On Human Identities and Language

I pondered a lot on the problem I have with identifying myself or other people in one way or another. The generic “identity-search”, to which we are so often subjected these days, is usually a kind of labelling, with all consequences. To take myself as an example, since I am originally Russian, some people rather honestly marvel at the fact that I don’t drink much alcohol. This is not the most complimentary trait of the Russian character those people are looking for in me, but so it goes. On the other hand, I sometimes have to wear glasses that are round in shape. They date back to the time when I was head over heels in love with The Beatles and John Lennon, in particular. Eleven years of quasi-Britishness paid off this May when my Russian compatriots who came for Zenith match mistook me for an Englishwoman because of my glasses.

On both occasions, as you can deduce, I don’t feel obliged to drink because I am Russian, and I have been wearing the “British” glasses long before I adopted the second citizenship. This can be taken further and wider. One doesn’t have to subscribe to the code of conduct of a group they socially, culturally, nationally, religiously, etc. belong to (as an example, on Flickr there is a group called “gay but not GAY”). But the pressure to “find your identity” or “express your identity” seems to be mounting.

Interestingly, this pressure has to do with what Diane Arbus described in the following phrase: “the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be“. This isn’t non-sensical. The more one tries to follow the code of conduct of a group they identify themselves with, the more they become identifiable with the group. They will be less individual and more generic, as a result. This is why we are so obsessed with the quest for one’s identity: because we are constantly looking in the wrong direction. We assess the particular and specific, whereas it seems the New World is somewhere way off this track. On the other hand, the more inventive, the less specific an individual is, the less it is possible to shove him or her into a particular category. For this, Arbus had another beautiful quote:

Invention is mostly that kind of subtle, inevitable thing. People get closer to the beauty of their invention. They get narrower and more particular in it. […] Some people hate a certain kind of complexity. Others only want that complexity. But none of that is really intentional. I mean it comes from your nature, your identity. We’ve all got an identity. You can’t avoid it. It’s what’s left when you take everything else away. I think the most beautiful inventions are the ones you don’t think of“.

So, identity is “what’s left when you take everything else away“. “Everything else” should be understood precisely as “everything else”. That is an interesting junction to Exercises in Loneliness-4, when I said that the last thing that remains, after all those socially demanded identities had been stripped off, is our human nature – however, this human nature, strictly speaking, should also be stripped off, if we were to reveal some kind of “true”, quintessential identity of one’s self.

In the poem The Word, which was obliquely inspired by various texts by Martin Heidegger, I raised the very problem of trying to apply a word to the infinite nature of a being. The problem is born in the ultimate complexity of the latter and the ultimate limitations of the former. Why is this? Supposedly, if our, human, language is produced by ourselves in the process of historical development of the mankind, then why should it be so difficult to describe anyone in one word – that is, to give them a fathomable identity?

Two viewpoints come to mind. First, is Nietzsche: in Human, All Too Human he asserts that the biggest flaw of all philosophers is that they do not recognise the evolution of a human character. They regard and study a man of the past from their, philosophers’, contemporary point of view. This phrase can be applicable to the point I am making in a variety of ways. We can remember the late Edward Said with his studies into how the Western thought “domesticated” the Eastern culture, whereby the pre-existing misunderstandings were aggravated by further misinterpretation. We can thereby also extend the notion of translation, and see it in a more general sense, as a multi-format interpretation, which will help explain why philosophers whom Nietzsche decried had this flaw: because they interpeted a man of the past within, and for, the context of their present time, whereas a correct approach would have been to interpret a man of the past in the context of the past. So, the first problem with “identifying” someone or something is that the researcher may be standing on the essentially wrong point of view, i.e. putting an object of enquiry into the context to which the object doesn’t belong. Notwithstanding our awareness of the historical evolution of the language and mankind, we tend to forget about it when it comes to identifying and interpreting.

And second comes Zizek with an array of quotes and interpretations, which can be found in the very first subchapter of his recent book, In Defense of Lost Causes. He juxtaposes two views on the Judeo-Christian injunction to “love thy neighbour”: the one, held by Levinas, involves “the ethical domestication of the Neighbour“; and the other is endorsed by Freud and Lacan who insist on “the problematic nature” of this injunction. If we bring in the above argument on translation, especially in connection with the “domestication” of ideas and cultures for “better” understanding of foreign “things”, it will become apparent why Freud, Lacan and Zizek have all found Levinas’s “ethical domestication” problematic: because such domestication excludes the possibility of the Neighbour to be unethical or inhuman. This doesn’t happen because the Neighbour cannot be inhuman in their behaviour, but rather because we, as the neighbours of the Neighbour, apriori consider the Neighbour human because we are. Just as we usually consider ourselves free from the Freudian Thing (“the ultimate object of our desires in its unbearable intensity and impenetrability“), so we believe that the Neighbour doesn’t have it either: “”man”, “human person” is a mask that conceals the pure subjectivity of the Neighbour” (Zizek, p. 16).

And then comes this beautiful quote, which can be difficult to grasp, but an attempt is worth its own fruits:

…when one asserts the Neighbour as the impenetrable “Thing” that eludes any attempt at gentrification, at its transformation into a cozy fellow man, this does not mean that the ultimate horizon of ethics is deference towards the unfathomable Otherness that subverts any encompassing universality. on the contrary, only an “inhuman” ethics, an ethics addressing an inhuman subject, not a fellow man, can sustain true universality. The most difficult thing for common understanding is to grasp this speculative-dialectical reversal of the singularity of the subject qua Neighbour-Thing into universality, not standard “general” universality, but universal singularity, the universality grounded in the subjective singularity extracted from all particular properties, a kind of direct short circuit between the singular and the universal, bypassing the particular” (Zizek, pp. 16-17).

What we read here is precisely the assertion of Arbus’s “the more specific, the more general“. The more “humanity” we invest in the Neighbour, the more general they will be, and hence, the less obvious will be their flaws or even danger. A true individuality resides where everything particular has been taken away – this becomes the identity, but it’s no longer a “human” identity, but rather an identity of someone as a subject: a subjective singularity that becomes a true universal singularity.

Yes, these categories are Platonic, as Zizek recognises, but they are important for the enquiry: only if we introduce these “extra-human”, “inhuman” (= not grounded in our actual experience) categories, will we be able to comprehend their “human” dimension. Zizek demonstrates this with the title of Walter Benjamin’s work, On Language in General and Human Language in Particular: language-in-general is introduced in order to provide “a minimal difference” between the particular and the general. He then shifts to a quote from G. K. Chesterton’s Napoleon of Nothing Hill, to show that “there is an inhuman core in all of us, or, that we are “not-all human”“.

What this means is that this inhuman core can be comprehended in its own terms, but that it cannot be properly described in human language precisely because the “inhuman” relates to the universal, and “human” to the particular. Hence, when trying to actually spell out one’s true identity, which is the very “inhuman core”, we are effectively domesticating this identity to the limitations of our, human, language. (Cue Heidegger’s Wozu Dichter? again). Add to this that the language itself can be limited by a huge variety of factors, and it will become apparent that (and why) all socially demanded or attributed “identities” are false.

One last question that remains is whether or not it is actually possible to perform some sort of trick to help us put the “inhuman” substances into “human” words without losing the touch with the “inhuman core” of those substances. To quote from another chapter in Zizek’s book, there are two possibilities. One is that an eternal Idea that survived its historical defeat regresses “from the level of Notion as the fully actualised unity of Essence and Appearance, to the level of the Essence supposed to transcend its Appearance“. Another is that “the failure of reality to fully actualize an Idea is simultaneously the failure (limitation) of this Idea itself continues to hold“. Therefore, “the gap that separates the Idea from its actualisation signals a gap within the Idea itself” (Zizek, p. 209).

Precisely what Idea are we pursuing in our identity-quest? The actual quest, may it be provoked by the demands of the society, is spurred by a somewhat selfish but very humane desire to comprehend oneself. So, while looking for an identity, we are actually trying to find out what a man is. And this is where we get back to Heidegger, to that place in Wozu Dichter? where he discusses the impoverishment of Time. It happened, on the hand, he argues, because God had died; but, on the other hand, it also happened because the mortal people haven’t fathomed their mortality. Mortals don’t comprehend (and hence don’t own) their essence, but they continue living because the language survives. I would like to come back to this thesis later, but at present it is this thesis that answers the question of why the identities are so magnetic, and yet why the gap between the “inhuman core” and the “human” language hampers the quest. The gap is in the very Idea of man, the way we like to understand it in this part of the world, but, contrary to what one would be tempted to assert, the gap has to do with death, not survival. And it is for the protection against death that we look for identities and cultivate them, so that they can be preserved in the human language and memory as the living identities.


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