I’ve been meaning to pull stuff of possible interest out of various unpublished bits of this and that I’ve got lying around (see Stuffed Voles), and John’s appreciation in a recent comment of Zygmunt Baumann’s use of liquid as a metaphor for social relations offers on occasion. I should say Baumann’s one of those guys I know a lot about second hand, admire, should have read but haven’t. The following is from a piece I wrote to synthesize what I was figuring out from doing a lot of interdisciplinary reading on identity. It’s one of the orienting sections:
The interactive field is basically an arrangement of objects in space and time. As a general principle, emerging selves and identities can be expected to expand to fit the available space within the field of interactive possibilities. This suggests a continuous structuring dialectic between expansion and available space. Like water hitting the ground, people and peoples find an interactive field already in place and flow into the basins, gaps, and cracks therein, soaking in, pooling, or running off. In general, we become what it is possible for us to become, filling the space that is there to fill. (‘Failure to become’ is hence immediately diagnostic of a saturated or blocked field in some dimension.) With this image in mind, we may think of identity as the principle that no two objects can occupy exactly the same space at the same time and remain two objects. Objects are identical to themselves, or identifiable, only insofar as they can be distinguished from other objects. “Social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat” (Bourdieu, Distinction). Identity is at the core a name for differentiation.
Previous occupancy is obviously a huge advantage in the availability and desirability of space for self and identity to emerge into. Latecomers fill up the spaces that are left (finding their place in the sun, so to speak), unless they are possessed of sufficient expansive power to shove the previous occupants aside. This is as true in sibling dynamics as it is in international politics. Conflicts occur over space along the borders. When pressure is low borders are fractally diffuse and are hence readily permeable (affording the possibility of reciprocal ‘assimilation’). Borders become less fractal and more durably, linearly compressed, one-sided, and impermeable the more pressure is put on them, with results ranging from accommodation to genocide. In some sense, then, recognizable selves and identities are always signs of pressures at the
borders, without which selves and identities would tend to blur into one another. The first few weeks of a love affair should be an evocative illustration of such a state.
Selves and identities can be extraordinarily resourceful in finding spaces to expand into, although this is no more remarkable, intentional, or romantically dignified than the resourcefulness of water in finding a route to the sea. Nevertheless, the configurations produced by such resourcefulness are inherently more exotic and exciting than the comparatively smooth, placid surfaces produced by privileged access to space. Formative resourcefulness also obviously constructs more sensitivity to the way space works. It is precisely this dynamic of self and identity formation that leads critical theorists of class, race, and gender to argue that marginality enables better social theory. Of course, any constraint on self and identity formation (including, for example, a rich tradition) will tend to produce this effect, and the total privilege of unlimited space is rare indeed.