Zygmunt Bauman and Eric Hobsbawm on identity and community

“As Eric Hobsbawm recently observed, ‘never was the word “community” used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life’: and he commented, ‘Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain.’ Jock Young supplied a succinct and poignant gloss on Hobsbawm’s observation and commentary: ‘Just as community collapses, identity is invented.’

‘Identity’, today’s talk of the town and the most commonly played game in town, owes the attention it attracts and the passions it begets to being a surrogate of community: of that allegedly ‘natural home’ or that circle that stays warm however cold the winds outside. Neither of the two is available in our rapidly privatized and individualized, fast globalizing world, and for that reason each of the two can be safely, with no fear of practical test, imagined as a cosy shelter of security and confidence and for that reason hotly desired. The paradox, though, is that in order to offer even a modicum of security and so to perform any kind of healing or pain-soothing role, identity must belie its origin, it must deny being ‘just a surrogate’ – it needs to conjure up a phantom of the self-same Community which it has come to replace. Identity sprouts on the graveyard of communities, but flourishes thanks to the promise of a resurrection of the dead.

A life dedicated to the search for identity is full of sound and fury. ‘Identity’ means standing out: being different, and through that difference unique and so the search for identity cannot but divide and separate. And yet the vulnerability of individual identities and the precariousness of solitary identity-building prompt the identity builders to seek pegs on which they can together hang their individually experienced fears and anxieties, and having done that, perform the exorcism rites in the company of other similarly afraid and anxious individuals.”

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