Thursday, January 08, 2009

Identity and freedom

Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was greeted by a protest over her country’s war in Gaza when she took the court in Auckland, New Zealand, earlier today, Haaretz reports. “I am not the government of Israel and I am not representing Israel in politics,” Peer said after her match, which she lost. “I am a tennis player and that’s what I represent now.”

By common opinion, she does not have that choice. She is identified with Israel and is not at liberty to dissociate herself. That she prefers to identify herself with tennis is inconsequential. Identity is a passive construction; the object of classification is made to appear the subject of her relationship with a group or institution by the neat trick of hiding the agency at work. She doesn’t decide for herself whether to represent Israel or tennis; the decision is made for her. Identity on the current conception entails a loss of freedom.

Toni Morrison has pleaded with us “to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.”1 Fat chance. We are all in the group classification business now. To identify a person is more momentous than recognizing her. She must be assigned to her group, moved around on a board like a cast-metal token. (And in the game of group classification, she can only occupy one square at a time.) Thus we substitute representation for responsibility:

I can hear you say, ‘What a horrible, irresponsible bastard!’ And you’re right. I leap to agree with you. I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me? . . . Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement.2Shahar Peer does not agree to represent the Israeli government, and I do not agree that the “characteristics” that I share with the writers I admire include “white maleness” nor even that it is “significant.”3 But our disagreement is not acknowledged, and so we are not recognized. Why should anyone be surprised, then, when Israeli tennis players and “white male” critics seem so irresponsible, declining to answer for their genocidal country or their racist canons? Whom should they answer to, seeing that they have no identity in themselves?

1. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 90.

2. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 14. Originally published in 1952.

3. “Significance is always ‘meaning-to,’ never ‘meaning-in,’ ” and unless the two are carefully distinguished “the result is bound to be a now familiar state of confusion,” for significance is literally without limit (E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity in Interpretation [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967], p. 63).


Patrick Murtha said...

Myers and Kurp are racists and sexists pure and simple -- the worst kind too, masquerading as principled intellectuals. And if they didn't want to be called such, they should have avoided the ghastly stupidity of putting an obviously slanted "canon" out for public consumption.

Myers denying that his white maleness is a significant characteristic doesn't make it non-significant, it just means he's in complete denial of reality and ought to have studied some sociology along with his beloved literature.

D. G. Myers said...

New version of the Hitler Rule. First one to call “Racist!” loses the argument.

Patrick Murtha said...

How convenient to invoke self-serving rules on the fly. It won't wash, though.

D. G. Myers said...

In all seriousness, Mr Murtha, your comment is the perfect illustration of my point in “Identity and Freedom.” I do not get to decide my own identity for myself. You decide—and the fact of my being an Orthodox Jew disappears into “white maleness.” And this from someone who throws that notorious antisemite Henry Adams in my face!

Patrick Murtha said...

To quote your own words: "There is no not having ethnicity. We are a bit suspicious, then, of the uncritical hurry to equate ethnicity with nationalism. This suggests to us someone who treats his own ethnicity as normative and therefore transparent."

So, no matter what decisions you may make about how which identifications you wish to emphasize -- and I agree those ought to be respected for what they are worth -- you cannot be un-raced (not in this society, you can't), you cannot be un-gendered. You cannot float free of human markers. Nor can I -- I am a white male, too. It carries baggage (positive as well as negative -- you and I have both been privileged by it).

You are quite right about ethnicity, but your point extends to race and gender as well. "White" is not normative and not transparent. "Male" is not normative and not transparent. They are not default positions.

I hardly expect you to cave on these points if you have been manning the fort for twenty-plus years (it must have been exhausting). But I do want you to know: to a non-academic without a dog in the fight, you come across as preposterous, self-blinded, and, for someone who presumably has tenure, a sorry specimen.

D. G. Myers said...

While it is always nice to see oneself quoted (from eight years ago too! Two more years to literary immortality!), and while it is even nicer to learn that Patrick Murtha has been following my career for so long, it would be nicest of all to be quoted accurately. Even sorry specimens deserve that much.

Murtha quotes from an exchange of letters in the American Historical Review. It can be found here. I wrote to defend the historian Robert S. Wistrich, whose scholarship was accused of being “characterized by neo-conservative polemic and a fervent nationalistic/ethnic partisanship.” The same critic attacked Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and me—in strikingly similar terms.

The four of us, I wrote in reply, “all have one thing in common. We are unashamed of our loyalty to the Jewish people.” After quoting Dawidowicz on a historian’s loyalties, I wrote the lines that Murtha quotes out of context. All four of us, I said,

“. . . believe there is a fundamental difference between integrity and neutrality. We know that no one can attack Jews for being ‘nationalistic/ethnic partisans’ from a neutral standpoint. To mount such an attack, he must take up his position somewhere. Unless the word is code, it is not only Jews who are ‘ethnic’; everyone is. There is no not having ethnicity. We are a bit suspicious, then, of the uncritical hurry to equate ethnicity with nationalism. This suggests to us someone who treats his own ethnicity as normative and therefore transparent.”

Note well that it was not I but an accuser of the Jews who equated (Jewish) ethnicity with nationalism. Neither the term ethnicity nor nationalism were originally mine, but the accuser’s. To merge my views with those of someone who holds that Jewish loyalties suffocate scholarly integrity, then, is to get things exactly backwards. The “uncritical hurry” to accuse anyone loyal to his own people of being a “nationalist” is an effort to discredit the loyalty. It is also to treat one’s own loyalties as transparent.

In this latest exchange, it is not I but Murtha who wishes to treat my loyalty to the Jewish people as transparent—or, rather, as invisible. When he cannot or will not see, however, that even though both are “white males,” there is a fundamental difference between an Orthodox Jew and the writer whom he calls “the great Henry Adams”—the same Adams who, according to his friend John Hay, when he “saw Vesuvius reddening . . . searched for a Jew stoking the fire”—when he treats this difference as beneath notice and assigns both Jew and antisemite to the same category of despised people, the entire history of the tensions between Jews and white antisemites has been erased.

So as not to close on a sour note, let me repeat my basic view. As I wrote earlier on this blog, “Perhaps every writer’s identity is a choice, because you choose with whom to identify yourself.” I hold that the final word has been said about none of us, that the world is capable of admitting surprise, that a person’s choices are more important than the brute and unyielding facts of birth, and that loyalties—not those you are assigned by those who despise you, but those you cast for yourself—are how you define yourself, and are to be defined.


Daniel Pritchard said...

Mr. Meyers, If you do hold that last paragraph of your most recent response to be true – regarding a person's choices – then your assertion that identity is a passive construction seems to contradict this. My guess is that you would argue that public perception which acts to create personal identity can be changed by certain powerful acts or words.

If so, then both of your statements about identity are incomplete (which is, in some circumstances, worse than simply being wrong); over the whole length of this post, what you actually seem to hold is that identity resides in a dynamic tension between choice / act / word and public perception.


On your Morrison comments: there are many types of identifying that can be done — the most primary being, I think, the Biblical act of naming a person (Adam, Eve, etc.), and the least human type being classification, or the transposition of classified quality over human actuality. The latter type comes from our not being omniscient; human knowledge is limited, and it is just too difficult a task to judge every person as individual.

I'm wary of giving in though, and of the brutality that has come from accepting classification instead of dealing with our own various enormity.

D. G. Myers said...

Thank you for your stimulating comment, Mr Pritchard. I am in a hurry to prepare for Shabbes, and do not have time to answer at any length.

When I said in “Identity and Freedom” that “identity is a passive construction,” I was referring to the activity of identifying others. As you suggest with your apposite reference to Gen 2.19, identifying or naming (“whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name”) is an act of power (“dominion,” in biblical language).

Self-identification then is the assertion of power over one’s own public perception. Yes, there is a tension; and no, one cannot exercise total control over how one is perceived; but the question of what institutions or groups one identifies with, to whom or what one is loyal, seems (at least to me) to be entirely within one’s command.

Thanks again.