Who Is We?

by Rokhaya Diallo

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

In an in-depth historical analysis, the philosopher Tristan Garcia examines the origins of the idea of political figures speaking of themselves in first person plural. What do these proclamations of We mean in an era which seems dedicated to an exaggerated exhibition of the individual? Garcia shows that this We is a modern-day creation, presents the possible uses of the We and poses the question what this self-designation can bring about. His analysis also addresses the aspect of supremacy that the term We implies. Man/woman, black, Jewish; which category of belonging has priority over the other ones?

This modern We is the same being used by politicians to open up front lines and to dig ideological trenches. In this way, the former French president Jules Ferry, a fierce advocate of colonialism, invoked the Republicans' conquering We to declare their duty to "civilise" the "inferior races".

Garcia also reminds us of the antisemitic We that gained influence during the French collaboration and that gave intellectuals a platform for creating an ideological We, the carrier of a political agenda through which the tragic marginalisation of the Jews was justified. Besides, Winston Churchill declared with regard to the Nazis during the same era: "It is either them or us", and thus drew a clear boundary to the enemy. In the following decade, the USA became a new We in the context of the Cold War, which they opposed to the "communists". This led to them working with a paranoid zeal to sharpen the contours of this We and to excommunicate all those who were suspected of collaborating with the enemies in their own country.

The practice of using the We as a counter-attack is also examined by Garcia. Reversing stigmatisation – by appropriating an insulting designation as one's own to eliminate its harmful potential – can be seen in the queer communities who constructed a political We from depreciating names.

If, however, the We pretends to be as universal and generous as in some biblical texts, then why should not all living beings be seen as an integral and legitimate part of the We? Garcia refers to Nietzsche and Paul Valéry by noting: "The I is many", and thus mitigating possible objections against the existence of different Wes.

After individualism was taken to the extreme in the 20th century, a question arises: Why should I be able to be reduced to one single aspect of my identity? To answer this, Garcia uses a nice metaphor by comparing identities and their complexity with cropped pictures which have different grades of transparency and which are laid on top of each other. The affiliation that at present takes precedence over the others would thus be the picture lying on top. This metaphor of overlaps whereby some layers do not show through so that one affiliation is prioritised over the others allows us to imagine a We that only takes one single layer into consideration and regards the other layers as secondary.

According to Garcia, if a given category (e.g. "white people") is "cut out", it is possible to derive from this the "cut outs" of the other categories (e.g. "black people"). What he does not mention in his text is certain categories' referential character. Indeed it is the privileged groups that are used for defining all the others. Furthermore, those categories are rarely described or named because they are regarded as standard identities.

The majoritarian, predominant groups have political opportunities – power – to hide their We behind the mask of a purportedly neutral perspective. This can be read for instance in the way in which the media judge crimes or terrorist acts depending on the question whether the performing persons belong to the dominant majority or not. In the first case, individual characteristics of the offender are highlighted while in the second case, the presumed attributes of their group are brought forward and personal aspects are of secondary importance.

Lastly, Garcia makes a very fine and interesting distinction between two forms of the We: the "We of interests" in which the subject is socialised or rather conditioned, and the "We of ideas", the one that everyone can choose for themselves and could be changed on one's own accord. Consequently, freedom would be the possibility of choice. In reality, however, the question of freedom of choice is more complicated: The We of ideas can be a We of interests, for example in a society in which it is very difficult to accept someone changing or leaving a religion. For instance, belonging to a class or caste can be inherited. By associating them with the We of ideas, Garcia declares one's gender identity as a political experience which can be made voluntarily through plastic surgery or hormonal treatment. But because not all beings are the same when it comes to the question of gender, this idea quickly reaches its limits. The performance of gender is one way of conditioning that Garcia discusses while referring to the texts of Judith Butler on the social role of gender. However, for many people who do not recognise themselves in the gender in which they are born, it is not about a theoretical idea which can be manipulated as desired, but about a concrete opportunity to break free from an attribution. The violence which transgender people are exposed to is a clear sign that there are very real consequences if this idea is manipulated.

Garcia's approach to racial identity is constructed in the same way. For him, it belongs to the realm of the We of ideas and thus is also a free choice. In doing so, he underestimates the societal consequences that go along with the apparent belonging to a specific race. To be able to say "we", one has to be acknowledged by the members of the group one claims to be part of. The white US-American Rachel Dolezal for instance pretended to be black for 15 years. Her privilege – the option of choosing to be black – allowed her to claim a space which should have been taken by an actually black person. And since her true, white identity was revealed, the criticism by the members of that We that she had claimed for herself has not become quieter. Because race is a social construct, nobody can eradicate the history of their own social position. Garcia's expositions lack a proper discussion of the privileges which do not give everyone the same scope for action. When Garcia explains that a person who says "we blacks" gives priority to them belonging to the black people, he misses out on clarifying that such a statement always needs to be seen in its context. Depending on the situation, the necessity and the belonging someone wants to defend, the same black person could say "we women, "we people with disabilities", or "we Muslims". The way in which our environment influences our identity in order to highlight a particular feature is also a defining factor of the We.

Garcia condemns that white people are categorised today as the ones who "by nature are carriers of evil and of dominance and who have invented all systems of categorisation and racialisation". But by referring to morality ("the evil"), he deemphasises the eminently political character of these categorisations. It is not about showing the human sin in white people, but about a political heritage from which they benefit, whether they want it or not.

Garcia evokes power relations by portraying "asymmetries": ruling power is therefore primarily possible because the dominated accept it. Here, he overlooks the violence with which protest is met. There are countless examples of subjugation which are obtained through power and terror. Besides, Garcia fails to mention that resistance is the logical consequence of that same oppression and that there would have been no rule which nobody would have opposed. The deconstruction of the mechanisms of ruling power which he undertakes does not bring forward the interests of the ruling parties. For instance, the construction of the category "black" carried the purpose of justifying the oppression of a part of humankind in the context of a capitalistic production process. Ruling power thus fulfils a purpose, and it would have been pertinent to analyse this aspect more in detail.

Tristan Garcia concludes his very substantial and passionate essay with the suggestion to understand the current fragmentation of the We as a political process, as an everlasting movement that has no end. The We is not a prison, but a "manifestation of the living subjectivity which is politically organised". In this way, he invites us to complete the pattern that he sketched out. 

WIR. By Tristan Garcia. Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2018.

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