Collective identity – in times of upheaval

Philosophical reflections from Cairo

These are really rough questions that are burning on our nails at the moment: What does the so-called Arab Spring really mean?? What is the significance of the last year’s Egyptian January Revolution that culminated here in Cairo on the Midan Tahrir?? What is the significance and relevance primarily for Egypt itself?? What for the Arab world? What for the present and future world at large? What is the significance for Europe in particular?? And then also quite concretely: What significance does this revolution, this upheaval, have for ourselves??

"Whoever descends into the same rivers, different water always flows to him" – With this image of the continuously flowing river, the German philosopher, the "Rolf", has expressed many polarities: the polarity of being and becoming, of sameness and difference, and also, as many intellectuals today would perhaps prefer to say instead, the polarity of identity and non-identity in general.

collective identity - in times of upheaval

Demonstrators on 29. January 2011 in downtown Cairo. Image: Ramy Raoof. License: CC-BY-SA-2.0

With regard to these polarities, our Egyptian hosts here in Cairo are certainly the best experts themselves: The Nile has been the Nile for thousands and thousands of years, while its z.B. The water flowing past the Cairo Nile is never the same at any hour.

A river is not a river if its water does not flow. That still seems trivial. But moreover it is also true that not all flowing waters, not all waters that are ‘in the river’ are waters in the same river. And we are already at the question of what is the decisive criterion of identity for rivers, i.E. What two flowing waters must have in common in order to be water of the same river.

What is it exactly that makes the Nile the Nile? Its origin? Certainly not. The Nile existed thousands of years before the discovery of its sources. The spatial location of its various riverbeds? Probably not. These situations have also changed again and again over the millennia, either through natural events or through the influence of people and their machines.

And already some colleagues among us will take off theoretically – and want to advocate such theses as the one that the Nile does not exist in reality, which is called the "Nile" is, like everything else in this world, a social construction of the human mind. Or like this.

I believe that such questions of identity are no different from the broad question of the nature of time, which the African philosopher and theologian has explored in his Confessiones (XI,14) aptly expressed it this way:

So what is ‘time’? If no one asks me about it, I know it; if I am asked about it and want to explain it to the questioner, I do not know it.

I see these things very roughly like this: If everything goes as normal, no identity questions arise. Whether we should meet at 4 o’clock or at 5 o’clock, and whether we should go to the Lebanese restaurant on the steamer Blue Nile or with the small colorful boats on the Cairo east bank of the Nile, that is, at least intellectually, usually absolutely unproblematic. As long as everything goes on as usual, there will be no identity problems. As long as everything remains as it is, we do not need identity theories.

This implies: The emergence of identity problems is a fairly reliable symptom of the presence of a particular kind of crisis situation, precisely of the presence of what is then aptly called a more or less deep identity crisis. Such crises of identity can in turn – seen from a higher perspective – be part of the normal course of events: like z.B. Those that typically occur in adolescence, or in the so-called midlife crisis, in the presence of existential relationship problems, after the death of a person very close to us, etc. But they can also come upon us quite unexpectedly. For example, in the case of a brain stroke. And even for the happiest of us, from one breath to the next, our whole existence can lose its meaning.

And this is true, as we know, not only for individuals, it is no less true for collectives. Times of upheaval, if they want to be (or even appear to be) real times of upheaval, even revolutions, are always also times of crisis – and necessarily so. Every profound time of upheaval inevitably goes hand in hand with an identity crisis. So it is simply inconsistent to bury a revolution – and then complain about its identity pramises and consequences.

If this is so, then it follows logically: Also this congress, more precisely: also the discourse of this congress is – as a discourse with this topic

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