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Religion and Society

When Identity is an Obsession

Author: Jean-Loup Amselle

 

 

Title: Logiche meticce. Antropologia dell'identità in Africa e altrove.

 

 

Publisher: Bollati Boringhieri, Turin, 1999

 

 

French Original: Logiques métisses. Anthropologie de l'identité en Afrique et ailleurs

 

 

Publisher: Payot & Rivages, Paris, 1990

 

 

Translation: Marco Aime

 

 

Does the model of multiculturalism, which still has a large following in various European states, and xenophobic racism, which has found expression in the same countries, have something in common? Jean-Loup Amselle believes that they do: these two positions, which are apparently in opposition, both imply original, fixed and immutable identities, incommunicable universes endowed with their own laws. Amselle gives numerous examples of this obsession with defining 'original' ethnic groups and cultures and he begins with his experience in the field as an ethnologist in Mali. Impressive works by scholars and dry as dust reports by colonial administrators are often comic in their untiring search for Cartesian 'clear and distinct' ethnic groups.

 

 

Hence the dichotomy between paganism and Islam, societies with a state and segmental societies; hence the elusive peul and the mysterious Bambaric religion: all products of that ethnic approach that Africans themselves have by now adopted and which Amselle rejects as the cause of modern conflicts.

 

 

With what should this approach be replaced? Amselle proposes the hypothesis of an original syncretism between groups, produced by relationships of power that are imposed or negotiated. Here we are dealing with the logics of hybridity. 'It is because I need to create classifications and typologies that I employ elements to be classified, and if I can legitimately extract them from their context it is because from the outset I have denied that such elements constitute political units situated in a socio-cultural continuum'. 'Identity is relative: pagans, the first occupiers, or those who are Bambaric in relation to Muslims or the Malinke conquerors'. And referring to France he states: 'there are no 'pure Frenchmen' because all Frenchmen are already hybridised'.

 

 

Although from many points of view this essay is brilliant and well argued, and has the virtue for a European reader of introducing him to a reality that is generally not known, namely Western Africa, various elements provoke a certain puzzlement in the mind of the reader. The kind of examples, to begin with, are all taken from a region that has always been quintessentially a place of encounter and migration. Would the analysis hold up so well if it was applied to other regions of the planet? And then there is the attribution of the temptation of essentialism to modernity alone. When mixing with the other peoples of the Mediterranean, the Romans constructed their mos maiorum, which was as celebrated as it was unrealisable. And when the Arabs took over the Middle East and mixed with all the peoples that they had conquered, their poets and philologists never ceased to idealise life in the desert, thereby converting the Bedouin tribes into a living reliquary. It is not only modernity that has looked for strong identities. Rather than being dismissed as anti-historical, they should be seen as an original element of hybridity on the same level as syncretism.

 

 

However, the basic objection is another. For Amselle every expression of man is determined by politics. Take religion, for example: 'one need only make an inventory of the overlapping of the political formations that exist in the region to define corresponding mythical-ritual practices'. Or the person: 'the notion of person is permanently negotiated and is a factor of interaction between groups located within the same political unit and between political units that are near to each other'.

 

 

The freedom of identity that Amselle wishes for seems, in the ultimate analysis, to be fixed in a deterministic way by social conditions. And yet a revamping of the old 'structure-superstructure' dialectic does not seem to be the most suitable instrument we have by which to achieve an overcoming of the incommensurability of cultures. A self once again reduced to the result of economic and social pressures what kind of liberty could that self have? And what principles could be invoked in order to provide a basis for human, civil, personal and universal rights?

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