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Identity, a Card with Two Faces – Page 3

– Page 3 –

Lines of approach

Identity is thus a necessity, but its negative side-effects must be avoided at all costs. How can these two contradictory aspects of identity be reconciled? I propose to confine myself to a few lines of approach.

The first of these relates to what I would call the mobility of identity. If any identity, whether it be cultural, ethnic or national, is to function properly – in other words, if its suggested configuration is to be acknowledged as real and legitimate – it has to overlook or disregard the fact that all such configurations are arbitrary and could be drawn in many other possible ways.

This means we must bear the arbitrary nature of identity constructs constantly in mind, not with a view to eliminating all forms of identification and affiliation – which would be unrealistic, since identity is a cognitive necessity for human beings – but simply so as to remind ourselves that we each have several identities at the same time.

The realization that we all have several identities whereby to define ourselves has its uses. During the recent constitutional discussions in Canada, for instance, women from the country’s indigenous groups who wanted to hold on to the protection they are afforded under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms opposed attempts by the (male) community leaders to set up an autonomous indigenous government run on traditional lines and thus not subject to the provisions of the Charter.

On this specific issue, the women adopted a shifting identity strategy: first defined as “indigenous”, they became ‘women” when they stressed the danger that the “principles of indigenous government” represented for the autonomy and equality of women in relation to men, then became ‘Canadian citizens” when they militated in favour of maintaining the Canadian Charter in the event of there being an indigenous government.

When people realize that all identities are arbitrary and that they can switch from one to another to suit the circumstances, they can often respond in a more effective and imaginative way to pressures exerted on them from outside or inside the group. This realization also prevents people from becoming self-absorbed and withdrawing into a single identity, and hence makes it possible for them to engage in dialogue and establish cross-group bonds of solidarity (e.g. with other “citizens” in one of the examples cited above and with other “women” in another) regardless of their cultural, racial, ethnic or national origins.

The second line of approach would consist in reinstating the present and contemporary history. At a time when the “end of history” is being predicted and tears of nostalgia are being wept over the past, it is tempting to recall, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has done, that “there are futures that operate in silence and are almost imperceptible”, 3 and that culture is being constantly and unexpectedly created by the cobbling together of new ways of acting and thinking, fresh and original combinations of elements, and counter-cultures.

In this respect, the Third World sets an example. There are, for example, a large number of syncretic cults, such as “Kimbanguism” in Congo and voodoo in Benin, Haiti, Cuba and Brazil, in which Christian rites and modern elements are blended with traditional values or Christian saints are identified with pagan divinities. Similarly, the galloping urban growth that a number of countries are undergoing gives rise, in the Third World, not only to the kind of dehumanization that is seen in the main cities of the industrialized countries but also to an upwelling of cultural and social creativity. In the poblaciones of Santiago, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the shantytowns of Mexico City and elsewhere, what is happening in many cases is the regeneration of the social fabric through new principles of solidarity and new forms of social participation, such as self-managed micro-organizations, grass-roots economic organizations, religious communities, neighbourhood associations, young people’s and women’s movements, environmental groups and so on. As regards the economy too, informal-sector activities are springing up all over the place through a mixture of resourcefulness and ingenuity, based on ideas of production and consumption very different from those of the capitalist economy. 4

All these examples, which have their counterparts in the most marginalized sectors of the industrialized countries (prisons, teenage gangs and also grassroots organizations), rather than representing the replacement of ‘traditional” cultures by a “Western-style culture”, actually testify to the emergence of a new, third way that, ill-defined as it may be and arising under appalling conditions, nevertheless holds out hope for the future, indeed perhaps for the only possible future.

Identities formulated in these terms deserve our attention. Far from being based on unchanging and exclusive membership rules, like those of blood ties, parentage or mythical origin, many of these identities are open-ended, in that there is a continual inflow and outflow of members, which prevents them from taking on a self-perpetuating existence of their own. This is true, for example, of identities based on places of residence, like neighbourhood associations, or those based on membership rules that are not handed down from one generation to the next but are defined by individuals themselves through the institutions they create. “Citizenship” is another form of identity which can be defined. in the course of struggles directly related to current issues. A number of these identities also have the advantage of being tied to the present and being short-lived, of lasting for no longer than a particular plan or militant action may last, which prevents them from turning into hard and fast identities.

Such identities, with their changing memberships and limited life-spans, give rise to communities which, vulnerable and unstable though they may be, possess, thanks to this precious “lightness of being”, the strength to maintain an enquiring and tolerant relationship with others and at the same time to counter the unhealthy self-absorption that is still so prevalent.


  1. The French term “logiques métisses” was coined by Jean-Loup Amselle in his book of the same name published by Editions Payot, Paris, 1990,
  2. This is how the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it when speaking of ethnic or regional conflicts in “L’identité et la représentation. Eléments pour une réflexion critique sur l’idée de région” in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 1980, No. 35.
  3. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, Editions Flammarion, Paris, 1977.
  4. See Serge Latouche, L’occidentalisation du monde, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1989, and La planète des naufragés, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1991.

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