The Paradox of Identity

The scholarly article I explore in this post was written by Lauren Leve, a renowned ethnographer. If you would prefer, please read her article written here.

“The paradox presented by people who, on the one hand, understand that they have no selves and, on the other, participate in identity politics disrupts assumptions about identity that structure liberal law and, in many cases, academic anthropology.” – (Leve, 516)


Far away, in the Kathmandu valley, a Buddhist monk dismisses all of Leve’s questions about his personal experiences. Yet, this same Buddhist monk participated and fought for official recognition from the government. In Hinduism, Buddhists are not acknowledged in the caste system. They are separate from the hierarchy. Although officially, it is illegal to discriminate against others because of their caste, the social hierarchy remains deeply embedded in Nepali society.

I remember one of my classmates asking, “where do Buddhists lie in the caste system?” to the Volunteer Nepal organizer. His response echoed the same response you would have gotten if you had asked 300, 400, or 1000 years ago. They aren’t even included in the caste system, along with many others. During my time in Nepal, visible discrimination was still evident towards the people at the bottom of the caste system. However, not all Brahmins (highest caste) are like this, and I also saw many instances of acceptance despite where one might lie in the social hierarchy.

After a peace agreement was reached after a decade long civil war between the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-M or Maoists) and the Nepalese government, previously marginalized groups under the old government began to demand political recognition. Leve suggests that two assumptions can be made about the new wave of performance-based identities:

  1. That all people naturally have identities.
  2. That recognizing, supporting, and protecting these is a defining feature of the democratic state.

Now, let’s get into the juicy details.

In Nepal, as Leve found, and indeed elsewhere in the world, a multi-cultural world is thought to be the definition of democracy. An identity group, in this situation, is a group in society based on ethnicity, religion, or culture. On a micro-level, we could have “Irish dancers in California”, or if we zoom out – “American,” “Japanese,” or as big as “Asian” or “European.” I suspect that the “West vs. East” gaze developed from zooming out even farther. The funny thing is, “Western vs. Eastern” is only a couple steps away from cosmopolitanism, or seeing humans belonging to one group. The name of the one group everyone can join is called earth.

Stop!  Before we move on, I think it’s fair to warn you what your about to read. These are some complex topics. I’ll do my best to translate the stuff into English.

Get your critical reading glasses on, because we’re about to dive neck deep into some theory.

Internationality and Nationalism

There is one concept we must understand before we move on: Internationality.

Ree, who developed the concept, writes that “internationality is the result of dividing space to generate multiple groups so we can always know who owns what” (qtd. in Leve, 519). In order to understand this better, picture America and it’s 50 states. Who owns the area that we have designate as Oregon? Oregonians, do, of course. Leve argues that we can apply the idea of “internationality” to culture as well. Who owns culture? If you talk about “southern culture” in America, who are we talking about? Depending on who you ask, they might answer Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, and/or Florida. Although similar, someone who lives in northwestern Texas will grow up in a vastly different environment than say southern Florida. Yet, they can both be considered “southern.”

This thought process will help us understand Leve’s identity machine later on. What is the answer to the question, “where is Oregon located?” How many of you started by answering that it is “north of California” or “south of Washington?” Each state is its own unique place. We think of states, or nation-states for that matter, as “individuals.” As objects. Ree has two problems with this:

  1. ) the way that internationality can be used to serve political and economic interests. For example, dividing people into groups makes it easy to create a competition. Have you ever been in a group when two people start arguing? You could literally walk away and they might not even notice you’re gone. Now think about this concept in terms of politics and economics.
  2. ) the fact that nationlism works to advance those interests.

Dividing people into groups on the basis of local traditions and values, or “cultural identity”; wouldn’t that just reaffirm the power of whoever did the dividing? In this case, the ruling class. The people with enough power to influence politics and economics. This isn’t something particularly new. In fact, this has been going on for the last 300 years. Only recently, with the maturation of the internet have the secrets of the ruling elite come out to the mainstream. Two words: Paradise Papers. No doubt, how this leak relates to what I talk about in this article will surely come up next week.

Back to Ree and internationality. The problem with internationality, as Ree points out, is its inherent deception. “Internationality conspires to make us give our consent to state power by disguising it as an expression of our own feelings” (qtd. in Leve 518).

When you belong to a specific group, what does that make other groups? The others. A game of Us versus Them. Thus, identity politics make us compete against each other for the promises of official recognition and support from a higher power. Leve says it must be safe to assume, then, that the identity competition serves to reinforce the authority of the ruling class.

What is nationalism then, and how does it give power to the interests of the ruling class?

How is it that when the Seahawks win, I feel like I’ve won too? Despite that I didn’t play in the game, or even watch it for that matter. What’s the first thing someone says when their favorite team plays? “We won!” Case in point. Due to the ambiguity of the word “identity,” Leve argues that it is rather easy to attribute an identity to a group, which in turn causes people to think that both are the same. It is EASY to personify groups (Leve uses the example of “what women want”). Therefore, Leve notes, we can say that groups have wills, and that they also have histories like individuals do. All of this explains the success of nationalism and patriotism.

Leve notes that transnational identities are not as different from nationalism as they might seem. Transnational identities have started to pop up in scholarship recently, the most in-depth examples being Sara Shneiderman’s Rituals of Ethnicity and Kieu-Linh Valverde’s Transnationalizing Viet Nam. A little note on transnational identities… These are identities which develop from interaction across nation boundaries between two or more communities. Leve argues that transnational identities, which seem to pose a challenge to nation-states, are not so different from nationalism because they mobilize popular sentiment in support of political order (522).

Leve continues by summarizing another scholar’s thoughts on identity politics, which states:

“The main problem posed by a primary politics of identity is that it sets social groups against one another and thereby helps to protect neoliberal capitalism and its partner states from potentially threatening popular alliances” (522).

The idea of possession

Possessive Individualism is a branch of thought that has a lot to do with market capitalism. Don’t be intimidated. If you’d like to read up on this political theory, feel free to check out this blog which goes further into detail. It’s a political theory that states, according to Macpherson in Leve’s essay:

A person owns their “self,” and thinks about their “self” the same as if they owned an object.

Personal identity can be marketed to others just as your favorite brands can. Nowadays, it is treated as a commodity. What’s a common piece of advice for a job interview? “Sell yourself.” In possessive individualism, the individual is the owner of their identity. Due to the nature of ownership and copyright,

“It is in this way that identities come to appear as forms of individual wealth.” (Leve, 520)

Therefore, culture and furthermore history, can be thought of as a private wealth. Japanese culture is owned by the Japanese, and Vietnamese culture is owned by the Vietnamese. In affect, “liberal institutions are compelled to defend ownership rights,” because ownership is often equated with freedom (Leve, 521). This provides the foundation for how popular the concept of “identity” has become in democratic nations all over the world. Thus, Leve argues, possessive individualism acts very much like nationalism. Both are tied to Leve’s concept called ” the identity machine.”

Beyond the nation-state

Incoming! I’m about to drop a new term on you. If you’ve made it this far, bear with me. We’re getting closer to the punch line of this article.

Before we go on, here’s a quick break down of what we’ve covered so far:

  1. We talked about how both individual and collective identities can be “owned,” and that division based on collective identity puts us in a competition against other identity groups.
  2. This competition is facilitated by the ruling elite.
  3. We play the game (because of the illusion of collective identity) without realizing that its purpose is to sustain the ruling elite’s power.

Neoliberalism; a hot topic in American society for sure. But let’s be clear what it means before we move on.

Neoliberalism is basically the idea that we want to minimize the government’s involvement in the market. The term was developed by the political philosopher Fredrich van Hayek and others after WWII. Neoliberalism states that governmental attempts to regulate the market work against individual liberty and — like we mentioned before — property rights. Remembering all the wars in the last century where Americans fought against communism, totalitarianism, and dictatorship, it makes sense why this is an important issue today.

It is for this reason, after the idea became popular towards the mid-80s, that many services are privatized. Privatization of state services such as security operations, hospital administration, prison management, and public utilities are protected from the fear of entering totalitarianism. On the other side of the coin, when social services are ran like a business — only concerned with profit — other problems develop. For example, the facts about privatized prison industries influencing laws so they can “stay in business” — such as through high mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions — reflect some of the dangers of neoliberalism.

Capitalism, having shifted from industrial production to service-based economy can be observed through a change in how identity is formed (Leve, 522). Consumption is becoming the dominant means for how individuals understand their identity. How many of you define your identity based on the music you listen to, the clothes you buy and wear, or the movies you watch? What do these all have in common? They are all things you consume. A sign of a massive cultural shift where everything about reality is made sense through “buying” and “selling.”

This is exactly what Leve has observed about identity politics in Nepal. During my time there, I saw that Nepal heavily relies on tourism and service-based industries. The trekking industry there is huge. Yet, consumption is a relatively new mode of identity formation in Nepal. Which explains why Kathmandu feels so chaotic. The identity machine, as Leve notes, helps us understand the rapid shift in Nepal’s political approaches.

The Illusion of the Self

I hope things are starting to make sense, in regards to how all of these ideas are connected to Leve’s concept of an “identity machine.” Briefly, before she concludes, Leve encourages us to remember that identity is fluid. When we think of identity as an object — as something to be bought or sold — we forget one thing: Identity is ephemeral. It is always changing. Identity formation is a process being driven by human activity, or “doing” (qtd. in Leve 523). Human activity (“doing”) always involves more than one person in addition to an individual.

Why we do stuff — is inherently social. I may think I’m typing this blog post because I want to improve my writing, but the fact is my professor assigned us this task. Additionally, I write because I want to share my knowledge with others. I also reference other scholars’ ideas in my post. My computer was built, packaged, and shipped to the store by other people where I bought it. Leve argues that despite the idea of “doing” being almost entirely social, identity is still seen as an object. A = A, and B=B.

In this way, we are all trapped in the illusion that the self — we see the self as a static object. Even if we know that self-identity is actually the result of an ephemeral, liquid state of change, we cannot escape the limits of human perception. Thus, we get stuck seeing identity as an standalone object. It is the sum of all its properties, despite the enormous amount of evidence that it is not.

No one can claim ownership of an identity IF identity is seen as a continuous, transforming process connecting everyone and everything.

Which brings us back full-circle to the story about the Buddhist monk in the beginning of this post. To deconstruct the self, no, to forget the concept entirely, could actually be a form of resistance to consumerism.

As Leve notes regarding Buddhism,

“To believe that things are what they seem and expect them to remain so is to necessarily condemn onself to suffering (dukkha) brought about by the inevitablility of change, emptiness, and loss” (524).

The Buddha taught that everything in our reality is inter-connected. If you know anything about Buddhism, you understand one of the main teachings (and perhaps ultimate teaching) is that experiencing self as an individual object is the result of being unable to see past the illusion. Leve contrasts these teachings and ideals with her perspective on what’s going on in Nepal. Dissipation of the “self” inherently opposes the naturalization of the concepts we talked about earlier: possessive individualism and nationalism.

Despite the Buddha’s call to action, which is necessary to move towards enlightenment, Buddhists are still only human. Political imperatives have the power to make suffering unbearable to the individual, as the fear of losing one’s religion, culture, literature, and history takes hold. Thus, resistance eventually morphs into the thing it was resisting. This process of transformation, is the identity machine.

The identity machine,” Leve explains, “is the point where the push from below begins to take on the shape and logic of the administrative apparatus to which it appeals” (525).

In other words, the identity machine exploits human weakness (fear of memory erasure) to secretly, invisibly, perpetuate the illusory nature of the individual self and keep us blind to the truths about reality.

All that’s left…

So you’ve made it to the end. Feeling like your world was shaken up? Me too. So, what’s next? Where do we go from here with this knowledge? This certainly screws up all the social sciences, which is why I needed to write such a long article.

Originally, I came to the conclusion that we just stop thinking about identity and POOF! America begins to embrace Buddhism and there’s no more corruption. But this, of course, is much more difficult than it seems. Leve takes this information in a different direction. She doesn’t advocate that we reject identity claims or question “authenticity.” Rather, we should examine where the ontology of identity, or identity constructions, are being appealed to. And more importantly, where they are not.

Leve concludes, that although most anthropologists understand that cultural boundaries do not always depend on geographical or political space, we continue to “localize” and assume identities for groups of people. She ends with a call to action; either investigate the operations of the identity machine or become part of it.

“If anthropologists wish to affirm human struggles against oppression, exploitation, and, where appropriate, invisibility in all their forms, we must refuse to allow our critical imaginations to be taken over by the identity machine.” – (Leve, 526)

The information in this article was drawn from Lauren Leve’s article. If you would prefer, you can read it here.

Leve, Lauren. “‘Identity.’” Current Anthropology, vol. 52, no. 4, 2011, pp. 513–535. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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