Identity and ideology

  • Striving for identity in Nepal is not just about recognition; it is a deeper and more material need
- Pramod Mishra
Identity and ideology

Feb 4, 2015-

Identity emerges in at least two forms: dominant and subaltern. Dominant identity remains subsumed in the power structure and so, most often remains invisible, despite remaining powerful, whereas subaltern identity, because it is an outsider and has to be visible and noisy to assert itself, becomes overly visible. One’s attitude to identity depends on how one views it. In the Nepali case, the dominant identity—language, religion, caste, dress, invented idea of skin colour or origin—does not look abnormal or unnatural because it is one with state power whereas the subaltern identity appears noisy and obnoxious because it lacks power and is assertive in order to gain access to power. No matter, it is not just since 2006 or 1990 that identity suddenly appeared as a prominent issue, and only in Nepal. Cultural and ethnic identities have been an issue of debate, scholarly deliberation, and activism at least since the 60s in the West. The end of the Cold War all of a sudden made it even more urgent worldwide.    

In the early 1990s, I took a seminar on identity at Duke University with the African philosopher VY Mudimbe, who had recently published an influential book, The Invention of Africa (1988).  The uniqueness of the seminar lay in the fact that every week a noted guest speaker from various parts of the US and the world arrived and presented their talk to us graduate students and interested local scholars (Fredric Jameson, Walter Mignolo, Ariel Dorfman, Stanley Fish, and others were in frequent attendance). One week Immanuel Wallerstein on changing forms of capitalism and new forms of knowledge; another week a Quebecois scholar on Quebec’s identity in Canada; one week a scholar from Peru on Amerindians; another week Frederic Jameson, Dorfman, or Mignolo presented their research and conclusions on identity and its related subjects. I don’t recall John Rawls or Charles Taylor or Will Kymlicka coming but Manuel Castells presented his research on the sociology of the emerging post-Berlin, post-Apartheid world. All these scholars, including Mudimbe, had studied Europe-focused, West-oriented theories and as scholars, had been influenced by Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and so on. Not long ago, they had been deeply skeptical of identity-based demands, reared as they had been in the glow of Enlightenment universalism.

So, the initial goal of the seminar was to first understand the emerging phenomenon of identity in the wake of the Culture Wars of the Regan-Bush 1980s and 1990s and interrogate them from Marxist and liberal democratic (both emanating from the European Enlightenment) perspectives. Hence, the title of Mudimbe’s 1988 book Invention of Africa. That identity and geography were both constructed and invented by Western discourse, and this discourse had been in the hands of Europe/West for the past five hundred years. Especially since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the West had systematised various branches of knowledge and produced them as disciplinary formations about itself and the other.  

Two identities

At least, two conclusions can be drawn from this approach to identity, culture, and geography. One was that since identity was invented, identity does not matter, because it is after all a discursive construction. Such a constructed identity is different from a primordial identity but both are problematic. Constructed identity is problematic because the West, through its power of representation, invented the other of Europe for its own agenda of world domination. Of course, we all know why primordial identity is problematic—its radical clarity and essentialism do not allow any room for flexibility, dynamism, or ambiguity, leading most often to tribal and ethnic violence.  

Traditionally, therefore, the Enlightenment followers (the Marxists, the liberal democrats, and even poststructuralists, as it turns out) have rejected identity as a conceptual category of social analysis because it is too essential, too primordial, or too non-economic. Traditional Marxists reject ethnicity and culture for economics; liberal democrats consider an individual an abstract entity of the generic human; and for the poststructuralist, everything is an endless play of discourse. Of course, I am presenting all these complex positions in a simplistic form.

Naturally, Thatcherites in Britain and Reganites in the United States, coming as they were from liberal democratic and free market perspectives, latched on to this idea of identity as a problem and targeted the ethnic studies programmes and identity-based hyphenated movements and studies as regressive and anti-American or Anti-British. Writers like Samuel Huntington, with their vision of incompatible civilisations (one identity-based, the other Enlightenment-based universalist) inevitably clashing and Huntington’s student Francis Fukuyama with his conclusion about liberal democracy ending the march of history itself between capitalism and communism after the fall of the Berlin Wall famously offered philosophical support for anti-identity crusaders.

A material need

In the decade post the seminar, many scholars of the Marxist or left persuasion came around to conceding the fact that identity or culture or ethnicity or caste or race needed serious scholarly attention and analysis, not necessarily as a negative entity. Thus, Castells published The Power of Identity (1997) as the finale of his three-volume study on globalisation; Jameson published The Cultural Turn (1998); Wallerstein himself not only chaired the Gulbankein commission (one of the members was Mudimbe himself) that issued its report called ‘Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences’ (1996), but also published his own book The End of the World as We Know It (1999) which argued not only that capitalism as it existed so far and its understanding (his own world-systems theory) are at an end but that a new capitalism is emerging and new ways of knowing are required to understand this emerging world.

So, striving for identity in Nepal is not just for recognition, as liberal theorists would have it, but the need is deeper and more material. This hunger for recognition of one’s identity is directly linked to the material well-being of identity seekers. And this hunger is not going to go away or be subsumed by the space offered by unreformed liberal democracy. The sooner our leaders of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML recognise this, the better it will be for Nepal. Otherwise, they will leave a legacy of strife and struggle behind wasted years and decades.

Published: 05-02-2015 09:11

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