In a review essay I wrote for the Marginalia Review of Books in November of 2014, I raised questions about the utility and value of “identity” as an analytical category. My remarks in that forum were specific to Aaron Johnson’s book Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity, though they pertain more broadly to conversations about a wide range of ancient authors and texts. Indeed, there is no shortage of monographs (or essays) dedicated to finding, describing, and elaborating the identity of particular ancient writers or ancient communities. The model of identity formation that informs these studies, which emphasizes the fluid, protean, and composed nature of identity, is pervasive and inescapable in this scholarship. It is de rigueur to describe an author’s identity not as singular or stable, but rather as multiform and fluctuating. And when an identity is described as fixed, this fixity is said to persist only alongside the counterweight of fluidity. But such observations rarely explain the analytical impact or value of such a theorization of identity. There is, I would argue, no elaboration behind these commonplace discourses; more attention needs to be paid to the a priori assumptions about the term, to the idea that pinpointing identity is an outcome in and of itself, and to the essentialism that underlies even an emphasis on the fluidity of identity, among other theoretical and methodological issues. The editors of the Ancient Jew Review asked me some time ago (one can only demur for so long) if there was anything else I had to say about “The Problem with Identity.” More specifically, they asked me to discuss a way forward with respect to the sort of characteristics or dynamics that identity is meant to capture, but usually does not. Identity, after all, does not seem to be going anywhere, which may tell us more about how modern scholars imagine and construct the complex subjective states of ancient peoples than how the former understood their own subjectivity. Allow me, then, to offer a few thoughts on the matter. For as an analytical term, I think identity means both too much and too little. It’s here to stay, so we (or at least I) might as well get better at using it.
Let me begin with a disclaimer of sorts. It would be misguided for me to suggest that there is a single way forward, or an obvious way to use the notion of identity “correctly” or “substantively.” I do not presume to have a universal or even definite solution to the problems I have diagnosed (it is always easier to diagnose the problem than cure it). By way of suggestion, then, all I can do is explain what I do—or how I think/react—when I find myself employing the word identity in my own writing. These thoughts are neither proscriptive nor prescriptive; rather, they reflect my efforts to grapple with identity as an outsized focal point in the academic lexicon that governs the study of antiquity, as well as the study of religion more broadly. And so whatever my misgivings about the term, at the very least I do think there are ways to sharpen our use of identity as an analytical lens. I will distill my suggestions to two points, which concern issues of definition(s) and opacity. In both cases, I am suggesting that the use of identity operates to conceal analysis rather than illuminate it. The term is not simply under-explained (and under-theorized), but its imprecision hints at a more fundamental problem: identity usually means something else entirely.
Point One: Definition. Identity is not a self-evident concept. Few mentions of identity come with a working definition or elaboration of its general (or even etymological) sense. I, like just about everyone in the field, am exceedingly guilty of this sin of omission. Most of us either take the term for granted or, by contrast, we insist on its ambiguity. Indeed, for most scholars, it seems, the very ambiguity of identity is its analytical value: since, we acknowledge, human self-understandings and social affiliations are a complex affair, the imprecision of the concept seems, by some intuitive logic, to match the gravid mystique of the things being described. Identity is, then, fixed in some circumstances and fluid in others. But such a characterization collapses the distinction between the operation of identity (identity as or in practice) and its actual analytical contours (identity as a category). To say that identity is fluid is not to define it, but rather to define or describe how it works as a developmental or interactive process. But what exactly is it that one thinks is fluid and what exactly is it that one considers fixed? The answer is, usually, too complex to be boiled down to the capacious, vague notion of identity. And so, identity is essentially an analytical crutch, but one that obscures rather than improves a complex, sophisticated discussion of an author or a text. Indeed, when I write identity I often mean group affiliation—attachment to some type of group or community, whether real or imagined (see, Stanley Stowers, “The Concept of ‘Community’ and the History of Early Christianity,” MTSR 23, for instance). That is hardly the only sense of the word, but insofar as I am interested in the ways in which categories are deployed to universalize, arrange, and organize subjects (and I use the word subject precisely to evoke post-modern, Foucauldian notions of the self as constructed via institutional forces and discourses) I tend to think about identity through the prism of individual/communal power relations, wherein the former exists both apart from and as part of a larger social and institutional order. There is a tension, expressed in language, practice, everyday experience, etc. between the individual’s self-understanding—his or her subjectivity—and the community with which he or she associates. This processual interaction or unfolding, of course, requires all manner of qualification, and I find the qualification far more important than the term identity itself. What is the logic undergirding my use of the term? What ideas am I invoking with the word identity?
Point Two: Opacity. Rogers Brubaker’s oft-cited essay, “Beyond Identity,” offers a substantive critique of the multifaceted and contradictory ways in which identity is used in scholarly discourse, with ample illustration of the analytical dispensability of the concept. The essay has had an enormous impact across the social sciences and humanities by virtue of its careful, methodical critique and, likewise, its proposals for doing better. Perhaps the most influential aspect of Brubaker’s argument is his emphasis on categorization and identification (instead of identity and identities). Identification, he argues, attends to the ongoing process between creator and created or identifier and identified—it accentuates who or what is doing the identifying and how both sides are influenced by discursive, political, and institutional powers. Brubaker, of course, is making an argument, not asserting a social fact. And he is emphasizing that identity, as an analytical (rather than practical) term, is a second-order category imposed upon a situation. For the study of antiquity, I would frame his point somewhat differently: identity is a heuristic device (etic) rather than descriptive (emic) category (all the more reason to include a working definition!). We impute to authors an interest in identity—how did such and such author negotiate his multiple identities (when we usually mean ethnicity, race, religion, etc. Not that these terms are self-evident either, but that is the point: they aren’t made any clearer by the term identity)—that they almost certainly did not have, or at the very least did not frame in terms of identity. When I have used identity in the past, I now realize, it has operated invariably as an analytical placeholder: either to avoid specificity or because, in all candor, I didn’t know what I wanted to say.
While Brubaker’s case for identification and self-understanding in place of identity remains indispensible, my reading of his argument (and of the use of identity more broadly in the study of religion in the ancient world) stresses his insistence, made almost in passing, that identity simply compounds the opacity of already complex debates and ideas. Identity, he writes, is, invariably, an obfuscation or adumbration:
If one wants to trace the process through which persons sharing some categorical attribute come to share definitions of their predicament, understandings of their interest, and a readiness to undertake collective action, it is best to do so in a manner that highlights the contingent and variable relationship between mere categories and bounded, solitary groups. If one wants to examine the meanings and significance people give to constructs such as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “nationality,'” one already has to thread through conceptual thickets, and it is not clear what one gains by aggregating them under the flattening rubric of identity. And if one wants to convey the late modern sense of a self being constructed and continuously reconstructed out of a variety of competing discourses––and remaining fragile, fluctuating, and fragmented––it is not obvious why the word identity captures the meaning being conveyed.
When I use the term identity in my own writing, I treat it as an indicator, an indicator that I’m not being as clear as I could or should be. In most cases, there is something more specific that undergirds my use of the term. Identity, in my own work, is really gesturing at ideas of classification, groupness, epistemology, subjectivity, ethnicity, empire, governmentality, etc. And so, I ask myself, if I had to rewrite a sentence or paragraph without the word identity, how would I do it? The re-worked sentence is always better for it. Likewise, I ask myself does the term at which I’m really gesturing benefit from using identity as a qualifier? When we talk about ethnicity, we reflexively make it a synonym for “ethnic identity” (insert: political, religious, theological, national, etc.): adjective + identity=something. The adjectives we tack on to the noun, however, are rarely self-explanatory. Indeed, the categories of religion, race, or ethnicity are hardly obvious, but that is the point: working through a theory or definition or ancient religion is hard enough, and it isn’t made any easier or clearer by the term identity. We muddy the waters unnecessarily by modifying terms that only grow less coherent as they are modified.
One could elaborate other facets of identity that require additional clarification—that, for its hallmark fixity and fluidity, identity is not unique among analytical categories (think ideology)—but I mention these two problems of definition and opacity, insofar as they are the two that I most struggle with in my own work. I’m proposing not so much that we re-theorize identity, but rather that we temper our use of it. If we say what we actually mean where we once used “identity,” then maybe we will be more confident that we mean what we are trying to say.
Dr. Todd Berzon is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College.