Identical enough
Anaslav Piňevsky 21/7/2019


There is no identity. No two things are quite the same. It is a paradox that we should all have one: identity, being identical, is precisely what effaces us. What we have in common. Identity is always an approximation to someone else – a hyperbole on similarity. No two people are identical. People are similar. No-one is identical with anyone else.

In fact not even two atoms can be identical at any one point in time: but we do not talk of atoms having an identity, because they don’t, to our mind, have personality. The question arises: where is the border-line between an inanimate building-block like a simple brick and an animate architectural work, which, we might say, has some personality? When does one cease being but a bunch of cells?

Everyone is identical to one person: themselves. Identity is thus a perfect tautology. It is what encloses us within ourselves.

And yet identity is – vernacularly applied – a shared trait: a hair-color, finger-length, sexuality, skin pigment, sex. If identity is what we share, it is odd that we think of our identity as what makes us, us. What makes us is our individuality, an antonym to identity if ever there was one. “We“ are everything that our identities are not: the subjective jelly left as a residue when the sociologists and lexicographers have plowed us over. Identity made it into Linnaeus’ Systema naturae; individuality did not, if we exclude the several feral children who blundered into Linnaeus’ system as homo ferus.

Identity is a homogenizing concept for the individual. But just as the concept of individuality puts a question-mark over identity, so identity questions the concept of individuality. Is there any such subjective jelly? What is that part of ourselves that is utterly unique? The Enlightenment loved discussing the individual in the abstract: its heroes, such as Rousseau’s Émile, were Everyman, a template for what any Western human male might become, but like his predecessor Robinson Crusoe – Defoe’s book about whom Émile’s tutor made him read – Émile was raised in isolation and thus allowed to mature the absolute uniqueness which would allow him to transform society. Everyone could think for themselves, Rousseau’s argument went, and thus become truly individual: the individual Émile’s identity with us drove this home. This Enlightenmet individual, representative of everyone and no-one, was ultimately too empty a cipher: there is something hollow in Autonous, that literary cousin of Robinson Crusoe who grows up on a solitary island like a perfect moral holotype of the human race. The particularities that made the Bildungsroman hero what they were, from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship onwards, paradoxically provided more traction on the basis of which these heroes came to seem real. Ironically, it was precisely because of their difference from us that we can identify with such heroes.

Both concepts are heuristic: that of identity allows us to make sense of ourselves in our society; that of individuality spares us the madness of becoming cogs in a social machine. Identity allows us converse with others; individuality, recourse to ourselves. In the shuttling between these two terms emerges our lurking suspicion that we might be the other to whom we speak. Individuality allows us to account for our individuated perception, our locality: identity draws others towards and around one, within the pale of subjectivity beyond which solipsism may be thought to lie.

Identity with the self has a moral function: we can relate if we have common ground. Thus the development of an appreciation of animal personhood, which Keith Thomas in his classic Man and the Natural World places in the eighteenth century, is coupled with the development of a moral consideration for our species that runs directly counter to the material foundations of animal exploitation on which our society rests. Although identity with us is another term for our sympathy, a bilateral emotional bond linking an other to the self, the identity of two creatures in a feature which one oneself does not share – an identity of two creatures of which the self is neither – becomes the very opposite, justification for their abuse, even eradication: after all, every mosquito, too small for their individual traits to be remarked, is thought to be replaceable. Much larger animals were thought – by the conservative R.R. Hofmeister who wrote fiction, largely about prehistory, in the early 20th century, for example – to be identical to one another, and it is well known, if uncomfortable to speak about, that faced with individuals of ethnicities unknown to one, we tend not to recognize the difference between them. Their age is hard to place, as is their sex; Tom might be Djok, and Djok Ngor, all because they share, say, the height, color or language of the Nuer. I remember finding this when I first arrived in Mongolia, where my confusion wore off presently to reveal absolutely individuated individuals under identity’s veneer; I remember finding it again on a trip back into my own country, even, after spending much time abroad. I could not recognize ‘my own’ people, the people with whom I was thought to be identical. A student in primatology with whom I spoke some time ago in Keyna assured me that the first several month of fieldwork in this subject is spent learning simply to recognize individuals; understanding the real dynamics of a group is predicated, obviously, on knowing who is who, what character and predispositions they may have. The group shares a species identity that distinguishes them from us, and that makes them, at first sight, identical to one another.

Granted, then, that identity is a perception, an operation of the mind. The real question then seems to be how it might be that ‘identity’ is most often used as its very opposite, a shorthand for personhood. The kind of personhood that Koko the gorilla has is certainly structured through the various traits and features that come with being a gorilla, but its being taught sign language betrays that this isn’t all we think of its identity. We can hope for more: after all, signing in a sign language comprehensible to humans is not something that comes naturally with gorilla identity, and even after teaching it to sign (something deeply unnatural to the gorilla), we still believe that Koko’s depositions will tell us something about what being a gorilla is actually like. Koko’s identity is shifted by its learning to sign, but remains the same: if it didn’t, there would be no point teaching it sign language, for it could ‘tell’ us nothing about gorillas as such, but only about the individual case of Koko, who has learned to sign.

Nagisa Oshima’s brilliant 1986 film Max, Mon Amour takes these issues of identity to a new extreme. In L’animal que donc je suis, Jaques Derrida’s being seen naked by his cat is disconcerting because intimate enough to provoke a critique of Western thought as such: how much more disconcerting then is the case of Margaret Jones, the film’s heroine, who, while posted to France with her diplomat husband, Peter, falls in love with a chimpanzee! That bestiality doesn’t receive the best press is obvious to anyone: in medieval and early modern law, such as that applied in the execution of a certain unfortunate Potter of New Haven in the 17th century (a case cited by E.P. Evans in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals), it was customary to execute the human participant along with the animal who had transgressed. Of course, the world-view that this arose from held that a Great Chain of Being existed between God and the sublunar world, with each denizen of creation placed on a clearly defined hierarchic rung. Intercourse with animals violated the clear, stable hierarchy of this cosmic arrangement. Over time, this was replaced with the more fluid view of species that we enjoy today: Darwinism of course was a key term in intellectually negotating this shift, and the emphasis that it placed on great apes is notorious. Bestiality with the chimpanzee – a creature whom Edward Tyson, who performed the first chimpanzee dissection in England in 1699, identified with the wild man of myth, giving it a walking stick to support its presupposed bipedalism – differs somewhat from bestiality with a dog or donkey (for example), because it shows up the inherent instability of the species-marker.

Stories of ape rape pervade the early modern period: we find them everywhere from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium maleficarum (1608) through to the Voyages extraordinares de Saturnin Farandoul (1879) by Albert Robida. This is the more remarkable when we bring to mind just how much occasion the average Westerner actually gets to have sex with non-human great apes: none at all. Practically always in these accounts the ape is a male, the human a female: the human is a victim of monstrous lusts encroaching upon humanity from the outside. This isn’t the case for us today: on the contrary, we would tend to worry about the animal participant, and vilify the human one: humanity isn’t a frail foil to brutal nature, but threatens to destroy that nature in a very real sense; accordingly, it isn’t the human but the ape that we worry about. Such promiscuity with different species of ape than ourselves transgresses the boundary of the human-only polis: unlike Aristotle’s Man, the chimpanzee is not a political animal, and many might worry about its ability – or inability – to formulate consent. It also poses a challenge to that boundary, however: as our highly probable interbreeding with homo neanderthalis suggests, what we perceive as species are not always discreet, nor are they always definable through sexual self-sufficiency. As I began by saying, we are identical with ourselves; and having personhood, identity has come to mean (paradoxically) precisely that – personhood. Sex with a chimpanzee suggests that a chimpanzee has personhood, and ought to be regarded as disposing with the responsibilities that devolve therefrom. Peter, Margaret’s husband, asks her after his discovering the affair to tell him about their sex life with the chimpanzee. “I don’t ask you about your sex life with Camille,“ she reposts. Peter is too amazed even for fury – or perhaps it is his professional deformation as a diplomat that keeps him so singularly composed. “That’s not at all the same thing.“ “Yes it is,“ replies Margaret. “Why did you choose a monkey?“ “He chose me as well,“ she replies, eliciting one of Anthony Higgins’ most spectacular stares.

Inter-primate sex opens up the human community, enclosed around its singular identity as human, and suggests the inherent plurality of humanity – and the availability of personhood, rationality, a (proto-)political responsibility, elsewhere. It robs us of what we feel to be unique to ourselves, as humans. (In one of its brilliant deadpan revolutions, Max Mon Amour flashes from Peter’s discovery of the affair – to his proposal that Margaret bring Max to live with them in their opulent diplomatic mansion. Half an hour into the film, Peter has Max brought to dine with Margaret’s and his company at one of those joyless diplomatic dinners which have about as much to do with spontaneity as with the Pluto – and instructs his guests to act “comme si un autre invité arrivait“.) Whether we see it as extending identity to be unacceptably broad, or as doing away with it altogether to leave us in an utterly apolitical world of mutually encountering individualities who need have nothing in common, primatophilia has the same effect: it reinscribes what is particular and proper to what, under what circumstances, and leaves us in the lurch about who we are. It makes clear and yet frighteningly incomprehensible the implication I mentioned – that we might be the other to whom we speak – without making it clear how, or what that would be like; it threatens the solipsism that has, for most people over the course of millennia is our culture (to my knowledge the most primitive in its thought about other species that the world has seen), made Reason and Free Will a monopoly of the human race.

Sex with a chimpanzee, in short, is rather more readily comprehensible than sex with a dog: Camille, Peter’s lover, may claim to find sex with ‘a monkey’ much ‘harder than sex with a dog’ but is quick to add: ‘besides, it’s so quick. Two or three seconds and it’s all over.’ The problem shifts in mid-speech from being her inherent repugnance of coitus with a primate – to her reflection that there wouldn’t be enough of it. Sex with a primate is thus ideologically far more dangerous. This is because our sexual taboos are by and large constructed on the fault-lines of identity: sex is an expression of identity between two people – the identity of their consent, first and foremost; the identity of their family-unit (husband and wife); the identity of a mutual sympathy. Sex with a chimpanzee declares an identity that cuts across species lines, declares an identity where we would rather not see one, but which is so insistent that – unlike the case of the dog – we can’t help ourselves but see it. We worry about consent, the affirmative, legally recognized expression of individuality, where it is our very identity as human that is cast in an uncomfortably critical light. The choice of axioms on the basis of which we talk about that identity becomes increasingly difficult if we are to rule all humans as definitively within the moral pale and all non-humans as definitively outside it. One such time-worn axiom (there are many that philosophers have reached for) is language – which is why John Locke felt compelled to write about parrots in his Essay on Human Understanding, and why many feel that a gorilla who can sign meanings comprehensible to us deserves moral (not yet sexual) consideration, even sympathy.

Despite its brilliant, funny and yet utterly serious negotiation of these political questions – the boundaries of human society and its especially its quasipolitical conventions – Max, mon amour ultimately delves even further. Peter asks Camille’s zoologist friend: “Is love possible only between members of the same species? Or could a horse call in love with a snake? Or with a cherry tree?“ The irreverent family drama, ensconced into fancy boudoirs replete with statuettes, vases and historical furniture, breaks through into a panamourous ontological vision. “Not as far as I know,“ the zoologist replies, returning the discussion into the Enlightenment human tautology of state and citizenship (Peter’s diplomatic career is not coincidental) which Max and Margaret’s love for him ruptures. The zoologist goes further to fantasize about catching such a love – between ape and woman – on camera; this queasy, panopticon-like fantasy doubles us back reflexively into the film that we are watching, our own voyeurism, and addresses our position head-on: can we partake of the emotions in Margaret’s and Max’s relationship, or are we objectifying them and treating it as a case of pathology (Margaret’s friend Archibald brings a psychologist to see her), documented on film as if into a cabinet of curiosities? And is Peter’s or even Margaret’s grasp of that relationship, which Peter calls “love“, accurate? It would seem so if we grant that we do not necessarily see animals as if only on camera – that is, if we grant that they have interiority, immediacy, spontaneity, and personhood: but the appeal of that personhood comes to us through shots of Max’s expressions when getting spoon-fed by Margaret – expressions that cause Peter to comment: “You never loved me like that!“ How far can we get “under the skin“ of an animal? Are we consigned to an eternal corporeal exteriority? And ultimately, do the categories in which we measure identity depart from anything else?