race, nation, and class were the sources of universally unquestioned objective identities in Europe before the Great War. It was the enormous shock that the war gave to the assumed solidity and goodness of the most honored identities in Europe up until then that led an avant-garde of writers and thinkers to question the very possibility of objective identity altogether and to explore the part that subjective self-definition plays in determining who we are.
That people use the word to define themselves and others is an empirical fact and worth studying, but I find it difficult to use identity as an analytical concept although this is frequently the case in the human and social sciences. What's your opinion of this—what do we explain when using the word identity (in history for example)?
I would argue that whatever the sources of our individual and collective identities, and however large a role conscious choice and self-creation play in them, identities function as causes of action. Who we say we are (or think we are), individually and collectively, includes a range of roles, norms, and values that determine the stances we take and things we do, as individuals, as religious groups, and as nations. Identity is a necessary though not sufficient causal factor in historical explanation. National identity played and continues to play a huge role in what citizens of countries expect of their leaders, of their country’s place in the world, and of the way they expect it to react to other countries. Despite the contemporary questioning of traditional gender identities in so-called advanced societies, modern men (and women) continue to have ideas—or questions—about what it means to “be a man,” and such ideas, and uncertainties, about masculine identity materially affect their behavior in politics, business and intimate relationships. I venture that they always will.
I have no doubt that identity can and does serve as an avenue of, and a cover for, the crassest of material interests. But the relationship between identity and interest cuts both ways. There is not necessarily a sharp separation between the two. One’s identity also defines one’s interests. The “interests” of a group of ascetics is crucially defined by their beliefs, that is, their identity as ascetics. It is a conceit of too much modern social scientific thinking that material interest is the sole explanatory cause of social behavior.
One of the things I find debatable in your book is the way you make identity synonymous with every kind of self-definition. But is that really true? Isn't it only recently that people have defined themselves in terms of identity? I am thinking of the old saying 'know thyself' or religious people defining themselves as sinners (cut off from a living relationship to God), which, as far as I know, they never thought of as a problem of identity. Or would you regard this as yet another part of the history of identity as self-definition?
Yes, you are right, it is only recently that people have defined themselves self-consciously in terms of identity. And you are right to say that this is another part of the history of identity that I try to explain in the book. In the past identity was taken for granted: people “knew” who they were even if, like sinners, they didn’t live up to their own definitions of themselves. The admonition to “know thyself” meant that there was an essential, pre-existing self to be known, not made. People didn’t have to raise the question of identity because it was defined for them by essences, God, nature, tradition, history. All these terms can be seen as “God-terms,” ultimate determinants of everything, including human identity and destiny. It was the death not only of God but of the power of God-terms generally that made us have to consider our own roles in defining ourselves.
I would like to challenge you on yet another point—and I do this since you have built such a strong case for your own interpretation. You say that identity is an existential necessity. But it can be argued that identity is primarily a material, economic and political necessity. You need identity to be able to get a passport, to draw money from your bank account (of open one in the first place), to get access to welfare systems, etc. Identity is a question of power, money, rights, and politics in a capitalistic world-order where people and money travel and circulate. By focusing on identity as an existential problem you divert interest from the really significant part of modernity's struggle with identity. How would you respond to that kind of criticism?
The only thing I disagree with here is your pitting identity as existential necessity against economic and political identity. For me, it is part of our existential fate, as I argued in the chapter on the “Kinds of Kinds,” that we are economic and political beings and can’t escape the existential necessity of living in a society and polity which for its—our—civic purposes partly (but only partly) defines who we are. I call it an existential necessity because it transcends any one particular form of economy or polity. It is emphatically not just true of capitalist society. Political and social identity are and will be necessarily aspects of any form of organized society, tribal, feudal, socialist, national or international. The division of labor exists in every kind of society; the social roles that a society makes possible may be, and have been, radically different over time. Full membership in any society may be defined differently for different kinds of societies, but will always necessitate some set of civic identities for the allocation of benefits and duties. Identity before identity as self-definition meant precisely but only our civic identities.
I also however want to distinguish what I have called “transcendental” identities as a special category, and special danger, of our existential need for identities. We all need orienting belief systems, and for many of us, these seem to have to be grounded in absolutes to have binding power on us. That is what has historically made our political and religious identities so dangerous to others. To the extent we see them as absolute, we denigrate the identities of others. “Transcendent identities” are the most slippery category of the existential need for identities like sex, gender, ethnicity, civic, and labor because they can be seen as the source of all the other identities, with all the hierarchical and exclusionary implications “transcendence” carries.
One last question, is there anything in the history of identity that has surprised you?
Yes, very much. I was amazed, for example, when I learned that identity had invaded as abstract and mathematical an area as economics, and surprised how important it was for other social scientists like anthropologists and sociologists. For another, while I was well acquainted with the controversy over identity politics, both domestically and internationally, I was somewhat surprised by the intensity of the controversy over the validity of the idea of identity itself. The idea that identity could also be an ethical category was new and intriguing.
In general I would say that I found most surprising the extent to which the category of identity had penetrated usage from the most popular spheres of culture to the most abstract and arcane fields of thought. In less than a century, a new concept had come to seem so indispensable that it seems we were never without it. Yet we were.