Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Return to the Authentic Community: Gellner's Critique of Sartre

My friend is writing on issues surrounding a Native population, the Metis in Canada. This post has been inspired by our discussion on the topic. As with all colonized groups, sooner or later the question of empowerment - and what it means to be empowered in the context of colonized groups - emerged. And we did talk about the pitfalls of the concept, as well as its virtues.

One of the themes that came up was that of the dichotomy in which colonized groups are being pushed:
- be colonized, give in to the new ideologies and structures, and adapt, but loose 'yourself' in the process;
- return to their authentic self, the 'noble savage' or the 'exotic Other' (ie. 'wear your feathers, show us your dances, throw your tomahawks, but please stay in your reservations and accept your fate').

Like most other dichotomies in social thought, this one is false. There are many assumptions embedded in it, betraying particular ideologies at work (like for instance, the idea that all people in Native groups are defined by whatever we take as the essentializing and homogenizing traits of the group; or that there are only two choices, progress
and under-development). But the point of this post has to do with the second option, that of the return to the authentic self. Just what is authenticity?

In his 1964 oldie but goodie book Thought and Change, Ernest Gellner compellingly illustrates the fallacy of the concept. Authenticity, he charges, is at the core of Sartre's existentialism (and, we might add, a close kin of Marx's alienation). For Sartre, says Gellner, to be authentic means to strive to be who you are - and that is mainly taken as a core, as an essence defining you.

"An 'authentic' X - writes Gellner - is ... a man (sic) who wills himself to be an X, freely and without the illusion of X-hood being some brute and contingent and externally given fact..." (p. 62, ftn.1)

There are three problems with this view, Gellner asserts:
- first, an assumption of identity as fixed, rigid.
- second, an assumption of identity is rooted within us, outside the influence of any external forces.
- third, an assumption that we change from being authentic to inauthenticity because we are forced by external circumstances (like colonization processes), and that the return to authenticity is desired by and intrinsically good for everyone.

"Could one not also accept authentically, the more complex role of minority-member-not-wishing-to-be such?" asks Gellner " And so on? Anything can be 'authentic', even self-rejection." (p. 62, ftn. 1)

When talking about colonization processes, and about empowerment strategies for colonized groups, it is important - I think - to question just what type of ideology is hidden behind our vision of empowerment. What is it that we seek? How is it that we look at the past? Were the social structures of the groups we seek to liberate really without fault? And for whom? Are there only two options, as the dichotomy would prompt us to think? Can we be ourselves without any recourse to a group past? Why is it that the group and its past haunt us? What makes them so relevant? And so on...

Photo credits: Kathycsus

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