“Belonging” means the fact of belonging to something or someone. A serf belongs to an estate. A slave belongs to his master. In our democratic universe, no one belongs to a lord and master anymore, at least in principle. Nowadays, people only belong to communities of free individuals who are equal under the law—again, in principle.
We all belong to the human race. Nearly all of you here belong to the nation of Italy, to Sicily, to the city of Messina, to such and such a milieu, to such and such a family. Most of you now even have a new level of supranational belonging: your passports are no longer merely Italian but European.
While some relationships of belonging are mainly spatial in nature, they necessarily have a temporal dimension, and vice versa. We all belong to a particular generation. If relationships of belonging are located in space and time, this is because the same is true of people. Some relationships of belonging are purely cultural, such as belonging to a religion, a social or professional group, an ideology, or a political party. Others are predominantly natural relationships of belonging, but which have been “culturalized”: for example, each of us belongs to a particular blood group. [End Page 1]
In times past, relationships of belonging were organized hierarchically. In the modern world, they are increasingly variable and unstable. We are now conglomerates of such relationships, though with vestiges of hierarchy.
There are strong and weak relationships of belonging, and their distribution varies from individual to individual, from country to country, and from one era to the next. I’m told that in Italy, the sense of national belonging is weaker than in the United States or France, but regional and family relationships of belonging are more meaningful.
There are voluntary and involuntary relationships of belonging. There are honorary ones, such as belonging to an academy, and dishonorable ones such as belonging to a group of habitual offenders.
There are relationships of belonging that are purely administrative and bureaucratic, and others that, on the contrary, are private and even concealed—for example, secret passions to which an individual belongs body and soul without anyone else knowing. There are also relationships of belonging that no one has any problem recognizing apart from the one who belongs: if I belong to the category of conceited people, I am the only one not to notice.
Our social identity is an intertwining and intermingling of relationships of belonging so numerous and diverse that together they constitute something unique: an individual being that we are the only one to possess. Although our relationships of belonging are never individual in the strict sense, they are so many and varied that, for each individual, they make up a combination distinct from all comparable combinations, a singular identity, a bit like our genetic makeup.
It seems to me that it is in this individualizing multiplicity of relationships of belonging that we need to look for the two meanings—not only different but diametrically opposed—of the word identity. To have an identity is to be unique; and yet, outside of that use, the term means the opposite of unique, denoting rather that which is identical—in other words, the complete absence of any uniquely identifying difference.
In short, by dint of belonging to everyone, we end up belonging to no one but ourselves. Our own identity is merely the intersection of all that makes us identical to countless others. This explains the paradox of identity, but in such a way that it is no surprise that so many nowadays are afflicted with what they call “identity issues.” The very expression highlights and explains their confusion. Such people feel the same as anyone and everyone. What the modern world offers us by way of difference cannot satisfy our desire for uniqueness.
In the highly socialized traditional world, we already define ourselves—exclusively, even—by our relationships of belonging. But since we don’t [End Page 2] distinguish ourselves from those relationships—since we’re joined to them—we’re not aware that they’re nothing more than a string of “identities...