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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

From Group to Subject (and back again) : Rethinking Identity in Early Medieval Studies

[Here is the paper I gave at Kalamazoo the other week.  Thanks to Helen Foxhall Forbes for inviting me, to James Corke-Webster for exemplary chairing and to the audience for great questions.  I have reconstructed some ad libs in blue italics and another I wish I'd made in red italics!]

This paper weaves together several strands of my current work and – indeed – life. At one level I am continuing to ponder the role of the interplay of identities and groups in the political change of the fifth-century crisis and studying the renegotiation of identities around 600 as a motor of social and political change. At another I am possibly more interested in developing a philosophy of history as a mode of engagement with difference. It's that engagement with philosophy that provides the transformation – in my understanding of identity and difference – that is the subject of my paper: from thinking with social science to thinking with continental philosophy. The notions I will discuss are drawn from a battery of thinkers: Jacques Derrida above all, but also Judith Butler, Simon Critchley, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Normally this seems to provoke a reaction on the lines of ‘what's he on about now?’, ‘he’s gone completely mad!’, ‘what is this bullshit?’ and ‘hey, that's not history!’ To the last of which my response is that no, maybe it isn't. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with what history is, and interested in what it could be, and that interplay between ‘is’ and ‘should be’, between the indicative and the subjunctive is a Leitmotif of this paper. Another is implicit in that very question: is this history?  What are the politics involved in accepting the authority that goes with a subject-position?

Identity is of course a timely topic. Analyses of the catastrophic votes of 2016 have sought explanation in crises of, or imagined threats to, straight white male identity. Even I, a liberal straight white male, have begun to feel threatened by seeing people of a particular non-white skin-colour in positions of authority, that skin-colour being orange.  Some work on late antique migration has fuelled these feelings of crisis and danger, through – to be generous – careless and unsubtle populist writing, from a particular view of what historical debate is about, and above all through a conceptual/intellectual indigence that has simply failed to engage with what the key terms of the debate might mean. One only needs briefly to inhabit the social media-verse to see the work by these writers cited as proving why immigrants need to be kept out. [You will also find me described as a ‘dripping wet progressive’ for dissenting from it. That’s far from the worst thing anyone has ever said about me on the internet. “Guy Halsall is kind of a dick” is a personal favourite – and that was from one of Mary Harlow’s PhD students!  I wouldn’t mind but ‘kind of’?  Once again my quest for authenticity falls short.] And far from decrying this citation or distancing themselves from it, the perpetrators of these works seem rather to have doubled down on them.  I have spoken out strongly against this. It was a wager – I’ll come back to wagers – and I lost.  It cost me a lot – in part precisely because of the discursive constructions of authority, identity and speech that I am going to discuss – but I maintain that it was my duty as a historian to speak out, to place that wager. I also want to stress that my intervention entirely recognised these people’s authority to speak and be listened to, a recognition that has been far from mutual in the debate, before or after.

Early medieval studies are all about identity: the material emanating from Vienna and elsewhere about ethnicity; the texts and identities project; lots of papers in this conference – the use of the past, landscape, etc and identity. And yet, it is hardly conceptualised at all. In the whole oeuvre of texts and identities there is, that I can find, no sustained or sophisticated discussion of how identity works, what an identity might be or how it is understood. Even in the classic works of the Vienna School there's no substantial theorisation of identity, and nor was there in my work.  I will address this by presenting a brief historiography before critiquing current thinking about groups and identities, discussing identity and subjectivisation, and coming back to groups at the end.

Leaving aside the influential but highly questionable notion that medieval people only ‘discovered’ the individual in the twelfth century and hitherto only saw themselves as members of groups, the discussion of early identity has focused on - especially ethnic - groups of people. This has reflected developments in anthropology and ethnography. The touchstone for much thinking about identity was the publication of Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, which crystallised then developing thought about the mutability of ethnicity, later labelled the constructivist and situationalist approach.   In later ethnography an attempt was made to reintroduce a modified primordialism by eliding ethnicity with Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, while extreme situationalist thinking developed into a rational choice theory of identity.  Both of these were problematic: the elision of ethnicity with the Bourdieusian habitus is illegitimate and rational choice fails to deal with affective and indeed subaltern aspects of identity. Most recently, ethnography has begun to question whether the group is the correct focus for analysis at all. [I am grateful to my PhD student James Harland for filling me in on developments in that area.]

In early medieval history, debates centred then on what defined groups, and how easy, or not, it was to join them, even if the focus sometimes shifted to the agency of particular actors. Groups and boundaries. You can see this tension in Barbarian Migrations from ten years ago, which I think contains the most sustained theorization of ethnicity in early medieval studies (ten whole pages). This pursued a strand of thought first tried out in Settlement and Social Organisation (1995), based around the contingent, active interplay of different identities and the stressing of links and barriers in social relations or encounters between different people.  And yet… It was still ultimately conceived around groups and group-membership.

Much of this model was sociological in its inspiration and formulation and was concerned with how people achieve aims vis-à-vis other people.  It was concerned with status and power and principally a theory of status, value, worth and social roles.  Following on from that, the model worked according to the idea that identity was a stable entity that could be communicated more or less unproblematically.  It implied that identities were not only things that you had but also things that you were in a straightforward way. This meant that there was a sense of free choice in the deployment of identity.  You picked an identity and invoked the power that went with to achieve your aims.  This implied limited thinking about what power was, restricted simply to inter-personal relations and with a strictly utilitarian focus, and above all, crucially, about what identity was. Given that it was explicitly claimed in Settlement and Social Organisation that social change was sought in the ‘interplay of identities’ this was quite a serious but not – I think – an untypical problem.

A major problem is the assumed ontological primacy of the group.  So much discussion concerns things that give an identity to a group, or forge an identity for a group. Look at the titles of papers in the programme, or books on the stands, that talk in those terms.  The questions which must be asked are how that actually works and, indeed, how identity itself works.

Group and identity are simultaneous creations. To exist meaningfully qua group, a group must have an identity. Logically, if not temporally, the identity must be prior to the group. To be Derridian about it, the first time anyone said ‘we are the Goths’ to someone else (and was understood), the term ‘Goths’ already had to have an iterable place in a signifying chain. That's elementary.

No identity is immanent. All are categories: means of organising the world. As such, they are constructed as signs or groups of signs. Even where those are based upon differences that are, or might be, naturally-occurring or visible regardless (hair-, skin- or eye-colour for example; or differences in genitalia; or physiological stages of ageing), the choice to use them as categories, their precise definition, the way in which they are employed and therefore the ways in which the people of the categories so created experience their lives, depend upon their position in a contingent system of signs. As such they function textually (in the Derridean sense), within chains of presence and absence, similarity and difference. Because no concept can be understood separately from those signifying chains, or comprehended apart from its relationship with other signs, there is always something of the ‘different’ within the ‘same’ and that is very important to remember.

All identities function in the imaginary as well as the symbolic registers. That is to say that there remained (as with all signifiers) a notion of the ideal member of the category. Normally that was structured by some of the aspects which helped define the category (social and ritual mores, etc.) to create concepts of the ideal member of a sub-group within it (young woman, male elder, monk, king etc.). This has two important implications. First, social identities are constituted by performance and citation. Second, if anything even more crucially, identity is itself a motion towards an ideal. The ideal can never be attained, because it never had a pure, originary existence. It’s a motion of desire: what do I want to be, but also, crucially, what do they want me to be? As Lacan famously said, a fool who thinks he is a king is no crazier than a king who thinks he’s a king [he might better have said 'a fool who thinks he's a president is no crazier than a president who thinks he's a president].  As stated,  it's fundamental that, in order to have been capable of communicating any sort of information, any concept had to be capable of iteration, that is it had to refer not simply and exclusively to that specific instance but rather had to have the capacity to be used in others too. It already related to an ideal, which was never coextensive with that which instantiated it, and to its constitutive outside (all the things which, ideally, it was not). This implies the ever-present chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication in the interplay of identities. The social performance or citation of an identity is always, to some extent, a risk, a wager.

Those ideals, moreover, are always themselves changing in the course of social practice. They can never be entirely recreated, not least because, as I have just mentioned, there was never anything there that was susceptible to pure recreation. It is thus critically mistaken to talk of the maintenance of a Gothic or Frankish identity by a particular group, whether the guardians of the Traditionskern or an equally mythical group of Gothic Königsfreie; no such thing had ever existed that was capable of maintenance in the first place. It may be argued that the only time when subject and identity are coextensive is in death: a point of considerable relevance to early medieval studies. Even the creation of an identity may be a misnomer.

I really want to underline the textual and discursive elements that are central to identity, and the inescapable fluidity that that implies. I also want to link identity to speech, subject and authority.  To deploy, perform or cite an identity is to give an account of yourself – to borrow a phrase from a recent book by Judith Butler – but it’s also, as I said, a wager on recognition: of the identity-ideal, the signifier, and of the right to speak/act from that subject-position.  It is in the element of risk or wager that I differ from Butler.  But that links identity to subject-position, and indeed to subjectivisation.  Two years ago I talked here about how the formation of the subject/socialization in the Roman Empire – even for people thought of as non-Roman – was critically entwined with the process of becoming a member of the Roman state, giving that polity a resilience that, possibly, allowed it to endure in crucial respects for up to a century after its political dissolution.  My current work explores what happened when that was no longer the case. I contend that the fragility or fluidity of post-imperial polities was linked to a failure to link group-membership to those processes of subjectivisation in the same way – but also, when thinking about the present – that that was by no means to be conceived of as a necessarily bad thing.

As promised, I return to the group. No group can be reified as a stable entity, not least because the identity that gives it meaning is itself a shifting, eternally renegotiated ideal, with no self-present identity.  At the heart of this conglomerate of ideas and signs, this ideal, as stated, is never reached and only exists extrinsically to the subject. Group membership is a discourse over what this ideal is and to what extent you approximate to it, or can approximate to it.  The ideal of what membership means is then always the object of a gaze, from without. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Nancy, it is ‘an ethos, a habitus, an inhabiting’. No group can thus ever be a totality, it is always itself – in its idealisation - a libidinal motion towards, an unfinished project.

As I have argued before, what is at stake in many of the texts supposed to give identity to groups – the Franks for example – is not some sort of cosy unifying consensus but active attempts to control the discourse of identity. To define who’s in and who’s out. And note too that the discourse over who is or is not ‘in’ is by no means coextensive with the boundary between – say – Goths and non-Goths, about the exclusion of outsiders trying to get in. I would contend that it it is at least as much about  controlling who is, or is not, legitimately authorised to speak from the subject-position of Goth.

It's not difficult to find examples which this theorisation helps us think with. Panegyric for example: the holding up of the mirror of what it means legitimately to hold subject-position of king or emperor; it’s the means by which the king or emperor argues that doing X or Y falls within the sphere of legitimate royal/imperial activity. Both are wagers. I would also cite Michael Kulikowski’s recent discussion of Alaric as subaltern (it would work as well for Stilicho or equally many a Roman who fell from grace). From what subject position is Alaric allowed to speak and when?  Sometimes as Roman soldier, sometimes not. And when not, when he speaks as a Goth, the occupation of the Gothic position is similarly discursive.  What is going on in all those stories of Gregory of Tours about royal interactions with aristocrats? What is going on at the heart of sixth-century Gothic politics, or at its edges? What is wagered by the adoption of a certain costume, or the presentation of a dead relative in a particular way?

I’m not arguing that ‘we (let alone ‘you’) have got it all wrong’, that this is what identity is – not least because that would fundamentally contradict most of the points I have been making. Rather I want to suggest some points or – maybe – sites within or between which we can talk about identities and groups, and that might allow us to think whether or how we are talking about identity at all: some things that might both inflect discussion and in turn sharpen the conceptualisation. Or they might help retain the fuzziness, contingency, chance and indeed incompletion of identity.

When we talk about texts, brooches, monuments, latinity, are we helpfully discussing the construction or creation of identity, or rather identifiers? Sites of discourse or debate about authority, legitimation and recognition of subject-positions? Discourses of power and exclusion within group politics?


We have to keep risk, we have to keep dissent, we have to retain incompletion, the motion towards.  We must avoid the temptation to accept the totalising discourse of consensus and group-identity whether in our sources or in our historical practice. To accept the messiness and incompletion of identity and of the group allows us to listen to other voices and perspectives, past or present, and in turn, through our teaching, perhaps enable a more ethical engagement in the politics of our own day.

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