September 26, 2023

The Others and the Sames

Boris Groys

Kazimir Malevich, Peasants (c. 1930)

Reading contemporary philosophical and artistic publications, one gets the impression that the main problem of individuals today consists in their isolation and separation from other people. Accordingly, these texts offer a lot of advice about how to transcend the borders of individuality, how to become part of a community. It can be an ethnic, regional, or professional community, but in every case I am required to feel and practice solidarity with people who are like me—the same as me—in one respect or another. Society is understood as a patchwork of communities: I have to be committed to my own community and at the same time respectful of communities of people who are unlike me—the others.

Whatever one thinks about all these requirements and recommendations, they manifest a great distance between our own time and, let’s say, the 1950s and ’60s. At that time, one was interested not in the dissolution of the individual into the community but in the emancipation of individuals from their immediate social and cultural milieus—from their families, their neighborhoods, their professional connections. One tried to break with inherited cultural attitudes and the communities that practiced these attitudes—and become other to them. Today this desire to break with one’s own community has become obsolete. Also obsolete is the discourse on “identity” as the “Hidden Self,” or the “True I” transcending the “empirical I.” This discourse was central to philosophy and art from Romanticism to modernism—but now it belongs to the past. Today “identity” is—paradoxically enough—understood not as something that identifies a particular individual but, rather, as something that this individual shares with the members of a community to which they belong. So what has happened during the time that separates us from the existentialist thinking of the 1950s and ’60s? The most obvious answer is: what happened is the naturalization, the animalization of man.

The notion of community has its roots in the religious tradition. Religious communities were based on a common faith. During the epoch of the Enlightenment, these communities came to be criticized for being too exclusive. And, indeed, why exclude from a community a neighbor who has a different faith? After all, we are all humans—and that unites us. Thus, it was decided that faith and communities based on faith should be rejected—as something that divides us. What unites us is “human nature.” In other words, what unites us is not the similarity of our souls but the similarity of our bodies. However, today the discourse on universal “human nature” has also become obsolete. One speaks about individuals of different races and genders having different bodies and, thus, different natures—different desires, interests, etc. People with different natures can and should practice principles of diversity and tolerance toward each other—but nevertheless the border between the sames and the others remain. Indeed, one can change one’s faith but it is much more difficult to change one’s gender or one’s race.

Thus, the shift from the soul to the body and from religion to nature led to the emergence of communities that are much more rigid than good old religious communities. The history of religions shows that individuals and even nations and states periodically changed their religions. And religions themselves went through multiple transformations; they split, and new denominations of old religions and even radically new religions emerged. By contrast, racial and gender divisions have remained pretty stable. Inherited local cultures have also remained relatively stable throughout history. Culturalized bodies are much more inert than souls. Bodies are formed through certain culinary traditions, forms of upbringing, family relationships, and established customs. All of this is difficult to change, whereas one can change one’s religion in a moment—as shown in the example of Saul becoming Paul.

However, in our time we speak not only about communities based on similar natural characteristics or a common upbringing. We also speak about communities of Beyoncé fans or chess players. These communities are fluid because they are not based on any stable corporeal or social characteristics. One can enter or leave these communities without difficulty. These fluid cultural communities inherit the basic characteristic of religious communities: they offer a chance to break with one’s inherited milieu or shared identity. Male or female, Black or white, I can define my identity as a chess player or as a Beyoncé fan. In my younger years I had a friend who came from a working-class family living deep in the Russian provinces. By chance, he read some Russian translations of Rimbaud—and he was so impressed by them that he left his family and town and became a poet. So-called modernism is often considered elitist, and its poetry and art are seen as foreign to so-called “simple people” and their identities. But “simple people” can also live in conflict with their identity and environment. From time to time they also want to break with their identities, their milieus, to create a new, different identity, to become an “other” to their “community.”

Today, we speak a lot about inclusion—more precisely about the inclusion of the others. But the real problem is not the “others” but the “sames” with whom one is supposed to share one’s identity. Do individuals always and everywhere love their sames so much that they are ready to share their identity with them—the most intimate aspect of their existence? We know that this is not the case. The desire to break with one’s familiar milieu is at least as strong as the desire to dissolve into it. There is a desire for shared identity but there is also a desire for self-exclusion, a desire to become other to one’s own socially recognized identity and create an identity that would be unique, that would truly identify its bearer. Indeed, it is an illusion to believe that it’s the conditions of neoliberal capitalism that create individual identities. In fact, the main goal of capitalism is standardization—the creation of a mass of sames. The “real identity” of an individual—the identity that identifies this particular individual and nobody else—can only be the result of a break with capitalist sameness. But one can ask: How is such a break possible?

The historical documentation that has accumulated in our libraries and museums gives an answer to this question. In fact, World History is precisely the history of such breaks and ruptures. When we speak about the identity of writers or artists, we turn to the texts and images that were produced by them. Of course, these writers and artists have a certain gender and belong to a certain race. But their creations do not express these shared “natural” identities. They don’t even reflect the personal “cultural identities” of their authors. If these authors want to be historically relevant, they leave their cultural milieus behind—often in the form of emigration. In this way, writers and artists obtain the freedom to create their own identities—identities that are not natural but artificial. However, to create one’s own unique identity, it is not enough to write or paint something new and different; one also has to define and defend what one has produced as “new, different, and unique.” Writers and painters of the past wrote manifestos, quarreled with their contemporaries, and protested against the dominant public taste. They took every possible risk—and in some cases even risked their lives. There’s a tendency to think that only the shared identities produced by nature and tradition are “serious identities,” whereas artificial identities are somehow frivolous. The reason for this judgment is precisely our ability to change our artificial identity—and our inability to change our natural one. We think that only what is fateful and unavoidable is serious and true, whereas everything produced or chosen is a kind of superfluous luxury. However, people have died for their faith, ideology, convictions, and sense of duty. In other words, they have died for their self-created artificial identity—and not for their natural or culturally determined identity. We don’t feel responsibility for our bodies, which are given to us by nature. Nor do we feel responsibility for the conventions and customs in which we have grown up. We take responsibility only for what we have made ourselves—for a break with the nature and culture that formed us.

This is, of course, true not only for writers and artists. Regular workers also produce their identities in the course of their work process. Otherwise, such a phenomenon as the “working class” could never have emerged. But this phenomenon could also not exist without the political dissociation of the working class from the amorphous “third estate.” Every new step of the industrial revolution produced new identities. Technological progress allows and requires the permanent production of new identities; that is why progress is seductive and unsettling at the same time. However, this does not mean that technological progress is a self-propelling process that produces new identities without any human intervention. New modes of life and work—and, accordingly, new identities—are established by means of political struggle. Today, a new digital proletariat and a new service proletariat have emerged. They are different from the industrial proletariat of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their emergence demands new political definitions and strategies. Instead, many go back to “natural” identity. We are disconcerted and disoriented by the fast-changing class structure of contemporary society, so we look for the natural identities that allegedly remain stable through historical changes.

Some say: let women or people of the same race find a new type of solidarity based on their corporeal identities—across class borders. But this appeal to identitarian solidarity only means that natural identities begin to be politicized. In other words, these natural identities begin to be used as ready-mades in the contemporary political field. When contemporary feminists say that they want to break with the traditional role of women in the family and with the subordinate position of women in the economic and political field, they turn female identity into a new artificial product and try to establish this new product in the political field. By doing so, feminists break with women who remain in their “traditional role.” This is why the only way to write the history of women is to write a history of feminism—a history of breaks and ruptures with female sameness. And this is why changing one’s gender becomes possible, due to a new combination of technology and political action. Politics is, indeed, as artificial as technology. There are no “natural” political identities, just as there are no “natural” technological products. To politicize a “natural,” inherited identity is the same as taking an object of everyday life and putting it into a museum. This object becomes an artwork as a result. In the same way, a “natural” identity put inside a political context becomes a political identity—an identity that one can adopt or reject, just like any other political identity. Here the individual is no longer defined by their pregiven identity; rather, identity becomes a matter of technological invention and political choice. One can transform such a politicized identity as easy as one can change professions.

While artificial—technologically and politically produced—individual identities are historically different, the modes of production of these identities have a lot in common. Human history offers us a great number of examples of breaks and ruptures with old identities, which have produced and are still producing new identities. I mean here technological as well as political breaks. The old identities can be very different and the new identities can be even more different, but the breaks that have produced these identities are mostly very similar and even repetitive. In other words, a commonality among individuals exists, but it exists not on the level of their pregiven—natural or inherited—identities which connect them with their “sames,” but on the level of the production of new, artificial identities that are able to identify only these particular individuals and nobody else. And if on the basis of these artificial identities new communities emerge, whether religious, political, or artistic, these communities are built on a solidarity that is political and strategic, not imposed by nature or culture.

Modernity, Politics

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.


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