Political Language and the Construction of Identity : Essential and Contested

In the archives you will find an essay entitled ‘The Tribe and the Indigenous’ – which, as I write in the subtitle, is a note on political language. In that essay I argued how language is used to ascribe certain values to groups of people, values which reflect the world-views of outsiders, observers rather than how the people might see themselves, or want to be seen. Political language then, especially when used in academic writing, which then percolates into other, more popular domains of discourse, is more a reflection of how the writer sees the world than what it is. This is true, of course, of language as a whole – language comprehends the world rather than describe it. Language, in fact, has become, beginning from the mid twentieth century, an essentially contested domain, thus, rendering every space where language is used contested too – which is every,whole, all space. Taken to their extreme, attitudes inspired by such trends can be self denying, but, equally truly, a recognition of the malleability of language, can make us sensitive to the question of power in everyday discourse.

I have discovered over the past few years the difference between ‘essential’ and ‘contingent’ qualities, in any subject, to be most crucial to my understanding of the world. Confusion between essential and contingent concepts, values, understandings and descriptions of the world lie at the root of many of our problems – which includes the meta-problem of not realising the existence of certain problems which might exist before and all around us.

To be exact, the difference between essential and contingent lies in the larger difference – between the permanent and the transient. Since this essay is about political language, and the subject of politics is the human being, or whatever concerns human beings, we should explore the question of the permanent and the temporary in human beings. This is not a metaphysical essay, I’m not referring to life, death, love, longing, etc. My concern is rather more mundane, or maybe not, between the biological and the cultural. Even if not so in the long run, the biological nature of human beings is ‘essentially’ the same. We are well past that sad phase of human history which thought otherwise. Even as we evolve, in the short run, in the scale of evolutionary time, that is taking maybe thousand year perspectives, we’re going to remain more or less the same everywhere, globally. In the very, very, very long run, we might evolve into different species on different planets, who knows, but let’s leave that for another time. Then, whatever natural biological categories go into making this human being, are essential human categories. This should be acceptable without argument.

What does provide substantial, even endless, fodder for argument is the question of contingent qualities. In human beings, what is contingent is everything we understand as cultural. There is a narrow sense and broad sense of culture – the former certain activities like art, literature, religion and such, the latter all things beyond biologically natural behaviour – that is every thing that is learned and not passed on genetically, from generation to generation. Now, the capacity of developing culture, or Culture, might be a biological trait. Indeed, some animals, like birds and bees and ants, display inclinations towards culture, even as they display political and social behaviour. What separates human beings from animals is the collective nature of our cultural habits especially as they are passed, and remembered, from generation to generation. So, we have progressed from fire to the internet of things – via war and peace – at rapid speed while other animals cycle through mating and mortality at the regular evolutionary pace.

Further, certain cultural trends might be biologically specified, and in-built, so to say, in the systems of our species. Language, definitely. Art, surely. Religion, probably. But the possibilities of how, in the detail, and what, exactly, human beings create within these broad categories is nether determined by any perceivably co-related factor nor fixed by any supernatural force. Scientifically speaking, as I am. What sort of language, what sort of art what sort of religion, or anything else that human do or make, nothing is essential to human nature. What these things are, their specificities, is contingent. On what, though? Contingent on, again broadly, two sets of forces – those relating to location, in time and space, and those concerning the operation of power in those locations. (Details forthcoming.)

What is important for now, however, is to know, and realise, the difference between the essential and the contingent. so, whenever we speak about things in the world, events and people, their histories and geographies, we must be sensitive to the difference between the essential and the contingent. What we must never do, or allow, or fight against is the essentialisation of the contingent.

This is the goal, purpose and aim of my scholarship.


I referred to a number of things in this note. Some ideas I found really interesting as I wrote them. Of course, these are things I think about even otherwise, during my day dreaming sessions or Cartesian late mornings. But the idea that we, human beings, might evolve into different species is very interesting. Equally interesting is another idea I have often thought about – could we engineer that divergence in our species. Say, if we were to colonise an Earth-like planet with a sightly different atmospheric chemical composition, could we tweak the genes of the astronaut settlers who are to settle there? It seems very plausible. I don’t know if it would ever be acceptable though. We need to evolve out of religion before that. But if religion is something like an in-built trait in our species, I don’t know if we’ll ever do that. maybe Scientology is the answer. Who knows, who can tell?


2 thoughts on “Political Language and the Construction of Identity : Essential and Contested

  1. If I would like to put your whole idea in a single sentence than more or less it would be: Biological existence of Homosepians is absolutely permanent and every thing else this biology creates around it in any form is non permanent. Broadly i agree to your idea but I think it would be better if you consider diversification with in our biological presence. If you make this category absolutely perpetual than I have concerns about biological hierarchies. Its permanence leads to the reduction of various physical realities like women and homosexual to sort of contingent stuff.

    Yes, I agreed that biology is prime and base. But before treating it as absolutely impregnable it is important to treat various physicality with absolute equality. Then this permanence would be democratic than oppressive.


    1. Firstly, thank you for your very insightful comment. And for visiting the blog.

      As regards the essay, the main theme of the essay is to bring out the difference between ‘essential’ and ‘contingent’ qualities. In any subject. I use the biology-culture binary to illustrate that difference since I believe this binary is fundamental to politics and political discourse. The ‘biological hierarchies’ you refer to are exactly the kind of problems confusion between, or manipulation of, essential-contingent qualities create. Which is to say, the placement of one particular sexual orientation as ‘normal’ does not reflect a biological truth but is a cultural creation – a reflection of power relations within the culture.

      If we essentialise heterosexuality as biologically normal and homosexuality as deviant we are actually reversing the essential-contingent binary. The conservative argument against homosexuality often goes that it is some sort of sickness. This is biologically false and an insertion of cultural preference into biology. So, we see a total reversal of fact, of culture presented as fact.

      Contrarily, when we present homosexuality as a manifestation of the essential human quality of sexual attraction, as one form among others, we challenge these hierarchies.

      Again, I must thank you for your comment. And hope my response clarified some points I might have not done justice to earlier.


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