Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Youth and identity crisis

It has never been easy to explain what every youth goes through, namely a very specific quest for identity for that leads all too often to a crisis. Youth is like being cast out into the sea in a small boat and thus easily to be tossed up and down by waves, if not at risk to capsize. That reminds of Kant who wished first to charter self understanding, in order to discover reason before setting out on a journey through still unchartered waters. He had and took the time to find that inner compass; many youth are cast into life long before they had the time to find that orientation in themselves.

All the more remarkable is Adorno's comment about Kant for using the concept 'self' so many times without ever clarifying this term. That is why Adorno would say at the beginning of his incompleted aesthetical reflections, that the only thing that is self understood is that nothing is self understood. And to make clear what he meant by that, he underlined the fact that to him identity is in reality having no identity. As this has many more implications than what meets the immediate sense of understanding what lies ahead in life, many resort to a simple trust in themselves. It is a trust which has been given to them by loving parents. They do so to ensure that their child grows up with a minimum of self confidence, so as to be able to make its way alone through life.

Out of this follows the demand upon the individual to gain autonomy i.e. no one having the authority over this individual, by being able to be alone. It can be called self independent. For emancipation begins by the freedom to give oneself recognition and therefore become free from the need to gain recognition through others or something else e.g. by gaining a certain job in society or able to attain a certain status i.e. of having a house and being successful in society. Self recognition is linked to being free to recognize oneself as human being and the others as being different from oneself. Consequently the crucial question is how this self recognition can be gained when much depends on a self understanding to be attained through how others understand themselves and other people?

The entry to that space called mutual understanding by activating intersujectivity depends, of course, upon use of language, including bodily language. How meanings are shared and stories told, that is altogether something children learn from day one when they hear their parents sing and speak to them while still in the baby carriage. That means sound, and more concretely the human voice, adds something to language. It becomes more than a sound, for by being transformed in meaningful words it becomes a means of communication. Small children are attracted primarily by sounds e.g. the rattling of keys or some beautiful song. Sounds enter the wild world of the imagination like being in a bubble with fear accompanying this process of transformation for no child wishes this magic bubble to burst. Happiness can be described as staying within that bubble. When it bursts and the self exposed to a cold world filled with harsh and hart words, then something of that trust in the world is destroyed and the intimate soul of that person can be hurt very badly. It explains why human dignity is said to be untouchable and therefore sacred. Any violation thereof means a human, social and political crisis in the making.

There are many kinds of responses to this kind of crisis. While authoritarian fathers would not longer speak with their sons but delegate them to the representative of reason in society, namely the psychiatrist (M. Foucault), other fathers would ressort to other forms of coercive power. It begins by no longer paying for the son's studies and does not end with the withdrawal of love.

How a young person responds to these challenges, that depends again on friends, social milieu and chances or opportunities given by society at that particular period of time. Often this demand of the parents is linked to a system exercising coercive power. Hence the son is given but two choices: either become a business man or else join the army. In both cases the demand of the parents was to find something respectable, if not a job then a position recognized within society. The demand is made to ensure that the next generation does keep at least one promise or ethical vow, namely to uphold the continuity of life. (Jean Paul Sartre) So while parents may have a very different understanding of what it takes to have a happy life and cannot really discuss with their children how they will fulfil that, they want to know that they will continue life. Still, youngsters face a dilemma with this either/or. For how to gain and retain independence as much as self esteem without thereby needing to break with the parents completely?

Famous is the call of Erikson for mediation between parents and youth when it comes to the need to take on identity. Meant by this is to find a practical way to exist in society. It is directly linked to a kind of existential design on how the youth thinks to exist in society. There are different degrees of studies with regards to this. Hence the wish to become a lawyer or doctor is easier to sell to the parents than studies of philosophy, literature or psychology. Since this decision takes time and is sometimes complicated by not being able to find out right away what one wants to do with one's life, Erikson recommended to give the youth a moratorium: extra time to think about what they would like to do in future with their lives. This recommendation was made around the 1960'ties when he drew the attention to the fact that the youth needs more time to decide. He was convinced after having studied the young man Luther, that the youth should not be pressured into making the decision early in their lives as to what it should be. They should postpone assume one concrete i.e. professional role by which to earn money. Rather they should give due consideration to everything before making up their mind.

Important is one crucial assumption: taking on any concrete identity is not merely a free choice, but rather the personal self has to fit into a practical model of existence. The latter is made possible by existing society i.e. if growing up in a hunting society the prime role would be that of a hunter while in an agricultural one it would be a farmer.

This leads automatically to the current situation with society not merely changing all the time, but by going global, has become more abstract and invisible, if not entirely empty of concrete possibilities. As one Danish business man would explain all companies move their production abroad and keep only the highly qualified jobs in the country so that his children find only very low jobs i.e. cleaning, services such as waiter or such which require utmost skills and know-how. At the same time, he sees his twelve year old son communicating around the world even after the time has passed to come in from the street to go soon to bed. These time shifts as to play time being extended easily into the night due to being available 24 hours changes the borders between day and night, play and work, public and private. And the question becomes but what new identity can children assume when growing up in such a world?

Here needs to be added that only certain models of existence seem to lead to successful adaptation. No wonder when today more and more youth have suspended therefore this decision altogether. They prefer to keep open the question of development by refusing to assume a concrete role. At the same time, this struggle to keep open the question of identity means also assuming a political stance towards the others and more so towards the entire system. For many tend to question the entire system and declare that they no longer wish to work within a system which goes in their opinion against their ethical vision of justice and equality between all human beings. In short, there is linked to every new youth generation a tendency towards revolt or at the very least to a questioning of this assumption, namely the need to take on identity only within the given social order. Rather the beginning of a revolt is signalled by their refusal to become concrete within society, but rather they shall question everything even if at risk to become in the process not understandable to others. Usually such a revolt coincides with a society transforming itself from the industrial to the knowledge society and even beyond that to a new type still in need to be defined and recognized.

Still the task to become concrete by taking on identity is given. It is done by revealing how one wishes to survive in society and thereby help society to reproduce itself. That becomes possible once society can recognize how it shall continue to survive despite all of the changes.

Thus a lot happens if communication between society and youth breaks down or if society feels threatened by a youth revolt. In 1968 a visible difference started to exist between the older and younger generations. One visible difference Pier Paolo Pasolini called 'the language of the hair': young men letting their hair grow very long even at the risk to be mistaken from a distance to be women. The student movement meant above all a revolt against an over determination of one's own identity by previous generations i.e. with father and grandfather having been a shoemaker, you are going to be a shoemaker as well. Rather a key to revolt became self determination. It was based on a growing sense of having a value all to oneself since not ugly and therefore having no value, but in reality a beautiful, indeed wonderful human being. Such altered perception of the self meant suddenly it was worth the effort to step out of this over determination and by overcoming previous barriers, reshape one's life by finding another role in society. By assuming such a new role the intention was to alter development in a direction which was more compatible with human values.

For many youth personal identity becomes ever more difficult once they have entered school and are exposed to different kinds of influences. Above all they find themselves confronted by demands to show respect to authorities and demonstrate some kind of allegiance to the state e.g. by joining the yearly parade or even having to say at school prayers while singing 'God save the Queen'. These forms of socialization within the educational system towards patriotism are reinforced especially after key incidences e.g. the bomb attack on the London tube system in 2005.

Patriotism is evoked to produce an emotional alliance with a state otherwise too abstract, in order to know concretely what to do to uphold common values. How different they are from values of civil conduct needs to be explored. Also whether Patriotism excludes and suppresses other feelings for people has also to be examined. The question is whether the new kind of Patriotism advocated especially in times of a financial crisis is any different from previous forms of Nationalism, that remains to be seen.

Germany was perceived due to what happened 1933 till 1945 under Hitler as an extreme case of Nationalism. In response to that Habermas emphasizes the new constitution included that crucial basic value that 'human dignity is untouchable'. For a long time, Nationalism was tabu, at least in West Germany. After reunification in 1989, things changed. When Germany hosted the world football cup, many youngsters ran through the streets with the German flag painted on their cheeks. After all the reluctance to show national sentiments followed World War II, thus by showing again national sentiment, it was perceived as a positive emancipation from the past. It was taken like a liberation to be able to show in public once again national sentiment, but by being named a show of patriotism, it was taken to be a meaningful manifestation of an alternative to Nationalism. It was called Patriotism as formulated fore mostly by the philosopher Habermas. Thus the question is if Patriotism is really a true alternative to Nationalism or just, as some will think, merely the same but in different clothes? With this question we will want to concern ourselves.

Naturally there are many different approaches to this topic of 'Nation and Identity', among them Heinrich Heine who lived most of his life in Paris while writing ironic poems about his homeland Germany. Interestingly enough the writer Ernst Käbisch, in reference to his experiences with children, would say that children do not understand irony! Rather they are clearly structured and wish a straight forward answer. Why is that? Klaus Heinrich gives here an interesting interpretation of irony as being a sign of 'resignation'. Does this mean children are not yet resigned? That, in turn, can be linked to the famous saying by Albert Camus 'to hope is to resign and to live is not to resign'. It would mean youth altogether and even more so children have not given up hope! They have apparently not made as of yet such experiences as to see their identities crash against the walls of reality? But what about that youth which was forced to join the Hitler Youth organization or in former East Germany the pioneers which even though not compulsorary was nevertheless the social norm and enforced by the parents who wished their children to be safeguarded from discriminations reinforced by the system. There is a book by Leona Bielitz about children in uniform to explore what it meant for those youth growing up under such huge pressures of socialization. Another famous case is the confession by the writer Günter Grass sixty years later that he had joined towards the end of Second World War the SS. He was at that time nineteen. Many took it as a part of the sin any youth can make but is that really the case?

Recruitment of children and youth is not at all far away from children who become soldiers in the many dirty wars fought by war lords who know how to exploit the power of the child. They are prone to enter these wars since they do not fear as of yet death. Ceausceau was known to recruit for his most loyal security guards children from orphanages. They became utmost loyal to him as they saw in him a kind of superfather and who replaced the one they never had in reality. Here Freud's explanation about the super ego functioning more concretely than an abstract God to solicit utmost loyalty can go a far way to explain this recruiting purpose and policy.

This then takes us into a deeper and more problematic terrain, that of loyalty to the nation or fatherland (if not motherland). When people are willing to give their lives by going 'blindly' to war, then certain aspects are touched upon which cannot be easily explained. Something may come, however, apparent when war veterans gather around the memorial monument of First World War and distribute poppies as symbol for the soldiers who had died on such battle fields as Verdun. They remember the heroes but do not discuss the follies and mistakes made by having entered a war in the first place. The kind of monuments constructed to suppress the critical truth can be a subject matter for political iconographic studies about differences in monuments e.g which ones do not glorify war but contemplate at least, even if they do not as of yet question war as a principle. The grave of the unknown soldier in the Hofgarten of Munich goes in that direction.

When reading, for instance, Andre Breton, the father of the Surrealist Manifest, then it becomes clear how a certain censorship suffices to uphold the national narrative with all its hereos but equally distortions of reality. Soldiers were not disbanded immediately after First World War but instead had to wear their uniforms for some time on. As soldiers they were prohibited to participate in political discussions.

There is more to how Patriotism upholds the folly of man to go to war in the first place. As depicted by the film 'What a lovely game war is', there are those who play with nations as if figures on a chess board while they amuse themselves. Many more soldiers were killed at the front since the generals wanted to have the trenches move a few meters forward. Thus while they enjoyed the sherry back home, soldiers had to obey their orders even if it meant certain death. Solshenitzyn did show in August 1914 that the generals got entangled in a dispute about whether the troops were fit or not, till it was decided to test them. Thus all soldiers had to get of the trains taking them to the Finnish front and had to walk on foot to the front. Naturally by the time they arrived, they were so exhausted that they were easily defeated by the Finnish troops. From Patriotism to a blind following of even stupid orders there is a connection. Even capable generals like Rommel ended up serving Hitler till he decided to have Rommel executed on the suspicion of having participated in the resistance against his command. The problem with Patriotism is that it excludes a critical and questioning mind and therefore silences the many open questions a child still has before being brought to believe the party or the system has all the answers. This dilemma was depicted by Arthur Koestler in his book 'Darkness at Noon', and even then others did not believe him this showed what Communism especially under Stalin was all about. It is said that often such strong ideologies replace religion while giving at the same time the persons the illusion that it is possible to believe in at least something, and if not in God, then in the nation as symbolized by the flag and anthem.

Loyalty to the flag means to be organized mentally according to certain signs which provide orientation: who are we for, who against. In the famous painting by Altdörfer, the Alexander Battle, with Alexander the Great defeating Darius and putting him into flight, Altdörfer depicts soldiers who just run after their respective flag. From a bird's perspective the battle becomes an ant like complexity. It shows a vast number of people running behind their respective flag. They seem agonized by the thought that this flag might vanish out of sight for then they would have no longer any orientation. But by not really knowing what they are doing, they end up running in quite another direction when compared to the overall direction of the battle. That may explain the contradictions even within war times, or it is as Andre Malraux described it in his story about the first time when gas was used as a weapon, that once the wind turned, then everyone was transformed into a panic stricken individual. Everyone ran in any possible direction while carrying on the back a wounded or dead person, no matter whether enemy or friend. That confusion should be kept in mind. It becomes evident when panic breaks out.

Naturally such references to what took place during First and Second World War indicate that the sentiment for the European Union are these memories of wars which engulfed Europe and the world in senseless destructions. Connected with that is the question about Nationalism. It is an absurd one as exemplified by the famous film 'Jules and Jim': two students, one German, the other French study together in Paris and who fall in love with the same woman. But then comes First World War; the two men are conscripted like all young men and end up fighting each other on the other side of the trenches. The German student turned soldier has married in the meantime the French woman but who longs for another life after the war and which Jules does not give her; he has lost all feelings in the trenches.

Memories of these wars linger on as shown in the Kids' Guernica action by Gezoncourt when Alexandra Zanne took the children of this small community by bus to Verdun to discuss there with a historian the reasons behind First World War, and after having discovered in a nearby forest a house all covered with moos but inside still the skeletons of those who died there between 1914 and 1918, they returned home to paint a peace mural while posing themselves the question 'the other: enemy or friend?'

Nationalism and patriotism carry within them the risk of bringing about inhumane reactions, insofar as they draw both visible and invisible borders, to delineate arbitrarily the own people from the 'others'. Often this goes parallel with deliberate methods used to uphold enemy pictures of the other as if a threat to one's own identity. Why is this so? That question needs to be explored and posed in an even more comprehensive way.

Thus something more needs to be said as to what is not merely Nationalism up front to be perceived superficially as people waving a certain flag, but what is the system behind it and which can and does form but also determines identity. Here some philosophical explanations are needed while not leaving out cross references as to where we stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century with Europe being a model since 1945. As a model it underlines the wish to leave behind Nationalism by uniting and integrating people over and beyond mere national identity and acceptance, while the other would remain but the enemy – if not real, then still as a potential threat to one's own well being and identity.

A key term setting itself apart from nationalist societies bend on accepting only their own kin and underlining it by a wish by having a pure identity, one not mixed with others, is that of Habermas: 'Schicksalgemeinschaft' – the society willing to share 'fate' with all the others and thus in its deepest sense open to embrace humanity as a whole. Moreover this should be done without a claim to have all universal truths, in order to avoid one thing which was reinforced by a Nationalism turned into racism leading on to genocide. That was the case in former Yugoslavia based on 'ethnic assertiveness' and furthered by use of only certain identities linked to general traits being propagated.

By entering a serious discussion about the linkage between 'nation and identity', and while examining whether or not Patriotism can and does pose a realistic alternative to Nationalism of all kinds, the youth workshop provides a forum to discuss and to reflect different answers to this question.

Hatto Fischer

Kreisau, Poland 25.2.2012


Further talking points

Habermas: human dignity

The 'I' is not a recognizable identity from outside but the person, but is best expressed by what constitutes 'human dignity' in need to be respected. Consequently Habermas points out this was always entailed in 'human rights' but after the horrible experiences made during Second World War, 'human dignity as something untouchable' found its way into the new German constitution. In German, it is said that 'die menschliche Würde ist unantastbar'.

Identity crisis

„It is very interesting for me to observe how the financial crisis in Greece changes the atmosphere in Germany, and this in direction of reinforcing Nationalism. The government under Merkel holds onto its economic tough course, but the atmosphere within society changes. Now one no longer speaks an integrative language, but about the Greeks, the French, the British etc. Always there are those outside who have apparently different interests from us. The poet Stevan Tontic is moving this year from Sarajevo to Belgrade for the life in Sarajevo has become impossible for Serbs, unbearable for Croats and for normal people unthinkable. Everything is spoiled because of this identity crisis. There follows only intolerance, exclusion and drawing of still tougher borders to distinguish oneself from the others. This is due to a dynamic and in part imported Islam. The people no longer know who they are and they feel merely that they should no longer be what they were in the recent past.“

Zlatomir Popovic, Berlin 2012

Identity under normative and real pressure

In totalitarian societies, it was said the pressure upon the individual was so great, that people said they felt threatened in their identities.

It is said that once religious fundamentalists take over, they wish to totalize the consciousness by referring only to God and nothing else. Other realities are obliterated. That leads even to the destruction of such cultural heritage which reminds that other realities existed before this particular one was imposed.

Conversion logic


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