‘We’: a muse
‘What the sense feels... has never an end in itself.’
WITH the Covid-19 cloud hovering over one and all – and not expected to go away for a while – I meandered, one lazy afternoon, amidst my ongoing academic commitments, into the question of ‘identity’ (and not quite only the idea of ‘national’ identity, please note). Of course, this was not a puzzling occurrence since I have been working for some time now on the question of nationalist thought in India – and inevitably the question of collective identities and the idea of ‘national belonging’ looms large over this ideological space. But the reflections that follow spring from that one lazy afternoon when, somewhat in a flash I recalled a fond story that the late U.R. Ananthamurthy (URA) liked to narrate about himself and the ‘pull’ generally of identification.
Since I have no direct access to the ‘story’, I will use the cultural critic Sadanand Menon’s words to describe Ananthamurthy’s order of narration: ‘Once, in London, someone asked him (URA) who he was, and he said, "I’m an Indian." Later, he reflected on it. Why did I say that – I’m no rabid flag-waving patriot; what made me give that answer! A few days later, he was in Delhi, where someone asked him who he was, and he said, "I’m a Kannadiga." Again, he interrogated himself. I’m no Kannada language chauvinist, what made me respond in that manner! A little later, in Bengaluru, someone asked him who he was, and he said, "I’m from Thirthahalli." Again, he was troubled. I’m no nativist or back-to-the-roots agitator, then what made me give such a reply! And then, as his story went, some days later he was in Thirthahalli where no one asked him who he was because everyone there knew him.’Menon goes on to add that ‘Ananthamurthy used to narrate this story to describe the call of a subliminal national, regional, local identity that permeates our subconscious and can be roused at will for good or for bad.’
My aim, in this reflection, is certainly not to complicate the terms of this understanding, although what is on offer may yet do so. There is something deeply puzzling about identities that I want to reflect on here, and the ‘We’ of my title is meant to instantiate it. There is something elusive, enigmatic and aporetic about the notion of ‘we’ – the fact that it can be thought through conceptually but can only be felt and experienced in that which resists conceptualization. In many ways, URA’s self-narration – and the larger predicament it translates into – is not an ‘explanation’ of an extant state of affairs that can underwrite philosophy, politics or even poetics in definite locales of action and determination; it inaugurates a sharper and determinate historical ‘problem’ which itself requires some understanding if we have to strive after explanations for it. My muse, therefore, does not conform to the logic of identity but is not independent of it either (although one would have to defer a fuller and more determinate formulation for another context/occasion).
I hope my brief exercise here will not be construed as an ascetic one, because in many ways the question of identity – of ‘who am I?’ or ‘who we are?’, and indeed ‘what one is?’ – can suspend one in a state of indecision. Surely that’s one spin we can give to the URA story recalled above. Thinking through this further, however, we must ask how such a state of indecision can yield a perspective on the world and/or form the basis of ‘transforming’ the world. Of course, one can always refuse this latter axis of determination on the ground that it seems to be taking the modern (read ‘western’) definition of identity as a form of ‘individualism-in-the-world’ for granted. Philosophically, besides, if we were to persist with our question, the fact that one was born into ‘such-and-such a family’ or ‘in such-and-such a country’ need not yield a determination about what one ought to do or what one is obliged to do in the world. Such a position is, broadly, in keeping with the orthodoxly modern one which affirms that the gap between facts and values is of a rational or logical sort and that it is impossible to derive from a description of one’s status a conclusion stating what one ought to do (a value judgment).
Significantly yet, this ‘logical’ order of construal, which by relegating the various aspects of one’s natural order of individuation, as it were, into the realm of insignificant facts, actually transforms the individual physical person into a (indecisive?) self, one which does not bear within itself reasons to prefer one thing over another. Surely, this is not – and cannot be – the implication of URA’s ‘story’. We can, and must, still press our question about how a state of ‘indecision’ – or, more accurately, the oscillation between ‘identities’ that URA’s story invokes – can yield a perspective on the world or form the basis of transforming the world.
I realize that the question of ‘We’ is, in part but also essentially, the question of relation: of the relations between ‘we’ and ‘they’, ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘me’ and ‘they’, ‘I’ and ‘thou’, and so on. It is also a question of relationality ‘as such’ – of what it means to be in relation, of who and what enters into relation, and of how this is inflected by being human or not. The ‘we’ can also betoken a form of sociability, of being together, of convening and conventionality, as separate or separable from every trace of salvation. It can, of course, denote unification’ but I would prefer it to suggest proximity in the sense of the pressing of bodies against one another. Even more urgently, with every reference to the charged question of ‘we’, the content and form of the response (in which, say, one presses home a challenge to the conventional wisdom that renders the collective or ‘the people’ more powerful and protective of the singular individuals who compose it) demonstrate the way in which a manner of speaking is turned into a way of speech. In fact, this emerges as the ‘crux’ of nationalist thought in India – which, as I reminded at the very outset, forms the bulk of my ongoing research – but which as such can never be exhaustively comprehended (although the ‘we’ as a way of speech is the ‘source’ from which all the threads of Indian nationalist thought seem to emanate). Be that as it may, how do we make plain the legibility of this charged ‘we’ independent of the urgency attaching to it as part of nationalist strivings?
I had said that the question of ‘we’ is also a question of relationality ‘as such’. Let me try and push this thought a little further. The relationality ‘as such’ concerns the relation to something like a world, a space which is never given as a whole but within which beings are manifest as ‘beings’ and relation experienced ‘as’ relation. This can seem quite idyllic, and insufficiently communicative of the multiple relations of constitutive exteriority that can form the basis of any ‘we’ as such. The ‘we’ can be as much the basis of a hierarchical evaluation as marking the gravitational pull of uniformity and a striving for homogeneity. Accordingly, it seems to me that there are two primary ways in which the ‘we’ as so conceived can invite cognitive appropriation. One, the ‘we’ can designate a ‘generalized singular’ – the term is borrowed from Derrida, but deployed otherwise – which, while retaining the form of a singularity, eliminates the differences that constitute the singular by absorbing them into the homogeneity of a collective (or group) identification. It can form the basis of exclusions of various sorts. Of course, it may be maintained that the tendency to generalization is intrinsic to language and makes for the possibility of names and nouns (as indeed the use of definite articles to convey them) to designate not simply persons and things in the singular, but persons and things qua members of the group. In any case, the ‘we’ as designating the normative homogeneity ascribed to a collective marks a form of appropriation that one can (and must) guard against.
The second form in which the ‘we’ can be distinguished, in a strict sense, is as a ‘particularity’, whether taken to define the essential indivisibility and homogeneity of individuality or, quite simply, ‘the individual’ as the source of all value and well-being. Doubtless, there are some complexities here that I am avoiding, which not only have to do with the ways in which any society accords value to someone or something, but also the imperative of taking the sociological term ‘individual’ in its individualist sense of a normative ideology. The French sociologist, Louis Dumont had maintained that we must distinguish between ‘(i) The empirical agent, present in every society, in virtue of which he is the main raw material for any sociology’ and ‘(ii) The rational being and normative subject of institutions; this is peculiar to us, as is shown by the values of equality and liberty: it is an idea that we have, the idea of an ideal.’ Evidently, we are speaking here of the normative individual as the ‘subject of institutions’. [I realize also that my two ways of speaking about the ‘we’ can shade into each other, with the terms ‘generalized singular’ and ‘the individual’ designating two sides of the same coin, but my point is that they can have very different effects.]
Indeed, if the ‘we’ is to be truly indivisible in the sense urged, it must also be thought of as being self-contained and self-referential, almost like the first-personal singular ‘I’. In principle, it should be possible for the individual in the first-person singular sense to separate entirely his/her ‘identity’ – what he/she is when he/she is himself/herself – from every contingent social bond, by representing all of these bonds as optional. Yet we also come up against a limit in all such attempts, although the fact of one’s individuation remains untouched. As philosophers like Charles Taylor have constantly emphasized, the ‘difference’ between us and a traditional man is that we do not set the limit in the same place. One may, likewise, extend this line of thinking for the ‘we’, where the bestowing of an individual essence upon the ‘we’ cannot be independent of its actualization, that is to say, it cannot be detached from any or every genealogy. Indeed, if the ‘right of subjectivity’ can be transformed into a ‘duty to be oneself’, this can be true of the ‘I’ as indeed of the ‘We’ of relationality as such.
So much for the ‘we’ in the abstract, although I have made every effort to embed my line of thought. Let us now return to URA’s story in a final reflective summation. If every ‘we’ has an origin and, needless to say, there can be many ‘origins’ – all of which are eminently historical (as the Weimar philosopher Walter Benjamin hypothesized, that ‘The category of origin is not... a purely logical one, but historical’) – then it must also involve an ongoing effort to reinstate what could not be reproduced identically and is consequently obliged to repeat and transform constantly. This could well be the moral of URA’s story, so that far from a state of indecision we implied earlier there is a precise and determinate position on identity (as indeed of national identification) being suggested. The fact that the subject (in our instance, URA himself), in shifting between identities, is still choosing between and across them – without necessarily having any reasons to do so – implies that the gap between the various identities in question is a mark of our sociality, a culturally given fact, so to say. In fact, one can emphasize that the dichotomy between facts and values seen to be emblematic of the modern position per se itself rests on a choice of values, which, incidentally, is the very epitome of an individualistic choice. Surely this is a much more complex and resolutely modern position to take on ‘identity’ and the pull of identification.
It behoves us to ask, finally, whether we have sufficiently revealed the aporetic structure of the idea of ‘we’ – the fact that, as we disclosed at the outset, the ‘we’ can be thought through conceptually, but can only be felt and experienced in that which resists conceptualization. I would like to think that we have, although our conclusion underscoring URA can seem to suggest otherwise. Anyway, this is work in progress, and hopefully my muse here is still suggestive. Indeed, if the ‘we’ is not to be lost in conceptualization and predication, then it can only be through an experience of the way it resists such efforts. This latter demand necessarily requires a much more complex moral psychology of identity than is available in the present contours of social sciences and humanities in India.
* This is for my daughter, Ila, as a way of celebrating her momentary homecoming.