Identities : Interview with Christophe de Voogd

Interview by Sara Loo
Issue 2 of the column “Identities”

Narratives, Representations and Uses of the Past is a core module of the Political Humanities major, exploring History and the role of the Historian in the post-modern world, in the time of the memory boom and in a culture of victimhood. Professor Christophe de Voogd who taught this course kindly agreed to an interview on the theme “identities” after the last lecture.

Sara Loo: In the last lecture, we looked at Amin Maalouf’s take on identities, could you elaborate more on that?
Prof. Christophe de Voogd: The idea is that identity is complex— we have individual and collective identities. These identities are unique so you have your identity, I have my identity, but we share common belongings and in our post-modern time according to Maalouf (In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong), because of the memory boom, because of all the trends that we saw in class, there is a kind of reduction of this complexity of identity to ONE belonging. So what people call identity is in fact a belonging. And there is a kind of a new habitus (Bourdieu) that people reduce their complex identity to one belonging.

SL: And this is what makes it problematic, because this fuels competitive victimhood?
CDV: This is exactly what first impoverishes identity, on a personal or collective point of view. For example, if I say you are Singaporean, I reduce you to only your national belonging, or you are a woman – it’s one belonging. But you are not only in you a Singaporean or a woman, because there are many Singaporean women.

SL: So identity is in fact a complex intersection of all your various belongings?
CDV: Yes, exactly. I would even say more than intersection, a combination and personal set-up of belongings. I come to the idea of history of representations: you have one more level which is how you identify yourself with these belongings and, before all, your own interpretations of these various belongings. So, we have to introduce one level more in the analysis. Let’s come back to this idea that you are Singaporean, but the way that you are Singaporean is not necessarily the way that another Singaporean is Singaporean.

SL: That means it is based on my individual perception and how I choose to order these different belongings?
CDV: Yes, it’s very complex and I’m in for complexity as you understood.

SL: Given the trend of separatist movements today—say, some people identify as being Catalonian rather than being Spanish—what do you think contributes to this kind of prioritisation of a sub-state identity in recent years?
CDV: This is a very interesting and difficult question. Before this, you could feel “and…and…”; and Catalonian and Spanish. Now the question is phrased in a way that you have to say “or…or…”; in other words the belonging becomes exclusive. What makes it this way, there are many reasons. First is of course the acceleration of time, the fact that people are losing control over their lives (or the impression of losing control over their lives), going quicker, the roots of communities, of individuals, are being dismantled. It’s the time of the “5 I’s” (Paul Schnabel (2000): Internationalisation, Informatisation, Intensification, Individualisation and Informalisation) where people have a feeling that they are living in one dimension: the present and an ever-changing present, so there is a kind of vertigo in this “presentism” as François Hartog calls it. There is then a principle of action-reaction, so people react to it and try to find control back.

SL: So this goes back to the idea of post-modernity?
CDV: Yes, and to find this control back, they say “Oh, I have this belonging and I will privilege this belonging”. In the 19th century it was the national belonging that was privileged – the discourse of the nationalist is one where, above class or regional divisions, the nation is the only righteous belonging. Today you will say it’s the gender, race or religious belonging. I think Maalouf’s approach is very fruitful because it’s a way of analysing the problem and a way to give a solution to the issue, an exit.

SL: During the course, we looked at the transition from the culture of honour to dignity to now, the age of victimhood. Do you think it is possible to escape from this culture of victimhood? If so, what will be the next stage?
CDV: A historian is better at analysing the past, sometimes the present and the future is not really our job, and this is maybe the question for your generation! I should ask you the question! Because the future generation belongs to you more than to me, I’m afraid. What I see, and your question is a sign of that, and also through interactions with students, as compared to ten years ago, there is a kind of tiredome of post-modernity (people getting tired), precisely because of this universe where no-one can find a centre and this sense of constant emergency, living in present for the present, which is what Schnabel calls intensification (one of the 5”I’s). People want to have some rest, some hold on their lives. How do they find that? It’s an open issue, or the dangerous answer, getting in for ONE belonging, so you find the miracle solution (an illusion in fact). There is no vertigo anymore. You are Catalonian, Muslim, woman, white, black, gay.

The other possibility is to try to invent a new complexity. Not the old one but to create in the global world a new form of identity, but this is not something you do as a political program but as a cultural challenge. You will have new fault-lines and divisions not based on religion, nations but on life experience. What you see now is the emergence of a new division that has been pointed out by David Goodhart, who made a distinction between the “somewhere” and the “anywhere”— people who are still in their countries, places, jobs; and the other ones who are globalised, moving. That’s the new division in the world. Maybe that’s the new recomposition of identity between the global identity of the “anywhere” and local identity of the “somewhere”.

SL: This is interesting because it also links to what Arjun Appadurai suggests, in his book Modernity at Large. He talks about modernity being the interaction between two processes of mass migration and mediation, and suggests that people imagine the annexation of a global identity, yet retaining their local elements. Perhaps, it could be both “somewhere” and “anywhere”?
CDV: This is also a possible recomposition, yes. The more complex it is, the more I like it. That’s an alternative model.

SL: In Luca Andrighetto’s text on the victim wars, he applies the concept of competitive victimhood to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Has the notion of “competitive victimhood” always been part of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Or did it only emerge as the conflict developed?
CDV: I’m not a specialist of the past of the narratives in this area. I think all this is coming with the 80s and the “New Israeli Historians”, and the memory of the Nakba which becomes stronger and stronger. Here you have a pure case of competitive victimhood between the holocaust and the expropriation of the Palestinians. It’s a pure case, and you will find references to that in the article by Andrighetto. And you have here a case where competitive victimhood is fueling an intractable conflict, and the way out is not easy to find. If you follow Maalouf and Andrighetto, there is experimental evidence. For example, the French-German example, there was a strong hatred; before that were the French against the English. This is also experimentally proven through psychological experiments. To get to a solution or to undermine/stop the process, there is one condition: for people to find a common belonging. This is how you can overcome competitive victimhood, when people first recognise the other’s suffering, which is not yet done in the Middle East, as you know. An example where people overcome hatred through a common belonging is the great and unseen success of Europe— it has provided Europeans with a common belonging after the war as Europeans, so that you have something in common, and competitive victimhood stops or at least slows down. And of course there is a common belonging, which is being human. But perhaps this is too general a belonging, instead we have to find intermediary belongings which are for example pan-Arabism or pan-Europeanism .

SL: Last question, what is your definition of identity?
CDV: Very close to Maalouf, I think it is a mixture of objective belonging, of gender, of race, of nation, but also through the prism of your own interpretation. You can have similar childhoods between people and have completely different adult lives. This is anti-determinist in general, because there is always the prism of interpretation. For example, two kids have deplorable conditions; one would end up as a gangster and another as a world leader. It is very important when you speak of social environments. For example, in France we see people have difficult conditions for example in the “banlieues”. Once again it is how you interpret your experience. I come to the idea of Koselleck which is a very rich one, which is, nothing happens on a neutral blank mind; everything that occurs to you is taken at once within the prism of your “field of experience” and your “horizon of expectation”. Every present event is in relation to your past and future, and you interpret it along these two lines. A similar experience is seen in teaching, for example, I say the same things to many students. I will get as many interpretations as there are students, because each of them will match what I say— the same statement— to his or her past experience and what he or she expects. This is very rich because whatever you say, you will find completely different reactions from them. So a great leader, teacher or politician is somebody who is very aware of the experience field and horizon expectations of the audience.

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