National Identity: Escaping the Bog of the Single story

 

The story of the nation in its current guise begins (like everything else) in Europe, in the dissolution of the ancient European empires and their recasting as the personal territories of monarchies into abstract entities whose interests and powers are manifested through institutional vehicles (e.g., parliament and the military).

It begins in Europe because power determines whose stories get told, how and when they get told (see Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story). In their quest to consolidate these newly-emergent nation-states, an overarching national ideology had to be perpetuated by the authorities. According to Hobson, colonialism thus became an extension of this social construction, a vehicle to perpetuate nationalism in the juxtaposition between a unified “us” and “them”, creating oppositional groups characterized by exclusivity and homogeneity. So it became that spatial and cultural lines were redrawn according to this Eurocentric vision; nothing existed prior to the dawn of European “civilization”. Thus, we were denied the right to write our own stories, and instead forced to swallow the ones arbitrarily assigned to us by the European colonizers.

Although the colonial era has since ended, its legacy has dramatically impacted all areas of the postcolonial society, and none more profoundly so than the question of national identity, ironically the same fundamental question that plagued the colonizers’ homeland. The readings this week were instrumental in my understanding of the forces that reordered the international community with Europe (and later the U.S.) at the top of the food chain – devouring and conquering ruthlessly as they saw fit through the colonial enterprise – and shed light in different ways on how this has impacted the immense struggle of postcolonial nations to wrest back authorial control of their own narratives.

According to Fanon, the first, and most crucial step in reclaiming a national culture (and thus national identity) is the physical liberation of the nation from colonial rule, for “it is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and the framework necessary to culture” (217).  There is and can be no nation apart from colonial rule, for to be colonized is to be denied a nation and a culture. Or to put it in Césaire’s words: “colonization= ‘thingification’”(62). Césaire rails against this colonial legacy in his Discourse on Colonialism, dismantling the noble façade of the colonial enterprise by arguing that there was no room for human contact with the colonized man apart from his subjugation into an “instrument of production” (62).

Physical liberation has since been achieved but the seeds of colonial mentality have germinated, growing deep roots into the subconscious soil of the colonized, imbuing their values into the psychological fabric of the colonized peoples, and turning them against their own culture. These psychological scars, I would argue, have been the most damaging to the postcolonial endeavor at reconstructing a national culture. Furthermore, the postcolonial nation is beset with the same challenges that plagued its European colonizers in carving out a national identity because it stands on the same fragile grounds of the nation as a social construction, founded upon a contested myth of a cohesive national ideology that reflects the interests of the dominant class. It seems that we have untangled ourselves from the pernicious web of the colonizer’s narrative only to find ourselves forced into the rigid contours of another monolithic national narrative that is equally exclusionary.

Anderson’s piece on the cultural origins of the nation illustrates this myth of a national unitary whole when he elaborates on the twin precipitants of capitalism and print technology that laid the linguistic bedrock for the modern nation, culminating in the theory-practice disconnect in the use of national languages today. The postcolonial nation finds itself doubly challenged in this process amid a Eurocentric world order that ensures the preservation and expansion of Western interests at the expense of the developing world. Thus, it is Western culture and Western values that continue to be promulgated today through the agents of globalization.

The issue of Western hegemony is apparent in the study of literature, which was used as an instrument of socio-political control by the colonial authorities to disseminate Western culture in India, replete with all its Eurocentric values, assumptions and prejudices that are still intact today. Frederic Jameson pushes back against this exclusionary view of the literary canon, arguing that the exclusion of “third-world” literature comes at the price of crippling human impoverishment to the “first-world”. While I agree with the thrust of his argument that first and third-world literature should be read differently due to their vastly different histories as colonizer and colonized, I find it difficult to accept his assertion that the story of the third-world individual always functions as an allegory of the national destiny, even as I have alluded to this parallelism myself in my own struggle for identity. I would love to explore what other theorists have said on this matter.

In the face of all this opposition at creating a national identity, what then is the postcolonial nation (and subject) to do? An avenue for redress can be found in appropriation as a method of counteracting the discourse of the colonizer. Postcolonial subjects can utilize aspects of colonial culture to aid in the articulation of their identities. Yet, here again, power hijacks the stage of the postcolonial subject whenever the colonizer appropriates the culture of the colonized. Such cultural co-opting is prevalent in the entertainment industry, the most recent example being Coldplay’s music video with Beyoncé, “Hymn for the Weekend”,  disguised under the innocuous sheep’s clothing of artistic freedom and creative license:

Cultural appropriation in itself is not the problem (as explained here and here). While I love Coldplay, the problem with productions such as “Hymn for the Weekend” is that they occur against a historical backdrop of unequal footing and exploitation. Relegating the people and streets of India to the background is problematic because it denies the postcolonial nation its authorial right to write and star in its own narrative. In taking the Indian culture out of context, videos like these also perpetuate the single story of an exotic and poor India. For unlike the developing world, the United States and Europe are privy to the modes of production that accord them the privilege of generating a multiplicity of stories to counteract the single reductive version of  culture that plagues many postcolonial societies.

Thus, the challenge faced by the postcolonial nation in carving out a national identity is two-fold: it struggles to cast off the single story imposed by the legacy of colonialism even as it stands on the contested foundation of a unified national ideology that it created for itself. This is not to say that these challenges are insurmountable, but rather to highlight the pitfalls of the single story that remains a pervasive obstacle in the postcolonial endeavor to create a truly inclusive and representative national identity.

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2 thoughts on “National Identity: Escaping the Bog of the Single story

  1. You write beautifully about challenging concepts. Who is the “we” you discuss early in the post (pronouns are always dangerous). So thrilled you weighed in on the Coldplay video. I was shocked to see them use the same imagery in the halftime show of the Super Bowl. Really nice work here!

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  2. Thanks, Dr. Clemens! I was referring to Malaysia’s experience (and mine) and lumping all the colonized countries together as well I guess. Yes, the timing was perfect. I came across the stink about Coldplay on Facebook the day I was reading about approriation and I just had to include it in my blog.

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