Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Contaminated Identities

There's discussion at Language Log about Prince Harry's brilliant Nazi costume idea. Bill Poser essentially tells everyone to calm down, since this is not necessarily a statement in favor of Nazism. I agree with this, and I love that a guy named "Poser" is talking about costumes. Arnold Zwicky argues that "certain identities are highly contaminating culturally, to the extent that playing with them lays the performers open to attributions of actually having the portrayed identities." Homosexuality is his other example: if I pretend to be gay, people assume I am gay.

Zwicky makes no mention (unless it's encoded in the Goffman reference) of why these particular identities are contaminated. The two have certainly been linked in popular imagination--think of Ernst Rohm and Robert Brasillach. I think the connection is one or both of the following:

First, we are worried about whether we might share these identities. This is most obvious in the case of homosexuality. "Gay" is an identity that wasn't an option even a few decades ago, and it's being embraced by more people than one would have thought likely in Wilde's day. Or even Proust's, or even Foucault's. We wonder whether we're gay ourselves. In the Nazi case, this might be less obvious. "Of course we're not Nazis." Well, no, we aren't; we all hate Hitler and think the Holocaust was a bad thing. But aren't we secretly fascinated? Haven't we all been to sporting events and rock concerts where we've felt something like what one must have felt in the thrall of a charismatic speaker who gives your life total meaning? See Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism" essay, and Le Bon too I suppose.

Second, the act of playing or performance is essential to both identities. Homosexuality, again, obviously. Playing straight for so long, then coming out and demonstrating gayness publicly. Fascination with Broadway musicals. Dressing up and marching in a parade. The mass demonstration is the most obvious example in Nazism. To their emphasis on action, one might ask if "act" here means to do or to pretend. (Does this work in German? Does it work in French? Faire can mean "to seem," although it's probably not as striking as in English. Agir is not something you do in a play. Does Action Francaise have this unintended meaning?)

A final question is how to interpret Zwicky's word "contamination," with its suggestion of an inside (the identity) and an outside (from where the contamination comes). One thinks also of various Red Scares, a certain number of communists having infiltrated the State Department, etc. (And one should contrast this imagery with that of a barbarians at the gate, the hun threatening from the East.) Is this a subtle attempt to make the essentialist argument about gays and fascists?

So this is an attempt to determine how we think of fascism. More later on how fascists themselves thought.

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