Identity and Walking the Path of Life

Over the past few decades, the term “identitarian” has acquired a surprising resonance in the West. This is true, of course, on the right, where a whole movement calls itself “identitarian,” referring to a certain representation of the West and its traditional values. This is also true, and even more surprisingly, on the left of the chessboard, where “minorities,” or those who assert themselves as such, are increasingly basing their fight on belonging to an “identity,” be it ethnic, religious, sexual, cultural, linguistic. Even feminist movements are increasingly claiming a “feminine identity” to give meaning to their claims.

This success of the “identity” theme must necessarily lead us to question the notion of identity, on the one hand, and the reasons behind its success today, on the other. Fundamentally, identity can be understood as that which is oneself and yet is not oneself. What does this mean? Identity, first of all, is that which is oneself: this means that the “I” of individual consciousness is only truly fulfilled when it fully conforms to a representation of consciousness which conforms to a model. This model is a language, insofar as it consists of an organized set of signs.

On the other hand, identity is not self: the “I” of individual consciousness, from the perspective of identity, has been torn out of this language, which is supposed to be the original language for it, and transported into another language, which is not its own, because this language has been manufactured by others. Because it has been manufactured by others, this “official” language is the source of an alienation that makes the “I” unhappy, because it is foreign to itself, subject to a vocabulary and grammatical rules whose arbitrariness is imposed on it and against it.

Because identity is understood as that which is oneself and that which is not oneself, it presupposes a relationship. This relationship is established between the “I” of collective consciousness and a “self” which constitutes the authentic “I,” but which is external to the immediate “I” of consciousness, because the “I” and the “self” have, at some point in time, been separated, so that, for the “I,” it has to “come out,” to extricate itself from itself, in order to go towards what it is, authentically but not practically. It has to become “self” before it can truly be “I.”

Analyzed in this way, the theme of identity suddenly becomes even more all-encompassing. In fact, the relationship I have just described applies not only to the groups I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks. It is not just about assertions of collective identity. It also concerns the great mass—and it is immense in the West—of those who do not recognize themselves in a collective identity, or whose quest for a collective identity is secondary, but who are in search of a “self” whose characteristics are exactly identical to those of the collective “self” I have just described.

What, in fact, is this “self?” It, too, is a language, which is the original, singular language of the “I,” absolutely distinguishing it from all other “I ‘s, since each ’I” has its own language, irreducible to the language of others. But this original language has been lost, for complex reasons involving individual psychological events and the vagaries of the “I’s” participation in human society. The aim of “I” is therefore to set out in search of its “self,” identifying first and foremost the vectors and tools that will enable it to rediscover its original “self,” i.e., to finally be itself.

The quest for the “self” is the only serious spiritual goal for the vast majority of Westerners today. To make this observation, one need only visit a bookshop or browse the web and observe the almost incalculable number of references to “self-care,” “self-seeking,” “the joy of being oneself,” and so on. At the end of the day, outside of their professional activities, Westerners do nothing more than search for themselves in order to find themselves, and this search, as they are constantly told, is the key to happiness.

If we are right to draw a distinction between openly collective “identity” quests and individual quests, which are just as effectively identity quests, but which rarely claim to be so, then we can see that in this day and age there is no escaping identity. The relationship of identity, individual and/or collective, has become our normal mode of relating to the world, increasingly hegemonic, so that what is not this relationship becomes incomprehensible and, therefore, irrelevant. One might object that there is something of a paradox in evoking this hegemony of identity, in an age that is officially devoted to “deconstructing” everything, even going so far as to question notions that hitherto seemed the most assured, such as the terms “man” and “woman.” But, in reality, this “deconstruction” in no way calls into question the relationship of identity. Its aim is simply to offer everyone a choice of identity, including sexual identity. The “fluidity,” the “ductility” that our modernity or post-modernity is supposed to have introduced into our world and our lives does not mean that the “I” is devoid of identity; it simply aims, like all good liberal ideology of which it is only the most recent offshoot, to offer the individual the ability to choose his or her identity without being subject to individual constraints, equating, like all liberal doctrines, freedom with the freedom to choose.

Thus, we have to live with the idea that the Westerner is now condemned to an identity relationship and, consequently, ask ourselves what lies behind this decisive orientation of modern consciousness. To do this, we need to return to the three phases of the identity relationship: the I (or we) without a self, the self to be found or rediscovered, and the relationship that unites one to the other. Let us begin by examining the I without a self. The “I,” which in Heideggerian terms could be described as da sein, is the ceaselessly renewed movement of consciousness emerging, to distinguish itself, from the universe of beings. There is nothing specifically modern about this movement. It has been the natural face of consciousness in the West for several millennia now. On the other hand, the real singularity of our time is the experience of the “I” as devoid of self. The “I” of modern consciousness spontaneously experiences itself as an “I” without identity, and, without doubt, as the only “I” in history without identity.

Why do we feel this way? The answer lies in Nietzsche’s words: “God is dead.” What does Nietzsche mean? Despite appearances, he is not really talking about God. What he is talking about, which is very different, is the idea of God. God, after all, may have little to do with His idea. God, for the believer in me, lives, but his idea is effectively dead in the West. What is this idea? It is meaning. For centuries, Westerners confused God with meaning, asking God to establish the meaning of things. And God fulfilled this function. Then, somewhere over two centuries ago, the idea of God ceased to function; for a whole series of reasons that would require a lengthy analysis, Westerners asked God less and less to found the meaning of the world. For a short time, they looked for substitutes for God to found the world: reason, science, history. But these substitutes turned out to be inadequate, and sometimes even catastrophic in the tasks they were assigned. This is so because, in Nietzsche’s words, it is not God who is at issue, but the idea of God, i.e., meaning. Nietzsche tells us “God is dead,” whatever you decide to take as “God,” because it is meaning that is dead.

What is meaning? It is that which is given to man when he comes into the world, and which orients his gaze in such a way that the world takes the form of a natural composition. The death of meaning means that the Westerner no longer receives this gift. The Westerner’s world can no longer be seen as a composition that allows him to find his natural place in it. The world is not an enigma, because “enigma” means that the enigma has a key. The world is not enigmatic. Nor is it pure chance or arbitrary. The world of the modern Westerner is de-composed. What is a de-composed world? It is a world that we remember as once being composed, but which today is no longer so, this “no longer” now forging the condition of the Westerner. He is still close enough to the moment before God’s death to remember that the world once made sense, and thus to realize that the present world no longer makes sense. He retains the memory and nostalgia of that moment when “things were simple” and “truth was natural,” but at the same time, he cannot prevent his world from being de-composed.

If there is such a thing as the nihilism of our age, it would be a mistake to believe that this nihilism translates into a radical indifference to the question of meaning, as some post-modern theorists grandly proclaim. On the contrary, our “nihilism”—the one that increasingly occupies the West in the sense of an occupying army—is characterized by an obsession that colors all our lives: the obsession with lost meaning, and the effort to rediscover, at all costs, that meaning that has faded away. Western man does not die of indifference; he dies of the permanent sensation of the de-composition of his world, and of the anguish this sensation generates.

This is the second stage in the identity relationship I mentioned earlier: the self to be found or rediscovered. Lost in this de-composed universe, the “I” eagerly seeks a “re-composition” of the world. To do this, it needs to project itself. The world of the past was a world in which meaning was given to man, so he had no need of a project. Being in the world was enough. The modern condition, on the other hand, makes the “I” exist in a de-composed world, forcing it to project itself in order to find the meaning it lacks elsewhere.

Through this project, the “I” encounters forms. It cannot find meaning because meaning has withdrawn. But it does have objectal forms, and these are not lacking. Our world is saturated with forms. What do we call “form?” We call it what remains when meaning has withdrawn from a being, when all that is left is the immobile, operated envelope of life. The exploration of forms, their manipulation and exploitation, whether economic or technical, is what remains to man, once meaning has been withdrawn. Within this world of forms, there are some that, more than others, arouse our curiosity because we believe we find in them what characterizes meaning. What are these qualities? Authenticity, evidence, nature, duration, depth. We believe that these qualities characterize meaning and that, through them, we can rediscover transcendence, without fully understanding that these qualities only take on meaning from meaning and that, outside meaning, they are no more than signs that cannot guide us along the path, because there is no path.

Why is there no longer a path? Because modern man’s project is not to take the path freely, based on these signs. His project is to appropriate these signs, to exploit them, to feed off them and, through their exploitation, to achieve a re-composition of his world. This is where modern nihilism lies: not in an alleged “indifference” to meaning, but in the fanatical conviction that the appropriation of certain signs enables one to “possess” meaning, and to base one’s power on this possession.

The “self”, whether individual or collective, is the sum of signs that we ask to replace meaning, to fulfill the function of meaning. For the sake of argument, let us focus on the individual construction of the “self,” the “I.” The latter will magnetize the “I” in such a way that the “I’s” project boils down to becoming “me,” to adhering ever more closely to this self in order to merge with it. Outside the figure of the “I,” the world no longer really exists, so the “I” loses interest in it, except when it represents a threat to the “I.” The “I” is no longer able to apprehend the world—be it religious, political or aesthetic—except from the point of view of the “I,” making the latter the pole star guiding its gaze on the world, which is no more than the surface necessary for the “I” to unfold.
The identity relationship is thus the modern project par excellence. This relationship never ends. It never ends because it has no end. The organized system of signs that defines identity, whether individual or collective, remains perpetually mobilizable for the membership project, which never sufficiently adheres to its model. Whether it is a question of “identifying” with a group or with oneself, the process is identical and infinitely reproducible: the project remains external to its object, because the goal it aims at is only an object, and it is impossible to dissolve into an object, to become one with it. There is no escaping the world of forms. The “I” therefore always remains outside the self—hence its wandering, which condemns it to constantly update its project, until death. All that is sold to us on the theme of “how to be oneself,” “how to find oneself” is, in reality, nothing but a vast load of hogwash, the simple aim of which is, through repetition and hyperbole, to persuade us that the self is findable, even though its primary characteristic is precisely that it is not findable, and that, in fact, it must not be findable.

Why can it not be found? The first explanation is that it is pure entertainment, in the Pascalian sense of the term. The fundamental function of the search for identity is to make modern man forget the de-composition of his world and the torturing memory of the moment when the world made sense. Identity is not there to make sense again; it is there to make us forget that our world no longer makes sense and never will again, and to make us stop mourning the loss of transcendence. Since Pascal, we have known that this stratagem is the main hidden spring of human activity.

But there are other reasons behind the identity relationship: reasons of an economic nature. As I said, the identity relationship has no end. It has no end insofar as the goal it pursues does not exist. There is no “me,” no “us,” but an assemblage of signs that, by dint of self-persuasion or collective persuasion, we take to be this “me” or this “us.” The race for identity never stops. Never stopping, it creates a permanent demand for new signs, as well as a refreshment of existing ones. It calls for the creation of new brands and the maintenance of existing ones, so that the individual can become as much a brand as possible. In so doing, it feeds one of the essential sources of profit for contemporary capitalism, which focuses above all on signs and symbols, in order to exploit them commercially and make them profitable. It is thus one of the main branches of the great river of consumption, which encircles our societies on all sides, as if they were islands.

The economic virtue of the identity relationship is not limited to the creation and regeneration of symbolic signs metamorphosed into commodities. It also helps to organize the neo-liberal discipline that shapes and organizes human beings to make them efficient and therefore profitable. Tribal conflictuality, that which pits the identity of “women” against the identity of “men,” the identity of “whites” against the identity of “blacks,” the identity of “Muslims” against the identity of “Christians,” the identity of “homosexuals” against the identity of “heterosexuals,” organizes permanent competition. This is expressed, for example, in the race for “victimization,” and, more broadly, for positive memory, through a contest for symbolic self-affirmation that keeps the sign business going, while distracting these enraged identities from questioning the real foundations of the system that makes them exist and stimulates them. As for self-identity, it disciplines the “I” by forcing it to perform constantly in order to rise to the level of the “self” that it has been convinced is the “me” that the “I” must become in order to be. In this way, the “I” embarks on a never-ending trajectory, since the ideal “I” as constructed, notably through advertising, retreats as soon as the “I” believes it has been grasped. It is always beyond my attempt to con-form myself into it. This trajectory is no accident: it aims is to shape the “I” into the integral consumer and efficient production tool our production system needs.

We can sometimes smile at the obsessive quest for self that occupies so many of our contemporaries, or at the theatrical affirmation of identity (which constitutes the same reality as the quest for self, but elevated to the level of the group). But it would be wrong not to take them seriously. For, little by little, these learned reflexes are politically ordering our societies, imposing their new forms on the old political categories of left and right, while producing a fundamental solipsism that is gradually erasing the figure of the citizen and replacing it with that of the consumer. Beyond that, it is on a more spiritual, metaphysical level that this virulence of forms engages our destinies. The relationship between identity seems to me, today, to be one of the fundamental reasons for the spiritual crisis of Western societies, which distances them more and more from Christian revelation. How can the “I” open itself up to the absolute of truth, when it is subject to the absolute concupiscence of self-identity or group identity? Basically, the modern or post-modern obsession with identity is the idolatry of our time, because of the continual attention to conscience it requires, and the rituals and self-interested asceticism it demands. This identity may well take the purely formal form of “God” on the side of Islamism or Christian “identitarians,” but the term “God” thus employed is no more than a fetish, which has nothing to do with transcendence, and is even its antithesis.

So, what can we do? We cannot go back to the time of meaning, to the time before the death of God, because, as we know only too well, in this world of ours, traversed by the ebb and flow of people and ideas, meaning is no longer given, nor will it ever be given to us. Modern consciousness comes to the world through foreclosure, as Lacan would say: foreclosure of meaning, which leads the best people to question the meaning of this foreclosure, but which imposes itself on us like an inevitability.

Are we then condemned to choose between the illusion of identity, with the closure it induces, like all idolatrous adoration, and, on the other hand, the shivering solitude of an “I” without foundations, without direction, clinging to the world as best it can, a simple trial without a subject? Can we escape this tragic alternative? And how? Perhaps we need to go back to the beginning of our discussion, when we evoked Nietzsche’s words: “God is dead.” We said that what was meant by this statement was the idea of God, not God. But what is the difference between the idea of God and God? It may be, however, that the question, thus posed, does not shed much light. Perhaps it would be more useful to ask why we all—including the greatest “philosophers”—need to think of God in terms of “idea,” and why we spontaneously equate the idea of God with “meaning.”

The use of “idea,” “notion,” “concept” to think of God is obviously not accidental. Basically, it is based on the fixed idea of Western metaphysics, according to which being can only be apprehended on the basis of determinacy. Determinacy: the rational form of all reality. If what presents itself as “reality” does not have a rational form, then this reality is not, or, more precisely, it is in the world in the form of nothingness. If it does have “rational form,” then it is, but it is exclusively in this rational form, which is apprehended from its meaning. Sense itself links together several categories of understanding, such as “cause,” “consequence” and “function.” A thing has a cause, it fulfills a function, it acts on other things, becoming itself the cause of another phenomenon, etc. Determinism inscribes the thing in the context of the world. Determinacy inscribes a thing in the world on the basis of meaning, which is itself governed by logical categories.

From this perspective, truth is nothing other than meaning, itself governed by logic. God, if He is, can therefore be nothing other than His idea, i.e., His rational form. This rational form can itself be nothing other than that which founds, the foundation, meaning. Why is this so? Because, in the system of determinacy, God can be nothing other than “the most being of all beings,” as Heidegger puts it. He is the greatest, the most solemn of beings, in other words, the bearer of the meaning that gives meaning to every being in the world, but He is himself seized by meaning. To assert that He is the greatest being of all is to conceal the fact that He is first and foremost a being that is not essentially distinct from other beings, a being that can be grasped, like other beings, on the basis of the determinacy that founds Him as founder.

It is remarkable that, in this system, which is that of Western metaphysics, we remain, notwithstanding the appearances of a discourse exalting the essence of things, in a strictly formalist approach to the world. When we take up Nietzsche’s phrase “God is dead,” we are already conveying, without really thinking about it, a formal representation of God, and we are conveying this representation because we do not know how to think of God in any other way, because this representation imposes itself on us.

Does this representation of God impose itself on us because, since there is no longer any given meaning, we “late comers” can no longer represent the world and things within the world except by formalizing them? Perhaps we do. But we can dig a little deeper and make the following proposition: by the time Nietzsche successfully proclaimed the death of God, in reality, God had long since withdrawn. God has withdrawn from the official field of knowledge in the West because, even before His death was proclaimed, He was confused with “idea,” “notion,” “concept,” making him the vector of meaning that legitimizes the hegemony of Western discourse on the general determinacy of the world, and which thanks Him for this service by making Him the guarantor of this legitimacy.

It is because God has long since withdrawn from the world, making way for the God of the philosophers, that Nietzsche can proclaim his famous motto: “God is dead.” In other words, even before the death of God, we were already in the world of forms that is ours today. Because our representation of God was already in the realm of formalization, it was possible to think theoretically, and produce concretely, the complete overturning of our world to the side of formalization and facticity. This is why, apart from being pointless, going back in time would be pointless—because this “back” was in fact, in embryo, our present.

How did it contain the seeds of our present? To answer this question, we need to recall the representation of truth that prevailed in the world “before” Nietzsche’s words. This representation defined the notion of truth as the adequacy between a being and the appropriate predicate for determining this being. This demand for adequacy between being and predicate bears a striking resemblance to the identity relationship characteristic of our modernity, which I have described at length. Here, as in our current identity obsessions, it is a question of con-formity, i.e., a relationship between two forms, one of which is the dominant form, requiring the other form to con-form itself to it. In this logic, truth is represented as the perfect match between predicate and concept, in other words, between two forms that must fit into each other. This is obviously true of the predicate “God.” It is summoned to adhere perfectly to its conceptual form, that of purveyor of meaning. The requirement of con-formity, imposed by Western metaphysics because it knows only forms, applies to God as much as to the most common notion, because it is governed by an unconscious prerequisite that makes the world a compound of passive objects, conceptual forms, whose destiny is to be determined and, once determined, to con-form to their determination.

This is why God long ago withdrew from this world of inert forms, named and circumscribed by reason. A brilliant but isolated thinker warned us at the dawn of “modern” times, in a piece of paper written on a certain night of fire on November 23, 1651 and found after his death: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of philosophers and scholars.” Long after him, meteors of thought such as Leon Chestov also warned us. Yet the majority of us persist in turning a deaf ear to their warning: the God of Christians is not the God of philosophers and scholars. He is not a concept, however lofty that concept may seem; the God of Christians is a person. We think we know exactly what a person is: my father, my mother, my neighbor are all persons, and I am a person, too. But what seems obvious as soon as we talk about human beings fades away as soon as we think about God. God cannot be a person; that is too banal, too common; He has to be an idea; the idea of goodness, the idea of truth, and so on. This shift from person to idea is no accident. It is the result of centuries of work on the mind to persuade it that the person, with its irreducible singularity and distinctive features—which, precisely because of its singularity, resists determination as much as it can—is an inferior, contingent form; on the contrary, the concept, by virtue of its generality, represents the highest category of thought. Consequently, God, since He is “the most being of beings,” can be nothing other than an idea, or at the very least, the personalization of an idea.

“Jesus therefore, when he knew that they would come to take him by force, and make him king, fled again into the mountain himself alone” (John 6:15). Ultimately, things have not changed much since the Gospels. God is relentless in telling us that He does not care about our earthly, worldly or philosophical crowns; He is a person and wants to be loved as a person. But this is the statement that is hardest for us to hear, just as the essential depth of simplicity is hard to understand.

You cannot define a person. You meet either him—or you do not. Even if he makes the effort to come to us, even if he begs us to pay attention to him, the final decision depends on us. Do we really want to meet him as a person, him and not someone else, and not his intellectualized form? As long as God remains for us an abstraction, a “put there” to make sense of the world, we do not meet Him. To be able to meet Him, in the manner of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, for example, we need to hear another message from the Gospel: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” This is the antithesis of the identity relationship that posits truth and forbids it to move, so that we can identify with it. According to the Gospel, truth is the way. We walk on the path, and as long as we remain on the path, we continue to walk. This means that truth is a walk where you have to keep moving forward. We are in the truth, we walk towards it, but we do not have the truth, we do not possess it.

Truth is not only the way; it is also life. The relationship of identity, to oneself, or to anything else, is a relationship that denies life, substituting it with simulacra and theater. The “I” renounces life in order to con-form itself. Truth, perceived as a path, enables us, on the contrary, to move forward. “Moving forward” also means a relationship with time. Not the fantasized time of origins, of authenticity; not the suspended time of the self; but a time that is truly temporality, i.e., both the continuous movement of walking and the recapitulation of this movement—being and becoming.

In place of identity, the disciple of Christ substitutes imitation: putting one’s footsteps in those of Christ and, like Him, walking the path of true life.

Laurent Fourquet is a senior civil servant at the French Ministry of the Economy and has published four books: L’ère du Consommateur, (2011), Le moment M4 – Une réflexion sur la théorie de la valeur en Economie (2014), Le christianisme n’est pas un humanisme (2018), and Le raisin et les ronces (2020).

Featured: Landscape with Christ and His Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, by Jan Wildens; painted ca. 1640s.