Saturday, 21 December 2013

I Said Something That Wasn't...: On Identity

The title of the film The Invention of Lying is a spoiler in itself, in that the film is about the way in which lying was invented, and the world before and after that act. The film is funny in parts, though one could quibble that not lying and stating at every moment exactly that which is on your mind, are two different things, a distinction that is not made in the film. Here is the trailer of the film.
It is a sophisticated conceit, this world where no one lies. The film does not go the somewhat predictable way and show a dreary world where there is no fiction, no cinema, no advertising. Instead, all the modern familiars are there, but oddly inverted because the 'lying' that sustains them is missing. Thus, there are 'truthful' ads and there is cinema, but only in the form of documentaries and historicals. While the film does not explore it, I can't help thinking: what kind of history it would be, without its debates and its interpretations? The same event was called 'the Mutiny' by the British and the 'First War of Independence' by the Indian freedom fighters - which history would be more 'truthful'? Once you start thinking about it, it becomes clear that the divide between 'fiction' and 'news, reportage, history, politics, religion, culture' becomes unsustainable.
The film does not take this possibility on. Instead, it focuses on specific moments in this truthful world: In such a world, how do doctors interact with patients? What do people tell each other about where they go once they die? However, in this blog post I want to focus on one particular moment. Ricky Gervais' character has just spoken the first lie in the world, and he then attempts to explain to his friend what he has done. He tells him "I just said something that wasn't." And the friend says "Wasn't what?", to which he replies "Just wasn't". This is very clever writing, as naturally you cannot have a word for truth until and unless you have a word for lying, and vice versa.
This brings me to Saussure and the question of identity (and you thought this blog post was only about the movie!) In a previous post, I had summarised Saussure's breakdown of words and concepts into signifiers and signified, which make possible the argument that concepts are constructions rather than essentials. Saussure also argued that each letter (and word-concept) derives its meaning from its position in a particular sequence. What is B? It is the letter that comes after A and before C. Meaning depends on context and contingency rather than on any essential characteristic within itself. What is an apartment? It is a type of house that is not a bungalow, not a palace and not a hut. Within the context 'type of dwelling', it occupies a place that is relational (in relation to other types of houses, an apartment is one) and negative (it is not all these things, therefore it is this). Having grown up in India, the image that comes to my mind when I use the word 'apartment' (and I am more likely to use the word 'flat' rather than 'apartment') is different, presumably, from someone who has grown up in Paris or New York. When we accept that identity is relational and negative, then the characteristics with which we imbue identities are webs of our own spinning. When I assume that a ramshackle apartment in Paris is more 'romantic' than a ramshackle apartment in Mumbai, this idea is sustained by the discursive intertwining of the ideas of romance and Paris, which includes elements of Orientalism. After Wake Up Sid, though, Mumbai's romantic quotient should never be in doubt!
Amol Gaitonde, View from Mumbai Marol Hillview Apt.1, 2003, image courtesy wikipedia commons,
The idea of identity as relational and negative frees up the notion of identity and releases it from its thrall to essential characteristics. In the absence of a relational notion of identity, an Indian is someone who loves cricket, Bollywood, is fanatic about caste and religion, works in a call centre, is argumentative, is intelligent, is not intelligent, knows English, does not know English, is underdeveloped because does not question social norms, is creative precisely because of ability to re-work social norms and so on. This list is filled with both positive and negative characteristics, can be populated indefinitely and volumes written on each characteristic. For example, I would love to write one on the 'unargumentative' Indian, as the idea of making an argument about 'unargumentative-ness' is whimsically appealing. All this activity, this definition of characteristics makes us feel comfortable, as there are bounds to be grains and pearls of truth in all this wisdom, all this information. The relational notion of identity frees us from all this noise, as it were. In this understanding of the world, to be Indian is simply to be not American, not British, not Australian, not Russian and so on. Saussure used the example of the Geneva-to-Paris train to make this point, wherein the train that goes at 8:25 is distinguished in terms of its position in a system where it is distinguished from the 8:20 and the 8:40 trains, rather than understood in terms of its engine or its number of carriages. Relationality allows us to understand identities in relation to each other, enabling us to see descriptions of identities as the fabrications they are.