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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

identification and self interest


Benjamin, during the period in which he was working on Baroque Drama, jotted down some observations about identity and philosophy. “The principle of identity is expressed “a is a”, not “a remains a”. It does not express the equality of two spatially or temporally different stages of a. But also, it cannot express the identity in general of a spatial or temporal thing, then every such identification would presuppose identity. The ‘a’ whose identity is expressed in the relation of identity is thus something beyond space and time.” (GW VI 28)

Locke tried to make the transition from “is” to “remains” without an appeal to substance. In doing so, he released the power of identification – and the enigma of the process of identification. In a sense, Locke not only provides us with a code to the ideology of early capitalism, but also, unwittingly, with the dialectic that undermines it.

As Pierre Force has noted, Rousseau, in The Second Discourse, devises a new use for the term, identity – he makes it into a process of projection, and thus is the first to use  “identification” in the psychological sense that became part of the ordinary language of the second half of the twentieth century.

“Even should it be true that commiseration is only a feeling that puts us in the
position of him who suffers – a feeling that is obscure and lively in Savage man,
developed but weak in Civilized man – what would this idea matter to the truth
of what I say, except to give it more force? In fact, commiseration will be all the
more energetic as the Observing animal identifies himself more intimately with
the suffering animal. Now it is evident that this identification must have been
infinitely closer in the state of Nature than in the state of reasoning.”

The issue of personal identity travels to France by way of Locke’s translators and readers – such as Condillac. But Rousseau’s idea of an identifying self is a definite marker, an intersigne on the way to understanding character under capitalism. That is, to understanding how character can unfold itself in seemingly disparate semantic segments to occupy a certain space of symbols and capacities in those societies that we name by using a temporal adjective as a noun for a condition – modern – as if the modern had been hived off a world clock and existed in a new framework altogether. Personal identity is not only consistent with the Lockian principles of property and self-interest, but also with the kind of identification that, as Rousseau saw, makes the discourse of self-interest, in a sense, impossible. Rousseau’s discovery is made in spite of Locke, but we can see it working its way through that English plain prose as he comes to terms with the seemingly esoteric problems posed by imagining metempsychosis.  Just as selfishness can become an acid that so dissolves the self that one is left with an absolute Berkeleyian idealism, personal identity inevitably begins to pose the problem of the maker of persons, the cause, the projector. When the critics of modernity, operating under the unconscious conviction that they live in the modern, face this bifurcation, they tend to make a temporal move – to place those schemas of identification under the rubric of the pre-modern, as though the pre-modern was some head on, self evident phase before the modern – rather than the product of the later. But I propose that viewing the pre-modern as something generated within modernity, and not as a byproduct but as a shadow and double, an emergent and undeniable force in the matrix. 

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