The Discourse of Europe and the Search for a European Identity

Hayden White 12 March 2010

The current „discourse of Europe” features an effort to „identify” a Europe that is good and noble, capable of serving as a spiritual basis for a new and (let us not fear the term) post-modernist economic system based on consumerism, multinational capitalism, and commitment to what is euphemistically called „the free market”. This quest for a Europe that is good and noble and therefore worthy to provide the ethos of a new kind of community (at once democratic and cultivated, both socialistic and capitalistic, Christian and humanistic, scientific and pious) is motivated in large part by the desire to redeem the Europe of the fathers from the onus of guilt born of an awareness that „Europe” had been responsible for the new forms of social violence spawned in the „rotten twentieth century” (Timothy Garton Ash’s term). In this sense, the current quest for Europe’s true „identity” is the manifestation in public discourse of an effort to invent a new identity for „Europe” but in such a way as to mask the sleight of hand involved in pretending that Europe has been, if only secretly and in part, good and noble all along the course of its history.
The term „identity” when applied to an entity as nebulous and unspecifiable as that seemingly indicated by the lexeme „Europe”, is of course a mystification. For „Europe” has never existed anywhere except in discourse, which is to say, in the talk and writing of visionaries and scoundrels seeking an alibi for a civilization whose principal historical attribute has been an impulsion to universal hegemony and the need to destroy what it cannot dominate, assimilate, or consume as if by right divine. Thus, while some Europeans may have what is called in the United States an „identity problem”, the victims of Europeans’ depredations both at home and abroad have no difficulty identifying „Europe”. They know it as the source of travails peculiar to the modern or „European” epoch.
That the European Union is simply the newest manifestation of European civilization’s drive for mastery of the rest of the world is a truth too obvious to need documentation or argument. The EU’s professions of interest only in the security and stability of its own proper spaces and ways of life entail a claim of a right to intervene economically, politically, and militarily in the spaces and ways of life of the rest of the globe when its own economic interests are threatened. The recent interventions by NATO forces in Yugoslavia, under the aegis of the United Nations, and current calls for military intervention in Indonesia only confirm that „Europe,” like its great offspring and ally, the United States, views its security and stability as a matter of universal rather than of only „European” concern. The justification of these interventions on the humanitarian grounds of opposition to programs of „ethnic cleansing” scarcely mask their economic motivations. Such grounds do not come into play when it is a matter of places like Rwanda where world capitalism is not threatened by its destabilization or China where developing economic interests dictate (in the case of the United States) a more „flexible” political morality. In this sense, the quest for Europe’s identity is not different in any way from the century-long effort on the part of the United States to establish its identity as the moral model of the world, „the last best hope for mankind”, and the very summit of human community.
At least, so it seems to me.
I thought it best to lay my cards on the table at the outset of this essay in order not to be accused of duplicity in my own efforts to deal objectively with the discourse of Europe as it is unfolding at this moment, as a program of European self-identification. I do not challenge the expressions of goodwill and concern for humanity under which this effort at self-identification is being advanced. And I do not claim a goodness and clarity of insight superior to those who are engaged in this quest for a European identity at this moment. What I question is the delusory notion that there exists a European identity that has to be simply uncovered by historical and social scientific research in order to be grasped by Europeans and non-Europeans alike as the polar star that will guide them to a promised land where state violence and economic competitiveness can be practiced with honor.
The ascription of an „identity” to anyone or anything whatsoever partakes of that violence by expropriation that the ascription of a class, racial, or gender essence to individuals and groups of individuals is always intended to serve. It will be recalled that the Jews were marked for destruction by the Nazis — with the complicity of most of „Europe”— not because of anything that any given Jew had done but because of what all Jews were considered to be. Under the Nazi regime, to be identified as a Jew was prima facie evidence of a lack of humanity and grounds for exemption, not only of civil but also from all human rights — even the right of life itself. But this has been the basis of European anti-Semitism for many centuries.
These are banalities, I know. Everyone knows about the Nazis, their treatment of Jews, and the program of genocide which the Nazis implemented under the aegis of this ascription of identity. We should not be distracted by the fact that the Nazis identified Jews as precisely that fraction of the human species that actually possessed no identity, whose essence was to have no human essence, whose essence was that of „vermin”. For dis-identification is only the flip side of identification. Of course, we say, these Nazis were brutes, whose own „essence” was manifested in the error of believing that they were the highest representatives of a genuine humanity and justified therefore in arrogating to themselves the right to decide what was human and what was not. On this view, the Nazis were victims of mis-identification. They falsely identified themselves as paradigms of the human species and took it upon themselves to assess anyone who did not, in their opinion, resemble themselves, as inhuman. Presumably, for anyone who holds this view, if the Nazis had only identified themselves as ordinary human beings, they might have escaped their fate of becoming paradigms of criminals against humanity.
From another perspective, however, it could be said that the Nazis were victims of the myth of identification. They believed that the human species could be identified in its parts as more or less human, that the various races of the human species possessed different degrees or grades of the shared human essence. And what else is an identity except the kind of „sameness” which the word „identity” expresses in its Latin original (identitas<idem+ens: „same thing”)? Self-styled representatives of „European” civilization have consistently acted as racialists if not racists from the beginning—wherever one may choose to mark this beginning as having begun. And this civilization’s vaunted ethics of individualism, which purports to honor the rights of the individual person against certain claims to conformity that the group may bring to bear upon him or her, partakes of the same violence of essentialism that underwrites racism, classism, and genderism themselves. For the individual is conceived as nothing if not a kind of essence of the human, a microcosm of the macrocosmic humanity, and identifiable as such by the extent to which he (or she) incarnates the essence of the group that claims him (or her) as its „own”.
So, obviously, I regard the search for Europe’s identity as ill-fated. If the aim of the quest is to provide the basis for a community to which individuals will be admitted only on the basis of their capacity to identify with this community’s essential nature, the project is ill-advised. For the problem does not lie in the effort to construct or to conceptualize a community more extensive, more inclusive, and more open than that of the nation-states which have in our time shown a horrifying willingness to turn upon their own citizens, to excommunicate them, deprive them of civil and even human rights, and kill them en masse on the basis of the identities ascribed to them. The error, less cognitive than moral, lies in the ascription to the ingroup of an identity, a self-sameness that is always inflected in the direction of belief in an essence. I say „less cognitive than moral” because essentialism is always elaborated in the mode of exclusion rather than of inclusion, of alienation rather than of identification, of violence rather than (dare I say the word?) love.
But having said all this, in the mode of assertion rather than of argument or demonstration, as the advancement of an opinion rather than a proof, as an impression rather than the fruit of a systematic analysis, I owe it to you, my readers, to say more about how identification works, what is involved in the discovery or the construction of an identity, and how every identification of anything whatsoever is always a re-identification, the displacement of what is regarded as a misidentification with what is regarded as a true, a genuine, and a timeless „identity”. And this because if Europe is a discourse or exists only in discourse (as the hypothesis informing our inquiry supposes), we must consider how discourse constructs identities, endows them with the aura of essential being, posits their existence and goes on to act as if their being licensed the most inhumane social comportment.
I do not mean to suggest that identities are not „real”. They are at least psychically real. Individuals and groups act on the basis of what they consider to be their identities. They aspire to have identities. They are fearful of weak identities, split identities, non-identities. They identify with persons who possess what they conceive to possess strong identities. They „identify” other persons and groups very easily, although with always disastrous results — in my opinion. So we should wish to know how identities are constructed in and by discourse. And whether this work of construction, this poiesis of identification must always generate more problems than it solves.
One way of approaching this problem is by way of a semiological analysis of a specific discursive regime, a regime which has created a psychic reality on behalf of which vast sums of money are expended, great profits are realised, and in the effort to conform to which many people live a good portion of their lives. I refer to Roland Barthes’ great (and, in my view, much misunderstood or misidentified) book, Système de la mode [Barthes 1967]. I will not presume to summarize this complex work, but simply note that it was Barthes’ effort to show how semiology could be used to disclose the ways in which common objects, in this case garments, could be endowed with a meaning far in excess of any need they might fulfill or any practical use to which they might be put. Barthes’ book is about how discourse can produce a sphere of meaning which is psychologically much more seductive of people’s allegiances and desires than any appeal to utility might produce. He shows how what he calls „a discourse of fashion” is set up alongside of or on the basis of „the garment system” in such a way as to produce and channel desire by creating fantasmatic objects whose value consists solely in the provision of psychic satisfactions of a purely imaginary kind. The fashion world is produced by the fashion system the purpose of which is to provide objects for consumption and use only in the imaginary world of fashion’s time, space, and habitus.
The Fashion System [Système de la mode translated into English by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard as The Fashion System, 1983] analyzes the ways in which discourse, in this case the „the discourse of fashion”, succeeds in endowing objects and commodities having little or no utility — the fashion item as against the garment — with the lustre of the desirable. Among the techniques of discursivity Barthes identifies as contributing to the desirability-effect is that of „identification” itself. In discourse, difference and even equivalence can be dissolved into identities. Thus, in the case of the fashion system, to „identify” a garment belonging to the genus of outerwear as, for example, „Chanel’s classic little red jacket” effectively endows the garment so named with a meaning quite other than anything that might be derived from a description of the materials from which it was made, the tailoring that went into its production, or the practical uses to which it could be put. Simply by naming the garment in this way it is placed in the imaginary world of „High Fashion,” shares in the substance of that world, and enjoys a value as an object of the desire — the desire to be desirable — which structures that world. Thus, the most obscure, insubstantial and useless of commodities can be endowed with an essence by what Barthes calls the „assertion of identity”. To name a garment as „Chanel’s classic little red jacket” is to endow it with individuality, by which is meant that this jacket possesses qualities that no other member of the genus „outerwear” or the species „jacket” possesses. These qualities — Chanel-ness, classic-ness, little-ness, red-ness and jacket-ness — become elements of the jacket’s identity.
Of course, a name or the assignment of a name is not alone sufficient to identify an individual garment, anymore than it would be sufficient to identity an individual or a nation, society, or civilization. But by this example, we can see how the name of „Europe”, so rich in connotation and ambiguity, functions in the discourse of Europe to summon up to the imagination some „thing” of which an identity can be postulated. Could anyone say that „Europe” does not exist or that it has never existed?
But „Europe” can be said to exist within the matrix consisting of those classes of objects which either have a name or do not. A thing which does not have a name may very well exist (as the history of the discovery of the elements of the periodic table amply suggests), but such things cannot be said to have an identity until they have actually been named. Conversely, names can be provided for entities that do not and never have existed, yet these purely imaginary things can be said to have had an „identity”— the examples of the ether and phlogiston in the history of chemistry come to mind. Some names refer to entities that have never existed (such as „Centaur” and „Gorgon”), while other names refer to things that once existed but no longer exist (such as „Napoleon” or „Robespierre”). This is why Barthes insisted that, in the assignment of an identity to anything whatsoever, we must not only assign it a name, we must also assert the absence or presence of some feature of it.
Barthes’ examples of the way in which the assertion of the presence or the absence of a feature (a detail) may provide an identity for a garment are „a pocket with flaps” and „a dress without a belt” [Barthes 1983, 115] The „identity” of garments having these features is established not only by the notion of what they have but also by the notion of what they lack. Thus, while the name indicates species being, the assertion of existence permits the thing named to be presented in vivo and as being „identifiable” by its possession of certain features and the absence of others. He calls this operation „the assertion of existence”, the perceivable „feature” being an earnest of the thing’s materialisation in the real world.
Two other discursive operations fill out the process of endowing a thing, whether real (such as a garment) or imaginary (such as a civilization), with an essence, an identity, and therefore a meaning. He calls the first of these two operations „the assertion of artifice” which plays upon the value thought to attach to a thing’s status as something „natural” or as something „made”. Barthes’ examples feature those items of fashion which present the garment as either true or authentic, on the one side, or as artificial and contrived to appear as something other than it seems to be, on the other. The „fake knot” and simulated „fur” would be examples of the endowment of artificial entities with an identity. Mink fur or uncombed linen might be examples of the authenticity effect.
The last operation required for the endowment of a thing with an identity (in the fashion world) is what Barthes calls the „variant of mark” or the assertion of „accent”. Culture differs from nature, he holds, by the fact that everything in culture is either marked or unmarked, through emphasis or de-emphasis and endowed with meaning thereby, positive or negative as the case may be. There are certain aspects of garments which all share. Stitching is one of these (Barthes adds, „except for stockings”). What would be the point, then, he asks, of simply noting in a description of a given garment that they have stitches? None, he answers, except for the case when the stitches are emphasized and turned into a mark of the garment’s individuality. A suit-coat with large stitching around the lapels in vibrant colors and gross material gives to the stitches a kind of „superlative existence” and permits the coat to be identified as „the coat with stitches” or „the coat which flaunts its stitched nature.” Conversely, of course, the lack of a seam, in machine-woven stockings, could be raised by emphasis to the status of a superlative value by virtue of its difference from all other garments. In the case of „seamless stockings”, the absence of a seam is not presented as a defect, but rather as an indication of a certain wholeness and completion that other garments do not possess. The identity of this particular garment, therefore, is established by emphasis on what it lacks that all other garments cannot not have, namely, „seaminess”. In this respect, seamless stockings approach to the status of the perfect garment, the magical coat without seams, the universal garment which can enhance any body that wears it, that never needs repair, that changes in response to its wearer’s needs, and never „comes apart” because it is a whole without parts, a dream garment suitable to the body of dreamers.

Barthes’ analysis of the process of identification can be usefully extended to a consideration of the current discussion of „European identity”. Because unlike many discussions of this question, Barthes would not begin by seeking a referent for the term „Europe” and go on to ask whether this referent had an „identity” and could therefore be properly identified. Nor would he attempt to write a „history” of the term „Europe” in an effort to determine whether it had a fixed and constant conceptual content that would allow us to extract a kernel of meaning common to all of the uses to which the term has been put in its various identifications: classical, Christian, modern, and postmodern. He would begin by recognizing that the term „Europe” is a signifier with a host of different and often contradictory signifieds attached to it, and that „Europe” is less a concept than a figure the function of which is to hold a place in a metadiscourse where other figures can be collected, endowed with „Europeanicity” and used to produce a meaning-effect exactly like that produced by the discourse of fashion in transforming a piece of „clothing” into an item of „fashion”.
In order to create, construct, or specify the „identity” of „Europe” it will be necessary to enter into a discourse featuring the four kinds of „assertion” (positings, or thematisations) listed by Barthes as „variants of identity” in his discussion of the discourse of fashion: the assertion of species, of existence, of artifice, and of accent. We must recall, however, what Barthes says about these variants: they do not, he stresses, „present themselves as the simple objects of a nomenclature, even when sorted into classes by exclusions, but rather as oppositions having several terms, for they possess the specifically paradigmatic power of the matrix” [Barthes 1983, 121].
By „the specifically paradigmatic power of the matrix” Barthes means — so I surmise — the kind of substitution of one word or phrase for another on the basis of their presumed occupation of the same semantic domain and aptitude for performing the same grammatical function in transforming sequences of words into coherent phrases. Thus, in the phrase that appears as an epigraph to his chapter on „Variants of Existence,” Barthes takes as an example of how the matrix functions the phrase: „The true Chinese tunic, flat and slit”. Here, the object, indicated by a noun („tunic”), is identified by the assignment to it (through adjectivization) of the qualities of „trueness,” „Sinicity”, „flatness”, and „slittedness”. Each of the variants can be substituted by any term taken to be synonymous in meaning (however different in form) and authorized to perform the same grammatical function in the paradigmatic phrase: adjectivization, adverbialization, nomination, etc. Thus, the adjectives „authentic”, „real”, or „sincere” for „true”; „Asian”, „Far Eastern”, or „ Oriental” for „Chinese”; „sleek”, „slinky”, or „uncurved” for „flat”; and „cut open”, „parted”, or simply „opened” for „slit”, and so on.
Each of these terms indicates or manifests a quality whose meaning consists of its non-congruity with its conceptual opposite. What is a true Chinese tunic? Difficult to say. But in the expression here given us, we are allowed to conclude that, at the very least, „The true Chinese tunic” is a tunic that is „truly Chinese” — which is to say, a tunic which is, at the least, neither „undulating” nor „unslit”. And indeed, the statement that „The true Chinese tunic [is] flat and slit”, provides us with an at least partial identification of the notion of Sinicity. If the „true Chinese” tunic is „flat and slit,” then what it means to be Chinese is to possess some quality or feature that is more „flat” than „curved” and more „slitted” or „slashed” than „seamed” or „whole.” In this kind of discourse (which increasingly begins to look more and more „orientalist” in its meaning), the expression „The true Chinese tunic, flat and slit” could be supplemented and filled out by a long set of equivalent phrases which, while seeming to amplify the identification of the specifically „Chinese” tunic, actually only repeats the substantial meaning of the paradigm. Phrases like: „The authentic Oriental tunic [shirt, cassock, smock], plane and slashed up the leg”. Or: „The sincere Asian tunic, severe and parted from ankle to thigh”, have the same substance as the paradigmatic phrase. This means that such phrases possesses both sense meaning and referential meaning, since they are grammatically correct and refer (or can be taken to be referring) to the same kind of garment. In the infinite string of assertions in which the same thing is said in the same forms but with different words, we can perceive how what Roman Jakobson dubbed the metalinguistic (or encoding) function of discourse operates to produce the identification-effect. Seeming to amplify and fill out an original identification of the essence of a specifically „Chinese” tunic as being „flat and slit,” the metalinguistic function produces the effect of definition by a simple positing of equivalencies in the mode of tautology. „What is A? A=A.” „What is a ‘true Chinese tunic’?” „A true Chinese tunic is flat and slitted”. „What is flat?” „Flat is plane”. „What makes this tunic both Chinese and truly Chinese?” „It is Chinese and it is flat and slitted”. And so on.
I will not labor the matter further. But I must point out how this, Barthes’ discussion of how meaning is produced in the purely imaginary but all too real world of fashion, bears upon our efforts to comprehend the discourse of Europe and the search for a European identity.
I surmise that, if Barthes had been able to intervene in this discussion, he would not have started out by asking whether the term „Europe” names a culture, a social system, or even a place that has the kind of fixed and stable meaning that would allow us to find its referent in the real world. He would not ask if Europe already possessed an identity and what it might be, but rather how one might go about assigning to the term „Europe” the kind of identity that could serve as the basis for an enlightened community in an era of post-nationalistic politics and a global economy. I cannot surmise how he would have answered these questions at a time other than when he was composing The Fashion System. But I would like to try, here and now, to see how far we might take our discussion of the discourse of Europe and the search for a European identity by using some version of his theory of the „variants of identity” to find a „place” from which to launch such a discussion.
So let us begin by trying to imagine how to use the variant of „the assertion of species” to comprehend the sign „Europe” as belonging to the matrix of those kinds of cultures that either have or do not have a name. It immediately becomes apparent that among all of the cultures of the world, „Europe” is considered to be among the relatively few that are conceived to belong to „history”, which is to say, to have a history rather than to be either pre-historical, non-historical or ahistorical. In other words, Europe belongs to the species „historical cultures”, the meaning of which consists minimally of a mode of being that is at least not-unhistorical. But this assignment of Europe to the class of cultures that belong to history or have a history (which is not the same thing as having a past) presupposes that certain cultures do not have histories, are pre-or non-historical. But insofar as this assignment to the category cultures with histories is implicitly valorizing (it is obvious that to have a history is better than to lack one), we might wish to question the strategy of classifying cultures in terms of their „historicity” or lack thereof. We might, in other words, have to de-construct the concept of historicity in order to uncover the reasons why a specifically „historical” inquiry into the nature of „European culture” can never yield an insight into the nature of Europe’s identity which does not end in a simple reaffirmation of Europe’s identity as a culture which, in contrast to its less fortunate counterparts elsewhere and in other times, „has a history” or is „historical” in nature. This would allow us, in turn, to comprehend why all of those inquiries into the history of the „idea of Europe” have not, finally or at least up to now, borne any fruit of a creatively revisionist kind.
Supposing we hypothesized, then, that „Europe” names a culture whose species being consists of the possession of a „history” that distinguishes it from all other cultures to which the designation of „historical” cannot be said to apply. And that this self-identification is authorized by the identification of „history” with the specific process of development which has characterized Europe and only Europe since its origins in a past which did not itself „belong to history” but which was utterly ahistorical in its nature. Following out this line of thought, we should be compelled to question this identification of „Europe” with „history tout court”. And this would allow us to consider that Europe can be better and more humanely characterized as belonging to the species of culture tout court and which has undergone a process of development that is not more essentially "historical” or „unhistorical” than any other but is simply historical in a way different from other cultures. I think that this process of deconstructing the historicity of Europe is already underway and is manifested in post-modernist attacks upon the myths of „the grand narrative” and social scientists’ questioning of the validity and therefore the scientific value of a specifically „historical explanation” of anything whatsoever. On this view, the so-called „crisis of historicism” is to be understood less as a failure of nerve characteristic of the discipline of historical studies than as a manifestation of an awareness of the ways in which „history” itself is a cultural construction rather than a fundamental ontological category of being.
Once Europe has been liberated from the illusion that it is not only essentially historical but also incarnates the essence of historicity itself, it might be possible to endow the name „Europe” with another signification, better suited to the professed desire of its devotees for a community more universalist and generically human than its previous incarnations. In this context, it has to be said, that „historicity” is not an ontological category, but only one way among many of articulating what Paul Ricoeur calls the „human experience of temporality”.
Historicity is itself a construction, a construction of discourse by which the name of a certain discourse about the past (the genre „history”) is reified and assigned the function of indicating a certain manner of being-in-the-world („historically”), which is then identified as an ontological mode („historicality”), from which can be extracted an essentiality („historicity”) that various other cultures either possess or do not. But to possess historicity to the nth degree, as „Europe” is supposed to do, is as delusory as the notion that there is one „civilization” that possesses or manifests the essence of „civilizationality” and is therefore justified in extending its sway all over the world in the service of a „humanity” of which this „civilizationality” is itself a manifestation.
But with the equation „Europe = history = civilization = humanity” each element of which is what it is, and all to the nth degree, we begin to grasp the import of Barthes’ analysis of the relation between naming (or better, the conferring of a name) and speciation (or the assignment of a thing to a species). For once the equation is stated, we can immediately see what is involved in „identification”: it is the transformation by discursive means of a chain of equivalences into a chain of identifications. And this allows us to grasp the relation of those other „variants of existence” (the assertions of existence, of artifice, and of mark or accent) to the process of naming itself. The name and especially a Proper Name (such as „Europe” or „the West” or „Western Europe”, „Eastern Europe”, „Central Europe”, etc.) generates and authorizes an inquiry into and specification of: 1 - what the thing so named possesses or does not possess (in the way of an achievement or lack thereof); 2 - in the way of a mix of a natural endowment, on the one side, and a certain „artificial”, „artistic”, or simply „creative” supplementarity, on the other; and 3 - the specific manner in which this mixture of naturalness and artificiality has been articulated (or marked and accentuated) over the course of its life.
Now, if we grant that „culture” is the product of a process in which a postulated human group comprehends in theory as well as practice its continuity with and its difference from „nature,” we begin to grasp what is involved in Europe’s identification of its essence with „historicity”. Historicity is nothing more (and nothing less, to be sure) than the name which Europe has devised to indicate its peculiar version of the love-hate relationship that all cultures bear with „nature”. If every culture is a kind of „contra-nature”, then Europe is a kind of culture which has in its own „modern” phase defined itself, especially in its peculiar techno-scientific achievement, as the „contra-natural” culture par excellence. Herein, it seems to me, lies the secret of the peculiar hostility to „nature” and the „earth” that has led European civilization to destroy or to wound fatally the ecology of that „nature” which it professes to love and wishes to know to its depth, but which, through its techno-scientific manipulation, it has murdered in order to dissect.
This formulation allows us to comprehend the function of Europe’s pride in its scientific achievement in the constitution of Europe’s „identity”. Science is or is purported to be the highest of Europe’s achievements, something it alone possesses and something that it alone has achieved among all of the civilizations of the world and something, therefore, which comprises an essential aspect of its being. In the European myth of its superiority over all other cultures of the world by virtue of its achievements in science, Europe feels justified in assessing all other cultures as valuable or valueless by virtue of their acceptance of Western science as the sole paradigm of civilized knowledge-production. The so-called „Second” and „Third” worlds must be understood as spheres of cultural activity which are inferior to Europe insofar as they are perceived as only quasi- and non-European entities respectively.
Thus, we can see how Europe’s identity, considered as that culture whose principal species attribute is identified as „historicity”, is augmented and further specified by the assertion of the uniqueness of its „science” as its most precious but also most characteristic achievement. Science is supposed to be something that is uniquely „European”, it is supposed to constitute an achievement which differentiates Europe from all other cultures and civilizations. Indeed, it functions in the discourse of Europe as a criterion for distinguishing between mere cultures, on the one side, and genuine civilizations, on the other. So that in the discourse of Europe, other civilizations can become fully civilized only in the extent to which they adopt Western science as a paradigm for their own modes and means of knowledge production. Non-European cultures, on this view, can become civilized only in the extent to which they adopt European science as a universal value for determining what is realistic and what are only delusory knowledge. It goes without saying that other civilizations must shed their traditional identities and assume a European identity when they adopt European science. For although European science purports to be a universally valid and not merely a culturally determinate mode of knowledge production, in reality it is identified heart and soul with Europe’s „history”.
It is ironic that European science — with its manifest love-hate relationship to that „nature” which it studies — should lay claim to being a mode of knowledge production that is thoroughly „natural” — which is to say, a product of nature’s own way of knowing itself and therefore as having nothing „unnatural” about it. It is other cultures’ knowledges that are held to be „unnatural”, contrived, articificial, and alienating from nature in the long run.
Here I begin to turn from the assertion of existence (specified in Europe’s identification with the science that it has developed and identified as its supreme achievement, as what it uniquely possesses) to the „assertion of artifice” in which the nature-culture paradigm serves as a basis for determining what is „genuine”, „true”, and „authentic” in Europe’s makeup and what is considered to be in the discourse of Europe false, fake, imitative, and therefore valueless in Europe’s own makeup. I turn, in a word, to the assertion of accentuation by which Europe is considered to be or to manifest the highly valued qualities of internal variation, variety, pluralism, and texture.
The establishment of Europe’s identity requires a principle of articulation by which to distinguish among its elements, aspects, or parts, on the one side, and the whole of which these are deemed to be more or less valuable, more or less authentic, more or less essential to Europe’s integrity. Barthes remarks that what is important for the employment of any code is the acknowledgement that between any two elements of any whole „there is a mark”. Thus, for example, in a dress we can easily distinguish between the whole garment and the parts that can be identified as comprising it: collar, waist, skirt or peplum, sleeves, hemline, etc. He calls „the mark” that indicator of a point of juncture, of union, fusion, or articulation between one part and another. In fashion, he says, what is important, what signifies, is whether such points of juncture are stressed or unstressed, whether they are emphasized or not emphasized, whether they are treated as worthy of note or are left unmarked and thereby simply treated as „neutral”. That is to say, the identification of a mark can be used to emphasize or de-emphasize certain points of articulation within a whole and therefore used to indicate hierarchies of valuation among the parts. So much is obvious. This is the meat, as it were, of any cultural analysis, to specify what is emphasized and what is de-emphasized among the elements comprising the putative cultural whole.
But just as important in this regard is what remains unmarked (rather than de-emphasized) for what is unmarked is not so much de-valued as rather neutralized. The category of the „neutral” is what is left over, what remains, of a thing after the catalogue of marked elements have been sorted out as to the relative value assigned them by the process of marking. Such is the double function of discursive accentuation: it permits the determination of what is considered to be not so much unimportant as, rather, „what goes without saying,” what can be taken for granted, what can be perceived but does not have to be noted precisely because it has not been indicated.
This idea of what is considered to be „neutral” in the composition of a thing is an important contribution to cultural semiotics. And it is especially important for understanding any discourse impelled by a desire to „identify”, to determine the „identity” of things. Any self-characterization by a person of him or herself, any effort to „identify” oneself, can be itself characterized by what it lays stress on (as a good or a bad feature) and what it leaves unstressed, unmarked, unnoted. Thus, in that department of the discourse of Europe in which the search for a European identity is being carried out, we must seek to identify what is treated as neutral in the composition.
A principal place of ambiguation and ambivalence within this discourse of Europe (in which identity is identified with historicity, scientificity, and civilizationality) is of course „tradition”. Europe is routinely considered to be characterizable by the multiplicity of the cultural traditions (Classical, Judaic, Christian, humanistic, Enlightenment, Romantic, Realistic, Scientific, and the like) that have contributed to Europe’s articulation as a civilization over the course of time. And a great deal of energy has been expended in the effort to determine the weight, value, and effectivity of these various traditions within the cultural economy that produces a larger whole, the European tradition. Thus, no one would deny that whatever we mean by Europe’s identity, we cannot avoid consideration of the role that tradition(s) have played in determining the paths of articulation that have led to the formation of a uniquely European identity.
To be sure, in contemporary or „modernist” discussions of Europe’s identity, the so-called Enlightenment tradition tends to be treated as a superlative value in virtue of its questioning of the value of tradition itself and its critique of traditionalism as an impediment to the full realization of Europe’s proper identity as a paradigm of „enlightened” civilization. But by and large historians of European culture and society have had no difficulty forging genealogical links between this modernist and modernizing tradition and certain of its pre-modern and early modern prototypes.
The current (post-modernist) debate over the value of the Enlightenment heritage — whether it is to be accorded the rank of end or telos towards which our civilization has been tending from the start or whether it is essentially „new” and provides a basis for negating or reducing the respect that pre-modernist traditions have traditionally demanded — this debate can be considered as an example of how the process of marking operates in the work of conceptualizing our civilization’s articulation of its component elements. But this debate has resulted in a widespread reconsideration of the nature of tradition itself, discussion of the ways in which traditions have been „invented” and elaborated in response to practical problems having to do with community-formation and the assimilation of peoples who bring to their membership in the European community „traditions” that appear to be at odds with any claims to a right to participate in a community without assimilating that community’s traditions to their own „identities”.
One product of these debates throws light on the role and function of the notion of tradition in the conceptualization of Europe’s identity in the modern era. For it appears that, according to many, a civilization cannot have an identity or must have a defective one unless it possess a distinctive and integrating (and integrative) body of tradition by which to link any given generation of a civilization’s true members to its predecessors in a mode of „genetic” affiliation. In the case of the discourse of Europe, it is often surmised that Europe cannot be Europe without a tradition that is „proper” to its current incarnation.
I would hypothesize that the current debate over tradition can be viewed as a debate over the accentuation of the elements of European culture by which to rank the different elements of its traditions. Obviously, this debate has to do with the relative worth to be assigned to the Classical, Judaic, Christian, humanistic, scientific, and enlightenment elements that are supposed to make up the „body” of European culture. It is a debate over what elements of the tradition are to be valorized and marked as positive, negative, or ambiguous as contributions to the present „enlightened” incarnation. The fact that the Enlightenment tradition is taken as only one — even if the most important — element of the European tradition indicates that the debate has been launched from within a „post-enlightenment” atmosphere. Which suggests that insofar as the Enlightenment has served as a cultural dominant in the identification of Europe with modernity, we are in the presence of a revision of European identity that is post-modernist in nature. So much is evident, and can be confirmed by the extent to which post-modernism is criticized (not to say reviled) because of its apparent hostility to the Enlightenment tradition.
But from a semiological perspective, this aspect of the effort to identify a specifically modern European identity may obscure the fact that it is tradition itself which is now being removed from its status as a „natural” and therefore „neutral” matrix contributory to the very notion of cultural identity itself and viewed as being as artificial, as false, fake, or pseudo as the cultural practices, beliefs, and values that comprise it.
After all, the very language or languages in which this debate is being carried out are „traditional” in kind, which is to say, handed over, transmitted, and translated from earlier cultural endowments and adapted to uses and modes of expression quite alien to the practices and mindsets of their earlier users. A given generation may innovate, revise, and add to its linguistic heritage (indeed necessarily does so) but not without at the same time affirming the utility of the linguistic heritage it has received from the past. And it is no accident — as we used to say — that the preservation of the European tradition is often identified with the preservation of the „purity” and „integrity” of European languages, an identification inspired no doubt by the belief that the corruption of one’s „native” or „maternal” language is tantamount to a loss of cultural identity. And this suggests in turn that the twentieth-century debate over the nature and function of language — whether language belongs to nature or to culture and whether, if language is „unnatural”, every aspect of „culture” must be „unnatural”, artificial, constructed, revisable ad libitum as well — this suggests that this debate has a bearing upon the so-called „crisis of tradition” which threatens Europe’s sense of its own identity. For language is by common consent considered to be not only an incarnation of tradition but in fact a paradigm of a traditionalist conception of tradition as providing the basis for a culture’s identity. And whereas language was once considered to be the „neutral” carrier, container, and instrument for communicating thoughts, feelings, ideas, impressions, and commands from those authorized to speak to those consigned the role of receivers and implementers of the messages thus transmitted, modern linguistics stresses the extent to which language is not a form fillable with diverse contents but is itself a content—exactly like tradition has been found to be in modern cultural studies.
Thus, in any analysis of a culture or civilization, the discourse which fixes it as a possible object of knowledge will seek to identify and represent those marks which indicate points of articulation among the parts that comprise the whole. The marked points or junctures are indicative of value (positive or negative) whereas those unmarked are effectively treated as simply „neutral”. The oppositional pair „marked/unmarked” is a crucial component of the code of identification since it indicates the existence of a dimension of being in the object which escapes determination by the valuable/valueless pair. In the discourse of Europe, that which escapes the effort to determine its intrinsic value, that which is considered to belong to Europe’s identity but need not be „remarked” since it is what „goes without saying” as an element of that identity, is nothing other than the „barbarism” on the basis of which Europe’s „civilization” has been purchased. A number of modernist writers/thinkers have made this aspect of barbarism at the heart of European civilization the object of their analysis: Benjamin, Borges, and Foucault can be mentioned. This barbarism is manifested in the most recent incarnation of Europe’s effort at integration and purification of its identity: the Nazi Third Reich and the program for the destruction of any people, culture, or institution conceived to be corruptive of the Aryan race. The program for the destruction of European Jewry was only one although the most energetically and systematically pursued element of this program. And the complicity of all of Europe including that of its most powerful offspring, the United States, in this program is an index of Europe’s desire for „total identification” that impelled it. This general European complicity in the execution of the German Holocaust of world Jewry is what has been „neutralized” and left unmarked in the discourse of Europe over the last fifty years.
It may be too simplistic to say that the failure of the „European community” to come to terms with the Holocaust is a principal index of Europe’s loss of identity and incapacity to forge a new one worthy of its aspirations to identify itself as a „good and noble” civilization, worthy, that is, of serving as a paradigm of civilization in general. The inclination, seen everywhere, to limit responsibility to Germany alone — treating this nation as something that was never really „European” in its essence — and to deny that anti-semitism has been a component of Europe’s own efforts at self-identification since its beginnings, indeed, has been an identifying „mark” of its civilization, this inclination is present in all of the discourses representative of Europe’s multiform traditions. It is often suggested that European anti-semitism was an aberration which the Enlightenment tradition countered in the cosmopolitanism and secularism that defined its program of reform and advancement of „civilization”. So that it could be argued, as defenders of Europe’s essential goodness and nobility have maintained, racist totalitarianism in general and Nazi racism in particular were not expressive of Europe’s essence, were in fact atavisms of a barbarism that the good Europe, the true Europe had never had any part in. Yet if the identity of a thing is to be known by what it does, what it has habitually done, and what it continues to do (rather than to think, to imagine, and to wish), then anti-semitism and racism have to be seen as manifestations of Europe’s essential nature. And as long as the discourse of Europe continues to treat anti-semitism, racism, religious and ethnic intolerance, the violence of the state against its own citizens, and any manifestation of „otherness” as a threat to its own integrity, it will never attain to that condition of self-knowledge that is the defining mark of a civilization that has humanity itself as its goal and aspiration.
Does any of this make any sense to anyone concerned about the search for a European identity? Is my own discourse only a fantasy of clarity of perception, superior in any way to those discourses in which Europe is being invented and reinvented in scholarly and intellectual discourses all over Europe and beyond its confines day after day? I can only say that if my own discourse appears to be assertive and self-confident in its attempts to come to terms with the problem set for us in this essay, the problem of the discourse of Europe and its search for identity, it is anything but that. When one tries to deal with metaphysical issues — and that is what we are here dealing with — one can at best offer some suggestions to help identify the kinds of contradictions which, in any given discourse, appear to render progress impossible to achieve. When it comes to the question of identity, any analyst of any attempt to construct one must operate within the knowledge that, in addressing such an issue, his or her own identity is immediately brought under question. Is it possible that „identity” itself is a problem which no „search for identity” can ever resolve? Is it possible that any search for identity is never anything but an effort to come to terms with the ambivalence that characterizes one’s identification with the group to which the searcher ambivalently belongs?


Considered from the perspective of theory, however, the notion of „European identity” contains a double ambiguity. The first ambiguity is contained in the idea of „Europe”, for this lexeme indicates both a place which is difficult to demarcate and a cultural ideal whose conceptual contents are multiform and even contradictory. Europe has no definable spatial or temporal determinations. Indeed, the history of Europe from the 8th century A. D. has been a history of expansion out of an original if only imaginary geographical center over the whole of the globe, so that in a sense „Europe” exists wherever „Europeans” have succeeded in establishing themselves and their institutions anywhere in the world. For better or worse, „Europe” is a global idea, even more so than the great universalist religions of Christianity and Islam which means that any attempt to identify it as a place in the way that the identity of a given nation can be associated with a place must fail.[1]
And so too with the conceptual content of the lexeme „Europe”: it names a cultural endowment that is both traditionalist and modernist, both religious and secular, both totalitarian and democratic, both humane and savage, both scientific and mythic. But above all, Europe names a culture that is predominantly antagonistic with respect to all of its Others. Its drive is to dominate, assimilate, absorb, transform, and where it cannot transform, destroy whatever is different from itself. In this respect, Americanism is only the latest and most perfect form of Europeanism, which is why the effort of those „good Europeans” to insulate themselves from the influences of America contains a precious irony. In identifying the future of Europe with the fortunes of the „free market economy”, Europe must ultimately succeed in transforming itself into another version of America.
Like so many of the terms we use in our attempts to endow life with meaning (terms like „history”, „happiness”, „reality”, ”community”, „self”), the word „identity” is overdetermined. This is to say that it is a signifier with too many — and not a few contradictory — signifieds. When a signifier like „identity” is coupled with other overdetermined terms, such as nation, politics, community, and the like, it produces such obscure and essentially contestable notions as „national identity” and „identity politics”. Obscurities arise when „identity” is coupled with imaginary qualities, such as „whiteness” or „blackness”, to produce „white identity” or „black identity”, or with imaginary places, such as „Asia” or „Africa,” or „Europe” to produce such fantastic notions as American, Asian, or European „identities”. I call such phrases fantastic, not only because „America,” „Asia,” and „Europe” exist only in discourse, but also because whatever identity they may be said to possess is a product of discourse as well. It is not quite the same with such terms as German Federal Republic, France, or The United States of America, for these are political entities identifiable by their institutional structure, their spheres of legal authority, and a certain achieved autonomy of agency in politics. It is obviously in the interest of those powers who have a stake in the translation of the European Union into a kind of transnational community, with a state apparatus, a system of laws, and a military establishment to believe in or speak as if they believed in a „European identity”. For the nation-state, that form of polity which a „European community” is supposed to supplant, required above all belief in the idea of a „national identity” as the moral glue capable of binding a people, a land, and a culture together into that kind of community of which the state would be the „natural” expression in the domain of politics.
„Europe,” like the terms „Africa”, „Asia”, and „America”, are words that can be used to refer to places, things, and structures and practices that actually exist in the real world. But their function in discourses aimed at the identification of their true natures and an assignment to them of specific identities is less referential than, in the first instance, poetic and, in the second, metalinguistic. But the referential use of these words obscures the extent to which each of them contains conceptual contents that endow what they refer to with a range of specific meanings, negative or positive as the case may be, but in any event always „idealizing” or stereotypifying of what they pretend only to indicate. Indeed, the lexemes „Europe” and „European” already contain a wide range of signifieds which effectively define or, we might say, „identify”, Europe’s „identity”. Thus, to refer to a „European identity” or „Europe’s identity” doubles the idealizing effect of the signified of „identity”. For to possess an identity is already to be something more or other than what one appears to be; it is to possess a substance, an essence, a soul or a spirit: it is to be what one is.[2]
Abstract entities can be given concreteness and general concepts can be endowed with specificity by discursive means. Whether cast in the form of an argument, a description, or a narrative, a discourse can transform referents into subjects (of discourse) by the twin techniques of nomination and adjectivization. „Europe” already possesses an economic identity of a sort. What it lacks is moral identity. It needs to be transformed from a mechanism into a person — by which I mean a corporate body possessing rights and duties recognized by law. This transformation cannot take place without the „identification” of Europe, the construction of an identity. This metamorphosis can be effected by discursive means, beginning with the simplest of grammatical operations: positing and adjectivization.
In the phrase „European identity,” an entity („Europe”) is simultaneously posited and endowed with an essence („Europeanness”), which in turn can be used to modify the abstract noun „identity”, thereby producing the effect of specificity. A „European” identity is the kind of identity which possesses the quality of „Europeanness”. Or, consider the phrase „Europe’s identity”. Here a subjective-genitive construction is used to idealize „Europe” by positing a subject whose individuality lies less in what it is than in what it possesses, namely, an identity. Or, finally, consider the phrase „the identity of Europe”. In this case, an objective-genitive construction is used to suggest that while there may be many different kinds of identity, that of „Europe” is unique. Unique in what sense? In its „self-sameness,” which is to say, in its „identical-ness”.
It is precisely the plurality of its signifieds that makes the notion of „Europe” ideally suited to serve as a repository of an „identity”. For, it is one thing to treat the terms „Europe” and „identity” as words referring to a real things, places, or psychological (or ontological) states. It is quite another to treat them as signs functioning within a specific discourse to endow things referred to with specific qualities. For in this latter kind of usage, by a metonymy of the thing made (an „identity”) for the making of it (the activity of „making same” — the proper English translation of the gerundive form of the Latinate verb „to identify”), we can all too easily come to believe that „identity” names a real thing, state, or condition — when in reality it merely names only an aim, end, or purpose of an activity that is „human, all too human”, namely, that of „making sameness” where „difference” formerly had been.
The term „identity” itself is a kind of etymological monster, connoting both its early, theological meaning of „essential sameness” and its later legal and political meaning of „individual difference”.[3] It is an irony of the history of the term „identity,” then, that although it denotes „self-sameness”, it is itself anything but semantically „self-same”. „Identity” is a word which is hetero- rather than homo-nymic: it is a sign which connotes the opposite of what it denotes. While denoting „self-sameness”, „identity” connotes difference.
But is this not true of the „identity” of any collectivity, such as „Europe” or „America” or „Asia”, or even those of „Germany”, „France”, Luxembourg, „Spain”, „The United Kingdom”, and the like? Do such collectivites not express their putative „self-sameness” in the nature of the „difference” they posit as constitutive of their specific „characters”, „spirits”, „essences”, or „substances”? Differences from their „others”, to be sure, but also those differences within the self-sameness posited as constitutive of their true „natures” as well?
The notion of „the same” becomes a conceptual problem when an activity intended to produce „sameness,” likeness, homogeneity, or purity is nominalized, as in the noun „identity”. Its monstrosity stems from the use of the term „identity” to reify what is actually a process or program, namely, that of „identification”. „Identity” is, then, an effect produced by a certain kind of activity, which we may call „same-making” or „making-same” or, if we wish, „identifying”, but which is a process of constant negotiation, peaceful or violent, as the case may be, and never a finished product. Because „hybridity” or mixture rather than „purity” or perfect „self-sameness” is the rule in both nature and culture.
It is no doubt a principle of social organization to always strive for ordered self-sameness. This is what is meant by „propriety”: a proper place for everything and everything in its proper place. And no problem if human beings were not, like other animals, impelled by desire, the passions, the drives that force them from their „proper” social places into the quest for whatever they might envision as their „fulfillment” or „completion” or, more simply, their „happiness”. The desire for fulfillment and completion and what the American Declaration of Independence calls the „right” to the „pursuit of happiness”. This right to the pursuit of happiness at once constitutes the ground for the production of an identity and conduces to the condition of hybridity that thwarts the impulse to self-sameness. Identity is always deferred, because self-sameness is at odds with desire.
Now, if any of this is plausible, we should be speaking less of „identity” than of „identification”, less of „being same” than of „making same”. The search for or production of a European identity, then, must be viewed as a project in which a community will be produced by the homogenization of the differences that distinguish the various nations that wish to enter into or become elements of a unified „Europe”.
It is a general presumption of modern Western humanistic culture that anything human, whether individual or collective, possesses an identity, which is to say, an ensemble of characteristics, qualities, or traits that at once distinguishes it from other members of the class and species to which it belongs and unites it therewith. As thus conceived, identity is a concept as mysterious as that of the Triune God or the doctrine of the Real Presence in the elements of the Eucharist. For identity, on this view, functions like a kind of alchemical essence, which at once expresses the self-sameness of an individualized entity and unites it with all the other individuals making up the community of which it is a member. A person’s identity expresses the union of the elements of the self, just as in Christian anthropology the soul is conceived to be the agency that unifies mind, body, and spirit in the creation of an individual person, and the union of that individual with other member of his community. Thus, identity presumes both sameness and difference. It is understandable, therefore, why certain devotees of the European Union decided to substitute the notion of „identity” for that of „integration” which they had invoked as the aim of their would-be community in its earlier incarnation. The notion of identity expresses the notion of „diversity within unity” which is the professed ideal of those who would create a European community.
This mysterious notion of identity is a crucial element in the constitution of the modern Western conception of the person and the related ideology of individualism, but it has a lineage that goes back to archaic times. This lineage is reflected in the etymology of the term, which locates the root of the word „identity” in the notion of „sameness” or, more specifically, „self-sameness”. In its traditional acceptation, the term „identity” names a substance which remains the same across whatever kinds of experiences, even those of religious conversion or rebirth, renaissance or reformation, an individual or a group may sustain in the course of its life-history. Identity, as thus conceived, is a kind of essence that is manifested in every aspect, part, or element of a person or group while not being reducible to any specific attribute thereof. It is an idea as mysterious as the notion of „substance” itself. For in the ideology of identity, substance is not understood as the physical-chemical-biological elements and their fundamental structural relationships, but rather, after the manner of the Scholastics, as the qualitative essence of a thing: the „sweetness” of sugar, the „sourness” of vinegar, etc. The ancient doctrine of the humors used as a basis for classifying different character-types (sanguine, bilious, melancholic, etc.) is another expression of the idealizing effect of the substantive notion of identity. Identity presupposes a difference between a whole and the parts which make it up, but always to the advantage of the whole — for a self-same whole can function without certain of the parts but the part can function only within the whole to which it belongs.
The structure of this notion of identity is thus synecdochic: identity names a whole of which the various parts of a person are different kinds of expressions — but only in their essence, not in their various forms, aspects, or attributes. In this, its synecdochic nature, identity is an illusion — in the way that all idealizations are illusory.
The classical notion of destiny and the Aristotelian notion of telos, the aim, end, or purpose „proper” to any living thing, can be taken as bases of this conception of identity. The same is true of the ancient conceptions of „nation” (natio) and people (gens), understood as a community of individuals descended from a common ancestry, united by blood, and sharing a common „genius” (spirit or animus), the basis of the racist identity assumed by aristocracies in the Middle Ages and beyond. In classical times, of course, what we moderns would recognize as an identity was not extended to everything or everyone belonging to the human species. Slaves, children of both sexes, women, „barbarians,” and metics could hardly be said to have possessed a human identity in the extent to which they differed in one way or another from adult male citizens of communities ruled by law and endowed with a state apparatus.
A telos, destiny, or legal status, yes, any human being could claim that. But what we would call an „identity”, no. Even male children in ancient Rome possessed no humanity until they had been „recognized” (in a ceremony in which the infant was touched on the knee) as viable members of the family by the pater familias. Identity is conferred by the reigning authority. Althusser calls this process of identification „interpellation”, the „hailing” of an individual into the position of a „subject” within a „society” ruled by „the law of genre”, the law of self-sameness which requires that a person be what she is and not other than she is and make no alliances other than those sanctioned by „the law of the father”. When I respond to interpellation by the regnant authority of the society into which I have been born or to which I have immigrated, I take on an „identity”. Today, the citizens of the various nations of Europe are being interpellated as „Europeans.” But who is the interpellator and by what authority does he (it, they) summon the citizens of the various nations of Europe to respond to the demand of a European identity?
The Christian or at least Roman Catholic conception of identity differs radically from its Classical pagan counterpart, simply by virtue of its notion of the possibility of transubstantiation, which allows for the idea that individuals as well as groups can put off an old self and put on a new one by the grace of God. This notion of identity allows for the possibility of radical discontinuities in the life of a person or group, changes that can occur in „the twinkling of an eye” and which produce „new beginnings” free of the influences of earlier, sinful acts and situations. Here changes in the identity of an individual or group may be signalled by the change of its name (as when Saul becomes Paul or when a „Greek” becomes a „Christian”) or by a change of vocation, family affiliation, or social rank. But in this Roman Catholic instance, a transformation of the substance of an individual is conceived in much the same way the Eucharist is conceived, i.e., as a mystery (sacramentum). It is not that Saul has become Paul or that Paul has ceased to be Saul, but rather that the change of name from Saul to Paul marks a renewal, a cleansing, and a rebirth without sin of that soul which Saul and Paul both share. What, then, is Paul’s „identity”? It is that substantive self which underwent the change that occurred when Saul was struck blind on the way to Damascus and was „converted” from persecutor of the Christians into „apostle to the gentiles”. Here identity remains a mystery quite as unplumbable as that of the Eucharist itself. But no more of a mystery than that of the soul born in sin and condemned to die and then cleansed of sin and released to life everlasting — or of the God who is both one in three and three in one in both substance and manifestation.
A third conception of identity is worked out in the Italian Renaissance in the work of a strain of thought that leads from Boccaccio through Alberti to Machiavelli and Castiglione and which features the idea that there is no essential difference between substance and attributes, that, in short, one is what one is successful in portraying (presenting) oneself as being. Whence Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince that the mass only perceives what you appear to be, not what you really are — not because appearances are deceptive but because they are all that there is, so that, if you look like and are taken to be a powerful prince, so you will be it. Similarly with Castiglione, who has Cardinal Bembo opine in The Courtier that it matters little whether you are born noble if you are taken to be such by those who count in society. In other words, if you are successful in appearing to be noble, you will effectively be so. In this conception, identity is a construction. It is no more teleologically determined by birth and inheritance than is the course of the Prince’s political destiny. Nor is it a mystery or sacramentum, as it is in the Roman Catholic notion. It is, rather, a construction — a product of will and wit and style (sprezzatura), variable at the behest of chance and fortune, infinitely changeable and subject to no rule of either authenticity or consistency.
It is this Renaissance conception of identity as construction that ultimately undermined and came to take the place of both the classical pagan (substantialist) and the Christian (transubstantialist) ideas of identity. It is not surprising, therefore, that the demise of the classical pagan notion of substantive identity (the „Romanitas” of Roma, the „Caesaritas” of Caesar, the „barbaritas” of the Barbarians, and all such like) should be attended by a revision of the Roman Catholic notion of the mystery of identity analogous to the mystery of transubstantiation. In fact, we can discern in Calvin’s consideration of the mystery of the Eucharist the basis for a distinctively modern conception of identity, consistent with that of Machiavelli and Castiglione but cast in a distinctly religious register. When asked to arbitrate between the different doctrines of the Eucharist articulated by Rome on one side and by Martin Luther on the other, Calvin arrived at a formulation prefigurative of modernist conceptions of virtuality. If Rome insisted on the „real presence” of the body and blood of the Redeemer in the bread and the wine of the sacrament and Luther held that they were only „symbolically” present, Calvin suggested that they were „virtually present”. This meant that the bread and the wine of the sacrament would have the same effect on the believer whose soul had had been redeemed by God as the body and blood of the Redeemer would have had if they had been really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
This suggests that in the matter of substance in general and therefore in the matter of identity-as-substance in particular, we are permitted to speak of identity as virtuality rather than as either substance or mystery. This would be much the same as the notions of identity-as-appearance projected by Machiavelli and Castiglione during the Renaissance. But with this difference, having the appearance of the „saved” becomes the kind of imperative that Max Weber identified as the basis of „the Protestant ethic”. Identity is not — as it was for Machiavelli and Castiglione — a game or an act that can be changed ad libidem according to circumstances, chance, or fortune. So, for the (bourgeois) Protestant and Puritan, to have the appearance of having been chosen by God for redemption — having the attributes of the saved, e.g., wealth, success in business, godliness, seriousness, simplicity in dress and comportment, etc. — is tantamount to confirmation of having been elected. Whence the conviction by the successful Puritan capitalist, or for that matter scientist, of the possession of an identity fully confirmed in its sanctity.
But an identity does not appear instantaneously with the individual who may come to possesses it. Newborn babies may possess a soul and no doubt a discernible individuality, but they do not possess an identity. An identity is a product of the specific body of experiences that an individual sustains in the process of maturation and the manner in which he assimilates them to the life-story which is hers alone. An identity is not given; it does not precede the life of the individual who comes to be possessed by it over the course of a life-span. An identity has to be made or produced as a result of an exchange which occurs between an individual and his life-world over the course of a life-history, even if, as Aristotle had it, every living thing was informed by a pre-given end or purpose peculiar to its species-being and even to its particularity. This is why the devotees of the European Community were mistaken in the early ninety's to speak of a „search” for a „European” identity even while they began the task of „producing” it by having created a flag, an emblem, a hymn, and other paraphernalia of communal identity.
When applied to a collectivity, such as a family (the Barberini), city (London), region (Provence), or nation (Germany), the notion of identity presumes more than a perfect equivalence between the individuals which belong to it or make it up. It presumes, rather, a shared essence, substance, or spirit which is less empirically observable than symbolically decipherable.
There are, then, at least four kinds of collective (group, communal, social) identity: charismatic (such as the early Christian „ecclesia” in which identity is conferred by membership in the mystical body of a founding figure, a god or sovereign), genetic (such as a family and especially a „noble” family, bound by blood ties, alliances, and a possession of inheritable property), corporate-legal (associations bound by commitment to defined goals and projects, oaths, and contracts), and historico-genealogical (such as nations, communes, regions, veterans groups, survivors, based on shared experiences, tradition, and a heritage retrospectively defined by narrativization in the mode of history).
The statesmen, politicians, and businessmen of Europe have decided — for reasons primarily economic and therefore inevitably political — that the nations of „Europe” must be integrated into a transnational community and that, consequently, it is necessary to define, discover, or contrive a specifically European „identity”. This identity is generally thought of as resembling that soul, spirit, or substance of nations and by appeal to which the wars of liberation and unification of the 19th century were fought. The idea of a European identity is thus manifestly an ideological construction. The longed-for or postulated „European identity” is intended to endow the „European Union” with a spiritual essence on the basis of which a specifically European patriotic morality, system of law, and political apparatus can be erected and legitimated.
The construction of a „European identity” is certainly not the most important task confronting promoters of the European Union as a basis for a „United States of Europe”. But a „European identity” is required if the EU wishes to transcend its status as a corporation, société anonyme, or Aktiengesellschaft and become — or appear to become — a community. And the EU must become or appear to be a community. Otherwise, it will lack any moral ground on which to ask the member states of the European Community to subordinate their individual interests to those of the totality called „Europe”. And beyond that, it would lack any moral ground on which to ask individual workers and consumers to make the kind of sacrifices for the EU that they have been formerly called upon to make as patriotic citizens of a nation. But there can be no community without an identity. Thus, if it could be shown that „Europe” possessed an „identity”— a spirit, soul, or substance in which every individual partook or with which s/he could „identify” — the discovery of a „European identity” would contribute to the production to the notion that Europe is or could be considered to be a „community”. In other words, the discovery or definition of a „European identity” would contribute to the constitution of what we might call a „community effect”.



[1] From the standpoint of those peoples and cultures that have been submitted to Europe's expansion, invasions, colonizations, and depredations since the 8th century A.D., the reality of "Europe" therefore its identity can hardly be questioned. For its victims, the identity of Europe is easy enough to specify: it is that of the invader, the missionary, the crusader, the settler, the colonizer, the entrepreneur, and the oppressor. If Europeans have difficulty conceptualizing Europe's identity, this is a problem internal to Europe's own history and bespeaks a need on the part of Europeanists to provide an ideological basis for what they conceive to be the exigencies of a new globalized and post-imperialist world order, in which "Europe" will be able to compete economically with other transnational blocs.

[2] For if it is not necessarily a bad thing to lack an identity (infants, animals, and machines are not bad for lacking an identity), it is undeniably a very good thing to possess an identity. Any identity, we might add, since a "bad" identity is better than no identity at all.

[3] In its original Late Latin, which is to say its Christian, acceptation, the term "identitas" meant "essential sameness" (idem=same+tas,-tatem). By the time the term passes into modern languages ("identity" appears in English in the 16th century), it has come to signify almost anything other than essential sameness. Indeed, in modernity "identity" refers to all of the specific attributes of a person (height, weight, date of birth, colour of hair and eyes, genetic code, and so on) which differentiate him or her from everyone else.



Barthes, R., 1967, Systéme de la mode, Editions du Seuil, Paris.
Barthes, R., 1983, The Fashion System, [Système de la mode translated into English by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard].


This is the full version of the essay, part of which was published in a book edited by Bo Stråth: Europe and the Other and Europe as the Other, Brussels, 2000.