Sunday, April 8, 2007

Identity on the Coast of Utopia

The great language-game over the nature of identity continues at confused at calcutta with some interesting further moves. Gordon Cook threw out a sentence that I cannot resist reproducing:

I view 19th century Russian history as tragic outcome of the search for identity carried out by the russian nobility beginning with the conclusion of the napoleonic campaigns.

I know that Gordon knows a lot about Russian history (far more than I can ever hope to know). However, in my own amateur way fueled by my dramatistic interests, I had to note that he was raising the same theme that Stoppard addressed in his Coast of Utopia trilogy. The titles of the three plays say something about the author’s point of view: “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” “Salvage.” I was also struck by the fact that, while several of us were sharing Isaiah Berlin stories on a back channel, the opening of "Voyage"at Lincoln Center, led to a mad dash to buy up copies of Berlin’s Russian Thinkers!

My free associating led me to consider the analogy between Stoppard’s conception of a search for Utopia and Gordon's perspective of the search for identity. Berlin fans know that he took a very dim view of Utopian thinking, not just from the Russians. This is best captured in “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” which is the lead essay in The Crooked Timber of Humanity. His basic idea resonates very nicely with the sort of language we are inclined to use. The “tragic flaw” (if I may wax Aristotelian) of a Utopia is that it is a state, which means that it can never accommodate any “real world” context, since that context will always be in flux.

I think we can reflect this back on questions of identity. Trying to deal with identity as some kind of state will result in an equally tragic flaw. While it is true that, at an abstract level, we can always “freeze time” and “capture” at least some of the attributes and relations that would count for a “state description,” I would argue that where “the crooked timber of humanity” is concerned, our understanding of identity resides in the transitions, rather than any artificial “states” we construct, often just because they are more compatible with our databases!

The kicker, however, is that we really have not yet gotten our minds around the alternative. We know how to describe state; but our skills for describing transitions are impoverished, often reduced to saying little more than “what happens between these two states.” The last time I harped on this was in a discussion over the opensourcing of process. In another comment I suggested that the best way to confront the problem would be through a better understanding of the rich diversity in the grammar of verbs. This, in turn, reflects back on much of the life-work of Kenneth Burke and his efforts to develop a theory of “dramatistic” (as opposed to “scientistic”) thinking. Of course, regular readers know that it does not take much to get me to invoke Burke! I suppose this all demonstrates just how tightly coupled the nature of identity is to so many other equally complex concepts!

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