How do you combine identity with ideology

Social context

Bernhard Giesen

To person

Dr. rer. pol., habil .; Professor of Macrosociology, Department of History and Sociology, University of Konstanz, Universitätsstrasse 10, 78457 Konstanz. [email protected]

Robert Seyfert

To person

Dr. rer. soc .; Post-Doc at the Cluster of Excellence "Cultural Foundations of Integration", University of Konstanz, Universitätsstrasse 10, Postfach 28, 78457 Konstanz. [email protected]

Why are we ready to give our fellow citizens the right to vote while foreigners are excluded? Why are many willing to help other people in our nation in the event of a disaster with tax money and private donations, while they hesitate to offer this to people in distant foreign countries? Why do we trust our neighbors and do we distrust strangers? The answer to these questions does not result from the hope for consideration that the beneficiaries would provide if we should find ourselves in need. It also does not result from the reference to coercion and the expectation of punishments if we did not provide help. This is not about insurance connections or sanction systems. Even the reference to a consensus on common values ​​does not lead here. Any attempt to formulate a concrete consensus on values ​​and norms inevitably leads to controversy - and reveals precisely the vague and precarious character of collective identities. This has been shown by the discussions about the formulation of a German guiding culture as well as the attempts to formulate a European constitution.

A more convincing answer, on the other hand, points to social boundaries between the inside and outside of a community, to belonging, community and collective identity. When we speak of collective identity, we assert a certain similarity between the members of a community and the outsiders. The talk of collective identity is, however, controversial. [1] While we are all sure of having an identity as an individual person who runs through our lives and which only makes the personal memory of past experiences possible, the case of collective identity is more complicated: You can assign yourself to several communities at the same time, you can define social boundaries and the public representation of a collective identity can be mistaken for ideology.

However, both - the individual identity of a person and the collective identity of a community - have a similar structure: They combine the utmost self-confidence with extensive opaqueness. In other words, we are absolutely certain that we exist, but we are unable to give an exhaustive description of our own identity as a person or, for example, our identity as a nation, family or ethnic group. Any attempt at such a description can be rejected as incomplete and biased.

In this respect, we assume that collective identity is an irrevocably ambiguous and vague matter. By this we do not only mean that it is always unclear what exactly is meant by the identity of the respective community. Rather, we mean that cultures are opaque to themselves, [2] that at the center of society and collective identity there is an "empty signifier" [3] - something that does not refer to anything concrete and which, precisely because of its indeterminacy, has every possible meaning can be assigned.

Represent the unrepresentable

But despite or precisely because of this lack of transparency, collective identity has to be represented, imagined and told: myths of origin and ritual commemoration, icons and songs, marches and visits to monuments represent what cannot be represented in itself. [4] Nobody who belongs to the community asks critical questions. Collective identity thus proves to be a special formulation of the "saint of a society" (Émile Durkheim); like the sacred, it aims to construct latency and unquestioning. One believes, although one is not an eyewitness, that we have not been present at the historical events that mark the mythical beginning of the community, [5] nor have we ever met the majority of the collective (people, nation, religious community). [6 ]

The significant emptiness does not prevent the collective identity - as if it were simply the erroneous belief or the opium of the people. Cultural myths are not just figments of the imagination that things can be countered as they "really" are. All social descriptions are based on imaginary inventions, but this does not mean that they are only imaginations and therefore not real. Precisely because the collective identity is fundamentally closed to us, it is permanently made our task. The void forces constant retelling, and the individual interpretation of cultural myths makes us all beings to be invented. [7]

The myths on which the collective identity is based are not based solely on the stories of living people, but are also condensed and represented in fictional characters. Particularly noteworthy here is the hero who sets out into the unknown, has to endure adventures and withstand temptations and finally returns home triumphant. [8] The hero is particularly well suited to the imagination of identity: he is incomparable and often of divine origin, he knows no fear and despises the rules of prudence and caution, he does the dangerous and risky, he is the exception to the everyday. Its counterpart is the traumatized victim who no longer has a name, no face and no place in the community and who - although innocent - can be killed just because they have a certain characteristic. [9]

Both the hero's and the victims' stories can be found at the core of ethnic or national myths. For some there are slavery and colonialism, displacement and genocide like the Armenian genocide, for others the various myths of founding and conquest, but also of revolution and uprising, in which a people breaks the chains of the oppressors, returning to a state of nature and seize power by force. [10] The originally individual hero myth is collectivized in the idea of ​​revolution or popular uprising. The same applies to the figure of the victim. It is changing from the suffering of Job to the modern genocides, in which the victims lose their individual identity and are victimized just because they happen to have a certain characteristic.

In recent decades, a new mythical figure has appeared in Western constructions of identity: the perpetrator. In contrast to the triumphant hero, whose act of violence attracts the admiration of the community, the perpetrator remains without this admiration; his act of violence arouses contempt and hatred. Representative confessions of guilt for the community of perpetrators become central rituals of postmodern politics. The model for this is the famous kneeling of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970. In this famous gesture, individual and collective identity separate: Brandt acted on behalf of the German nation, even though he himself was persecuted by the Nazi Germans. He made a Christian gesture, although he himself had not received any Christian education.

Since the collective as well as one's own identity are constantly changing, the myths have to be constantly reinvented: Working on the common identity is always also working on the myth. [11] The need for constant work on collective identity requires adapting these myths to current circumstances. On the one hand we find the reference to formative events of the past - civil wars, revolutions, defeats, constitutional developments - and on the other hand there are attempts to adapt these narratives to the events of the present. The national identity of Germans in history was based on events that range from heroic collective achievements (Varus Battle) to highly cultural achievements (German Classical and Romanticism) to the Holocaust. Collective myths do not contain explanations for all eventualities of the future, but they are abstract enough to serve as starting points for explaining and narrating the present. They solve the problem of the myth-related ambivalence and lack of transparency of collective identity.

The content of the myth, on which a collective identity is based, is in an intermediate position: it is formulated in a general enough way to be able to serve as a common reference base for all. At the same time, however, it is so vague that it does not allow a consensus on specific statements and leads to constant misunderstandings and debates. Contrary to the assumption that every society is based on a minimum of shared values ​​and norms, the ambiguity is at the "center" of every culture - the Liner[12] and that Approximate[13]. Collective identity is supposedly based on a consensus of values ​​and shared norms, but these are of such a fundamental and abstract nature that they always allow completely opposing conclusions.

However, these attempts lead to endless arguments that doubt the narratives and thus constantly empty the signifier of a culture. The attempts to determine collective identity, the dispute over its power to define, as well as all-round criticism form the very center of what constitutes a collective identity. In doing so, these public debates do not undermine the narratives of collective identity. Rather, they reinforce the impression that it is actually possible to finally tell them one day. That tends to make it impossible for everyone else not to have an opinion. We find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of being unable to conclusively determine identity, nor to consider the question of it as irrelevant.