Memory and Identity
(Illustrated by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner)
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die”.
- Roy Batty’s last words.
“More human than human” is the proud boast of the Tyrell Corporation’s advertising slogan for its top of the range product, the Replicants, androids designed for the kind of dangerous and menial task their masters are no longer willing to perform from the colonisation of hostile planets to the fulfilment of the client’s sexual needs. With their advent, consumerism has reached its ultimate state of development, enabling those with sufficient means at their disposal to dispense with the tiresome messiness of ties of solidarity, empathy and responsibility inherent in any relationship. Instead of making the effort to negotiate or pander to the arbitrary moods of the Other, the buyer, in full knowledge that the risk of conflict, of the hurt or regret born of unpredictability and change has been eliminated in advance, can purchase the perfect partner, submissive and disposable. For the fortunate few, society has finally been supplanted by interaction of choice with no demands being placed, no clamour of noisy wants disturbing the pursuit of pleasure (Dr. Tyrell’s inner sanctum embodies the ideal of discreetly editing out all inconvenient and extraneous contacts, its almost cavernous dimensions and silence in stark contrast with the overcrowded, teeming streets it looks down upon from the symbolic heights of the company headquarters).
Set in a harsh post-industrial wasteland of unceasing deluge where the flares from chemical processing plants arc into the night sky and the only plant and animal life is synthetic, we are confronted with a setting in which genetic engineering has scaled unimaginable heights, where body parts are manufactured, where only the hedonistic hyper rich, the technological experts, service-providers and the detritus of misfits and outcasts rub shoulders. Mythical echoes of fears of the evil twin, the Doppelganger suffuse the plot as we are informed that Replicants have been banished from return to the homeland on pain of execution or – to use the euphemism of bitter aftertaste employed by the squads of police whose livelihood consists of hunting them down and disposing of them – “retirement”.
The problem with the Replicants is that the more intelligent amongst them have a propensity to seeking out the place of origin, hoping for answers. This is frowned upon by their makers because of the disruptive effect their presence would have given that they are not equipped for integration. Although surpassing most non-engineered humans in physical strength and intelligence they lack stability, unable to cope with the emotions that well up inside them and threaten to engulf them. As a result they are no longer reduced to sheer functionality: feelings represent an impediment to programming, an anomaly, generating a conflict of interest. Here we encounter the cultural legacy of dualism: reason is equated with goal-orientated action, harmony, seriousness of intent, proper function and efficiency, order and balance whilst feelings, depicted in the film as a by product of self-aware sentience, upset, overturn, distract, divert, disrupt.
The failsafe mechanism devised by the programmers in case of irredeemable and dangerous malfunction is as simple as it is cruel: a four-year lifespan. What we are presented with in the course of the story is the tragedy of a small group of synthetic adults impelled by the knowledge of their imminent demise to locate their creator in an attempt to find a means of prolonging their longevity. At this juncture Ridley Scott’s masterpiece moves beyond the trivial spectacle of standard fare science fiction to explore the human condition, examining the boundaries separating the artificial from the authentic (paralleled by a second dichotomy marking the discrepancy between appearance and reality illustrated by the owl in Tyrell’s apartments and Rachael herself, both indistinguishable from the flesh and blood beings they imitate, their true nature betrayed by the visual signal of an eerie glow in their eyes) and making a profound comment on the link between memory and identity.
The narrator and hero is Deckard, a former Blade Runner forced back into active service by his erstwhile boss Bryant to track down and destroy a handful of Replicants (Zhora, Pris and Leon) who have disregarded the ban on coming back to earth under the leadership of Roy Batty, a combat model of supreme resourcefulness and autonomy. Having abandoned his profession due to being racked by scruples Deckard is reluctant to fall back into his murderous ways. He lacks, in other words, the detachment necessary to viewing the Replicants as mere machines, vermin to be exterminated before they cause too much harm. The disillusioned atmosphere that pervades the film with its pessimistic appraisal of run of the mill humanity is redolent of the film noir genre popular in the 1950s, stylistically coherent with its retro detective story frame.
During the course of his investigations, Deckard is admitted into the presence of Dr. Tyrell himself, head of the vast business empire and the genius whose brainchild the Replicants are. He introduces the cop to Rachael, a new generation of Replicant so exquisitely conceived that even she is unaware of not being human. Her encounter with Deckard sparks an identity crisis as all her previous assumptions about herself are proven to be erroneous. Her memories do not belong to her, but to Tyrell’s niece and Deckard is able to recite to her in detail incidents from her childhood she had never recounted to another living soul.
Apart from her initial ignorance of her true identity the principle difference between Rachael and the remaining Replicants is to be found in the role played in their lives by memory. Although her past is false, Rachael is not racked by doubts or anxiety about who she is or what her place in society might be. She can proceed through an almost infinite variety of situations with perfect ease. The behaviour of the other Replicants is disturbing; their emotions are expressed with a vehemence that reduces them to a parody of prevailing convention. They are unable to mute, contain and channel their feelings in a fashion appropriate according to normal etiquette. Within the economy of the plot this immaturity is explained by the urgency of their errand (the date of shutdown approaches rapidly) and by the impossibility of cramming the experiences of a normal human lifetime into a pathetic four years. Accumulating memories as a buffer against impending extinction is transformed into a desperate race against time, the Replicants clutch at too brief a past, too intense a love.
Looking at the problem from a sociological perspective affords another set of insights. The primitiveness of their forms of expressing mutual affection, for example, arises because of they are divorced of a human social context. They have not undergone the long process of acculturation or socialisation moving through developmental stages (cognitively, emotionally and reflected in changing status within the family and the wider functional context). They do not possess the subtlety taken for granted in an adjusted adult and this affords them a childlike vulnerability that enables us to pity them in spite of their being otherwise unencumbered by the inhibitions of moral strictures and the sensation of pain (at Batty’s instigation Pris gleefully plunges her hand into boiling water before removing it unscalded in a demonstration of power). The mastery of the cultural codes through a blend of painstaking absorption, observation, imitation, interaction and testing of limits indispensable to smooth navigation through everyday reality is thereby denied them. The simply have not acquired the unspoken rules and it is precisely this cultural incompetence that makes them dangerous. When challenged or provoked they react like cornered beasts because they have never endured the discipline imposed by social embeddedness. The resources that the penetration of our innermost being by society furnishes us with in the shape of values, classifications, definitions of legitimate expectations and rewards, in short an empowering cognitive framework and tissue of meaning to fall back on in the face of novelty, endowing us with the flexibility to improvise and innovate, to display creativity, to overcome adversity is alien to them in spite of their evident linguistic capabilities. Language can only assist us up to a certain point when being steeped in a culture takes over. For this reason the Replicants, although they can fit in superficially once they have sloughed off the constricting ligatures of duty, the function originally assigned to them, will never perfectly adopt the customs of those who surround them. They may emulate, but never comprehend; they are doomed to cultural illiteracy, their transactions awkward and their communication flawed. They prefer their own company because within the compact group they are bonded by shared meanings, loyalties and objectives.
What from the vantage point of the individual may at first appear to be a burden, the dead weight of social limitations upon conduct, of morality, of the myriad tacit ascriptive compacts far from stifling originality and reducing liberty to a mere collective fantasy is revealed instead as the precondition of freedom, an amulet against chaos and the onslaught of meaninglessness fashioned over countless generations. What we must not fail to recognise, however, is that our code is not absolute or supreme and that its utility must not blind us to the equal validity of alternatives. In adhering to it we must not exclude or denigrate those who do not subscribe to its prescripts.
It is reassuring at least that the director does not suggest that a single mind (Tyrell) or even a gathering of gifted programmers could ever hope to encompass the full essence of humanity or grasp the awe-inspiring complexity of the societies in which we live.
The spirit of the Romantic era pervades the film in its argument concerning memory and identity: the claim to the unique value of each individual resides in the filter of consciousness, the store of sense impressions and interpretations, the jumble of random events forged into narrative through the medium of memory, a progression from life to death via a series of social transitions. The essence of the human tragedy therefore consists of the loss of irretrievable and irreplaceable subjectivity. It is through memory that we discover who we truly are, memory that imparts meaning to our lives, memory that informs us of the best course of action to follow, memory that consoles us through loss by projecting the past before us, subverting the pitiless flow of time, only memory fixes reality, only memory assures us that we truly exist. Or, to quote from the callous commercial gain-oriented cynics from the Tyrell Corporation the implanted memories were inserted to provide a buffer, a cushion to make sense of rampant emotions and thereby render the Replicants more pliant, easier to control. This once again emphasizes the meaning-producing function of memory, as what would otherwise remain a chaotic profusion of sights, sounds and random interactions is lent structure and significance.
The degree of manipulation with its total violation of the sacred core of the self is what Deckard finds so repugnant. If we cannot be certain whether our memories truly belong to us or whether they have been extracted from another (and the film does not address the issue of whether the memories in question were stolen, forcibly removed or taken with the informed consent of the individual concerned perhaps in a misplaced search for a pseudo-immortality, presumably because the act of spiritual cloning is deemed so reprehensible in terms of conventional morality as not to require further comment, witness Deckard’s shock) only to be placed within our minds then we cannot truly know who we are, our identity is no longer an unrepeated biography, a trajectory we are sovereign to define, although (another area not touched upon) even the Replicants with borrowed personal histories once released into the uncontrolled environment of the world are from that moment free to make choices, determine what is significant for them, in short to create a life story. The paths of the synthetic and natural human will from that moment diverge because they will be exposed to different physical stimuli and, more importantly, social contexts.
The commodification of memory such as we witness in the film is deeply threatening because it undermines our cherished notions of continuity, one of the fundamental components of our concept of identity. Continuity is axiomatic to the embodied self. Several consciousnesses do not normally occupy or inhabit the same body except in the rare and disputed pathology of multiple personality disorder. Though my perspective on who I am alters almost imperceptibly as the years pass and I gain in competence and experience, though my circumstances and the general intellectual and social climate may change radically I persist. If I were to go back and read excerpts from my diary as a teenager I might shudder at my naivety or feel a twinge of nostalgia for the days when decisions were so straightforward and the dilemmas I agonised over so petty, I might, in short, be astonished by how little the me of today resembles the me of yesterday, but this in itself would never lead me to presume that a caesura had taken place, that my current identity was entirely independent of the identity I possessed then, that the past and present personae had nothing in common, that they were, in fact, two distinct people in spite of the existence of the phrase “I am a different person now”, which usually indicates that lessons have been learned from hindsight, that greater maturity has been attained, that repentance has led to recognition of wrongdoing and contrition. What links the endless flow of inputs and experiences, what binds together the succession of selves is memory. Every me that has preceded the me of the contemplated instant is the seed, the shoot from which the me of the here and now grew. Memory permits us to focus on the similarities rather than the discrepancies or differences. Indeed the metaphor of the growing developing self derives its persuasive power from the very process of bodily ageing itself (accompanied by gradual shifts in status and the meanings attached to the various stages of growth, reflected in regulations and prohibitions, such as for example stipulating a minimum age for the consumption of alcohol, an age of consent and so on).
The Scottish philosopher David Hume recognised the profound importance of memory for identity and causality:
“For what is memory, but a faculty, by which we raise up the images of past perceptions? And as an image necessarily resembles its object, must not the frequent placing of these resembling perceptions in the chain of thought, convey the imagination more easily from one link to another, and make the whole seem like the continuance of one object? In this particular, then, the memory not only discovers the identity, but also contributes to its production, by producing the relation of resemblance among the perceptions. The case is the same whether we consider ourselves or others.
(…) Had we no memory, we should never have any notion of causation, nor consequently of that chain of causes and effects, which constitute our self or person. But having once aquir’d this notion of causation from the memory, we can extend the same chain of causes, and consequently the identity of our persons beyond our memory, and can comprehend times, and circumstances, and actions, which we have entirely forgot, but suppose in general to have existed. (…) memory does not so much produce as discover personal identity, by showing us the relation of cause and effect among our different perceptions”.
I note in passing that memory is notorious for its selectivity and unreliability (think of the inaccuracy of many eye witness recollections of crimes for example). Where they are traumatic, memories are often preserved with unsurpassed vividness and immediacy. By contrast where they stretch over a long period of relative tranquillity and contentment mood and atmosphere are often evoked at the expense of details, which blur. Precisely what is destined for long term storage and what is consigned to oblivion hinges on a number of factors – naturally my comments thus far have been based on the assumption that we are considering a relatively stable environment, the negotiation of which does not demand a huge amount of energy with members of a culture obeying its standards and conventions thereby investing the whole with the predictability we take for granted. In more extreme situations memory undoubtedly reveals its survival function: telling the difference between a poisonous and edible foodstuff, for example, or remembering the appropriate protocol formalities when meeting a foreign dignitary. Amongst these factors we may include our chosen way of life, our habitus – in Pierre Bourdieu’s definition “systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor” – the socially determined cognitive apparatus, which allows us to interact, representations of the good and the desirable and dominant narratives. These provide us with structures of relevance and models for what to emulate and strive towards. From this it becomes clear that memory is not an entirely private affair, that we assign meaning according to cultural criteria we are not aware of on a conscious level. In taking the decisions, which alter the subsequent course of our lives we make use of cultural templates, patterns of behaviour, we judge and are judged on the basis of the pervasive social norms, we act as interpreters, unceasingly reviewing our pasts, reassessing their message for us in the now.
Sociologist and critical theorist Zygmunt Bauman’s lamentation on the demise of the political sphere in an “individualised society” and the colonisation of public space by private concerns pinpoints one of the salient features of what he dubs as either postmodernity or late modernity:
“For the individual, public space is not much more than a giant screen on which private worries are projected without ceasing to be private or acquiring new collective qualities in the course of magnification: public space is where public confession of private secrets and intimacies is made. From their daily guided tours of the “public” space individuals return reinforced in their de jure individuality and reassured that the solitary fashion in which they go about their life-business is what all other “individuals like them” do, while – again like them – suffering their own measures of stumblings and (hopefully transient) defeats in the process”.
However, the insatiable appetite for chat-shows in the TV generations can also be understood as a search for archetypes, for practical guidance and for comfort in the gnawing fretfulness of isolation:
“Celebrities with enough capital of authority to make what they say worthy of attention even before they say it are far too few to furnish the innumerable TV chat-shows (…), but this does not stop the chat-shows from being daily compulsive viewing for millions of guidance-hungry men and women. The authority of the person sharing her or his life-story may help viewers watch the example attentively and add a few thousand to the ratings. But the absence of the story-teller’s authority, her not-being-a-celebrity, his anonymity, may make the example easier to follow and so may have a value-adding potential of its own. The non-celebrities, the “ordinary” men and women “like you and me”, who appear on the screen only for a fleeting moment (no longer than it takes to tell the story and to get their share of applause for telling it, as well as the usual measure of rebuke for withholding tasty bits or dwelling on the uninteresting pieces for too long) are people as helpless and as hapless as their watchers, smarting under the same kind of blows and seeking desperately an honourable exit from trouble and a promising road to a happier life. And so what they have done, I can do as well; perhaps even better. I may learn something useful from their victories and their defeats alike”.
Broadly speaking the two major identity paradigms of recent times can be encompassed in the concepts of essence and of construction.
In The Social Construction of Reality, first published in 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann turn their attention to the world of the everyday life:
“Its privileged position entitles it to the designation of paramount reality. The tension of consciousness is highest in everyday life, that is, the latter imposes itself upon consciousness in the most massive, urgent and intense manner. It is impossible to ignore, difficult even to weaken in its imperative presence. Consequently, it forces me to be attentive to it in the fullest way. I experience everyday life in the state of being wide-awake. This wide-awake state of existing in and apprehending the reality of everyday life is taken by me to be normal and self-evident, that is, it constitutes my natural attitude.
I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been designated as objects before my appearance on the scene. The language used in everyday life continuously provides me with the necessary objectifications and posits the order within which these make sense and within which everyday life has meaning for me”.
The reality of everyday life is organised around the body and the present and is intersubjective. In the course of our face-to-face dealings with others we communicate through the medium of language, a symbolic system capable of generating “semantic fields”, or “zones of meaning”:
“Within the semantic fields thus built up it is possible for both biographical and historical experience to be objectified, retained and accumulated. The accumulation, of course, is selective, with the semantic fields determining what will be retained and what “forgotten” of the total experience of both the individual and the society. By virtue of this accumulation a social stock of knowledge is constituted, which is transmitted from generation to generation and which is available to the individual in everyday life. I live in the common-sense world of everyday life equipped with specific bodies of knowledge. What is more, I know that others share at least part of this knowledge, and they know that I know this. My interaction with others in everyday life is, therefore, constantly affected by our common participation in the available social stock of knowledge”.
It is the reciprocal action between society as objective and subjective reality, the use of common media of communication within shared symbolic universes absorbed during primary socialisation, maintenance and contribution to (expansion of) the shared stock of knowledge, participation in the processes of institutionalisation combined with a reification of the institutions inscribing them in nature that construct reality. Far from implying tacit acquiescence to an overwhelming and oppressive given the constructionist view opens the possibility of altering structures, changing attitudes, it holds an emancipatory potential that has been latched on to by feminists, environmentalists and numerous other critics of the dominant order.
By emphasising the inherent relativity of all cultural suppositions the liberating implications of this stance for the idea of the self emerge clearly:
“The genetic presuppositions for the self are, of course, given at birth. But the self, as it is experienced later as a subjectively and objectively recognizable identity, is not. The same social processes that determine the completion of the organism produce the self in its particular, culturally relative, form. The character of the self as a social product is not limited to the particular configuration the individual identifies as himself (for instance, as “a man”, in the particular way in which this identity is defined and formed in the culture in question), but to the comprehensive psychological equipment that serves as an appendage to the particular configuration (for instance, “manly” emotions, attitudes and even somatic reactions). It goes without saying, then, that the organism and, even more, the self cannot be adequately understood apart from the particular social context in which they were shaped”.
Acquiring an identity begins with primary socialisation and is highly context-dependent:
“(…) identity is objectively defined as location in a certain world and can be subjectively appropriated only along with that world. Put differently, all identifications take place within horizons that imply a specific social world”.
Reiterating their definition at a later stage, Berger and Luckmann allude to the impact of what might be described as “core identity narratives”:
“Identity is, of course, a key element of subjective reality and, like all subjective reality, stands in a dialectical relationship with society. Identity is formed by social processes. Once crystallised, it is maintained, modified, or even reshaped by social relations. The social processes involved in both the formation and the maintenance of identity are determined by the social structure. Conversely, the identities produced by the interplay of organism, individual consciousness and social structure react upon the given social structure, maintaining it, modifying it, or even reshaping it. Societies have histories in the course of which specific identities emerge; these histories are, however, made by men with specific identities”.
In this view, history is not a flow of events over which we enjoy no influence, but the specific coping and sense-making mechanisms enshrined in common sense – the manifestation of the common stock of knowledge in the mind of the individual – developed by each collectivity will assign priority to solutions that have proven their worth. Identities will wax and wane, be fashionable and become passé as society adopts new attitudes whilst discarding those that have become obsolete in the fierce competition over ascendancy within cultural production. Against this backdrop certain trajectories retain greater appeal as narrative structures than others. The writing of history as the codification of public memory, as a form of representation mirroring the cultural mindset of a society at a given point in time is not an innocent undertaking, but – apart from staking the claim to authority, to peer consecration and a rank amongst lasting works of art to be included in the pantheon – informs us of who we are, from whence we came and serves as a source of reference, a storehouse of examples to follow.
In a more recent refinement of the social constructionist approach, a group of German researchers carried out a series of in-depth interviews charting the lives of 152 young adults from both the West and the regions that formerly belonged to the GDR in order to arrive at a more satisfying theoretical statement of the substance of identity. The starting point for Keupp et al is that the establishment of an identity results from an ongoing process of labour, of expending energy:
“It seems appropriate to lend the issue of identity a universal and a cultural-specific dimension. Identity always entails the production of a fit between the subjective “inner” and the social “outer” dimensions, in other words the manufacture of an individual social positioning (Verortung) as the universal demand of the conditio humana, the basic anthropological task to be performed by the human being”.
The driving force behind this indefatigable toil is clear:
“The universal necessity of individual identity construction is founded upon the fundamental human need for recognition and belonging. Its purpose is to enable the subject, which can be defined anthropologically as a “being beset by flaws”, to position itself, it provides meaning for the individual and creates opportunities for the satisfaction of individual needs in a socially acceptable form. Identity forms a self-reflexive hinge between the inner and outer worlds and it is in precisely this function that its dual character becomes visible: through it the unmistakeably individual and the socially acceptable can be made the object of representation. To that extent, it is always the result of a compromise between “obstinacy” and adaptation, to that extent the identity discourse is always associated with the variations of meaning contained in the concepts of the aspiration to autonomy (…) and subjugation (…). Only in the dialectical combination of autonomy and subjugation with the available contexts of social recognition at a given juncture, however, does a conceptually adequate framework arise”.
Again the context-bounded character of identity shines through. Keupp et al situate the constructivist discourse firmly within the period of modernity, which in their estimation stretches back some 150 years. Classical modernism presupposed a regular, linear process of development, a setting of social continuity and predictability within which the individual’s introspective search for self-knowledge could take place without major upsets. With the onset of postmodernity and the individualisation, pluralisation and globalisation, which are its hallmarks these comfortable assumptions have been overturned. The prospect of a stable and assured identity has evaporated before our very eyes, indeed its conceptual ingredients of unity, continuity, coherence, development or progress have been definitively replaced by their opposites: contingency, discontinuity, fragmentation, rupture, dissipation, diffusion, reflexivity and transition. Identity is no longer regarded as an inner core, but as the espousal of a project, a blueprint for a satisfactory life always subject to modification, as a task to be performed day in, day out.
On a subjective level, the experience of postmodernity can be summarised as follows: a feeling of being cut loose or drifting socially, a multi-optional moral universe where virtue no longer consists of complying with predetermined, fixed standards, but in making the most personally fulfilling accommodation with transitory patterns of acceptable conduct and lifestyle, the inadequacy of paid employment as an identity-base, fragmentation of experience as normality, “virtual worlds” as new realities and communities, a shrinkage of the present as a side effect of technological advance and the almost instantaneous obsolescence of innovation, pluralisation of forms of life, a dramatic shift in gender roles, a radical change in the relationship between individual and community and finally individualised quests for meaning. Certainly our band of Replicants, floating without social anchorage in a hostile metropolis scramble for an identity in a similar manner.
In the circumstances of postmodernity coherence assumes a different quality. It ceases to be understood as inner unity, harmony or a self-contained narrative and, in the words of the researchers, takes on an open structure within which – from the vantage point of the outside observer – the incidental, diffusion in the sense of refusal to enter into commitments, keeping options open, idiosyncratic anarchy and the combination of what at face value appear to be contradictory fragments are the order of the day. As long as the subject is happy with the authenticity of the cocktail in the lived moment and it is given the seal of approval by his network in the form of support and recognition nothing else matters. The laying of a durable foundation for future orientation is traded for a reflexive attentiveness capable of processing and adapting to new situations. This does not mean that coherence has lost its relevance, but that the individual narratives constitutive of it have diminishing recourse to the traditional “meta narratives” circulating within a given culture. Identity can therefore be regarded as “the individual framework concept for a person within which he interprets his experiences and which serves as the basis for everyday identity work. In this identity work the subject endeavours to create coherent fits between internal and external experiences in any given situation and to link different partial identities”. I would add that from this perspective memory retains its status as the raw material from which identities are built, a rich seam to be mined at leisure. The significance of recollected events is pliable, open to re-examination and reappraisal at will and can be bent to suit the pressing needs of justification and reinterpretation.
The skills called for in sewing together the patchwork include flexibility, mobility, adaptiveness, the ability to draw on reserves of strength and ingenuity and to mobilise material, cultural and social capital. Both subjectively and objectively, however, individuals do not have equal access to these precious resources. Being in possession of sufficient financial wherewithal and armed with high qualifications and an extensive network of friends and contacts facilitates the implementation of identity projects. The less privileged are afflicted by social inequality in constructing an identity as much as they are in other areas.
Let us take stock of what the social constructionist identity paradigm teaches us: identity is not absolute, but varies both culturally and over time, in short it is context-bound. It is dynamic and interactive, the outcome of a continuous process of bargaining and negotiation – we are, after all, not just who we assert ourselves to be, but who others see us as – whereby we invent and reinvent ourselves in relation to them.
In addition I would propose that within society, identity may be used as a criterion for distributing or withholding benefits and advantages; it may promote cohesion or sanctify division, legitimate integration or exclusion. Identity is an organising principle of classification upon which both individuals and collectivities base their definition of who they are, what they stand for and hence how to conduct themselves. Without an identity it is impossible to be counted as fully human, to join in the life of society (part of the anguish that racks the Replicants). Identity is the bedrock upon which we ascribe significance to events; it is the quintessence of our conscious existence, the site of our emotional attachments.
Keupp and his co-authors were more than cognisant of the corrosive effects their stance would have on the conventional cognitive/narrative frameworks provided by national, ethnic, gender and corporeal identities, removing them once and for all from the cosy obscurity of the taken-for-granted realm of the doxa. The surgeon’s knife and the sophistication of medical interventions have transformed the body from – to paraphrase Siebert – a static given inherited from our parents in which we reluctantly age to an elastic mass, a work in progress, not just through banishing the outward signs of ageing, but through more drastic procedures, such as changing sex.
In moving on to consider the rival discourse of essence, against which constructionism has rebelled, let us return to Hume on the subject of national character:
“The human mind is of a very imitative nature; nor is it possible for any set of men to converse often together, without acquiring a similitude of manner, and communicating to each other their vices as well as their virtues. The propensity to company and society is strong in all rational creatures; and the same disposition, which gives us this propensity, makes us enter deeply into each other’s sentiments, and causes like passions and inclinations to run, as it were, by contagion, through the whole club or knot of companions. Where a number of men are united into one political body, the occasions of their intercourse must be so frequent for defence, commerce, and government, that, together with the same speech or language, they must acquire a resemblance in their manners, and have a common or national character, as well as a personal one, peculiar to each individual. Now, though nature produces all kinds of temper and understanding in great abundance, it does not follow, that she always produces them in like proportions, and that in every society the ingredients of industry and indolence, valour and cowardice, humanity and brutality, wisdom and folly, will be mixed after the same manner. In the infancy of society, if any of these dispositions be found in greater abundance than the rest, it will naturally prevail in the composition, and give a tincture to the national character”.
For the philosopher, the origin of national identity is social, the outcome of ongoing interaction and negotiation rather than an absolute coded in the genes. The specific question as to whether the particular blend of preferences, biases, outlook and temperament widely perceived as the distinguishing attributes of “Scottishness” (for our purposes a generic signifier for which any other nationality may be substituted) can be handed down through the generations and thereby acquire greater “solidity” (in explicit contrast to Bauman’s “liquidity” in describing the condition of late modernity) is not addressed directly by Hume, however. In his essay, he prefers to attribute both similarity and difference to the operation of moral as opposed to physical causes. Moral causes encompass “all circumstances which are fitted to work on the mind as motives or reasons, and which render a peculiar set of manners habitual to us”. Condemning reliance on what we would label national stereotypes as fit only for the vulgar, he rejects physical causes (“those qualities of the air and climate which are supposed to work insensibly on the temper, by altering the tone and habit of the body, and giving a particular complexion”) as an adequate explanation for national character, pinpointing a number of other factors instead. His observations include the impact of the establishment of “a very extensive government” over an extended period of time in encouraging uniformity; the peculiar variations engendered by a distinctive local government and its intimate relationship with a small, self-contained community; the influence of natural boundaries, such as mountain ranges or rivers; maintenance of “a close society or communication together” of a population “scattered over distant nations”, setting it apart from the host community; language and religion as an obstacle to the intermingling of “nations” inhabiting the same country; the retention of laws, language and custom amongst members of the same nation regardless of the context into which they are transplanted (a clear reference to the colonial experience); the erosions wrought by time (“The manners of a people change very considerably from one age to another, either by great alterations in their government, by the mixtures of new people, or by that inconsistency to which all human affairs are subject”) and the exchanges of trade (“Where several neighbouring nations have a very close communication together, either by policy, commerce, or travelling, they acquire a similitude of manners, proportioned to the communication”). Finally, he cites the Scottish example within Britain as evidence for “a wonderful mixture of manners and characters in the same [British] nation, speaking the same language and subject to the same government”. Language and form of government, in other words, are not enough in themselves to promote or guarantee homogeneity.
The reluctance felt by Hume in making any concessions to the non-social realm becomes increasingly apparent:
“The only observation with regard to the difference of men in different climates, on which can rest any weight, is the vulgar one, that people, in the northern regions, have a greater inclination to strong liquors, and those in the southern to love and women. One can assign a very probable physical cause for this difference. Wine and distilled waters warm the frozen blood in the colder climates, and fortify men against the injuries of the weather; as the genial heat of the sun, in the countries exposed to his beams, inflames the blood, and exalts the passion between the sexes.
Perhaps, too, the matter may be accounted for by moral causes. All strong liquors are rarer in the north, and consequently are more coveted (…). On the other hand, the heat in the southern climates obliging men and women to go half naked, thereby renders their frequent commerce more dangerous, and inflames their mutual passion”.
Such speculations aside, the philosopher does not indulge in effusions of patriotism vaunting the indwelling essence that forever separates the progeny of the unpolluted Highlands from their less divinely favoured Sassenach neighbours. Although the very subject matter of the piece shows that Hume did not deny diversity he is quite relaxed about it, he does not wield it as a weapon in a territorial dispute or deploy it as part of an intricate argument in favour of the recognition of historic rights to be enshrined in self-government. He is not, in short, a nationalist in the sense of adhering to a doctrine, which propagates a certain definition of the nation flanked by a series of aspirations and demands arising from it.
In the words of Stuart Hall “identities are constructed through, not outside, difference. This entails the radically disturbing recognition that it is only through the relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not, to precisely what it lacks, to what has been called its constitutive outside that the “positive” meaning of any term – and thus its “identity” – can be constructed. Throughout their careers, identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to leave out, to render “outside”, abjected. Every identity has at its “margin”, an excess, something more”. National identity, that most resilient and emotionally charged concept at the heart of self-understanding and collective solidarity, flaunts this principle: “we” are “Scottish” by virtue of not being “English”.
In stark contrast to the constructionist stance, for patriarchy and “organic varieties” of nationalism identity is destiny. Certainty is the order of the day. The national essence is inherited (in a fashion analogous to female inferiority); it consists of a set of predispositions, characteristics transmitted from parents to children in unbroken succession. Both primordialism, the conviction that “the key to the nature, power, and incidence of nations and nationalism lies in the rootedness of the nation in kinship, ethnicity, and the genetic bases of human existence” and perennialism, which maintains that nations have existed throughout recorded history as set out by A. D. Smith share the propensity to project the nation back in time. I deem this to be nothing more than the logical corollary of the belief in essence: if the nation is synonymous with a unifying substance of sufficient importance as to take priority over all other attachments it cannot tolerate being debunked as a recent innovation of the human imagination, but must have existed since time immemorial, even if only embryonically.
The persuasive power, what I would dub the alchemy of nationalism, derives from a combination of its exploitation of the natural metaphors of kinship and blood ties alluded to above and the self-evident quality of belonging to the doxa, the unnoticed mental furniture of assumptions. Michael Billig states the position succinctly:
“nationhood provides a continual background for their (the reference is to states that have confidence in the own continuity) political discourses, for cultural products, and even for the structuring of newspapers. In so many little ways, the citizenry are reminded of their national place in a world of nations. However, this reminding is so familiar, so continual, that it is not consciously registered as reminding. The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building”.
There are certain elements of personal identity that are more resistant to change than others, they are so firm as to appear as good as incontestable, sanctioned by the force of cultural convention and everyday practice to such an extent that even the constructionist challenges have been unable to overturn them completely. Their plausibility, especially when they are employed within a wider system of classification (as is the case with national identity), emanates from their correspondence to natural phenomena as endorsed and propagated by our institutions. I group these together under the term material identity. It is characterised by its solidity, its ineluctability, an impression corroborated by our socialisation and comprises fundamental and immediately visible markers such as gender and skin colour, which are saturated with social meanings as well as cultural identity, equally salient and owned, whereby the literally material components (artefacts) and the non-material (habitus, language) are reciprocally potentiating. We shall examine the other identities, the functional, affective and circumstantial on another occasion.
Material identities do not occupy a prominent place in our thoughts because they are vested with a quality of self-evidence. Similarly they do not habitually make demands on our solidarity. We are too busy with other, more pressing concerns, such as assimilating new experiences into our narratives, to dedicate energies to them. They lurk in the background, informing our actions implicitly, the solidarity they are capable of stirring up likewise condemned to the shades, dormant, but never absent.
Under nationalism, the principle of classification founded on nationhood is applied in such a way that national identity (the outward expression of cultural difference, frequently associated with territorially bounded administrative units in the form of states, though this is not a prerequisite) is invested with a material quality, in other words that national identity represents a material difference between members of the nation and outsiders (cultural difference conflated with material "essence"). As regards their function principles of classification are always identical in that they draw boundaries between "us" and "them", here separating those who belong to the nation and those who do not. The permeability of these boundaries is not inscribed in the principle of classification itself, however, but is strictly context-determined according to the values of each society and the relative importance attached to kindred concepts such as nationality, ethnicity and race. Nationhood is the principle of classification expressed through nationalism, which both creates national identity and attributes pre-eminence to it, ranking it alongside other material identities as betokening absolute difference.
Against this backdrop, musings on national character, far from being the quaint and whimsical preoccupations of a bygone age, form an integral part of an uninterrupted and ongoing process of preserving and updating (adapting to the ceaseless flow of circumstances) of an established identity.
Ritual is as crucial to the maintenance of a collective identity as memory is to the individual, compensating for the lack of direct, physical continuity of the embodied self. Our collective identities and loyalties must be periodically renewed and replenished in acts of commemoration or remembrance as Durkheim recognised:
“Let the idea of society be extinguished in individual minds, let the beliefs, traditions, and aspirations of the collectivity be felt and shared by individuals no longer, and the society will die. Thus we can repeat about society what was previously said about the deity: It has reality only to the extent that it has a place in human consciousness, and that place is made for society by us”.
And, more explicitly:
“There can be no society that does not experience the need at regular intervals to maintain and strengthen the collective feelings and ideas that provide its coherence and its distinct individuality. This moral remaking can be achieved only through meetings, assemblies, and congregations in which the individuals, pressing close to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments”.
Public ritual supplies both a patterned setting and motivation for these gatherings, permeating every aspect of collective life. Military parades, the special honours accorded to visiting heads of state, the laying of wreaths at war memorials to those who sacrificed their lives for the benefit of the collectivity, all are calculated to remind us of who we are. The strength of rituals lies partly in their use of symbols as a kind of cultural shorthand with an incredible compression of meaning, and partly in their highly formalised nature that lays down strict rules for participation, removing them from the hustle and bustle of the ordinary and everyday. The very fact that they are intended for repetition and remain unaltered imbues them with solemnity, forging a link between ourselves and our ancestors who performed them long before we were born, simulating the continuity taken for granted by the embodied self.
Once the immediacy of the lived moment has faded, historical writing becomes the repository of public memory. History, particularly those prestigious works that make up the accepted canon, is therefore inextricably entangled with the dominant principle of classification and deeply implicated in upholding the prevailing value-system and can therefore be included under the category of representations, an issue we shall tackle elsewhere.
To summarise my position so far, with the constructionists I agree that the cultural meanings accruing to identities, including material identities, vary over time, but as a general rule this is a gradual process. In the world of information technology ideas and inventions become obsolete every six months as computing power doubles. If we take this as a standard for the real time of our restless age, then the rate of change as regards material identities takes on the appearance of geological time. The material identities in their function as core cultural discourses provide the framework within which life narratives are situated. They may be fiercely contested, but the vehemence of the struggle merely indicates the sway they continue to hold. Amidst the chronic insecurities of impermanence, of which routine company relocation leaving mass redundancy in its wake is emblematic, we are witnessing a sustained assault on traditional sources of self-respect and the functional identity offered to us by career development. As Pierre Bourdieu dryly comments:
“Corporate discourse has never spoken so much about trust, cooperation, loyalty and corporate culture as now when the worker’s unremitting commitment is obtained by sweeping away all temporal guarantees (three-quarters of new hirings are on short-term contracts, the proportion of insecure jobs rises steadily, restrictions on individual redundancies are being removed). This commitment is, moreover, necessarily uncertain and ambiguous, since casualisation, fear of redundancy, downsizing can, like unemployment, generate anxiety, demoralisation or conformism (faults which the managerial literature identifies and deplores). In this world without inertia, without an immanent principle of continuity, those at the bottom are like the creatures in a Cartesian universe: they hang on the arbitrary decision of a power responsible for the “continued creation” of their existence – as is shown and confirmed by the threat of plant closure, disinvestment and relocation”.
Thus precariousness has replaced predictability. In our increasingly isolated state, forced to accept responsibility for our shortcomings where we fail to conform to the ideal of good health, physical attractiveness, wealth and mobility, we are encouraged to select narratives from a vast repertoire, the celebrities paraded before us reassuring in their very ordinariness, their drabness. Even a Princess Diana, whose fame and fortune surpassed the wildest dreams of aspiration, suffered from the same type of preoccupation (and her most vaunted title, the “People’s Princess” attested to the popularity she gained, representing her reward for tolerating unending scrutiny and public martyrdom) as torture us. She was bulimic, had undergone a messy divorce and was searching for a new love when cut down in her prime. Her narrative was one of overcoming adversity and having it all, the price she paid reassuringly high for those of us who are forced to balance and compromise. Compare this with the photographs of a despondent David Beckham on a bout of retail therapy having temporarily lost his form on the pitch. These demigods of the imagination lapse into standard responses, they do as we do, they are subject to the same conditioning, they are, by extension, every bit as frail and vulnerable as we are in spite of being elevated so far above us. They affirm us in our longings and our solutions and we reciprocate with the endless fascination they demand as tribute.
Where the constructionists have gone wrong is in being too eager to dismiss the discourses whose validity they dispute, to jettison materiality in favour of liquidity. We do indeed construct narratives that enable us to make sense of what happens to us, of what surrounds us, to locate ourselves within a social context, we interpret and reinterpret the past as encapsulated in our memories. In going about this often frenzied activity we are not aware of the influence of the structuring frameworks channelling and colouring our perception and ordering of the stream of events. Of these nationalism and patriarchy enjoy pre-eminence. The prophets of globalisation have sounded their death knell too soon.
We have indeed strayed far from Roy Batty and his companions in adversity and I wish to return to them as I draw towards my conclusion. In spite of their brutality and emotional stuntedness we can empathise with them because our predicament is the same. Ineluctably confronted with the agony of our mortality we seek answers to the vital questions of who we are, why we are alive. By means of a subterfuge, Batty is able to gain entry to Dr. Tyrell’s private apartments in hope of appropriating the knowledge necessary to extending his lifespan. Having convinced him that there is no remedy for his plight, Tyrell attempts to fob him off with a platitude about his superiority, that the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, that he should glory in the time left to him. Unable to elicit more than a certain smugness at his own achievements from Tyrell even by flirting with a confession, Batty reverts to the type inscribed in his original programming, paying his creator the apparent homage of a kiss before proceeding to crush his skull. Man’s revenge on a sadistic God deaf to his imprecations in an act of tragic self-assertion is here paralleled. Eternal life is not ours for the taking, but we can rage against our fate, resigned acquiescence may be more dignified, but it is the fruit of conformity, the triumph of the social over more selfish impulses.
In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, Batty, having lost everything he cherished most (embodied by Pris, his lover shot by Deckard) and having tormented his adversary, hunting him down, takes pity on the Blade Runner as his broken bandaged fingers release their grip on the girder, hauling him up from what would have been a fatal plunge to the rain-sodden streets far below. Rescued from the brink of oblivion Deckard listens to the Replicant’s dying words. In his final act of rescuing his enemy Batty transcends his own limitations, recognising the inherent value and fragility of all life and attaining humanity through compassion. Both his death and his redemption are symbolised in the heavenward ascent of an unsullied white dove released by him at the moment of his passing.
Upon death our accumulated memories are extinguished with our individual subjectivity and our consciousness. The residue of impressions and recollections we leave behind in the minds of those who knew us is similarly destined for the shores of forgetting and we are thrown entirely upon the mercy of strangers in retaining even that most marginal identity of the deceased, our faces, voices and passions erased. Here the narrative ends, with or without having reached a conclusion or the drama being resolved.
 Batty’s cries as he struggles against his fate, plunging a nail through the palm of his hand – a gesture bestowing a Christ-like quality upon him – can be attributed to the supreme effort of will rather than loss of imperviousness to pain.
 Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1969 pp308-310. Emphasis in the original.
 In Cultural Theory, Westview Press, Boulder, 1990, Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky list four so-called engaged ways of life, those of fatalism, egalitarianism, hierarchy and individualism and one disengaged way of life, that of the hermit.
 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p72.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000, pp39-40.
 Ibid, pp67-68.
 Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1991.
 Berger and Luckmann, pp35-36.
 Ibid, pp36-37.
 Ibid, p55.
 Ibid, p56.
 Ibid, p68.
 Ibid, p152. As the authors remark, at the earliest stage of our lives we are assigned a name, a signifier of identity by our parents. The crucial (reality-fixing) role of affirmation played by key members of our immediate networks does not, however, become redundant following our formative years:
“But significant others occupy a central position in the economy of reality-maintenance. They are particularly important for the ongoing confirmation of that crucial element of reality we call identity. To retain confidence that he is indeed who he thinks he is, the individual requires not only the implicit confirmation of this identity that even casual everyday contacts will supply, but the explicit and emotionally charged confirmation that his significant others bestow on him” Ibid, p170.
 Ibid, p194.
 Heiner Keupp et al, Identitätskonstruktionen. Das Patchwork der Identitäten in der Spätmoderne, Rowohlts Enzyklopädie, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999, p28. Translations by the author.
 Ibid, p28.
 Ibid, p30.
 Ibid, pp46-53.
 Ibid, pp57-59.
 Ibid, p60.
 See pp198-205 on these types of capital and pp180-181 and pp186-188 on networks.
 From an article in the New York Times Magazine, July 7, 1996, p40 as quoted in Keupp et al, pp88-89.
 David Hume, Of National Characters, in Selected Essays, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993, pp115-116.
 Ibid, p113.
 Ibid, pp113-114.
 For the passage as a whole, ibid, pp116-119.
 Ibid, pp123-124, emphasis in the original.
 The irony of this phrase having been coined as a designation for the Lowlanders of Scotland is not lost on the author.
 Hall, Who Needs Identity? In: Questions of Cultural Identity, edited by Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, Sage, London, 1996, pp4-5. Emphasis in the original.
 A. D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p3.
 Ibid, p4.
 Ibid, p5.
 Billig, Banal Nationalism, Sage, London, 1995, p8.
 Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, The Free Press, New York, 1995, p351.
 Ibid, p429.
 Neo-liberalism, Utopia of Unlimited Exploitation. In: Acts of Resistance, Against the New Myths of Our Time, Polity Press, Oxford, 1998, pp98-99. See also Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Oxford, 2000, especially the chapter entitled Work, pp130-167; his chapter on Identity in the globalising world in The Individualised Society, Polity Press, Oxford, 2001, pp140-152 and his brilliant Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1998.