Critique of Identity Thinking
- ISBN: 9781789202823
- Published By: Berghahn Books
- Published: July 2019
Our times are marked by new self-reflection upon the social inequalities that shape individual and collective destinies. The philosophical anthropologist, Michael Jackson, has never disavowed the pressing realities of structures of inequality. He reiterates that commitment in Critique of Identity Thinking. For example, Jackson references the Jean-Paul Sartre of the 1950s and 1960s, whose engagements with Marxism led him to develop an existential dialectic that mediates (interminably so) between the objective conditioning of our historical situations and our politically mediated abilities to negotiate those limits through our everyday efforts at active living (19). Like Theodor Adorno, Jackson finds Sartre’s earlier musings on free-floating freedom apolitical and problematically subjectivist.
Nevertheless, as the clamoring for social justice grows louder, even from suspect circles like multinational corporations, Jackson pleads for existential nuance and attention to the human condition, as such. Despite our differences, he cautions the reader to also remember what all humans share and hold in common. The reminder is precisely not a call for a return to the abstract universalism of the European Enlightenment, which Jackson suggests has generally betrayed its professed ideals of reason, democracy, and humanism to reinforce its own parochial and murderous form of identity-politics, buttressing as it did the business of colonization, slavery, and genocide (7-8). Nor is Jackson unmindful of the historical uses and power of strategic essentialisms in the political struggles of the oppressed. Instead, he finds them importantly limited (14).
What interests Jackson, as an anthropologist and politically, is the fact that none of us is actually ever reducible to the concepts and categories of thought according to which society classifies us, including the mappings according to which we look to account for forms of relative social privilege and oppression. This is not because Jackson looks to minimize issues of inequality but because he wishes to avoid simply collapsing the existential into the political. Jackson shares with critical theory a general critique of Western bureaucracies’ tendencies to number, classify, and categorize persons in ways that strategically underestimate our idiosyncrasies (6) and the messy fluctuations that attend to our practical, existential relationships with our cultural, racial, gendered, and religious identities. As Jackson discusses (12), the identities we inhabit are never fixed, as such, but exist as potentialities or existential resources for negotiating the flux of our lives.
Ethnography, as Jackson practices it, provides the basis for a relentless critique of identity thinking, or the general elision of the gap between word and world. At the level of human intersubjectivity, it assumes that points of convergence and mutual understanding between persons differently located in the world are nevertheless possible. A lifetime of fieldwork and anthropological study have convinced Jackson that human beings share existential quandaries and strategies that, while played out in culturally specified (and politically delimited) ways, speak to our shared phylogentic traits and ontogenetic struggles (2). The existential trust upon which ethnographic fieldwork is based tacitly assumes points of potential commonality between culturally and politically differentiated subjects.
By way of a profound and sustained meditation on the descriptive and ethical limits of identity-thinking, the ethnographic core of Critique of Identity Thinking brings together Jackson’s extensive fieldwork experiences among the Kuranko of Sierra Leone, Aboriginal Australians, the Maori of New Zealand, West African migrants in London, vignettes from the author’s life today in Massachusetts, and the thought of intellectual traveling companions such as Hannah Arendt and William James. Beautifully written ethnographic exposition teaches surprising life lessons for readers ensconced in Western genealogies of thought.
For example, the ethical valuing of deed (what one does) over identity (who does it) among the Kuranko (77) might, without the ethnographic context Jackson provides, conjure forth the conceits of abstract (colorblind) liberalism rather than the particularities of Kuranko psychology (77). Similarly, the stoicism of the Kuranko (53) cannot be read as a Kantian rejection of emotionality, but speaks to a pervasive cultural recognition of the inevitability of suffering in life. Importantly, Jackson eschews a romanticization of his interlocutors as a form of problematic essentializing in its own right. His haunting discussion of the witch as both a category and a person both powerfully relates the violence done to young unmarried women by virtue of their structurally ambiguous position in Kurnanko society and refuses to conspire in their further dehumanization by painting them as agentless victims of patriarchal domination. Perhaps most powerfully of all, Jackson’s elucidations of the ways in which Maori identity-politics have ended up marginalizing Asian migrants, in turn, is an eye-opening reminder that the stage of human history is never comprised of simple, binary pairs of saints and sinners.
As Jean and John Comaroff have argued, identity has become an increasingly important social marker under neoliberalism (“Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture, 2000). As such, identity is not simply an effect of social stratification or a vehicle for pursuing community, psychological integration, and social justice; it is also mired in the history of contemporary capitalism and the abstracting power of the commodity coin. This is what Jackson means when he suggests that academic speech has become complicit with the fetishizations and reifications of the neoliberal order (3). But if identity is no place upon which to finally hang one’s hat, what about humanism and its conceptions of the human? For now, it is a strategic and practical category that, for Jackson, speaks to a refusal to assign a higher value to ideas over persons (4-5) but which, he whispers in a footnote, is amenable to important revisions (such as Donna Haraway’s analysis of cyborg embodiment) (170 n.3).
There is no doubt that social stratification based on intersecting categories like race, gender, sexuality, and disability demand our utmost attention and consideration. And evidence of capitalism’s climate catastrophe compounds daily. As Jackson concedes, fatalism and nihilism in the face of suffering is no option at all (168). However, by the lights of Jackson’s brilliant, masterful, and urgent book, lest it contribute to the very problems we seek to ameliorate, any attempt to improve our collective and planetary condition must pass through the messy negotiations of intersubjective life to which ethnography bears witness.
George González is assistant professor of religion and culture at Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY).George GonzálezDate Of Review:February 14, 2022