Identity

To talk about destabilised and multifarious or fractured identities became the cliched

preserve of academic campuses across (but not limited to) the Anglosphere in the

1990s. To rehearse such arguments here in 2017 is worn out and unproductive. A

workshop that John Tusa led for Clore Fellows in 2016, in which he asked each of

us to speak briefly about our sense of cultural identity, revealed again to me just how

complex and layered every individual’s sense of cultural identity is. People spoke of

geography, history, family lives, of class, of art and of trauma as constituting their

senses of cultural selfhood. What emerged was a complex and varied approach to

the question, which highlighted how delicate the notion of identity is. Yet, in the

context of globalisation and its backlash, simple group identities are more fractious

and appealing than ever, as is evidenced by the seductive simplicity of arguments

that assume “most of us prefer our own kind.”64

 

For cultural professionals, the answer to the question posed by the Routledge Handbook

to Identity Studies – “Postmodernism was all about porous and deconstructed selves.

Has increasing polarisation both political and religious since the beginning of the

millennium meant a shift in the way we discuss who we are?” – is both yes and no.

No because many cultural professionals work every day to defy simple accounts of

human identity; their stories complicate grand narratives of self and nation. Yes,

because for many people in our society, narratives of civilisational clash and British

cultural exceptionalism are more appealing than ever.

 

In contrast to simplifying notions of the self and identity, psychoanalytic and

psycho-social thinking can make valuable contributions to this conversation.

The work of thinkers ranging from Freud to Kristeva65 continues to unpack and

complicate triumphalist notions of the self and cultural belonging in a gesture that

promises to do as much for equality as any number of policy initiatives. For as

much as policy, we need attitudinal change, and more complex, nuanced ways of

thinking if the representation sought by diversity initiatives is to be achieved. Of

course complexity doesn’t go down well in a sound bite.

 

As Stephen Frosh, the theorist of race, racialisation and anti-semitism puts it:

 

 …[psychoanalysis] can then offer back to the field its own peculiar expertise: that of

a discipline that knows about unsettledness, that has marginality and diaspora as

part of its own source… and that is always reminding its acolytes that nothing can be

taken for granted, that no self-definition or affective state is ever quite what it seems. 66

 

Unsettledness as a characteristic of psychoanalytic thinking is also brought up by

Edward Said when he writes about Freud’s Moses and Monotheism in 2003. In this

essay, Said underlines just how radical and creative the psychoanalytic account of

identity can be.67

 

Beyond psychoanalytic thinking, many writers are rethinking ideas about

identity in the context of contemporary experiences of migration and hybridity.

In particular, Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen has contributed to the

argument, energetically deconstructing simple accounts of identity in his forceful

book Identity and Violence.68 The philosopher Kwameh Anthony Appiah69 has

written and spoken passionately about the complexity of cultural identity, positing

“cosmopolitanism” as both a solution and a reality that we live with; yet to some,

his arguments can ring a little too optimistic. Paul Gilroy70 has highlighted the

limitations of the term and idea of identity, suggesting that it has proved something

of a blind alley in cultural studies; like Sen and Appiah, he celebrates the hybrid

reality typified by today’s metropolises, positing “conviviality” (quite literally living

together and side by side) as a way of sidestepping the doldrums of identity politics.

 

All this talk of hybridity and fractured identities, however, can start to seem like

the rarefied territory of metropolitan elites who function in mobile and privileged

contexts. Arguments that focus on urban experience are open to criticism from

a writer such as Goodhart71 whose work explores the alienation of those who

feel unexcited by the prospect of conviviality and cosmopolitanism, people who

have supposedly lost the lottery of globalisation. There are robust arguments, and

realities, that show how hybridity is not just the preserve of the privileged few, yet

in political discourse, the damage has in many ways already been done.

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