The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Extended Emotional Body

The simplest way to think of identity and identification is that it creates an enlarged emotional body.

If someone I identify with is hurt, I hurt. This suffering shows up on brain scans, it’s not theoretical.

If, on the other hand, I completely don’t identify with someone else, their pain doesn’t both me. This is why, for example, most slave societies say that slaves are sub-human. Plato believed most slaves were meant to be slaves, and that slavery was only wrong if someone was not naturally a slave. Race theory and so on.

The Romans were refreshingly honest about this, “You’re a slave because you, or the people from whom you are descended lost a war.” They also made it very possible to stop being a slave, perhaps because they didn’t think of slaves so much as “other.” It wasn’t an intrinsic category, you just had bad luck.

This extended emotional body goes beyond people. You can identify with animals and feel pain when they are hurt (Nietzche went insane when a man whipped a horse savagely). You can identify with plants, or with objects and ideas.

People piss on Korans and Bibles and burn flags precisely for this reason: It hurts people they want to hurt. People tell you your ideals are wrong to hurt you or to protect their ideals from harm so they won’t be hurt. Be really aggressive to a believer about how “God isn’t real.” It hurts. Tell an American patriot his country is evil. Etc.

Conversely, if another person we care about does well, we’re happy. If the country we identify with wins a war we may feel good. Or, if we think the war is wrong, we may feel bad. The extended emotional body created by identification gives us vast possibilities for increased happiness. Check in on a sports fan when “their team” wins the championship.

Identification with people and objects and ideas we really have nothing in common with is a large part of how we scaled our societies to grow beyond the number of people we could personally know well. We’re all Americans or Germans; or we’re all descended from the same ancestor; or we all believe in Zeus, and thus won’t attack another worshipper of the greatest of all Gods, let alone the wanderers who are under his sacred guard.

Identity, however, leads to a wide variety of pathologies. We don’t actually know these people, they don’t actually know us, and as for the ideas, well, they may be bad for us, but because we identify with them, we can’t see that clearly.

Identity makes it hard to find truth, because when we discover that something we identify with isn’t what we thought it was, maybe it’s not good or even perhaps, that it doesn’t even exist, it hurts. Humans avoid pain.

Identity also allows us to be manipulated. Odds are, your interests have essentially nothing in common with those of the people who run the Democratic or Republican parties, or the CEO of the company you work for, or the leader of your religion. But many many people identify with these organizations or people and acquiesce to their authority, even when that authority is terribly harmful to them.

Identity is a prosthesis. It lets us do things we can’t do without it. But beyond identifying with people we personally know and like, it isn’t natural, and it is very easily abused.

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  1. bruce wilder

    It is not entirely crazy. Solidarity among large-scale groups actually can benefit members of the group, not just the leaders. Public purpose has to be grounded in interests, not just left to float in an abstract fog.

    People actually do have common language, common customs and even rally around common ideals. There are rituals to establish and reinforce these commonalities.

    I am not always sure I understand stripping away the genuine, organic experience of the social individual to attach identity to pure abstraction. What is the point of an artificial academic construction like, “Asian-American”? Or, “Hispanic”?

    It is just to attach grievances distilled from the experience of strangers filtered through the strainer of tendentious narrative? Or, is it about fashioning a politics of upper-class advancement out of the injustices visited on the majority?

  2. nihil obstet

    I think a sense of identity is part of being a conscious, social human being. As you point out, it’s prone to many pathologies, but then most complex things are. It seems to me crucial to self confidence and social ties. Napoleon loved individualism because individuals are easier to control than groups. Solidarity goes beyond rational determination of cost benefit. It’s also an emotional commitment to sisters and brothers. The question is how to keep the identity healthy.

  3. Ché Pasa

    …beyond identifying with people we personally know and like, it isn’t natural, and it is very easily abused.

    Say what? The tribe is perhaps the most natural of human identity groupings. The tribal identity extends well beyond the nuclear family, and almost always includes people you don’t know and people you don’t like. It doesn’t matter whether you have a personal affinity for another tribal member or if you loathe them. You probably have little or no blood relationship with other tribal members. You are still members of the tribe — unless you’re forced out (which happens, of course.)

    Our rulers figured out thousands of years ago that the surest way to sustain their rule and ensure obedience of conquered or even domestic populations was to de-tribalize them and then substitute something else for the natural tribal identity. Currently, for most people that’s political parties and sports teams, both of which are owned or controlled by the rulers. Neat, eh?

    In prior eras, it might have been labor unions — which, interestingly, were destroyed by the rulers.

    Nationalism is a powerful extension of and substitute for tribalism used to terrible effect over the centuries. Internationalism could be as powerful, but so far hasn’t quite caught on except in its imperial forms which are quite deadly.

    Many of the people in the streets these days are members of informal affinity groups composed of generally unrelated individuals who come to know and like — or at least respect — one another. It’s another substitute for the tribe.

  4. atcooper

    A study on the rise of nations placed in context of history (of which looks to be a fraction of human existence) would elucidate the point Ian is trying to make here. A comfort with uncertainty would also help

    Maybe consider identity as not intrinsic but emergent, as learned behavior, not the raw stuff of direct experience

  5. bruce wilder

    I think nationalism was historically often a positive force or emergent development. It could be complicated and contradictory, but this idea that nationalism was just another form of pathological racism seems to me to be fundamentally misleading. The content of nationalism was contested and varied and layered, and nationalism contended with other social and political forces, some of them much, much older (and darker).

    Nationalism became a heuristic ordering shell for a lot of cultural and political building and investment. In nationalism’s contention with the still medieval Church and monarchy and feudal aristocracy, I am Whig enough to cheer the nationalists.

    I would say, certainly, that nationalism is a fiction, rather than a truth. Fiction can be endlessly rewritten. Some narratives of national identity are more likely to generate positive results than others. A fiction that is clearly false is a lie or at least a false pretence. I worry when the seemingly never-ending story of a nation veers off into vile or rigid doctrines.

    Because nationalism does posit its own spirit as a means to constrain leaders to the shared and common good of the nation and its state, it might seem in our time of global oligarchs untied and uninvested to particular polities and places, nationalism might revive its populist ideas.

    In American politics, what is being most visibly contested in the televised and tweeted public discourse is the interpersonal politics of antiracism, an upper middle-class obsession that takes the American nation as irredeemable because racist, full stop and proposes to deal with this problem by transcendent transformation of consciousness and manners, but mostly manners.

    The soi disant “left” today that embraces antiracist individualism as a singular dogma reconciles the individual to the posited group not by extending the body, but by slicing and dicing the intersectionality of personal experience, an experience that is not actually personal but abstracted and projected, but nevertheless solipsistic. A person studies how to be antiracist and then wields claims about how the alleged victims of racism feel in response to the ideas and actions of non-racists (sic). QAnon for the “left”.

  6. Mark Pontin

    Ian wrote: ‘The Romans were refreshingly honest about this, “You’re a slave because you, or the people from whom you are descended lost a war.” They also made it very possible to stop being a slave, perhaps because they didn’t think of slaves so much as “other.” It wasn’t an intrinsic category, you just had bad luck.’

    Well, yes, but far from the entire story.

    There was also a shared, foundational Roman understanding that no true Roman would accept being a slave and would die rather than accept slavery. If by bad luck a Roman did become a slave and accepted it (in order to live), they were by definition no true Roman.

    This absolutist understanding was extended to include Roman women and children. A true Roman would expect his wife and children to die noble deaths rather than be used as bargaining chips against the Res Romana.

    Stories, generally horrifying, of the self-immolations that Romans — and Roman wives and children — undertook have come down to us in a very limited way from the Goths, Huns, and Vandals, who didn’t have such an absolutist outlook and who seem to have found it almost as incomprehensible and horrific as we moderns would.

  7. Eric Anderson

    It’s also a billboard we hang around our neck when we’re young inviting potential mates to come buy our wares.

  8. Stirling S Newberry

    Going off topic.

    The corvid-19 continues to drop – but the wild card is India. If India mushrooms in cases, then all bets are off.

  9. Aristotle, not Plato, believed most slaves were meant to be slaves.

    Plato was hardly an egalitarian, but his views on the relations between superior and subordinate differed considerably from what we would call “slavery”.

  10. someofparts

    Some insights about the shifting social identities of the moment-

    “Part of the reason why Bernie was outmaneuvered twice was because he was running for the nomination of the wrong party.”

    “But in reality, the left agenda has been hijacked and defanged by professional antiracists. The slight of hand could not be more obvious: rage against horizontal polarization and silence on vertical polarization.”

  11. Plague Species

    For those who don’t understand the second link, that’s the triple amputee Iraq War veteran Brian Kolfage and his wife Ashley Livin’ La Vida Loca. Brian Kolfage was arrested yesterday along with Steve Bannon and Timothy Shea related to the Build The Wall scam. America the beautiful, indeed.

  12. Ché Pasa

    The issue is dominance, isn’t it? Who has it, who wants it, and what it takes to get it. Existential fear of losing dominance over groups and individuals too.

    The rightist frenzy over academic notions of appropriate tribalism — or terminology interpreted as tribalism — seems to be a reaction to a perceived threat… to rightist dominance and its natural evolution into nationalist fascism. Because it begins in, and the main threats always come from the groves of academe, no? Who rules and how comes from the professorial class, right?

    And of course it’s characterized as “left” (tribalism) when it objectively has nothing to do with the Left — which has its own set of issues and problems.

    I can understand animosity to the decadence of the academy, but fretting over identities and how they are described and named is nonsense. It serves the purpose of the rulers, though, so please continue.

    That’s not what Ian is getting at at all (at least I hope not.) I don’t necessarily agree with his take about the extended emotional body, because I recognize the fundamental nature of the tribe as opposed to the nation-state/empire or the other extreme of the nuclear family (whether or not composed of blood relations), and I’m not sure that’s even part of Ian’s conception.

    On the other hand, a tribal identity — especially one created by the rulers for dominance over the rabble — can be manipulated by them or be destroyed at will. Protecting and defending the tribe against a stronger opposition is difficult and often fails.

    On the other hand, tribal identities can long outlast nations and empires.

  13. Stirling S Newberry

    Atlantic TS Laura is up – continuing the pattern of records. This is like watching a hitter whole cracks a lot of singles – say Tony Gwynn.

  14. Stirling S Newberry

    The problem with journalism is that it written for past, where as history is to be read by the future. The descendants do not think well of the people who took them money and ran.

  15. Plague Species

    An interesting exercise would be to apply this analysis of identity and tribe to the relationship between Steve Bannon and the Chinese Blofeld, Guo Wengui (alias Miles Kwok whcih is what Bannon calls him). Is Wengui a Chinese communist spy? Or is he truly a Chinese Blofeld wannabe? Either way, it’s high weirdness and Bannon sure does like oligarchs, no matter the nationality/ethnicity, doesn’t he? Bannon, fyi, was arrested while on Wengui’s yacht. Lovers?

    He’s a Chinese billionaire and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. Is he also a communist spy?

    The Chinese Blofeld?

  16. bruce wilder

    . . .fretting over identities and how they are described and named is nonsense.

    of course it is. but such is the decadence of nominally leftist academe. it is bizarre — in a way as bizarre as the Right’s flirtation with QAnon conspiracies.

    conspiracy as bizarre as the tales cooked up by QAnon would have qualified ordinary fools for insane asylums not that many decades ago. but, Russiagate was not that far removed from psychiatric delusion and it was treated seriously by mainstream politicians and news media — still is by some.

    then, there is the opposite of groundless belief: the absolute refusal to acknowledge the obvious and proven. Hunter Biden is speaking tonite (is it tonite?) and Democrats and their Media tools will assure one another there was never “any” evidence of corruption in the younger Biden collecting up to $50,000 a month from a Ukrainian gas company. That hedge fund behind the curtain — pay no attention!

    But, I digress.

    mere tribalism is so yesterday! wearing a team jersey so working class!

    In an era when my transit bus “stands” with BLM and honors the life of George Floyd, the Atlantic is publishing an article about a ZOOM meeting of a Manhattan school advisory board

    Bob McManus refused to link to the train wreck which is Erik Loomis at Little Green Men.
    I am not so circumspect.

    Erik has since expressed his shock and surprise that Nancy Pelosi would endorse conservative Kennedy challenging progressive Ed Markey — a “mistake” he assured us, after praising Pelosi’s generally good judgement.

  17. bruce wilder

    “The slightest shared characteristic, once anchored in a narrative of pain, can give rise to a new group. ”

    This is identity extending the emotional body? I doubt it. But it is a featured part of our discourse. It is coming from what would be a vital part of the left, if they could get over themselves. But, apparently they cannot and there can be no left.

  18. Gunther Behn

    @ S Newberry: “…The corvid-19 continues to drop – but the wild card is India. If India mushrooms in cases, then all bets are off.”

    Agreed. And (sorry; ‘it seemed wrong not to swing’), Corvids everywhere are concerned.

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