Culture, Identity, And Politics, by Ernest Gellner
Reading about identity politics can be fun, at least for some of us, and while I would not agree with everything this author says–in particular he strongly underemphasizes religion, which is a great shame–there is still a good deal in this book that is worth paying attention to anyway. In particular, this book is fascinating in large part because of the way that the author diagnoses problems with the Enlightenment and with contemporary egalitarianism in ways that demonstrate that he is perhaps wiser than he knows or is at least willing to admit. The fact that there is a lot here that the author could have explored but chose not to, likely for political reasons, means that there is a lot that the reader can explore to take the writer up on his insights and carry them further. Admittedly, a book like this is not an easy read, not least because the author is extremely well-read about a wide variety of subjects and this requires the reader to keep on one’s toes. Still, a good challenge is not something to look down on and this book is one I can recommend to those who like reading about identity politics and want a good thought-provoking challenge.
This book is a bit less than 200 pages and is divided into eleven essays. After a preface, the first essay is a pastiche of humorous elements from different nations in slightly disguised form (1). After that the author discusses two forms of cohesion in complex societies (2) as well as the roots of cohesion within nations and states (3) with the example of Morocco and how such matters can go awry. A discussion of the paradoxes of modern nationalism and history are explored in an essay on Zeno of Cracow (4). Then the author turns his attention to the life and lies of Hannah Arendt and her inability to recognize and acknowledge the flaws of the Enlightnment when it came to her beloved Konigsberg (5). After this the author explores the social roots of egalitarianism (6) as well as a recollection of the anxiety involved in Thought and Change (7). A discussion of the Hamlet of Europe (8) leads to a discussion of Iranian politics and the way that Shi’ite political leaders often resemble martyr-lawyers (9). After that there is a discussion of disenchantment with disenchantment (10) as well as a tract on sociology and philosophy (11) to finish his look at identity politics on a general level. This is followed by sources, a bibliography, and an index of names.
There are at least a few aspects of this book that are worthy of further thought. For one, issues of identity politics within nations invariably involve questions of about cohesion, and the tendency for ethnic bonds to take precedence over national bonds when the two are in conflict. Of course, would-be nations have even invented supposed ethnic origins as a way of separating themselves from other similar and neighboring peoples. Likewise, there are a great many areas where issues of identity have served as problems, including Poland and Germany in the 20th century. Identities can involve religious elements–such as the Ibadis of Mzab in North Africa or the Shi’ites of Iran and the complications that involves in terms of the way that leaders can move while retaining the support of their people. The author’s interest in anxiety and disenchantment as well as the negative consequences of the Enlightenment are also notable and interesting. And that is a fair summary of what this book is, interesting and notable and thought-provoking, full of the author’s own thinking and reading and speculating and even imagination. If that is somewhat rare to admit it is easy enough enjoy.