The Politics and Ethics of Identity: In Search of Ourselves by Richard Ned Lebow

| March 2014
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9781107675575_p0_v2_s260x420 The Politics and Ethics of Identity: In Search of Ourselves, Richard Ned Lebow (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 431 pp., $103 cloth, $34.99 paper.

The Politics and Ethics of Identity dazzles the reader with its ambition and erudition. Its theme is grand: nearly all the claims made by social theorists emphasizing the importance of identity are wrong because human beings and the associations they create, including nation-states, can do without it. Its breadth is startling, and includes brilliant textual analyses of, among other things, Greek epic poetry, the operas of Mozart, Germany’s search for a classical past, the contemporary conservative Christian book series Left Behind, and science fiction. If all this is not enough, it also contains important theoretical discussions of the nature of narrative and the question of whether modernity implies a sharp break with the past.

Has Richard Ned Lebow achieved more than Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, and Jürgen Habermas? He thinks he has, suggesting at one point that he will offer “a more complex understanding of identity and the diverse roles that ‘others’ play in its construction and maintenance” than they did (p. 78). A touch more modesty might have allowed Lebow the recognition that breakthroughs are rare—and that, for all his accomplishments, he has not made one.

Lebow’s entire project, for one thing, is far too subjective to be definitive. In an effort to show that identity does not require the existence of an “other,” Lebow devotes considerable attention to the ancients. In neither the Iliad nor the Aeneid, he points out, do the Greeks and the Trojans divide the world between them and treat one camp as implacably hostile to the other. His read of both epics is truly insightful, but it also does little to justify his thesis. There is, for one thing, only so much one can conclude about human agency when the gods play as direct a role in everyday life as they did in ancient Greece. For another, Lebow is selective in his choice of texts. Had he discussed Euripides’ The Trojan Women, for example, he might have noticed that Hecuba, ordered to be made a slave of Odysseus, recalls that she was “the mother of a race of gallant sons” before adding, “and last, to crown my miseries, shall I be brought to Hellas, a slave in my old age.” Committing mass suicide to avoid relocation to a foreign land suggests a fairly severe antagonism between one society and another.

Lebow’s discussion of Mozart’s four great operas is just as insightful, and just as limited. Like the Greek epics, Mozart’s operas leave more questions than they answer. Why does the last sextet of Don Giovanni put a seemingly happy ending on such a tragic story? How did the four characters at the heart of Così fan tutte allow themselves to be so easily deceived? Given that The Magic Flute was written as a popular Singspiel, can the plot be taken seriously? Is it Mozart’s music, Da Ponte’s libretto, or Beaumarchais’s original play that contributes so much to making The Marriage of Figaro such a compelling work of art? Does it matter that one of these operas is sung in German and the other three in Italian?

There are no, and there can never be, definitive answers to such questions because the operatic format is so governed by conventions of libretto, melody, and audience expectations that none of the artists involved are truly free to express personal political and social views. Lebow reads into the operas important lessons about freedom, authority, and class, yet each interpretation he gives could easily be countered with another. Nor does it help that he ventures into so many side arguments, for example, by suggesting that a play by Schiller allowed Verdi, in Don Carlo, to show “how reforms authorized by the best intentions of men can result in a despotism” (p. 138), when Verdi turned another Schiller play that had no such message (Luisa Miller) into an opera and when two Schiller plays made into operas by others demonstrate the limits of despotic power (Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda).

Perhaps the most important flaw in such an otherwise fascinating book is Lebow’s inability to tie all his marvelous readings together into anything resembling a coherent whole. The reason for this strikes me as fairly clear: Lebow himself is unsure what he wants to argue. The book, for example, begins with a sweeping claim: Selfhood, and hence any identify based upon it, is an illusion. Yet after leading us through one exegesis after another, Lebow concludes with the far less revolutionary idea that selfhood in modern society is “multiple, inconsistent, labile, and evolutionary” (p. 320), something that anyone who has skimmed any postmodern theorist, behavioral economist, or evolutionary psychologist would already know. If anything, modern individuals, if we follow Lebow, are in desperate need of both a strong sense of self as well as the identity it implies because, in a fragmented world, it is up to the individual to construct meanings capable of making sense of it.

Extending his analysis to the associations that human beings form, Lebow concludes that “we should come to understand our society, state, region and the world as a network of multiple and often interlocking communities” (p. 319). This is sage advice and suggests that Lebow wrote this book to counter all versions of Manichean thinking that make a sharp divide between good people over here and bad people over there. Lebow insists that all the detours he takes to reach his conclusion give it greater empirical support. I am not so sure. The same point has been made, in a far more direct fashion, by David Cannadine in his recent book The Undivided Past.

Lebow’s book contains much to recommend it, including a discussion of different ways human beings have reconciled the conflicts they feel between their desire for autonomy and the role-playing in which they frequently engage, as well as a hint (never, alas, fully developed) that the dominant ideologies of contemporary politics—individualism, conservatism, totalitarianism, and anarchism—flow from the difficulties of such efforts. Even if Lebow’s grand theorizing fails, his individual chapters scintillate. In that way, the self that is Richard Ned Lebow is like the selves his book brings to life: fragmented, discursive, but also absolutely essential.


Alan Wolfe directs the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College and has just completed a book for Beacon Press showing why diaspora is good for the Jews.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 28.1

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