In the recent Disney cartoon of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan saga, there is an affecting post-structuralist Ur-scene that does not appear in the original text of 1914; it has more than one meaning. The little white child of a pair of castaways is rescued by a black ape-mother, after his own parents are torn to pieces by a tiger in the jungle; she brings him up in place of the children she has lost. But there are continual conflicts with other members of the gorilla band, incited by its male chief against this alien addition to the family. Even when he plays with his contemporaries, the human child is made painfully aware, as in Lacan’s mirror stage, that he is unlike them. After one such conflict the child, seeing his face reflected in a puddle, smears it with mud to make it more like those around him. Whereupon his ape-mother solves Tarzan’s crisis by constructing an identity for him. She wipes the grimy mask from his face and bids him close his eyes. To let him realize what they have in common, she lays the palm of his hand on the naked sole of her paw. Then she lets him feel the beating of his heart, and takes him gently in her arms, so that he can hear her own, consoling him with words of postmodern comfort: ‘You see? We’re identical!’

Thus, shutting his eyes to empirical reality, she teaches him—by selective perception and emotion—to discover a core of being common to Man and Ape. Thus is a collective identity constructed and lived out. Faith in her love allows him to square a sense of his difference with the conviction that he nevertheless belongs to the band. Still, she is forced to add pensively, the gorilla chief ‘doesn’t get it!’ Obviously, the leader of such a band needs to keep his eyes peeled, and lacks the gift of second sight. Only many years later, as he encounters others of Tarzan’s kind, does he at last distinguish between the foundling and other men, and—acknowledging Tarzan’s countless heroic deeds on the group’s behalf—accept this worthy stranger into the Leitkultur of the apes, granting him, as it were, the Green Card of the gorillas.

This touching little parable from the box-office shows in the simplest way, 1) what a declaration of collective identity looks like; 2) how its construction operates; and 3) the way its semantics penetrate even the fond vocabulary of children today.

Since the 70s, this kind of postmodern magic has spread from the media and cultural studies to every part of the political spectrum, from furthest Left and Right—the Red Army Faction or the Nouvelle Droite—to the Centre. There it now typically decks out a rickety nationalism in new attire, troubling precedents forgotten. But it is also ubiquitous above and below the level of the nation-state, wherever politically more effective units have to be forged out of variegated situations or structures. So we find it in all kinds of regionalism and ethnic politics. Much earlier, such constructivist essentialism operated within the economic domain, endowing any heteroclite jumble of firms with the reassuring image of a common ‘corporate identity’. In the political arena, it has transformed the ethnic and gender minorities of what was once the American melting pot into the rainbow coalitions of ‘identity-politics’.

For over two decades now, formulas of collective identity have likewise inspired both the Jewish world and the Third World—in each case to dramatically ambiguous effect. The relatively early and keen interest in ‘Jewish identity’ was a response both to the extraordinary range of national and cultural differences among Jews—in Israel, in the United States and in the rest of the world—and to the challenges that secularization and territorial dispersal posed to a unique ethno-religious community, after the murderous consequences of one of the ‘collective identities’ ascribed to them by others, in anti-Semitic pogroms and the Shoah. The contemporary formula of ‘Jewish identity’ renders feelings of belonging and solidarity at once stronger and more anonymous; postulating common bonds without betraying their basis to an antagonistic outside world, or lapsing into a discourse of race that once linked some of the proudest figures of assimilation and conversion (Freud or Disraeli) to their most enraged opponents and executioners. It built bridges between Zionists and anti-Zionists; poor immigrants arriving in Israel and wealthy rentiers investing their capital elsewhere; religious believers of the most diverse observance and committed Enlightenment critics of religion. It transvalued, as the enormity of the Shoah gradually became visible and speakable, the criteria of mass murder into those of self-respect, mourning and solidarity. Should that be openly debated? Empirically, there was still less a Jewish ‘identity’ than any other, which is certainly why it has had such exceptional force as a moral interpellation. Historically, the formula operates all too understandably as a code-word for the construction of a post-catastrophic community. Yet, at once emphatic and obscuring, it makes any clarifying public agreement over practices and traditions more difficult.

In the especially precarious conditions of developing countries, the same mechanism—an internalization of fate become demonstration of pride—has generated an intense output of collective-identity constructions. But here the original initiative came from the outside. In the United States, where notions of ‘civic culture’ and ‘political culture’ were invented by modernization specialists in the 60s, the fashionable theories of Erik Erikson about individual identity were applied to society, for the purpose of projecting a ‘political identity’ onto entire countries. The think-tanks of the Cold War wanted to safeguard the democratization of post-colonial regimes in the Third World against national liberation movements, which were often supported by the Soviet Union or China. In this setting, where many post-colonial states had inherited from imperialism arbitrary frontiers that cut across or mixed up traditions, and where local or tribal cultures bore no relation to political structures, ‘nation-building’ was posed as a prerequisite of democracy. Such states, it was explained, needed cultural strategies to reorient societies towards their ‘political identity’. In other words the task was to create a people, who would then provide a stable base for democracy.

In appropriating these strategies to navigate from colonialism to democracy, however, nation-building not only often appealed to pre-colonial traditions—not exactly oriented to modernization—but mobilized anti-Western sentiments bequeathed by the liberation struggle. Ample technical means for creating ‘political’ identity were thereby transferred to national ‘cultural’ identities, with an ‘invention of tradition’ whose affective charge was reinforced by a global repudiation of the West, and which by no means necessarily prepared the way for democratization. In 1982 ‘cultural identity’ was erected by UNESCO—in which developing countries were now a majority—into a fundamental right of nations. Thereafter the term entered the vocabulary of reform within the Soviet empire, where its permissive emptiness served as a cover for the intellectual preparation—and for the emotive content—of various forms of separatism. Since 1990, all of the post-communist states in Eastern Europe have equipped themselves—mostly in regressive register—with a ‘national identity’ that has tended to push civil rights and democratic movements into the background.