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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 149-156
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What we call "identity," Dror Wahrman reminds us in this lively and thought-provoking book, "encompasses within it . . . a productive tension between two contradictory impulses: identity as the unique individuality of a person . . . , or identity as a common denominator that places an individual within a group" (xii). The impulses, however, are not contradictory but complementary: one could not exist without the other. Moreover, the tension between them is not specific to human identity alone; it pertains to the identity of any object whatsoever, animate or not. Any individual dog, or tree, or rock we encounter is this specific, unique being or object we might identify with a proper name as well as a member of a class named by such general concepts as "dog," "tree," or "rock." No one, whether human or not, can ever have an exclusively individual identity, and no one can be nothing but a member of a group. To this extent the tension is built into the very structure of human rationality and language and is not subject to historical change. But the individualizing and generalizing components of an identity can be mixed in various proportions—and these proportions are subject to change. Wahrman's central claim is precisely this, that "the balance between these two meanings has itself been subject to historical change, and can thus help us in the task of identifying and distinguishing two radically different configurations of understandings of identity in the eighteenth century" (xii). From the late seventeenth century until about 1780, educated Englishmen, he proposes, answered the question "Who am I?" within the presuppositions and constraints of what he calls "the ancien régime of identity." After about 1780 these presuppositions changed, giving way to "the modern regime of selfhood." Hence "the final goal of this book . . . : to chart the [End Page 149] sharp and distinctive transformation that led from one identity regime to the other, and to explain how and why it happened" (xiv).
Two features characterize Wahrman's regime change. First, the individualizing impulse, unimportant (or perhaps even nonexistent, as every now and then Wahrman comes perilously close to suggesting) under the old order, becomes central under the new one, while the previously dominant generalizing impulse recedes into the background: the corporate medieval or early modern identity withers away, the individual modern self "characterized by psychological depth, or interiority," (xi) is born. Second, the fundamental categories of corporate identity, understood under the old regime to be relatively mutable and matter of choice, come to be seen under the new order as innate and essential, matter of destiny rather than choice.
The obvious questions these claims raise are first, whether the two changes really took place and second, what caused them. The first of the two changes, the transition from a predominantly corporate to a predominantly individualist understanding of identity, seems plausible (in this sense Wahrman is right to see his book "as retelling one of the oldest stories in the Western canon, that of the rise of modern individualism" [xvi]), although one may wonder whether the change was as sudden, precipitous, and decisive as Wahrman would have it, or rather spread over several centuries of still continuing trials and errors as in the more traditional versions of the story (recent skirmishes in the politics-of-identity wars do suggest that we are still trying to get the proper balance between the individual and corporate components of our identities right). The disadvantage of Wahrman's version is that it leaves us with troublesome counterexamples of advanced individualism well before 1780. Van Dyck's portraits do tend to accentuate the corporate aristocratic identity of his clients, but not so the portraits of...