Discourse of Identity: Another Violence

by Hélé Béji

Translations from French by Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano

Downtown Tunis c. 1945-1950. France and the French are still in full control of Tunisia, which will gain its independence in Mars 1956. Postcard issued c. 1945-1950. Courtesy Wikicommons.

Downtown Tunis c. 1945-1950. France and the French are still in full control of Tunisia, which will gain its independence in Mars 1956. Postcard issued c. 1945-1950. Courtesy Wikicommons.

This article is a summary of my first book National Disillusion, Essay on Decolonization (Maspero, 1982). After the victory of independence in decolonized countries, we have seen new forms of political alienation appear, which one cannot confuse with that which one calls, schematically, neocolonialism.[1][2]

Read other essays by Hele Beji with Khabar Keslan’s accompanying text.

Independence is a renaissance. Certainly, it has crowed the genesis of national consciousness as a historical force, but it has equally inaugurated another history, which has revealed new faces of human oppression, through the quasi-elusive processes in which identity finds itself marked by national ideology itself.

Beyond Colonialism

It is the interior of our political system itself that produces and causes relations of force, abuses, innovative forms of alienation, about which one must interrogate oneself, and which constitute more a postcolonial state rather than a neocolonial one. It is a beyond colonialism[3] that works in our society in an unceasing, subtle and opaque manner.

The national State, wishing to reorganize the entire country, will redistribute political command by way of an increasingly total control of the system. National discourse, while promoting the implementation of a new apparatus, continues to make heard the representation of the liberated nation in an imaginary world. This dialectic between affective ideology and cold instrumentation of the apparatus will concentrate itself in the establishment of a unique party, spectacularly supported by the personification of power and the propaganda of official information.

Another Violence

In fact, our national reality developed according to laws that are proper to it: in a system of representation, its centralization, bureaucracy, network of internal surveillance, and party culture. This other violence grows in an internal manner, under our responsibility as decolonized people. But this evolution remains veiled by the memory of the historical fight and fascination that it exerts without rest on all consciences.

Intellectuals find themselves, in a manner of speaking, caught between these two worlds, but their aspiration brings them to integrate themselves to the system, becoming its menacing forces suddenly. But their own nationalism shields and impedes them from seeing that a kind of inversion of all values to which they had adhered takes place. This smothering of history by those who believed to have made it has given politics, over the years, a delirious character. It is a form of moral manipulation and weighs on the conscience like a taboo.

The Right in Question

But the regression resides, even more deeply, in the constraining of constitutional inspiration by the nationalist regime. Yet, the concern of right and the re-establishment of legality were, for the nationalists, vital principles of sovereignty, the cornerstone of the nationalist project, because the idea of right contained in it the genesis of a new State and the foundation of a modern humanism. And it is precisely the criteria of right that, some time after independence, began to be abandoned. The legalist and constitutionalist position of the nationalists considerably weakened to the detriment of the constitutional concern. State discourse was made sacred, not by right, but by force and complete power. It is with this in mind that one must re-examine the issue of identity (cultural and national).

Discourse of Identity

The affirmation of identity today (to distinguish it from its historical quest) is a hypertrophied speech that accompanies the development of the national State without ever imposing limitations on it. Society is only perceived as a uniform projection of the State and not the inverse.

The more that society increasingly affirms itself as multiple, mobile and diverse, the more the State will increasingly confine society in the identical image that it has of itself and of its conservation. It is this artificial and nearly irrational situation that was characterized by one of the old national militants as a “formidable machine of deception.” But the appeal to national identity against the specter of colonization will, in a manner of speaking, erase the objective perception of these facts. The theme of identity has slid toward ideological and coercive contents. Identity is, then, a sort of contradictory tension between force (power and single party) and the will of seduction, by means of the communication with which it immobilizes society.

Our man of culture is not a thinker but an ideologue, a minister or a manager. And his ideas themselves are nothing but confusing emanations of a pervading discourse. The intellectual class thus bestows upon itself a “cultural soul”, a return to the origin, a tradition, without examining how this reference links itself to an even more inhuman political system, to a generalized intolerance, to the employment of a cultural matter by those who abuse of the political matter.

The cultural hollow is a kind of matching image of the institutional void. Culture is the false effervescence that one agitates around political fixedness and inertia. The reference to culture allows a nearly timeless historical plenitude, by the simple emanation of identity, just as pure as it is righteous. The mission of “cultural identity” has to an extent, in the establishment of a bureaucracy and an apparatus, the same function as the historical mission of the “proletariat” in the official vulgates of Marxist regimes.

Unity, authenticity, and identity are in correspondence with the mechanisms of domination itself. These cultural tendencies today slip toward a sacred speech, religion, which is the last blind discourse born from the collapse of critical thinking after independence. The products of cultural identity are political monolithism, social agony, and economic stagnation.

The excesses of identity are the false compensation for the loss of the ethical.

To this wooden identity another one is added, an identity of the present that runs in the depth of daily life itself and survives in the debris of human communication, a still living wisdom, a community flavor, an instinctive resistance to dogmas and ideologues, a spirituality.

[1] Hélé Béji, Le désenchantement national, Paris, Maspero, 1982.
[2] Magazine Cahiers du Forum n˚4, October 1984, special issue “Europe and the Third Worlds,” 25-29.
[3] Translator note: the original French reads “un au-delà du colonialisme.”

Hélé Béji was born in 1948 in the city of Tunis (Tunisia) and grew up in a family (Ben Ammar) who took part in the struggle for Independence from French colonialism. She is published widely in Tunisia and France. These days, Hele is a member of the executive Committee of Tunisie Alternatives, Tunisia Alternatives, and Think and Do. She is also the current president of the College International de Tunis, an NGO she founded in 1998

Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano is a writer, translator and chief editor of the forthcoming literature journal Moly. His translation work has appeared in Khabar Keslan and Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. Jorge’s interest in postcolonial history and thought originated at Reed College, where he majored in French and Francophone Literature. He is currently based in Los Angeles.