An exchange I have been having with someone very familiar with GA regarding issues of antisemitism, victimary thinking, etc., raised the question of how we account for group belonging in terms of the originary hypothesis. Are Jews a group, or just a phantasm in the anti-Semites imagination? If they are a group, how so—do they act together in some meaningful way, participate in shared institutions or practices, have common characteristics or interests? The same, of course, applies to any group—what makes a nation a nation, an ethnicity and ethnicity—religions at least have shared belief systems and rituals (not that there aren’t plenty of difficulties here as well)?
The answer is, I think, simple, while requiring subtle gradations in actual analyses. Groups are bound together by honor systems, more or less tightly. If you are Irish, and you take pride in the accomplishments of your “fellow” Irish, are ashamed by their misdeeds, feel compelled to defend them against accusations, are concerned with how their actions reflect on you, then you are a member of the genus “Irish.” Of course, these compulsions can be felt more or less strongly, depending on how dependent you are on the group for protection (or how much you fear its reprisal for perceived betrayal). To put it in more fundamental terms, you are a member of a group to the extent that you participate in the redemption of its hostages—both literal hostages, in the sense of coming to the aid of threatened members, and figuratively, in the sense of trying to lower the threshold of what will count as an “attack” in the first place—and are a potential hostage yourself.
What this means is that “groupness” is intrinsically barbaric—there is nothing “modern” or “enlightened” in the defining element of group belonging. Which is why the most modern and enlightened among us tend to despise or deny the reality of groups. The whole point of a “culture of dignity” (to refer to the analysis by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning I have been using in recent posts) is to make it possible to treat individuals outside of groups, i.e., as other than hostages. A culture of dignity creates the optical illusion that individuals can exist outside of groups because it develops (political and economic) mechanisms for isolating individual actions against a background from which group entanglements have been erased, but this is only possible because we are all now part of a new type of group in which we find honor in protecting all individuals from being taken hostage, and by a wider (if vaguer) range of dangers. Modern nations are cultures of dignity overlaid on honor cultures, in some mixture—if a space for dignity is not carved out, we have a tribe, not a nation, and a tribe certain to degenerate in its encounters with nations due to its addiction to violence; if dignity is interpreted and practiced in such a way as to treat honor as inimical to the dignity of the individual (if it, for example, takes seriously claims that displaying the national flag at public events “offends” some marginalized group), then it won’t be long before that culture fails to protect anyone’s dignity either. (And it also follows that anyone who tries to be a member of the national group without displaying loyalty to more local groups—the South, Italian-Americans, Midwesterners, Bostonians, etc.—is likely to be considered less completely a member of the national group as well. National loyalties are tested less often, so without the proving grounds of more local loyalties, one’s trustworthiness will always be in question.)
Political parties and activist groups, which is to say groups founded within modern nations, fit this model perfectly—they preserve the dignity of the individual at the very least in allowing any individual to leave the group (which is a reflection of the national dignity culture), but, otherwise, insofar as one acts or allows oneself to be identified as a member of that group, one is a potential hostage and committed to the redemption of hostages. We could obviously analyze all the other groups in which people participate—they would all exhibit the same unsavory defensiveness on the part of group members, whose first response to any accusation against the group will be denial and counter-accusation, to be succeeded either by a more or less traumatic break with group, continued denial, or a reconciliation with these newly discovered vulnerabilities with the protection one finds the group still offers—whether that protection be from physical attacks or, as is much more common in modern groups, from some form of moral contagion caused by the compromises of civilization. (The point of being in one group, then, is largely to assert you are not like that other group.)
So, what of individuals? Are they, rather than groups, the real illusion? Has anyone ever seen one of these individuals of whose existence we have heard rumors? What we recognize as individuals are initiates in some discipline—to commit yourself to some moral or intellectual discipline is to have in reserve the capacity to resist the importunities of groups for reasons other than shame or fear. Even so, the individual exists on the margins of groups, not outside of them: an American who can examine, and criticize, as if he weren’t an American but a “historian” or “cultural theorist,” the various events, doctrines and figures making up American history and culture, is still a potential hostage and recipient of protection from fellow Americans, even if he eschews participation in the common American culture. Unless his disciplinary vocation involves a resentment towards that culture that not only makes the critical distancing easier but exceeds the boundaries of the discipline—in that case, the critic has simply joined, more or less explicitly, some other, perhaps internationalist, group. Disciplines can become groups—one can feel compelled to defend the honor of the profession after a well known historian has been caught plagiarizing—but only to the extent that it becomes less of a discipline (rather than the defending the profession, the true historian should root out all forms of “groupiness” that might lead members of the profession to place loyalty over the rigors of inquiry). Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that disciplines must be institutionalized—there are all kinds of disciplines, which is to say ways of establishing one’s dignity. Indeed, almost everyone has at least some discipline in this sense. Another source of individuality might be those liminal conditions so common in modernity—being a foreigner, being associated with foreigners, being a minority whose membership in the larger group is not certain (perhaps you wouldn’t be redeemed from captivity), associating with such minorities, etc. To the extent that such conditions constitute more than confusion and uncertainty, though, it is because those thereby situated make a discipline out of their anomaly, perhaps a discipline in the study of the group in relation to which one stands somewhat askew. Seeking to integrate that discipline as a kind of gift into the knowledge of that larger community ultimately confirms one as a member; using that discipline to discredit (bring shame upon) that group indicates an attempt to find some other, most likely political, group to join.