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Religion and Society

When Identities Short Circuit





Arjun Appadurai





Title: Sicuri da morire. La violenza nell’epoca della globalizzazione





Meltemi, Rome, 2005






Why is it that the process of globalisation has not opened the doors wide to a more just and more peaceful world but seems, instead, to have freed dark forces that in Yugoslavia, Iraq, the republics of Central Asia, India, and Rwanda have produced paroxysms of violence that are almost unimaginable? Why did this spiral of conflicts to do with identity, rather than growing weaker intensify until the catastrophe of 11 September, and from there on to the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq? In answering the criticisms of those who thought Modernity at Large (London, 1996) involved an approach that was too optimistic as regards the phenomenon of globalisation, Appadurai identifies the new dimension of contemporary violence to lie in its cultural specificity: ‘even if during the course of human history the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has always been shaded along the borders and confused in the case of vast territories and great numbers, globalisation exasperates these uncertainties and produces a new impulse to cultural purification in a gradual way as an increasing number of nations lose their illusion of national economic sovereignty or prosperity’ (p. 11).



Now it is specifically this fact that clearly demonstrates that violence on a large scale is not simply the consequence of an opposition between different identities but is itself one of the ways in which there comes to be ‘produced’ the illusion of identities that are univocally defined and emotionally involving, in part to attenuate the uncertainties about identity that global flows continually produce. In this sense, one can attempt to explain the horrible phenomenon of ethnic violence: the deformation and mutilation of etnicised bodies, in the view of Appadurai, represents a desperate attempt to re-establish the validity of somatic markers of otherness in the face of the uncertainties raised by the labels of censuses, demographic changes, and linguistic alterations, each one of which makes ethnic affiliation less somatic and physical and more social and a matter of choice.



With this study, Appadurai returns to a display of his interpretative finesse. It is thus worthwhile to bring out the core of his argument. Appadurai centres his analysis around the famous essay of Freud on the ‘narcissism of small differences’: in the original formulation of the theory, small differences are valuable elements in the constitution of subjectivity, features to be safeguarded with especial attention, given that they allow us to distinguish ourselves from others. Globalisation has deformed this dynamic of identity because it has confused the relationship between so-called majority and minority identities. Indeed, the flexibility of censuses and constitutions, and ideological mutations in the concepts of inclusion and fairness, mean that the categories of majority and minority can easily be inverted. Because of this constant oscillation, small differences can become totally unacceptable given that they make the border between the two categories more ambiguous and insidious: ‘the root of absolute hatred of the ethnic ‘other’, concludes Appadurai, ‘is located in that reduced space that separates the condition of majority from the idea of complete or total ethno-national purity’ (p. 169). Thus arise predator identities which are obsessed by anxiety about incompleteness which no longer pushes towards an exasperated attachment to small differences but to the elimination of difference as such.



How can we defend ourselves against the uncontrolled proliferation of these ‘predatory forms of narcissism’? Appadurai sees only one pathway: to reject the purifying and essentialising demand that is at the base of certain ideologies of identity. To sum up: it would already be something, in the opinion of Appadurai, to take into account the fact that our identity, whatever it may be, is always, to a certain extent, ‘incomplete’. and that this incompleteness is not a defect which should be remedied furiously but an inevitable human condition to be accepted and, to the extent that this is possible, to be shared.


Paolo Gomarasca



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