Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: The Nature of Identity

Second installment of my paper "Ideas Have Consequences: The Theology of Politics & Identity Construction in the Former Yugoslav Republics". See all installments here.
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“The special pathos of the human is one of ubiquitous metaphor, the condition of being always an interpreted being, never to be traced back to a place prior to culture or language, to a state of nature and simple presence…” – David Hart (1)

In common parlance, “identity” is often that vague abstraction encompassing a hodge-podge of preferences, habits, and inescapable facts about one's self. That I have pierced ears, a nicotine addiction, and an American passport can all be said to constitute my “identity”. Identity is, essentially, whatever one says it is; if someone says something is or is not a part of his identity, there is no real way to refute that—in the context of common parlance. For the purposes of this paper, however, I would like to put forward a more rigorous conception of identity: identity is the collection of those facts about one's self that bind one to a larger community; in essence, identity is that thing that determines where one's loyalties lie, and in what (or whom) one trusts.

Understanding identity in this way—as inherently relational—makes clearer the importance of ethnic and religious identity to both the individual and society, and makes absurd the proposition that the political sphere would be better off without such antiquated and irrational attachments. Nevertheless, the latter idea has been dominant in much of the literature addressing ethnic and religious conflict in the Balkans. Alexander Agadjanian notes that “the common vision is that the break-up of the communist system uncovered a 'Pandora's box' of old evil spirits competing with the good spirits of democratisation. Religious identities are part of this dubious legacy from the frustrating past, providing a temporary and inefficient substitute for real needs and, at the same time, a convenient means of manipulation by resource-hunting elite groups.” (2) This attitude is exemplified in Mitja Velikonja's paper on religious symbolism in the Balkan Wars: “To certain religious integrists, political developments in the late 1980s and early 1990s presented an excellent opportunity for the long-awaited re-Christianization and re-Islamization of the political and cultural identity of 'their' nations and the reaffirmation of their dominant position in society. The already belated modernist differentiation and pluralization of these societies seemed to have lost to radical premodernist dedifferentiation.” (3) Adamantia Pollis is more blunt: “If Orthodoxy is to become relevant to the contemporary European world, a reformation is needed of the broad parameters of Orthodox theology. As transmitted through the centuries, Eastern Orthodoxy speaks to the rights of persons only in mystical and spiritual terms; it needs to speak to them as individuals possessed of equal rights, divest itself of its ethnic trappings, and free itself from the state.” (4) Ethnicity, too, receives similar treatment: “In the ultimate analysis (if there is such a thing in the Balkan case), it is the tenacity and resilience of ethnicity as a 'volksgeist' (not the dialectics of history) that defied Tito's rational design...” (5)

These excerpts are reflective of what essentially boils down to ignorance and condescension: failure to understand that ethnic and religious identity are rooted in something stronger than irrational, unjustifiable preferences blinds one to what is actually going on. If one accepts that identity is about loyalty, then one must understand that loyalty is about the relationship between authority and trust. Loyalty to something greater than one's self indicates recognition of an authority stronger than one's own judgment; one is able to submit to this authority because one trusts it. The loyal Serb—likely as a function of his 'Serbness'—trusts the Orthodox Church and submits himself to its authority: this means that he will do what it demands of him even when, and in fact precisely when, he disagrees, or doesn't understand. This submission stems from neither intellectual laziness nor obstinate irrationality, but from conscious recognition of one's own limitations, the desire to actively affirm one's identity (preference without commitment and obligation does not meaningfully shape identity), and to preserve one's self and one's interests within society (the fact that man is an innately social creature aside, if one does not have binding loyalties to various communities and vice versa, it is very hard to accomplish one's ends, regardless of what they are—the man without a team can't play the game).

Inability to understand the philosophical significance of loyalty means it is easier for Western observers to be overwhelmed by the “absurdity” or “irrationality” of Balkan politics. How to make sense of the fact that, during his tenure as Dean of Belgrade University's Philology Faculty, Radmilo Marojević renamed “Croatian literature” “literature of Catholic Serbs” (6), or that a 1982 Greek law “ceased to recognize university degrees obtained in the Republic of Macedonia on the grounds that Macedonian was not an internationally recognized language,”? (7) Unable to wrap their heads around any rational justification for such acts, Western analysts move ever further toward radical instrumentalist theories of identity manipulation. Such theories, however, in addition to denying the intellectual heritage of the peoples about whom they purport to expound, have lower predictive value than one that takes into account the constraints of ideology.
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1. Hart, David. The Beauty of the Infinite. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. 111.
2. Agadjanian, Alexander. "Revising Pandora's Gifts: Religious and National Identity in the Post-Soviet Societal Fabric." Europe-Asia Studies 53.3 (2001): 473.
3. Velikonja, Mitja. "In Hoc Signo Vinces: Religious Symbolism in the Balkan Wars, 1991-1995." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 17.1 (2003): 27.
4. Pollis, Adamantia. "Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights." Human Rights Quarterly 15.2 (1993): 356.
5. Norbu, Dawa. "The Serbian Hegemony, Ethnic Heterogeneity and Yugoslav Breakup." Economic and Political Weekly 34.14 (1999): 836.
6. Greenberg, Robert D. "Language Politics in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: The Crisis over the Future of Serbian." Slavic Review 59.3 (2000): 629.
7. Danforth, Loring M. "Claims to Macedonian Identity: The Macedonian Question and the Breakup of Yugoslavia." Anthropology Today 9.4 (1993): 9.

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