Born in New Delhi, studied all the subjects in an English school, watched American and English TV shows, listened to heavy metal music originating from northern Europe, made all friends online — contrast this with seeing everyday reality of poverty and inequality and news of violence and hatred in the newspapers and TV. Yet, I feel more Indian where I have more in common with global music, tv shows and books (culture I’ve consumed) in London than back home. Language is a tool through which we describe and reflect upon our internal, subjective domain. Growing up in India with an English worldview and then questioning my class, gender, economic status along with a strong dissonance caused by my international taste in media and art certainly made me question my identity.
In a postmodern world where all actions are mediated and where choice is available for everything, from toothpaste to the latest gadget on your fingertips, the question of who you are and where you belong and what you want to become is not bereft of the intrusion of media.
The way Zygmunt Bauman puts it, “One thinks of identity whenever one is not sure of where one belongs, that is, one is not sure how to place oneself among the evident variety of behavioral styles and patterns, and how to make sure that people around would accept this placement as right and proper, so that both sides would know how to go on in each other’s presence. Identity is a name given to escape sought from that uncertainty.” In this epoch, fragmented cultural landscapes of class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and nationality which gave us firm locations as social individuals in the past and the blending of “real” and “virtual” are shifting our personal identities, undermining our sense of ourselves as integrated subjects. Identities are being ‘decentered’ or ‘dislocated’ causing a series of identity crises among young people. Gidden (1990) ascribes this to tearing away of space and place. We can occupy multiple spaces while being in one place at a time and foster relations between ‘absent’ others, locationally distant from any given situation of face to face interaction, thoroughly penetrated by social influences quite far away. Place remains fixed where we have our ‘roots’ and space can be crossed just by swiping, clicking or navigating between tabs. Havery (1989, p205) calls this annihilation of space through time. The temporalities of different places come together with their cultural signifiers so that we have all the ways of seeing and feeling available to us. Globalization has forced us to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds while being alone stranded at the waiting lounge of an airport or miserably closed up in our rooms. Transnational capital has seeped so much into how structures work that ‘not belonging’, a sense of unreality, isolation and being fundamentally out of touch with the world has become endemic.
But this quest for finding identity is not new and historically been problematic. In the urban scenario, the dramatic rise of the individual as a personal cultural decision maker depends on the strength of media’s symbolic power, its ability to make images and identities out of people and places, offering a diverse amount of cultural information and encouraging unprecedented experimentation and self-reliance. As Ulrich Beck has pointed out: “The ethic of individual self-fulfillment and achievement is the most powerful current in modern society. The choosing, deciding, shaping human being who aspires to be author of his or her own life, the creator of the individual identity, is the central character of our time.”
Stuart Hall describes identity as a structured representation which only achieves its positive through the narrow eye of the negative. “It has to go through the eye of the needle of the other before it can construct itself.” This means that the self cannot be formed in isolation and only when it comes in contact with the other does it know itself. Aligning subjective feelings to the objective places we occupy, identity thus stitches the subject into the structure. All our unique characteristics like dreams, voice, style of talking, walking and behaving help in defining the self but this self still has to interact with the outside world of religion, market, work, family or community in the context of history to belong and feel part of.
For Gramsci, “identity is the starting point of critical evaluation: consciousness of what one really is and in knowing oneself as a product of historical processes to date which have deposited an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Identity marks the conjuncture of our past with the social, cultural and economic relations we live within.”
The formation of subjectivity is built through the geographical place and time the human lives in giving characteristic landscapes, a sense of place, home, or as Edward Said calls it ‘heimat’. The level of freedom of mobility, choice, voice and action depends upon gender, location, race and access to material resources. While the Enlightenment subject was thought to have an individual core, G.H Mead and CH Cooley proposed that the subject exists in relation to significant others who mediated the values, meanings and symbols of the culture in the world he/she inhabited. This was an interactive conception of identity where self is in continuous dialogue with the cultural worlds outside and the identities they offer. Properties of attire and attitude, give people an idea of demeanor, authority, status and role behavior. The semiotics of dress and appearance (Entwisle & Wilson, 2001) can influence decisions about talk, gesture, gaze, and body attitude.
The postmodern subject however is considered to have no fixed, essential or permanent identity. It is always changing, formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways in which we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems that surround us. (Hall, 1987) Modern life ascribes to us a multiplicity of subject positions and potential identities which also vary with our experiences. Lacan’s psychoanalytic thinking also adds the unconscious temporal aspect to it — “There is always something imaginary or fantasized about its unity. It always remains incomplete, always in process, always being formed. It arises not so much from the fullness which is already inside us but from a lack of wholeness which is filled from outside us, by the way we imagine ourselves to be seen by others.” Thus, the three logics in which it is constituted are: difference, individuality and temporality: logic of otherness, logic of productivity and logic of spatiality.
What Stuart Hall misses is the politics of cultural identity, how the model of identity and difference is the dominant model of political organization — what the possibilities of dynamism and openness in cultural identities are, and consequently what inhabits and resists such qualities, promoting in their place rigidity and closure. Identity politics based on gender, race, religion, caste, class and nation is often played around by politicians or people in power to create animosity and differences among people. In this century, where neoliberal capitalism has advanced to every nook and corner of the earth and the nation state is ever more powerful and militarized, where millions (migrants) are being displaced because of war and climate change and new way of understanding the sexuality of men and women is evolving, understanding identity politics is all the more important.
The construction of gender and nation are entangled with each other, narratives of which are told and retold in national histories, literature, the media and popular culture providing a set of stories, images, landscapes, scenarios, historical events, national symbols, and rituals. For example, in India, the festivals, dresses, colours, rituals, fabrics and gods of each state stand for a certain way of life representing the shared experiences, sorrows, and triumphs and disasters. Regional and ethnic differences however are subsumed beneath what Gellner calls the “political roof” of the nation state, which instead becomes powerful source of meanings for modern cultural identities. National culture becomes a key feature of industrialization and an engine of modernity.
In the 90s, when India opened its doors to the western style of capitalism and let modernity take its course, identities of people growing up have been influenced tremendously by western culture and ideas. Western commodity, values, priorities and ways of life were adopted as quickly to stay in the race and compete internationally. (Ronibs, 1991) This unevenly distributed globalization, between different strata of people in the same region caused migration to big cities and ethnicities slowly disappeared giving rise to new hybrids in a milieu of different languages, religions, customs, with a shared sense of modern identity. This national identity which Benedict Anderson calls “Imagined Community” has seen cultural homogenization and hybridity resulting in fragmentation of cultural codes, multiplicity of styles, emphasis on the ephemeral, the fleeting, the impermanent and on difference and cultural pluralism giving rise to a new subject which Kenneth Thompson calls ‘the global postmodern’. All over the world, people have become customers for the same goods, clients for the same services, audiences for the same messages and images participating in a sort of ‘shared identities’ that are detached, disembedded from specific times, places, histories and traditions and appear free floating. Appudarai (1990) ascribes this to two phenomena — ethnospaces and technoscapes/mediascapes that feed one another and contribute to the intensification of the overall phenomenon of transnationalism in which migrants establish social fields that cross geographic, cultural and political borders (Glick schiller, Basch, Blanc Zanton, 1992)
In the postcolonial scenario, Homi Bhabha’s (1984) notion of mimicry explains how the members of a colonized society imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers. This is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. This encounter with a foreign culture which might seem better may not cause complete dissolution of old traditional identity but open up a third space filling up an in-between space where images of liminality collapse and creativity lies. This gives the postcolonial subject a unique spatial condition on the border between two cultures making it different from either alternative — neither the colonizer, nor the precolonial subject. Temporally also, the subject is stuck between the speed and dynamism of the west and the calm, slowness and easy going nature of the east. Dislocation thus opens up the possibility of new articulations, forging of new identities, production of new subjects (Laclau, 1990, p40)
As for gender, fluidity of sexual identity has been talked about by Judith Butler (1990) who observes that categorizing people into binaries limits the potential of the person and every individual should be free to perform any activity without gender role restrictions. This gives rise to queers who completely disindentify with one’s national cultural identity and accept diversity as the future of the society. Modern liberal rational thinking gives us the unique ability to separate ourselves from our socio-historical conditions and make individual choices unhindered by what has gone before and what now is (Fenton, 2016). Despite all these liberal fluidities in identities, there is still a lot of conflict happening in its name because of fear of difference. It is the threat of the dissolution of the self that ignites the irrational hatred and hostility as the individual struggles to assert and secure its boundaries that differentiated self from the other. Guattari however, explains accepting otherness as a question of desire — “It is a matter not only of tolerating another group, another ethnicity, another sex, but also a desire for dissensus, otherness, and difference.”
Definition of identity also gives rise to agency which brings with it the ability to make history through which meaning and pleasure, desire and force can be articulated. For eg, white man has the most powerful agency — to go and do wherever and whatever he pleases. According to Lawrence Grossberg, “it produces lines of specific vectors, intensities and densities that differently enable and enact specific forms of mobility and stability, specific lines of investment, anchoring and freedom.” This unity of the agent is broken down by poststructuralists Deleuze and Guattari who conceive the individual as a group subject — that every person is a multiplicity, every group a myriad of differences, all operating at various levels in a complicity of matrices at any one time. Subject is conceived not as rational and singular but multiple and contradictory. There are also instances where modes of belonging can be had without any definition of identity, community in that case is based only on exteriority and shared spaces and is common in societies with less developed notions of individuality.
Althusser proposed that media and culture working both at conscious and unconscious level created ideologies that were system or apparatuses that did not simply prevent people from seeing, but also created subjects and identities. For individuals more susceptible to media influence like children and young adults, cultural taste in media work to construct and reflect sensibility, the individualized and socialized forms of relationship with the aesthetic and expressive world where feelings like pride, confidence, and sensation of beauty revolve around and beyond cultural identity. A sociological concept called homology which tries to build some sort of structural relationship between material and musical forms explains why music transcends cultural borders more than images. In this specific historical and cultural moment, exposure to transnational media through the internet which includes mostly western images and information represent and regulate our behaviors and normalize our understanding who we are and what we are, Rosi Braidotti’s idea of posthuman nomadism (or digital nomad) is interesting, where the subject is a nomad and has no one country or culture to belong creating a sense of non-identity. Dissonance in identity occurs when an individual does not identify with the symbols and signs shown in cross-cultural media and is unable to relate to the word around him/her. Identification is the basis on which media works i.e. recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group, or with an ideal. Dis-identification causes double displacement — decentering from their place in the social and cultural worlds and from themselves, resulting in questions like “Who are these people on the screen? Are they even the same species as me?”
In the world of digital media where screens are personal and individuals operate with high degree of autonomy and faceless and bodiless communication transpires, geographical cultural signifiers become invalid, and there arises a new digital cultural regime replete with likes, posts, reposts and sharing and a language of its own. In social networking, online profiles and archive create identity. Every time one creates an update, posts a picture of self, his/her need to be linked in, to feel at once connected and in control of one’s forms of interaction and self-expression is fulfilled. Emergence of new spaces of connection focus on style, creativity and play for the creative promotion of the self. This includes discrete aspects of visual semiotic modalities, such as gesture, gaze, the body, space. The recent development of low-cost digital image technologies has enabled multimodality of human communication. One individual is connected to many.
Under capitalism and Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry and mass media, identity is related to labour and everyone is replaceable, subjectivity in digital media becomes the only way to express without constraints. Internet presents the possibility of radical switch away from long term process of marketing and advertising by decentralizing capital structure of information, culture and knowledge. Users are capable of establishing and cultivating relationships with people of different cultures. Multiple windows and multitasking implies one’s subjectivity and identity is fragmented, distributed and manifold (Friedberg, 2006) Political subjectivity, hybridity, reflexivity, mobility and performativity are characteristics of networked society (Dean, 2006: Terranova, 2004).
In such a situation, new forms of political protest emerge where anonymity, diversity and opinions are used to raise people’s awareness, give voice to those who don’t have one and offer social empowerment through participation. While the individual becomes atomized and location based apps track each and every movement, the self becomes endlessly performative, identity becomes a freely chosen game, something to be constructed though Facebook and Instagram — a theatrical presentation of the self, a cavalcade of being and becoming.