“The question of ‘speaking as’ involves a distancing from oneself. The moment I have to think of the ways in which I will speak as a woman, what I am doing is trying to generalise myself, make myself a representative, trying to distance myself from some kind of inchoate speaking as such. There are many subject positions which one must inhabit; one is not just one thing. That is when a political consciousness comes in. So that in fact, for the person who does the ‘speaking as’ something, it is a problem of distancing from one’s self, whatever that self might be.” (Questions of Multiculturalism, Gayatri Spivak and Sneja Gunew)
“‘This is why their dilemma is full of significance, if they constantly have to choose between one side or the other, if they are ordered to get back to their tribe, we have the right to be worried about the basic way the world functions. “Have to choose,” “ordered to get back,” I was saying. By whom? Not only by fanatics and xenophobes of all sides, but by you and me, each one of us. Precisely, because these habits of thinking are deeply rooted in all of us, because of this narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplified conception that reduces the whole identity to a single belonging declared with rage.” (Deadly Identities, Amin Maalouf)
Questions of Multiculturalism is a transcript of an interview held between Gayatri Spivak and Sneja Gunew in 1986. In this discussion, there is discourse about the struggles, injustices and distinctions that come with being a minority. I am seeking to illuminate the latter half of the second paragraph of this text. In this passage, Spivak shares her views on the significance and danger that can accompany different types of identity.
To illuminate this passage, I will use an excerpt from Amin Maalouf’s essay titled Deadly Identities. In Deadly Identities, Maalouf speaks on the complexity of human identity, drawing from his experience as a person who has deep connections to both Lebanon and France. In the excerpt I will draw from, Maalouf criticizes the typical manner by which humans approach identity.
I decided to explore this passage from Questions of Multiculturalism because I had a poor grasp of this section. As stated before, it is a transcript of a discussion; this means that Spivak did not have the opportunity to reread her work and revise it. This results in a few cases of imperfect sentence structure which makes it harder to read. She also quickly introduces several vague scenarios to support her points and uses lots of pronouns. However, by analyzing the passage from Questions of Multiculturalism using Deadly Identities, we can learn more about what makes the existence and acknowledgment of complex human identities so important.
Spivak says that to categorize someone by just one aspect of their identity “is a problem of distancing from one’s self”. Being “one’s self” is one of the most important characteristics of humanity, but Spivak does not actually mention outright how serious and ubiquitous this issue of identity is. Here we can use Maalouf’s passage to clarify Spivak’s point. Maalouf echoes Spivak’s sentiment here much more emphatically, expressing that “If these people cannot live their multiple belongings… we have the right to be worried about the basic way the world functions”. These quotes both indicate that having single human identities as the norm can damage fundamental aspects of human life. This helps to illuminate how dire this issue really is when it comes to human connections, worth and dignity. It is clear to see that Spivak and Maalouf an overarching point, that trying to reduce humans to single aspects of their identities is dangerous.
Spivak mentions her own personal struggles with her identity. This is a part of what makes her passage so powerful, but also contributes to its difficulty. She says “The moment I have to think of the ways in which I will speak as a woman, what I am doing is trying to generalise myself”. This generalization is dangerous to her because it forces her to discard everything about her that doesn’t fit with the generalization. She loses everything else that she is. Spivak goes on to extend this same notion beyond herself, saying that “one is not just one thing”. Maalouf’s passage further exposes how damaging single human identities really are. He says that the norm of single human identities is a “simplified conception that reduces the whole identity to a single belonging”. The key term in this sentence is “a single belonging”, because it demonstrates how limiting single human identities really are. This is harmful to everyone because people don’t perfectly fit the molds of whatever groups they identify with. How can anyone feel represented and heard if they are not allowed to express the truest form of themselves? Likewise, the rich history, significance and greater meaning of the aforementioned groups cannot be communicated through just one person. No person is one identity, and no identity is one person. Injustice is done to both the individual and their so-called identity, because neither is portrayed accurately through generalization.
Spivak mentions intrapersonal risk in her discussion with Gunew, but neglects to mention the distancing that can occur interpersonally. To understand more about these greater ramifications of single human identities, we can turn to Maalouf’s passage. Maalouf alludes to this argument when he says that carrying a single identity creates “a single belonging declared with rage”. The word “rage” is key in this sentence, because it indicates the division that can occur with single identities. Single human identities have far less bridging power than true identities. If everyone presents just one facet of their identity, then there are fewer opportunities for making human connections. If people can only have one true belonging, then they can’t belong to anything else. The population of people that one could connect with is drastically limited. Humans who could typically bond over a shared common identity are forced to subscribe to their “more true” belonging. They “have to choose” and are “ordered to get back”, rather than being allowed to find connections with anyone they please. Furthermore, Maalouf indicates that there is an inherent hostility that is created when a person subscribes to just one identity. This creates a type of tribal society, forcing people to hold an “us versus them” attitude. Having a single belonging creates differences rather than similarities, breaks rather than bonds.
Spivak does a great job of introducing “problem of distancing from one’s self”, reinforcing the truth that “one is not just one thing”. However, we can look to Maalouf for context and relevance of this problem. One of the most dangerous aspects of single human identities is that they are perpetuated “Not only by fanatics and xenophobes of all sides, but by you and me, each one of us”. Although this issue of single human identities may have been more severe during the times in which these passages were written, it is still relevant in today’s world. It remains difficult for people to reconcile conflicting identities that exist within one individual. How could Maalouf possibly be fully French and fully Lebanese? Does Spivak feel that she is more Indian, or more woman? These questions are not only unfair to ask; they are also irrelevant. The manner in which people express themselves should not be dictated by societal norms. This is certainly limiting to individual human beings, but more broadly can reinforce untrue stereotypes and create unnecessary animosity.
Maalouf, Amin. Deadly Identities. Paris: Grasset, 1998.
Spivak, Gayatri and Gunew, Sneja. Questions of Multiculturalism in the Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.