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For many of today’s social theorists and cultural critics, questions of identity are a central concern. In this paper I examine one highly influential strand of theorising about identity, associated primarily with the discipline of Cultural Studies. Here, whilst identity is certainly a key focus, it is also one which some have begun to question. Marjorie Ferguson and Peter Golding, for instance, editors of a recent collection of essays on the state of the discipline, comment that: ‘If, indeed, cultural studies is in transition, its current stage of evolution is much preoccupied with questions of collective identity’. Yet as they go on to caution:
The embrace of identity, and its excavation from the bedrock of personal history, adds perhaps another mile or two to cultural studies’ movement away from its own intellectual ‘roots’, roots once firmly planted in the social and material, not the self-actualising, world.
If this is correct, the pairing of ‘cultural identity and ideology’ might seem an odd one, yoking together the new preoccupation with the old. In fact, however, there is a certain continuity between the contemporary discussion of identity and past work in Cultural Studies, which took theorising and analysing ideology as its central concern.
To recount the entire history of Cultural Studies is clearly well beyond the scope of this paper, but it is nonetheless important to gain some sense of the theoretical antecedents of today’s discussion. I would therefore like to focus on the work of Stuart Hall, who has been a central figure in British Cultural Studies for 40 years, and widely influential as an international representative of the discipline. Such a focus is, I think, amply justified not just by the way that Hall’s career – as the first editor of New Left Review, Director of Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and, until recently, Professor of Sociology at the Open University – has placed him at the centre of the intellectual and institutional development of the discipline, but also because his work has often synthesised and developed some of the most important themes and evolving concerns of Cultural Studies. As Terry Eagleton says, if Stuart Hall did not exist, one might feel obliged to invent him, such is his exemplary quality.
The key move which Hall makes – in common with many other theorists – is one derived from structuralism: explaining ideology, politics and culture as working ‘like a language’. The main criticism this has drawn, suggested in Ferguson and Golding’s comments above, is that a too narrow focus on the discursive has obscured consideration of the material and social determinants of culture. I wish to argue, in relation to work on both ideology and identity, however, that the underlying problem is actually a weak conception of agency. Indeed, examining the problematic character of agency in the ‘discursive’ approach helps to explain why identity should have come to be seen as such an interesting topic for cultural criticism in the first place.
To begin with, I wish to set out the sorts of claims made by Cultural Studies about why identity is an important issue today, and examine some of the criticisms which have been made of this perspective.
Cultural Identity and its Critics
The issue of identity demands to be taken seriously. As Paul Gilroy claims:
We live in a world where identity matters. It matters both as a concept, theoretically, and as a contested fact of contemporary political life. The word itself has acquired a huge contemporary resonance, inside and outside the academic world.
The idea that identity is important because it is contested or in crisis is commonly invoked. As Kobena Mercer remarks: ‘identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty’. Beyond the general sense of ‘identity in crisis’, it is possible to discern two ways in which the importance of identity is explained. Firstly, academic debates about identity are said to key into and explain broad processes of political and cultural change which have problematised traditional understandings of identity. David Morley and Kevin Robins, for example, make this kind of argument in relation to ‘globalisation’:
Is not the very category of identity itself problematical? Is it at all possible, in global times, to regain a coherent and integral sense of identity? Continuity and historicity of identity are challenged by the immediacy and intensity of global cultural confrontations.
Comfortable assumptions about identity, a sense of coherence and integrity, are said to be problematised by global cultural changes. As Ferguson and Golding point out, questions of identity – and its corollary, difference – are also raised in relation to numerous other topics and debates: ‘feminism, ethnicity, sexual orientation, Eurocentrism, the diasporic, the post-colonial and the post-national’.
If identity raises key questions in relation to gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity in Western societies, it is also often seen as important in explaining the post-communist political landscape in the East. These are ‘large-scale political upheavals’, as Kathryn Woodward comments, which have ‘given rise to the assertion of new national and ethnic identities and the search for lost identities’:
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989 created significant repercussions in the field of political struggles and affiliations. Communism was no longer there as a point of reference in the definition of political positions. Earlier forms of ethnic, religious and national identification have re-emerged in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to fill the void.
The break-up of established identities and affiliations, the re-emergence of old identities, and the forging of new identities, are frequently seen not just as defining features of post-communist societies, but as among the driving forces of change – particularly in the context of supposedly ‘ethnic’ wars and conflicts, such as those in the former Yugoslavia.
Yet if, as Gilroy says, identity is not merely of scholarly interest, there is nevertheless a strong sense, in much writing on identity and difference, of a definite political and theoretical agenda. This constitutes a second reason for the claimed importance of identity. As Cornel West elaborates:
Distinctive features of the new cultural politics of difference are to trash the monolithic and homogenous in the name of diversity, multiplicity and heterogeneity; to reject the abstract, general and universal in light of the concrete, specific, and particular; and to historicise, contextualise, and pluralise by highlighting the contingent, provisional, variable, tentative, shifting, and changing.
It is not simply that identity is thought to have been problematised by various political and cultural shifts, it is also the express purpose of many theorists of identity to ‘trash’ one set of ideas and celebrate another. Although Cultural Studies can claim a certain sensitivity to changes, which it seeks to explain in terms of a crisis of identity, my interest here is primarily in how this academic ‘cultural politics’ has arisen and developed.
The key idea at the heart of this theoretical agenda is that, as Hall puts it, ‘Identities are…constituted within, not outside representation’. There is no pre-existing ‘essential self’ which is then represented or expressed; rather, subjectivity and identity are ‘constructed within discourse’. There is no ‘unitary’ subject, ‘identical to itself across time’, but rather identity is always unstable, fragmented and contingent, since it is dependent on the exclusion of that which is ‘Other’. It should be noted that this perspective, which is informed by post-structuralist theory, and which constitutes the predominant strand of thought about identity in Cultural Studies, is different from, and sees itself as largely opposed to, what is conventionally thought of as ‘identity politics’. As Edward Said writes:
Identity as such is about as boring a subject as one can imagine. Nothing seems less interesting than the narcissistic self-study that today passes in many places for identity politics, or ethnic studies, or affirmations of roots, cultural pride, drum-beating nationalism and so on. We have to defend peoples and identities threatened with extinction or subordinated because they are considered inferior, but that is very different from aggrandising a past invented for present reasons.
Whilst expressing themselves in more measured terms, others have reached a similar conclusion. Hall, for example, acknowledges the recovery and celebration of ‘roots’ as having played a valuable strategic role:
We should not, for a moment, underestimate or neglect the importance of the act of imaginative rediscovery which this conception of a rediscovered, essential identity entails. “Hidden histories” have played a critical role in the emergence of many of the most important social movements of our time – feminist, anti-colonial and anti-racist.
However, Hall’s own intervention in the debate about identity is to recast the terms in which identity is understood: not as a hidden essence to be uncovered, but as an active process of representation or discursive construction. It is for the same reason that West prefers to write of the ‘cultural politics of difference’, rather than identity politics.
It is precisely the importance attached to processes of discursive construction which has attracted most criticism, although other points of disagreement have also been raised. Judith Butler, whose own work on gender identity shares much in common with Hall’s position on race and ethnicity, lists a number of common complaints:
…that the cultural focus of left politics has abandoned the materialist project of Marxism, that it fails to address questions of economic equity and redistribution, that it fails as well to situate culture in terms of a systematic understanding of social and economic modes of production; that the cultural focus of left politics has splintered the Left into identitarian sects, that we have lost a set of common ideals and goals, a sense of a common history, a common set of values, a common language and even an objective and universal mode of rationality; that the cultural focus of left politics substitutes a self-centred and trivial form of politics that focuses on transient events, practices and objects rather than offering a more robust, serious and comprehensive vision of the systematic interrelatedness of social and economic conditions.
It is interesting to note that, because of the explicitly political concerns of much academic writing on identity, the objections enumerated by Butler all relate to a discussion of the proper focus of left-wing politics. Perhaps the key point raised in this respect is that the preoccupation with identity has led to a politically debilitating fragmentation. Theoretically, it is possible to discern three criticisms.
The first is that writing on identity often entails a celebration of particularism. In contrast, some critics have attempted to reconcile a focus on identity with a more universalist outlook. Jorge Larrain, for example, concurs with Hall’s anti-essentialist understanding of cultural identity, but wishes to marry this with a notion of universalist values which he derives from Jürgen Habermas. The sort of universalist project he has in mind is one in which nation states, recognising the ‘constructedness’ of identity, determine to forge a national identity which involves ‘integration and tolerance of differences’. There is clearly an impulse to defend universalism, but the actual defence offered is unfortunately rather weak. Larrain himself, indeed, remains sceptical of Habermas’s own somewhat implausible examples of how this tolerant universalism might work: the European Community and the contemporary German state. A more successful defence of universalism – and a more thoroughgoing critique of particularist approaches to race and identity – is that advanced by Kenan Malik. As he points out, there is a relationship between a universalist outlook and one which retains some conception of a human essence:
Without such a common essence, equality would be a meaningless concept. If humanity did not form a single category…then equality between different human individuals and groups would be…meaningless.
The particularist celebration of identity and difference leads to a lowering of horizons: from the demand for equality, to what Malik characterises as ‘the right to be different’.
A second criticism is that the anti-humanist theoretical tradition of Cultural Studies lacks a clear sense of agency. Butler’s comments above also relate this to the lack of a universalist perspective: instead of unity there is fragmentation; in place of agency and change there is a static ‘identitarianism’. However, whilst some critics have worried about the dissolution of the subject entailed in post-structuralist writing on identity, the defence of subjectivity and agency has also often tended to take a rather weak form. Douglas Kellner, for example, attempts to refute ‘postmodern claims concerning the complete dissolution of the subject’, but feels obliged to admit the force of the anti-humanist critique, acknowledging that:
…it is an open question as to whether one wants to keep using the category of the subject in cultural theory and elsewhere. The concept of the subject has been shown to be socially constructed and the notion of an unified, coherent and essential subject illusory.
As I have indicated, it is the weak conception of agency, expressed here in terms of the crisis of the subject, which is the key underlying problem in writing on identity, and which also renders a universalist outlook problematic. To anticipate: the theoretical tradition in which difference is celebrated, identity and subjectivity seen to be in crisis, is one which takes the weakness or absence of agency – specifically, working-class agency – as its starting point. Scepticism about the ‘universal class’ of Marxism as an agency for historical change is precisely what gives rise to the emphasis on identity and difference in the first place. Accordingly, it is hardly surprising that this is a perspective which is opposed to universalism. This is perhaps why Larrain’s projected defence of universalism is rather tentative, and why, despite a searching critique of Althusserian work on ideology, he agrees with the anti-essentialist view of identity which derives from it: he shares Hall’s scepticism about the universal class, describing Marx’s outlook as Eurocentric and ideological in this respect.
The third criticism is the one identified already, repeated again in Butler’s summary: that a focus on the discursive tends to obscure social determination. This tendency is also criticised by Greg Philo and David Miller, who describe work on cultural identity as one of a number of ‘dead ends’ in Media and Cultural Studies and social science. In particular, they highlight a tendency in the work of Hall and others in this field to slip between two apparently contradictory positions. On one hand there is the view that our sense of ourselves is constructed by, or is an ‘effect of’, discourse: ‘discourse “speaks” through us’. Such deterministic explanations, as they note, ‘tend to lack any sense of agency’. Yet on the other hand, there is also often an emphasis on the active role that people play in constructing identities: ‘that is, identities are not determined by socioeconomic forces, but are “creatively” put together’. This, Philo and Miller argue, is the problem: identity-construction is understood as free-floating and arbitrary, and there is a lack of any sense of determination. The underlying problem in both positions is ‘a tendency to slip into cultural and epistemological relativism and therefore…an inability to analyse or discuss the real natural, material and historical circumstances in which identities are forged’. It is assumed that the question of identity is an important one, but what is seen to be lacking is an ‘empirical account of how people actually construct their sense of self in real social relationships in the context of competing forces and interests’.
Whilst the critique advanced by Philo and Miller and others is important, I will argue that the problem needs to be understood slightly differently. There is, as discussed below, a similar slippage in earlier work on ideology. There too, a deterministic view often seems to slide into one in which ideology is treated as a free-floating sphere. In fact, however, the contradiction is more apparent than real. The difficulty is actually not a lack of determinism but a surfeit of it: the, at best, weak sense of agency is again the underlying problem. Furthermore, it is by no means obvious that ‘identity’ is the central and significant issue that it claims to be. Whilst it is true that much writing on identity is, as Philo and Miller charge, ‘speculative’ and tends to lack strong empirical support, the framework in which identity has developed as a focus for critical attention is one which is predicated on the weakness of subjectivity and agency. To clarify this I now wish to look in more detail at the work of Stuart Hall.
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