Identity is problematic as a category for a number of reasons: historical, cultural and political. While sheltering us, identity exposes ourselves. It is ̕religious̕ in the sense that it links both individuals and communities to a dimension of eternity. Yet does identity still pose a problem in itself? Or has it rather long been turned into a false problem? In this sense, have not 19th- and 20th-century theories of alterity already superseded the definition above?
The ideas of ´absolute alterity´ and of the uniqueness of the single individual are written in the same language in which ideas of nation, ethnic group, culture and people’s spirit were formulated. Indeed, the lexis of ´authenticity´ and ´uniqueness´ shares many words with that of ´common origins´ and self-integrity.
On the other hand, the recent devising of “neologisms of difference”, while bearing witness to a specific historical phase in our societies – whose main features are movement (of people and information) and their increasing interconnectedness with one another – refers to identity by a range of ever new adjectives: processual, performative, theatrical, multiple, plural, tactic or negotiated, pidginised, situational, hybrid, mestizo, until the more recent ´cross cultural´ and ´multicultural´.
The explicit aim of this new critical idiom is to account for the effectiveness with which, in the face of identitarian discourses, individuals make do with the complexity of their lives by building up narratives of identity – thus making this latter more endurable and shareable in present times. On the one hand, this “language of newness” tends to smooth, melt down and make fluid and playful every reference to identity. On the other hand, it goes alongside with the creation of new identities – more ´authentic´ and thus more imaginary than those previously deconstructed.
Seemingly, therefore, identity appears as a sickness from which no one is ever cured. Indeed it is possible to be identity-sick. There are true and fake identities; authentic and imaginary ones. There are identities to be found again (like health), to be protected (with medications) or to be taken up again. Yet if one the one hand it makes sense to talk about a malaise affecting identity/-ies, on the other hand no surgical intervention seems feasible – as if once removed identity (hence the source of the malaise) the problem would disappear. What kind of malaise are we then talking about? How many such malaises are there? One for each identity? Are they all detrimental?
If only we stopped and took heed of the etymology of the word ´malaise´ (from French malaise, lit. “ill-ease”, from mal “bad” + aise “ease”), we would become aware of something so plain to escape our sight. In fact, our own language points out to an uneasiness, to an ontology of identity and, therefore, to the attempt at re-establishing unity out of crisis. Does an ontology which is not directly linked to a myth of origins make any sense at all? Is there also a positive malaise, acting as a stimulus towards an intensification and radicalisation of self-questioning – without lending itself to a cheap and sterile postmodernist ´bricolage´? To conclude, is there a form of identity which is born not so much out of self-preservation as out of contradiction and non-answer, out of silence and chaos?
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