The complexity of identity : the Afrikaner in a changing South Africa

Wicomb, Wilmien (2008-03)

Thesis (MA (Philosophy))--University of Stellenbosch, 2008.


This thesis sets out to model the notion of group identity in terms of the theory of complexity. It is an attempt to speak meaningfully about a concept that needs to have a sense of stability in order to constitute an ‘identity’, but at the same time has to be able to change in order to adapt to changing circumstances – and indeed does change. This tension between stability and change is seen as a manifestation of the philosophical endeavour of ‘thinking the difference’ which, in this context, is understood to mean that if we are committed to thinking the difference (and thereby undermining the philosophy of the same) for ethical reasons, we have to speak of group identity itself in terms that preserve difference. That entails keeping the tensions inherent to the notion intact, rather than choosing to emphasise one end of the tension, thereby reducing the other. As such, identity is understood as being relational. While modelling group identity as a complex system two important tensions are identified: that of the inside-outside divide that is a function of the boundary-formation of the system and the traditional tension between agency and structure in the formation of identity. The emphasis on difference as constitutive of identity places the argument within poststructuralism as a school of thought. More specifically, the links that have been established between complexity theory and the work of Jacques Derrida is explored to unpack the implications these links would have for group identity. This application is done within the framework of time: first the issues of the past and the memory of the group are investigated to explore whether identity as a complex system can cope with its own tensions. The work of Derrida is employed to show how the memory of a complex system can be understood as the inheritance of the system. This is an ethical understanding which entails responsibility. Understanding the past in this way, it is argued, allows the future to be thought. This is the case, it is argued, because the future must be understood as a Derridean ‘new beginning’ which entails engaging with and deconstructing the past. Finally, this notion of the future as a new beginning is unpacked. It is defined as the group’s singular opportunity to allow for ‘real’ change, change that is only possible if the system is disrupted by its outside. It is argued that the complex system as a very particular open system can accommodate the possibility of the ‘new beginning’. This understanding of the system and its outside is brought in relation to Derrida’s understanding of the economy of the system and the future as a ‘new kind of writing’. The implications of this theory for the notion of autonomy are briefly addressed. In order to test the theory, the argument is applied throughout to the example of the Afrikaner as a group identity. In conclusion, suggestions are made as to how the Afrikaner could understand itself and its memories in order for the group identity to survive meaningfully and – more importantly – ethically.

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