Friday, April 17, 2009

Placing identities

What if place and identity were one and the same? I tend to think of places as locations in the material world, containers of sorts in which things occur, such as people with particular sorts of identities. Thus, I tend to imagine that when I study a place I am studying a landscape, an arrangement of buildings, hills, or trees – the physical topography.

But suppose that’s wrong. Suppose that what most of us refer to when we say “place” was the same idea or ideas we refer to when we say “identity.”

I’ve been reading Heidegger lately, and along with him, a book by the philosopher Jeff Malpas called Heidegger’s Topology. In it Malpas argues that place is a central theme of Heidegger’s work, from beginning to end. Heidegger’s concern was the nature of being, which, I gather, he thought was always bound up and integral with place. Being springs forth in place already. It’s not that there is first a place and then some being plops into it. “We would have to learn to recognize,” Heidegger writes in “Art and Space” (p4), “that things themselves are places and do not merely belong to a place.” This comes close to what I mean by equating place and identity.

What do we refer to when we refer to place?

Place is a specificity, a locality, an array of particulars. But what is specified? Well, a hill, a building, a path, a crossing. But are these the place?

I am reminded of Ryle’s college analogy in Concept of Mind. He supposes someone is given a tour of a college, shown the quadrangle, the library, the classrooms and offices, the gymnasium. Afterwards, the person says, “You’ve shown me all these interesting places but where is the college? Show me the college.” Ryle says the person has made a category mistake, that a college is an amalgamation of all those things and can’t itself be pointed at the way a building, something of a different category, is pointed at.

Ryle was making a similar point about mind – that mind was not brain or a network of neurons but a whole that included those physical elements but also the body and its intelligent engagement with the world. The mind, like college, is all those things put together.

So, I think, with place: I use the hill, the building, the path, the crossing to identify it, to find it, to know that I am there, but the place involves a vast set of other features as well: my knowledge and expectations of what goes on there, my feelings about it, my engagements with other people there, real or imagined, my activities and practices, or those of other people. Or even other things: I can imagine a place in the forest where people have never gone but where bears, say, have crossed paths with one another in their foraging. That is a place, but it is not the path, the tree, the rock: somehow the idea of place necessitates the activity that occurs there, too, if only in our heads.

In that sense, it seems to me, place is as much or more the array of particular experiences we remember, project, ascribe, expect to occur in a location than the material landscape itself, which is more map than proper place, an arrangement of signs that tells us whether we are there.

So, in the conventional sense I am wanting to make of it, a place is a set of relations among human beings.

What do we refer to when we refer to identity?

I don’t think we mean the physical features of a person or thing, not only. When we recognize a person as having a particular identity, we recognize the set of relations, human relations, that this person is linked with such and such other persons, and these have some relationship to ourselves and so on. It can be very particular, this identity. But it seems to me identity always refers to relationships among people primarily, and that their physical features – like the elements of a landscape – are merely signs, indicators, orientations that help us decide on a person’s identity but while they may be integral to the identity they are not, in the end, the identity itself.

What relations? Aren’t we again back to the same sort of definition we had for place?: identity is as much or more the array of particular relations we remember, project, ascribe, expect from particular persons – a set of relations among human beings.

Exercises like this are meant to make finer distinctions, and what do we get from this conflation of place and identity but something gross – no distinction at all?

Except that we learn that in trying to understand places and identities we must focus first on relationships and not be confused by physical features alone, which however necessary to both place and identity, are not primarily what we are after when we think of either place or identity.

Equating place and identity also affirms my sense that if we are to understand something like racism – which hinges on questions of different identities (and often, I might add, how they are relegated to different places) – then we might find that understanding by studying certain places – which like identities are matters of human relations. The advantage of places is that they are easier for most people to talk about than races.

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