Is identity identification? A thousand shades of a question that has always been at the heart of the philosophy: “Who am I?”. And if it all comes down to a label, can we try to imagine the consequences on people’s daily lives? This is the reflection on identity for MaTerre by Flavia Monceri, Full Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Molise.
Whatever the issue, identity is a problem. Even for those who defend it strenuously, believing that it is impossible to do without it, but then have to make endless distinctions that better specify a definition that, it seems, is also very difficult for them to provide exhaustively. Therefore, identity is declined in various ways through its adjectives – personal identity, national identity, sexual identity, gender identity, religious identity, cultural identity, political identity, and so on – arguing that each of these adjectives would be sufficient to account for its “process” and “fluidity”, as they indicate, mark, different aspects of its identity, while remaining one and the same. But if this is the case, why stick to a concept that does not indicate anything if not followed by some specification? Personally, I have long argued that the concept of identity can only have a value of generalization built for the benefit of others who question and question us – it has the only value of an identification and nothing more. Indeed, precisely because the identity of each of us is a complex and emerging phenomenon that contains infinite specifications that take on value only and only for each of us, there is no way to define it to someone else without resorting to identifications built to decline to others their “generalities”, but always in the knowledge that none of the definitions provided on request exhaust our individual identity, always irreducible to that of any other – and especially not defined “in words”. Moreover, the question about identity takes on meaning only in contexts that, as “our” is still for the most part, give a fundamental value to the “word”, in the illusory conviction that we can “say” what we “are”, naturally carefully avoiding to deal with what we “become” in every single moment. But there are others, elsewhere, who have always maintained that identity definitions, the answer to the question “Who are you?” – which in our Western context has even turned into the question “Who am I?” addressed to himself to establish univocally his own position (but also here to the advantage of others) – can only be fallacious and illusory, externalizing something that perhaps we are also, but that never includes the whole self and is therefore not able to “communicate” it to others.
I’ll give you just one example: you could answer that question (“Who are you?”) simply by saying “I”. In fact, which summary definition of identity could be more appropriate than the first personal pronoun? It’s obvious that “I am me” and no one else. But immediately a problem arises, because the first personal pronoun can be used by anyone else, so that to my counter-question formulated in the same terms (“Who are you?”) I would receive the same answer (“I”). Now, what informative content do these two answers have, except to signal that the identity statement “I am me” says nothing at all, although it should transfer precisely the essence of me to the other and of the other to me? The only way this can work is to say that when I say “I” and another does the same, what we are referring to is both our diversity (which remains unexpressed, however) and our similarity (indicated by the possibility of using the same word). So identity as identification ultimately serves to encode oneself in such a way as to emphasize more similarities than differences: in this case, we are all human beings legitimized (therefore) to say “I”, despite the differences. Excuse me, but aren’t the differences what make this “I” that “I am”, different from any other “I” that also says “I”? My identity lies precisely in those differences that I will never be able to communicate to anyone else, simply because as soon as I communicate them they become something that must be presumed to be shared or at least shareable with someone else.
You’ll tell me: games like philosophers, who have nothing to do with the concrete life of equally concrete individuals. Maybe. But if we consider the role that identity declarations have for a group of individuals living together in the same space-time, things change. Just imagine replacing the answer “I” with one of the following: “a white one”, “a black one”, “a lesbian one”, “a disabled one”, “a drug addict”, “a prisoner”, etc. and everything will become clearer. The declarations of identity, the identifications, have effects on the concrete life of equally concrete individuals, because they give life to a group of “we” (whose members (attention, always presumably) share the same declaration of identity) and a group of “them” (whose members do not share it), with consequences that it is superfluous to enumerate.
Is it then so strange that this individual, even in his role as a political philosopher, theme and tries to go beyond the concept of identity?