The Identity Concept and Its Futures Past. A Roundtable on Gerald Izenberg's Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea

AHA Session 44
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Eric W. Oberle, Arizona State University
Emily J. Levine, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Warren Breckman, University of Pennsylvania
Malachi Haim Hacohen, Duke University
Eric W. Oberle, Arizona State University
Gerald N. Izenberg, Washington University in St. Louis

Session Abstract

This roundtable probes the historical and metahistorical analysis of Gerald Izenberg’s 2016 Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea. Historians need no introduction to the category of identity—the notion has become so widespread that no subfield of historical analysis does not make use of it; and indeed, not an insignificant number of subfields understand the creation, contestation, construction and rejection of identities to be at the center of historical change and thus at the center of the historian’s work. Whether we know what identity means, however, is another question. As Peter Novick’s pathbreaking work That Noble Dream generated controversy over the long-standing use of the concept of objectivity in the historical profession, so Izenberg’s work provokes thought about the contemporary pluralist consensus around the concept of identity. In contrast to the ideal of objectivity, which found its model in a notion of scientific and political neutrality, the story of the identity concept, as Izenberg shows, has been one of pluralistic and interdisciplinary articulation: its consensus has been one of dissensus. But this points to the timeliness of Izenberg’s impressive historical survey of the concept. His work shows how literary, sociological, psychological, philosophical, and historiographical concerns have shaped and are still shaping this important category of historical analysis and of personal self-understanding, and provides useful analytical categories for considering the merits of a further expansion of this idea. Izenberg’s work, pluralistic and philosophical, synthetic and international, traces out a history of intellectual and social struggle from the 1920s to the present that combines the history of ideas with the analysis of a growing politics of strategic alliance and affiliation that expanded the cultural and social rights of millions of people. The goal of the panelists is to think with and against Izenberg’s survey of this core concept of our contemporary world, exposing its weaknesses and extending its strengths to raise the question of the long twentieth century and its categories of historical, social, and cultural analysis.
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