Robert Boyers: In Zadie Smith’s novel, On Beauty, a bright young fellow named Jerome finds himself living, for a while, with a black family very different from his own, and experiences a certain pleasure in hearing from these people all sorts of things his own family would never say. What kind of things? That multiculturalism was a fatuous dream. Or that being black was not an identity, but an accidental matter of pigment. Young Jerome doesn’t immediately yield to these unfamiliar ideas, but delights in allowing them to penetrate him so that he is happy to say, to himself at least, “I am so full of liberal crap.” Of course Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is not a polemic or an attack on “liberal crap,” or on reactionary crap, but a novel. And it doesn’t seek to resolve the questions it raises, though it does suggest that we have a long way to go when it comes to handling the subject of identity. It also suggests, as a great comic novel ought to do, that much of our thinking on issues like identity is compromised by our determination not to engage honestly with them. “I love you, mom,” says young Jerome to his black mother, Kiki, and then adds, “You’re gonna get through this. You’re a strong black woman.” To which Kiki responds by thinking of how people had been telling her this her whole life and that it was really beginning to bore the hell out of her. Zadie Smith reminds us that we are often very funny to behold, especially when we solemnly intone the soothing formulas we are supposed to have mastered as members of an enlightened elite.
We have gathered, then, to launch a series of discussions focused on identity. We know that it is a controversial subject, that it makes many people uneasy, and yet we are determined to talk about it without ducking its difficult and contentious aspects. We will be coming at our topic from several radically divergent perspectives, some of the time speaking about race, at other times thinking about gender, or sexual orientation, or ethnic or religious matters, or the kinds of protocols and expectations that have made life, notably on American campuses, more bizarre than most of us could have anticipated even eight or ten years ago. As with earlier conferences organized by Salmagundi magazine, our speakers will not stand and deliver lengthy lectures but will engage with one another in more or less continuous discussion. At the start of each of the scheduled sessions, one or another speaker will kick things off with very preliminary remarks, and to that end, I’m pleased to introduce Orlando Patterson, who has been at the center of several previous meetings published over the years in the pages of the magazine.
Orlando Patterson : The word “identity” has been used so often by so many different kinds of people that we might well believe that we’re living through an age of identity. Some say, with justification, that the word has lost its meaning, that it’s been used too promiscuously. The term rose to prominence in the 1960’s, at least in part as a result of interest in Erikson’s famous work on identity crisis. Of course the 60’s also saw the rise of so-called identity movements, most notably the black civil rights movement, though of course there were several others. By the 70’s, there was already a reaction. W.J.M. Mackenzie said of identity that it’s “driven out of its wits by overuse,” and that in the end, all the talk about identity amounted to a bunch of clichés. Others noted that anyone who takes identity seriously will see very quickly that it’s an illusion.
But the most serious and concerted attack on the whole idea itself as meaningless came from a couple of very distinguished, very bright sociologists, Rogers Brubaker and Fred Cooper who launched a full scale attack on the whole concept as utter rubbish, arguing that academics in the social sciences and humanities had surrendered to the word, and that this surrender had exacted a great intellectual and political cost. The strong sense of the term, they argued, claimed that identity signified an essential component of people’s beings and that this was conceptually not useful at all. To conceptualize identity as something that all people have, seek, construct, and negotiate is to load too much onto the term. Conceptualizing all affiliations and all forms of belonging, all experiences of commonality, connectedness, and cohesion, all self understandings and all self identification in the idiom of identity saddles the idea with a blunt, flat, undifferentiated comprehensiveness that can’t allow us to think about it with any precision. So these sociologists contended. If identity was simply a way of designating the essential core of all human beings, the approach verged on a kind of essentialism which was misleading and unhelpful.
But also unhelpful was the weak view, so-called, which insisted that there are multiple identities, and that identity is fluid, which in effect suggested, again, that we don’t quite know what we’re talking about when we resort to the term.
Better, these sociologists argued, to get away from the academic uses to which identity had been put, and to repudiate as well the vernacular uses of the term. Now I am not very comfortable with that sort of distinction here. I think all of our concepts, in the social sciences and humanities, originate in the vernacular, and the idea that what is used in the vernacular cannot be useful in analysis is puzzling to me. Think of any term in the humanities or social sciences. Think of class. Where did it come from? Or think of democracy. Where did that come from? All of our major terms, in fact, originate in the vernacular. And this is true as well for identity, and if we want to deal with it, we can’t object to its vernacular origins or deployments and reject it out of hand. Neither can the abuses of the term by academics rule out the possibility that it is essential for getting at issues that matter to us.
Fundamentally, most of us resort to the term when we want to ask who we are, what is most distinctive about each one of us, what narrative makes any one person different from any other. Of course the question “who am I?” blends inevitably into “what am I?” And here we move from a personal narrative to one that’s relational, that is to say, we ask what is it that I’m doing that is meaningful not only to me but to other people. Thus we talk about roles and relationships. We ask: How am I worthwhile? And then: Where am I? Where do I belong? What’s my place? How important to me is belonging?
Of course some people are also drawn to the spiritual, the philosophical, and ask Why am I? and go on to wonder about the sorts of things many of us would sooner avoid, questions Camus took up in The Myth of Sisyphus: Why don’t I just kill myself? What’s the point? Does my life have a meaning?
These sets of questions, in one form or another, are at the core of our identity talk, which some thinkers regard as a 19th century invention, really a modern phenomenon, though I don’t at all accept that constructivist view of identity. In fact, though it’s a dangerous thing for a sociologist to say, I think that the tendency to think about identity is so fundamental that it may well be hard-wired within us. And should anyone share this speculation of mine with other sociologists, well, they would probably want to order me out of the profession. They would point to the fact that we don’t get an explicit discourse on identity until the 19th century, and that any previous reflection on the subject was at most vague and implicit, so that the subject really did have to be constructed and generally “discovered.” But I’ve done a good deal of work on and around those questions, and many years ago brought out a book on ethnic chauvinism, on the basis of which I contend that the discovery of identity is an ancient one, in the West at any rate, and goes back to the two foundation peoples of our civilization: the Jews and the Greeks. The Jews discovered this in their long moment of exile. That’s when they began to ask, who are we? What are we for? All the fundamental questions are there in the ancient discourse. So is the idea of the nation-state, by the way. But there’s a paradox at the very core of these ancient grapplings with identity. In asking “Who are we? What are we for? Where are we going? Who are we as a people?” the Jews ended up doing something quite extraordinary. They invented the idea of a single God, which was the foundation of universalism.
So, too—I suppose you have to say it’s an accident—did this paradox emerge among the Athenians, who were the most chauvinistic of peoples, far more so than the Jews, and operated from the conviction that everyone else were barbarians and, in Aristotle’s terms, “deserved to be slaves.” You can’t get more chauvinistic or particularistic than that. And yet, it’s in that most particularistic of moments that Plato came up with the most universal of ideas, and Zeno was the first to invent a great universalistic stoicism.
My point is simply that identity can be easily and thoughtlessly dismissed, when in truth the concept some of the time deserves all of the attention paid to it. We all know the story of Herder and the rise of nationalism. Generations have debated the idea that within the nation state there gathered peoples utterly distinct from those in other nation-states, so that people associated their very soul with their land and their ways of life and defended themselves in some cases against contamination by other peoples. Again and again we’ve spoken of the colonialist period and the way the dominant groups, of course, saw themselves as the master race, just as those leading the fight against colonialism often mobilized by creating their own identity movements.
But we find, as we survey the growth of identity and confront the phase associated with globalization, that the picture becomes more and more difficult to bring into focus. With globalization, after all, many millions of peoples are migrants and live in places far removed from where they were from, and their migration experience of course is one that prompts the basic questions I started off with in these remarks. Globalization has influenced the identity movement in powerful ways, and has led not only to recent preoccupations with diversity but to the phenomenon of transnationalism, to the creation of an unusual transnational space in which people—including Jamaicans like me—find that the whole notion of identity, certainly at the collective level, is de-territorialized.
And so where does all of this leave us? With unanswered questions. Maybe some of them unanswerable. Is the quest for so-called authenticity reactionary? Is a multicultural identity possible without a genuinely multicultural society? Is a post-identity world possible? Is it desirable? I don’t think I know the answer to most of these questions and of course I’m interested to hear what my colleagues have to say about them.
James Miller: I agree with some of what Orlando has just said. It’s very clear that the quest for self-knowledge is quite ancient; in fact, I just wrote a book about that quest, which goes back to the Greeks. The need to belong, the need to be someone in particular seems to me to be fundamental. I take it for granted that there are important conceptions of identity that are psychological or philosophical that can take us into areas not touched in Orlando’s remarks. But for the moment I want to offer a somewhat different genealogy than what Orlando just gave us. To do that, I’m going to stipulate a kind of Trinitarian conception of identity. One component is physical. I’m talking about the identity of individual human beings here. By physical identity I mean fingerprints, teeth, the retinas of eyes, DNA tracking; these are really important, even more important factors in social life today and in the last hundred years than they have been previously because of the sophistication of biological and physiological techniques of identifying organic individuals.
The second component of identity that I think is crucial is psychological, and it has to do with individuals and their agency. The third component is social, and it has to do with the interaction between groups or institutions and individuals. In a way, I think the standard sociological account of the rise of modern conceptions of identity is correct in suggesting that, early on at least, the big questions like “who am I?” and “where do I belong?” were not central. Modern conceptions of identity emerged in civil societies that aimed to be self governing and self constituting and were organized around a certain conception of freedom. This conception of freedom in the context of modern civil societies had as a requirement that identities be chosen by individuals rather than ascribed by social institutions. To me, the rise of the whole problem of personal identity coincided with the rise of modern individualism. You can see aspects of this in the assumption that began to emerge that people should choose a career that suits them, rather than be told by their parents to follow in the family business; that people should marry someone they’ve chosen, rather than submit to an arranged marriage. What I would suggest is the dilemma of modern societies is that the requirement that identities be chosen rather than ascribed turns out to be extremely difficult to execute in practice, for a host of reasons. One reason, I think, is that certain group identities become so powerful that individuals faced with them are really in no position to choose to renounce them or decide on their own to embrace them. In his great book Anti-Semiteand Jew, Sartre suggested the stereotypes for Jews were so powerfully substantiated in the minds not only of non-Jews but Jews themselves that it was difficult for Jews to simply say “I’m a universal assimilated bearer of human rights, I’m not a Jew in the way that you say I’m a Jew.” Sartre’s paradoxical proposal after World War II was that instead of embracing universalism, pluralism and multiple identities in the face of these prejudicial descriptive identities, which still circulated powerfully, Jews might rather embrace the pejorative descriptive identity and attempt to make it a source of pride. Yeah, I’m a Jew, and I’m proud of it, fuck you. That in effect was the basis of the black pride movement and of many modern identity movements. No doubt there are a number of problems entailed in that strategy, several of which have been discussed at previous Salmagundi conferences focused on race and race relations. But that’s not what I want to focus on right now, if only because problems associated with the conflict between chosen and ascriptive identities are even more complicated than they seemed when we were focused on decolonization struggles and the debates on racism.
Let’s think for a moment about a distinctively contemporary institution that you might think of as the perfection of the idea that we choose our own identities, namely Facebook. We all know that you can generate an infinite set of “likes” on Facebook and through other kinds of social media. Now, why is Facebook felt to be valuable? Well, it turns out that if you generate a very large set of things that you like you end up generating a very particular, highly individualized profile, an identity. It’s your identity as a consumer, but it’s an identity. And it turns out that through metadata, you can pitch products at people based on what their previous “likes” have been. I still remember the first time I logged onto amazon.com and was shown books that I might be interested in, and to begin with it was laughable, because they really weren’t in the ballpark. But then it got to be better and better, and then it got to be kind of creepy and spooky. And it’s like, uh-oh; they really know me too well. And the thing that I find weird at this moment in putatively liberal societies that claim that we should choose identities rather than have them ascribed to us is that we have created such sophisticated techniques of physical identification, forensic identification, and aggregating data about individuals in space and time, that it becomes possible to answer some of the questions that Orlando posed like “where’s my place?” by means of GPS tracking. “Who am I?"means that with an aggregation of your likes, you end up with a kind of commoditized döppelganger who is sort of chosen, but not quite, and this "identity” is really not what thinkers had in mind when they hoped to mobilize and generate the autonomy and independence of citizens who would also be in some meaningful sense free men and women making their own choices.
David Steiner: I’d like to go back to Orlando’s point about universality and remind us that two, at least, of the world’s great religions pose a kind of nightmare fantasy about identity as the origin of where we come from. The Hebrew God says, impossibly, I am that I am, a completely opaque statement, which haunts us as an insoluble riddle within a riddle. The Christian core concept is one in three, three in one—equally opaque, equally confusing, so that the very core concept of a universal identity is always already a deep muddle. And what Rousseau and others remind us is that our fantasy of identity is only that. Rousseau speaks of amour de soi and amour-propre. Amour de soi is the self love that the unconscious savage has of himself, the essence of identity which Rousseau is at pains to remind us is a metaphor; he doesn’t actually pretend that there were such people, but asks us to hold this picture in our head, to contrast it with the sense of self which is the sense of self in modernity: In amour-propre, from the beginning, already, our sense of self comes from the judgment of others, so that for Rousseau, there isn’t really this choosing self, there isn’t this actor behind the deeds, this privileged virginal sense of self from which a journey could originate, from which a choice could be made. Rather, we are always already condemned to be selfed, which is I suppose a version of the argument that we find in Charles Taylor or Alasdair MacIntyre or Michael Sandel and so many others. I guess the question I would want to pose early in our conversation is this: Is the fantasy of identity a useful fantasy, or is it a nightmare? Is it in a sense, from the beginning, a search for what cannot ever be found?
Robert Boyers: Whether or not identity is useful, or a fantasy, we can’t say unless we try at least to engage with Orlando’s question, namely, “is identity inherent in some degree?” Jim’s remarks suggest that there are ways of thinking about identity as inherent if we focus on such matters as fingerprints, DNA, and that sort of thing. In these terms, you’ve got it, whether you want it or not, and that is one way of thinking about your identity and differentiating yourself from anyone else. Of course, most of us who think about identity are not content to think about it in those terms at all; we tend to think, don’t we?, that those things are more or less incidental to what we take ourselves to be. It’s only in those very special circumstances where, for example, we’ve been accused of a crime, that we want to invoke those givens in order to exempt ourselves from a charge. But I do want in some way, any way, to take seriously the question that Orlando posed, to ask if there is a sense in which, beyond finger prints and DNA and so on, we’re willing to think of our identity as in some way inherent?
Akeel Bilgrami: Bob, I think that’s a very acute way of leading us to something that both Jim and Orlando may have intended but didn’t quite make explicit, which is the idea that you’ve got an identity no matter what you take yourself to be, even what we might call an objective identity. I think Marx had this in mind when he spoke of class. He thought of it as objective, even though it was social and not physical. Look, if somebody in the working class wants to just buy Cadillacs and other luxury goods, and in that sense has no class commitment or sense of identification with the working class, that wouldn’t matter at all in Marx’s view. If that person believes in a certain economic formation, in a certain period of history, he or she will have a proletarian identity even if he has no identification with the working class and is actually pursuing what Marx would call bourgeois interests. This gives rise to all sorts of interesting questions about false consciousness and so on, and what we mean when we say that our sense of identity is subjective. Clearly this goes beyond the strictly physical, beyond fingerprints and so on.
James Miller: We’re circling around the question of whether there is something universal and fundamental about identity, and maybe drawing towards the argument that human beings need almost a transcendental a priori, some sense of psychological continuity or self-sameness to function in the world.
Orlando Patterson: Not to have any sense of self-sameness would be a definition of insanity.
James Miller: Right.
Orlando Patterson: It’s utterly foundational. Look, I know that I was in Jamaica in my little village, about age five, and somehow that will always be connected to what I am now in this very different place. But connectedness can be a highly unstable or ambiguous idea. I mean, I’m not sure at all that one can have an identity, a conditional, objective identity, without even being aware of it. I mean, did black Americans have an identity of blackness before the movement that emphasized blackness as constitutive of a particular identity? The fact of being enslaved did not of itself lead to that sense of identity. When Marx introduced the concept of class consciousness, it seems to me, he altered the way we think about class and race and other factors. Brazilian blacks belonged to a society underwritten by a hegemonic ideology of racial democracy which was pure mythology and included the special status placed on whiteness and the ambition to marry up. Only when Brazilian blacks began to borrow from the American civil rights movement the idea that you need to have a sense of identity did Brazilian blacks get past the utterly ruinous notion that they had to get out of the bottom of the color hierarchy, and do everything they could to sort of marry lighter and move up. Only with the consciousness of themselves as black, which involved, by the way, consciousness of the notion of identity as being fundamentally important, did things change. So it seems to me that consciousness is critical in any notion of identity.
Carolyn Forché : If we locate this sense of self-sameness and continuity in our consciousness, then we can say that our sense of identity can be ruptured by trauma, dislocation, exile or economic upheaval. Drastic changes in circumstance, occasionally even slow or gradual changes, can cause a kind of psychosis or insanity. That is something we are seeing over and over again in the global universe Orlando was describing earlier, where conditions have transformed people’s sense of themselves and their place in society.
Akeel Bilgrami: That seems fundamentally right, Carolyn, and, you know, where I come from it’s sort of interesting that riots and conflicts between Hindus and Muslims are almost always in cities and not in the countryside. Not strange at all, really, that when people leave the countryside and come into cities they’re dislocated and they ask, who am I? Nobody asks am I a Hindu or a Muslim when they’re sort of set in their place of belonging; it’s only when they’re dislocated that the question really rises. Under conditions of defeat and dislocation identities that once afforded a sense of dignity and autonomy are eroded. Of course there are significant variations on that; I mean, the Scots decided they had British identity once Britain became an empire. They said, this is great, let’s be British. So it also does emerge under a triumphalist consciousness.
Orlando Patterson: Well, the Scots didn’t give up their Scottish identity; they just added an identity which seemed to them advantageous. And anyway I think that however many examples of variations we come up with, we can all agree that identity is more or less related to a sense people crave of the nest, and that when the nest is no longer present or possible people are found to miss it.
James Miller: I just wanted to follow up on what Carolyn was saying and to suggest that the rise of modernity is, of course, in very large measure, a process of urbanization, and that the disruption of ascriptive identities, the coming on of the idea that we have to choose, is a byproduct and probably a correlative of the massive disruption of traditional senses of belonging and traditional communities. There’s actually a connection between rupture and the heightened sense that the making of choices is urgent and that identity is most real when it is chosen.
Robert Boyers: I’d like to come back to a term that Akeel introduced a moment ago because I think it’s related to several of the issues that we’ve been talking about. The term is false consciousness, a term that was once used more frequently than it is now. In the way that Akeel used it, it had to do with the sense that there are times when human beings refuse to acknowledge what they are, and in that sense are guilty of false consciousness. In the 1960’s persons belonging to different groups were accused of betraying their membership in their tribe or ethnicity by refusing to acknowledge what they shared in common with other persons like themselves. Awful and disappointing, to many of us at least, those times when people who wanted to decide for themselves what they were or wanted were made to apologize for their so-called betrayals.
Peter Beinart: Yeah, it’s funny, when I think about that idea I’m always transported back to a memory I have from when I was a kid with my extended family at a Shabbat dinner, a Friday night dinner, where there was always this division between my mother’s father’s family who were, like most South African Jews, Lithuanian, and my mother’s mother’s family. My mother’s mother was from Egypt, and whenever a political discussion got started, usually about Israel, the grandmother who was born in Egypt, and who spoke Arabic, would start railing against the Arabs and how terrible the Arabs were, and especially Yasser Arafat. This grandmother had a particular kind of deep hostility to Arafat as the embodiment of all that was bad about being an Arab. And I remember once, after this had been going on for a while, when everyone had drunk a lot, that an uncle turned to me and whispered, “She is Arafat!” You know, it was as if the way she expressed her hostility to Arabs struck the Lithuanian branch of my family as extremely and clearly Arab. My grandmother was trying to get away from this—what to call it?—this aspect of herself, but was trying to get away from this in such a way that her efforts to deny and repudiate seemed an expression of false consciousness. It seems to me you can tell a lot about a society by understanding which identities it allows someone to get away from, how far people are allowed to pretend to be something they’re probably not and still be accepted.
Right now, as a journalist thinking and writing about the American political scene, two people that really interest me in this regard are Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal. Forgive me if I say that in some ways they are kind of similar figures, in the sense that they’re both products, in part at least, of the huge migration from the developing world that hit the United States in the 1960’s. Barack Obama of course grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, with an African father he never knew, and of course he had no choice but to be an African American. Certainly, from a purely political point of view, if he had tried to get away from being African American, well, it would have been disastrous. He would have had no chance politically if he had gotten within a million miles of saying “I think I might not be black.” In fact, a mutual friend of Orlando’s and mine once told me that critical to Barack Obama’s political success, which began with an African American political base, was his connection to the black church, and his marrying of an African American woman. That affirmation was critical even for white voters who would be drawn to him.
On the other hand, Bobby Jindal had to renounce being Hindu if he was to become governor in a Southern state, and knew that like the other sitting Southern governors he would have to become a passionate Evangelical Christian. He knew he had to do it and knew that when he said, I’m renouncing the religion that I grew up with, people in the Southern political order wouldn’t say “You’re a fake, you can’t do that,” which is what they would have said to Obama if he had declared “I’m not black.”
My point? I’m offering an example of the way in which religion and race function in very different ways in America today. Religion you can escape; in fact, especially with some religions you’re really encouraged to escape. You can easily imagine a circumstance in which a Muslim-born American converted to Christianity and used that at the beginning of a successful political career. But you can’t imagine a situation in which someone renounces his race and then asks to have that be considered as an attractive change.
Akeel Bilgrami: My old colleague and friend Sidney Morganbesser used to say, speaking of Columbia University’s most famous professor, what’s wrong with this Lionel Trilling, why the hell doesn’t he acknowledge that he’s Jewish instead of going around like a damn protestant? I’d never met Lionel Trilling, he was from another generation, and I have no idea to what extent this was true or not, but it was a source of intense irritation amongst my colleagues that Trilling was constantly trying to pass himself off as something he wasn’t. Is that true, are other people…
Robert Boyers: No, it isn’t true. In fact it’s preposterous.
Akeel Bilgrami: It’s not true?
Robert Boyers: It’s absolutely not true. I mean, what you say is relevant to the subject on the table, and the Trilling case does actually suggest what kinds of nonsense you find when people make identity a sort of weapon for ranking and assessing and dismissing people. I know this isn’t your intention, Akeel, so in a way I’m grateful for your bringing up Trilling, though I must say that, in the past, when I’ve heard this sort of thing from other people, I’ve found myself uncommonly angry and agitated. Once, at a panel discussion in this very room, I exploded at the critic Alfred Kazin, author of a recent memoir called New York Jew, who had just said about Trilling the sort of thing Sidney Morganbesser said. Of course I can’t quote all of what I directed at Kazin back then, but I recall that he was clearly taken aback when I asked him if he thought it necessary for an honest person who was born a Jew to wear his Jewishness on his sleeve. I mean, I asked, if you can’t immediately know a Jew when you see one, do you assume that the man is hiding something? Of course Kazin was a smart guy, and the first thing he said in reply was that he thought my question “belligerent.” I think that’s the word he used. And I said, in response, you mean “belligerent” as in “Jewish,” as in “hostile” or “abrasive”? Anyway, that sort of exchange is still, after many years, quite fresh in my mind. As also the finale when I said some version of the words: of course Trilling would not have come on with my Jewish abrasiveness, if I understand you correctly, and on that score you would have thought him not really Jewish.
Akeel Bilgrami: I’d like to have been there, Bob, and I hope you’ll say more about Trilling and how what Sidney said about him was not only untrue but preposterous.
Robert Boyers: Of course you know more about this whole subject of identity than I do, Akeel, but really it is the case that people go on about it without thinking through the implications of their avowals. That’s central, by the way, to Trilling’s very complex observations on our subject in the volume of his Norton Lectures entitled Sincerity and Authenticity, which is in some ways the most profound reflection on the subject of authenticity I’ve ever read.
Akeel Bilgrami: But you knew the man, yes? And it’s on that basis that you say that Sidney’s characterization was preposterous, yes?
Robert Boyers: Shortly before his death Trilling came to Skidmore College for a three-day symposium I organized around Sincerity and Authenticity. That was the only time we were together. But I have thirty or forty letters from Trilling in the Salmagundi archive, and I wrote a slender book about him in the mid-1970’s. When we were together here on this campus we spoke a good deal about being Jewish, about his background and mine. At one point we talked about a book called The Ordeal of Civility by a guy named John Murray Cuddihy, who had been my student at the New School For Social Research in 1966, and Trilling warmly applauded Cuddihy’s argument that Jews of his generation often felt it was necessary for them to eliminate traces of their immigrant past in order to feel that they were real Americans.
James Miller: So you’re saying that Trilling did that? That he eliminated traces of his immigrant past? Because if that’s what you’re saying, then in a way Morganbesser’s comment would be accurate?
Robert Boyers:But that’s not what I’m saying. Trilling’s family was middle-class, and though he understood that often Jews faced prejudice and hostility, he and his family always assumed that if you worked hard and did well at school you would be alright. At Columbia University in the 1930’s Trilling found a considerable, entrenched anti-Semitism and a resistance on the part of many faculty members and administrators to the appointment of Jews to professorial positions. The story of Trilling’s breakthrough at Columbia has been told and retold too many times for me to retell it here. But the point, if I may, is that there was never any question in anyone’s mind that Trilling was a Jew. In fact, he was, certainly in the New York World he lived in all his life, famously Jewish. As a young man he published much of his work in a Jewish periodical called The Menorah Journal. He wrote not only about Keats and Orwell and Hemingway but about Jewish writers who interested him. Often, when he was the most influential literary and cultural critic in the country, he published his essays in the Jewish monthly Commentary.
Akeel Bilgrami: I hear you, Bob, and yet still I wonder what could have prompted people like my friend Sidney to speak of Trilling as they did.
Robert Boyers: Do people who are Jewish look Jewish? I don’t think so. Are they supposed to look Jewish just to satisfy Alfred Kazin or Sidney Morganbesser that they aren’t hiding something? Look, Trilling appeared to me to be what he was. He looked and sounded like a beautifully educated man, possessed of a generous intelligence and without any indication to remind people that he was Jewish. When he wrote about the politics of T.S. Eliot and about Eliot’s hopes for the creation of a Christian culture, he didn’t say that he took issue with much that Eliot writes because, after all, as a Jew he would inevitably find Eliot’s views deplorable. No, that is not Trilling’s way, and I’m as sure as I can be that it would never have occurred to Trilling to think of Eliot as he did because he was himself a Jew. Trilling was not in flight from his own Jewishness, but he did not allow it to define what he thought or felt. He was aware that some people criticized him, but he knew that in truth his demeanor was not a mask he had put on but an expression of what he was, so much so that there was nothing he could do about it. Not only would he not have wanted to be as ethnically self-conscious as Alfred Kazin, or as abrasive as many of the New York Jewish intellectuals he knew in the Partisan Review circle that was his literary home—he couldn’t ever have managed to be ethnically self-conscious or abrasive in those well-travelled ways. And in that sense Trilling was true to himself. A man with many conflicts and ambivalences. Complicated, to be sure. But as I say, preposterous to think of him as striving to be a damn protestant.
James Miller: It’s odd, isn’t it, that the sense of Trilling as a man with something to hide has persisted all of these years in spite of what you’ve told us, Bob.
Robert Boyers: Well, I suppose that some of that had to do with Trilling’s enormous success, his stature, his poise, his reasonableness. In the sixties certainly qualities of that sort seemed to some people suspicious, false. And of course there is always, in some people, resentment of people like Trilling. Envy, if you like.
Akeel Bilgrami: So no question, so far as you’re concerned, that Trilling was what he himself would have called an authentic fellow?
Robert Boyers: Authentically divided, in many ways. Tormented, in some respects, though I never saw that in him myself. But then why would a man need to wear his inner torments on his sleeve to be regarded as authentic?
Tom Healy: Would you say that Trilling was in any way like other Jews of his generation?
Robert Boyers: Well, I don’t know. There were different kinds of Jews. Trilling’s parents were middle class, mine were working class. In my house, parents and grandparents spoke Yiddish to one another, but the moment my sister or I walked into the room the Yiddish stopped immediately. They didn’t want us to carry any accent of the Yiddish in the English sentences we spoke. I’m not, of course, describing this as a wonderful decision on their part, even though we went to Hebrew school and were bar mitzvahed and so on. But this sort of thing was very typical, I think, of immigrants in that generation, and not just Jews. And not entirely the experience of a Trilling, whose family was somewhat more elevated in its habits and expectations than mine. I mean, the Trillings went to operas and concerts, the sort of thing that would have been inconceivable for my parents.
Tom Healy: I think that the example of Trilling is instructive in talking about Barack Obama because, whatever the milieu, there will always be questions about how and why the performance of the self takes place. I disagree, somewhat, with Peter, about what Barack Obama was allowed to do and what it’s possible to do with race. If Obama had not decided to run for political office—obviously he wasn’t yet running when he was in law school, and when he dated white women—he could have easily made other choices and become a law professor and had a context for a different performance of self. But context changes things. Early, when Obama was running for president, there was a question of whether he was black enough, with the background he had.
Peter Beinart: Right, I agree. I was talking about what happens when you try to become a politician and people have to see themselves in you. Only there, when he was running for office, did Obama have to affirm his blackness, have to be able to point to actual examples of his African American-ness that rooted him in his family and in his church. Cite his authenticity if you like.
James Miller: Well I think that’s true, but the other thing that leaps out to me, both with Jindal and Obama, is that they both had to perform a certain religious conversion. I mean, the United States is still a Christian country, for political purposes, and Obama, who, as far as I can tell, was basically secular and agnostic, had to learn to perform a religious identity that would affirm him in the minds of his core political audience. If he’d just remained a law professor, he wouldn’t have needed to do that.
David Steiner: Though no one has used the word in the conversation we’ve been having, I want to speak a bit about snobbery. Those who ascribe false consciousness to others never ascribe it to themselves. Certainly that was true of Karl Marx. And there is, it seems to me, a very deep hubris at the root of much that those of us who are, as we like to say, liberally educated, typically assume about issues like false consciousness. The assumption most of us share—unless I’ve got this wrong—is that the more educated you are, the more you are released from ascribed identities and false consciousness. This seems to me to simplify things in several misleading ways. Take, as but one well known example, the case of General Robert E. Lee, who gets invited by both the North and the South to be general of their armies. We have some evidence that Lee genuinely agonized over these invitations, and further evidence that he understood that on purely ethical grounds the North was probably the preferable side to pick, though like Socrates in the Crito he ended up saying I cannot be other than I am, a product of Virginia, a product of the South, not because of any false consciousness, but as a result of a chosen ascribed identity, ascribed but chosen with the full force of his cognition. That choice my students at Harvard, when we studied this in Moral Reasoning 22 with Michael Sandel, regarded as risible, absolutely risible. They would never have been so stupid. Of course not.
And so the question I’m posing is: Is the liberal hubris fundamentally unavoidable? Do we really deep down believe that the more educated we are, the more we’re released from the claims of the given, or is it conceivable that in fact that’s a double hubris, and the deeper fantasy is the fantasy of release? In a way, of course, the hubris is the least of the issues I’m raising. What really matters is our failure to grapple with what is entailed in the relation between choice and identity.
Patrick Keane: I just want to jump in here and remind us that Robert E. Lee was not quite an opponent of slavery. You read his letters and you see that he wasn’t an advocate for freeing the slaves any time soon. He felt that this would happen, maybe even had to happen, but in God’s good time, maybe a thousand years, no doubt about it, but no, he was not a tragic hero.
David Steiner: Fair enough, Pat. But again, as I say, from Lee’s perspective, not a simple matter of making a choice as if your sense of who and what you have been had no gravity and no bearing on the choice you might make.
Orlando Patterson: There’s something interesting there, though, about Lee’s decision, I agree, and I too see it as a choice based on the presumption that I have no choice in the matter. I mean, how did Lee rationalize his choice except to say that this is something I have to do, I’m a Virginian, it’s my soul and it’s necessary that I do this rather than that? In a way, David, you’re right to suggest—I think this is what you’re suggesting—that in matters of identity, however the so-called choice is rationalized, there’s a sense that you can only choose the way you have to choose. Is that what you hear in David’s example, that it really gets at the heart of the identity question?
Robert Boyers: It does, it does. In effect, we might almost say, each of us, that my identity has to do with the range of choices I make because of who I am. I accept that others often make very different choices for reasons that are compelling to them even if there is no way those reasons or choices would be compelling to me. Does sexual infidelity have anything to do with identity? For some of us it would say a great deal about who we are. For some of us, in fact, the choice—to be unfaithful or not—is not even a choice. It’s simply off the table, out of the question. Not for everyone but for some of us. For me, I might say, the question is decided without my even having to think about it.
David Steiner: Of course you can never be sure that you’re right. At any moment the question why did I not even consider this possibility may lead you to feel that your principal failure was the refusal, or the inability, to confront the choice you were presented with.
Tom Healy: There’s something to be said for convictions, but there’s also a sense that most of us share that for things to have a real meaning for us we have to really think about them.
Robert Boyers: Of course you’re right, Tom, though one question we’re raising here is whether choices and convictions deeply rooted in a person’s sense of identity can be tested in the way you suggest.
Ruth Franklin: I agree that for each of us some things are possible and others are not, and that this fact complicates what we mean when we talk about choice and identity. Here I can’t help thinking about the case of Anatole Broyard, who I was recently re-reading about in Skip Gates’s great essay. With Broyard, contrary to the example Peter gave of Barack Obama, we have an instance of a man who was black but chose to pass as white for basically his entire life. This was, in his case, a deep, dark, family secret, and yet it was also a rumor, an open secret in some circles, in that lots of people knew that he was black, though nobody actually came out and said it. So that Broyard was allowed to pass, and in the Gates piece you can hear the voice almost of a mob mentality, the voice of people who were gleeful about the outing of Broyard, who are quoted saying, “Well, we always knew that he was really black. We always knew this about him,” and knew that in the end the truth would come out. That voice doesn’t really get at the tragedy of a person who lived virtually his whole life with an identity that wasn’t his, who made what amounted to a kind of tragic choice, to live with an essentially false consciousness.
Orlando Patterson : That’s a very, very interesting case, because it also reminds us that identity changes, that the environment for the negotiation of identity changes. You said, Ruth, in effect, that Broyard was hiding something, that he was really black and lived with a false consciousness. But Broyard, if he were here today, would say no, that’s an identity which the world imposes on me, and when I choose not to accept that and I’m not going to play by the rules of your game, which is the American game at the time, well, he would seem to us now very convincing. After all, Broyard was a very light-skinned person, he looked white, and easily passed for white. Now, there’s a sense in which he was doing something which the nation would later on come to accept. He was after all at a relatively early stage of a change that has taken place. What is happening in America now is that if a light skinned black person decides, I want to be white, I’m going to be white, I’m going to marry a white woman, I’m going to live in a white suburb and so on, I’d say most black Americans today would say, well, you know, if you want to do that, I accept that, it’s your business. No doubt a relative few will say that he’s trying to hide his true identity, but most people nowadays will say different strokes for different folks. They may even add, you know, if you do that, you won’t know what you’re missing, you’ll be giving up a lot, but they’ll understand that identity for most of us now is not quite what it was. Our sense is that boundaries are more flexible. We can all recall how often Clinton was only half-jokingly referred to as the first black president. There was something in his style and his behavior that made the men in the barber shop I go to in Cambridge speak of him as very black, and indeed he did benefit from that, did win a loyal following in the black community. Strange, maybe, but it speaks to changes in our sense of identity. My colleague Mary Waters did a book on this, called Ethnic Opinions, in which she studied whites in California, and noted the way people—Irish, Italians, others—change their identities, almost like they’re changing their clothes. She found that owning your original identity had become almost completely optional in the groups she studied, whereas at a certain point in 20th century America if you denied your Irishness and claimed you were Italian that would be a serious breach of some sort. But for these later people identity was almost a matter of choice, and by no means binding.
Akeel Bilgrami: I’m moved by the examples people have cited, but I want to propose what is perhaps a more modest version of the thing we’re circling around. Suppose one were to say something like, “I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself if I had betrayed my friend.” In fact there I’ve only slightly modified a statement by E.M. Forster. Now there he isn’t saying I couldn’t possibly not choose steadfastness or, as Bob said, I couldn’t possibly so much as entertain the thought of sexual infidelity. But he is saying something weaker and actually rather tragic, which is: I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself if I were to have done it. So I actually might do it, but it would come with a deep though perhaps not tragic consequence.
David Steiner: I think the question remains that he cannot know that what he supposes would be true. He may believe it, but he can’t know that if he made the choice to betray his friend he wouldn’t wake up the next morning and still find himself in a narrative that attached himself to his previous past self, in spite of the sense that some trespass had occurred. Probably we’ve all experienced anxiety about a choice that required us to weigh what was instinctive in us against what seemed to be required in the moment. This is often the stuff of politics, isn’t it? Sometimes the straightforward, high road moral choice is the easiest one to recognize yourself within and yet not the one that’s actually possible for you to make.
Orlando Patterson: I’m fascinated by this exchange, and yet I want to note, as I did earlier, that Rogers Brubaker and others have challenged the concept of identity for being just too broad, and though I’m not sold on his critique, he would say with some legitimacy that this latest exchange is really about personal integrity and that you don’t need the concept of identity at all to engage in it. This is exactly Rogers’s point, that we have to be careful not to burden the concept of identity with every conceivable form of personal dilemma.
Bina Gogineni: I agree with Orlando that we don’t want to confuse one sort of thing with another. These scenarios of personal choice and integrity people have invoked hinge on some kind of prior identity that’s been self-made and so are in a completely different category of experience from the ones that Orlando was discussing earlier. Even when it comes to passing, there are ontological constraints and varieties of social embeddedness. Those parameters Orlando referred to do, of course, shift, but the actual constraints involved when we’re dealing with racial identity make choice itself very different from what it is in the last few scenarios we’ve been discussing, where agency plays a much larger role.
Orlando Patterson: The fascinating case here, actually, is Michael Jackson. A man who was once obviously black but decided, in front of the whole nation, to drastically change his appearance. What is curious is that after a while people gave up criticizing him. For some this was just because they thought he was so unstable or because he wasn’t worth criticizing or commenting on. Others said, well, you can do anything you want with yourself, can’t you, and so why shouldn’t he? Of course there were those who said that Jackson’s was a profound act of racial betrayal, though after a while, as I say, you didn’t hear much of that. Through it all he remained, especially with white people, enormously popular, and it’s clear that a generation earlier this would not have been the case. Jackson was a post-1970s phenomenon, and you could see in his case that the popular understanding of identity had changed, that people were open to experimentation on many different fronts, and that this was a good thing, whatever the personal price paid by people like Jackson.
Carolyn Forché : Well yes, experimentation can be a great thing, but it isn’t available to everyone in the same way. The space of choice for many people is very limited, and where choice is exercised you’re bound to find lots of people who are angry about it and set things in motion that many of us dislike.
James Miller : It’s good to hear that from Carolyn, though I’m very taken with Orlando’s optimism about the opening up of possibilities, even in the area of identity. Of course Michael Jackson commanded a fabulous amount of money and thereby created choices for himself that obviously wouldn’t exist for most people. But he’s an example of how advances in our understanding of the body have opened it to transformation, with cosmetic surgery just the beginning of what may soon be available to us. I mean, you can talk all you want about ontological givenness, but to me the more striking feature of our current situation is the great extent to which features of corporeal existence that were once thought fixed, features we would have had to suffer as fate, are now open to reconfiguring. Obviously transgendered people are an example of this; the capacity, increasingly, to screen out undesirable genetic defects in unborn babies, and other such developments, all suggest that we shouldn’t be so quick to assume the givenness of the physical and the biological. Really I must say that over many years I’ve been educated by Orlando at a number of these conferences, educated to feel with him that there’s something wonderful about America, but also that there’s something kind of wacky about the liberal investment in the utopia of total choice. Extrapolate that and you have multiplied alternative realities generated by people who believe they can actually live some part of their waking lives in trying out for size completely different identities. So that’s the part of the current situation that seems pretty new, and quite a long distance from the way things looked when many of us here first convened twenty years ago to talk about racial identity.
Orlando Patterson: A colleague of Jim's—once a student of mine—has been studying the avatars of disabled people who lead a completely different life in these virtual worlds. This takes up a good part of their lives. This is very meaningful to them. They invent a whole new identity, using the avatars, they meet, they marry, they discuss intimate aspects of their own disability, which they would be very reluctant to talk to us about. It’s a different world for them, and it’s real, it’s as real as anything else given the amount of time they spend on it. So virtual worlds and virtual identities are essential now to millions of people.
Ruth Franklin: I can’t help thinking here about Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy, about Oryx and Crake and its sequels, in which she describes kind of a post-identity world in which everything is fungible down to the level of DNA. A major role in this book is played by creatures who are called pigoons, giant pigs in which human DNA has been implanted so that they grow human organs for harvesting and transplanting into human beings. So it’s possible to imagine, granted a science fictional world, how identity goes beyond the human given and takes us into a totally different realm.
Tom Healy: You know, that very trilogy of Atwood’s brings up an essential question which is whose power it is that creates these other creatures and enables there to be different identities chosen, or not chosen, and how the dynamic of power is fundamental to the definition of identity as we conceive it.
Orlando Patterson: Power, I agree, does determine to some extent the way radical change or experimentation will be received. This is clear when you ask why the moral element is introduced at certain times and not at others. Why are certain kinds of transformations regarded as bad and some as inspiring? Why does something seem merely freakish and another thing look like a sort of threat? Why is a sex change operation viewed in many places with no element at all of moral disapproval? Is it that the powerful have thought about this fundamental shift in the way many of us think? I’m not sure about that. And I’m not sure that most of those who are tolerant of gender assignment surgery feel the same way about trans-racial change.
Carolyn Forché: It’s a leap, but I think we may as well also talk about self commodification, or self branding, the way in which identity is put in the service of creating a product for the market place that is the self, and is commensurate with the self, and has even got the self’s name, and is not an avatar, but an actual unstructured economic entity. A subject for further exploration in subsequent seminars, at any rate. But also this leads on to the notion of curating the body of the self, in some way transforming it, by means of piercings, tattoos, all kinds of things that people are able to do and are doing. This has to be a symptom of something, and it’s certainly related to identity and changes in our notion of the true or authentic self. When I was young, the only people who went in for these kinds of things were drunk servicemen, people like that, so it’s an interesting shift. Some speak of an artistry of the self, while others call it mutation, but however it’s characterized, it has a lot to do with identity, I think.
Akeel Bilgrami: It’s probably hopeless to ask what these kinds of developments have to do with false consciousness, but there’s little question that often people make choices—important choices—with insufficient analysis of what they entail. Self-transformation in many cases will have to do with impulses that lie too deep for the persons involved to have access to them.
Bina Gogineni: Or the choices may have to do with fashion, and may be much more ephemeral than people suppose.
Tom Healy: Once you start thinking about choice and identity in these terms you wonder what proportion of the striking changes we’re observing are “authentic” in the way that term suggests.
David Steiner: And of course you have every good reason to wonder. The question posed by Foucault and others is in some respects the question we still have not found an adequate way to answer.
Bina Gogineni: Which question exactly, David?
David Steiner: The question: What would it be to find an identity that is not constituted for us?
Bina Gogineni: As soon as you say that identity has become fluid, that experimentation is very much in vogue, or favored, you are suggesting that people really are making choices, even where the choices themselves are shaped or constrained. It may be impossible to imagine an identity that is not constituted for us in any way at all.
Robert Boyers: Before we got started here a former student came up to me and said she really hoped we would tackle a question she wanted help with. She’s half Japanese and half American, and she said that whenever she lives in The United States she feels extremely Japanese, and whenever she lives in Japan she feels very American. Is identity for anyone with a mixed race background inevitably a more difficult thing to piece together? That’s what she asked.
Orlando Patterson: I’m very close to that; I mean, my wife is actually half American, half Japanese, and I know a lot of mixed race people, and again this goes to the change that is taking place. Some of you may remember the story of the tragic mulatto in American history and literature. We think of that as a joke now, but at one point it was very serious. Later on Cher sang that song “Half Breed” which actually made the charts, though I don’t think it would today; it would just be seen as silly. In the past, there was discomfort about, and often outright denunciation of, any kind of racial mixing, which seems sort of bland compared with the much more radical experiments people here have been describing. Not long ago people spoke of wanting to protect their identity against contamination, and mixing was thought to be a form of contamination. The ugly word miscegenation is now fading from the language, and a good thing too. But when that word was in circulation it signified crossing boundaries, which was thought to be the worst thing that could happen. Nowadays, when you have racial mixing the feeling is that you can have both identities, several. You can be Japanese at one time at one place and American at another time and another place.
Robert Boyers: And yet even now we hear people talk about betrayal, about Jews not sufficiently remembering who they are, about black people behaving the way black people are supposed to behave. Strange, wouldn’t you say, that at a time when identities are so much more fluid, as many of us have been saying, we should still see that other sense of identity, of particular attitudes and behaviors you’re obliged to display.
Patrick Keane: That’s where identity politics comes into play, and that’s where some of the advances Orlando and others want us to celebrate are at risk.