As an Indian currently living in the UK, I’m often puzzled at how I should think of my identity and this in turn raises questions about the process of identity construction in broader terms. Born to public bankers, my childhood involved frequently moving around wherever my father would get transferred. For the same reason, my schooling consisted of only two stable languages that survived any place – English and Sanskrit. I couldn’t pick up local language literacy in terms of writing and reading, while I managed to pick up spoken Kannada – the language of the state where I spent most time, namely Karnataka. Today, I find myself an odd creature amongst my fellow citizens in India. Educated entirely in a convent style school, I think in English and have no investment in the imagined bonds of nation.
As the infamous BBC broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge once said in the 70s, ‘the last few remaining Englishmen are all Indians’! At some level, I know exactly what he meant, even though Muggeridge himself probably meant it in a very disparaging way. When I first came to London on work many years ago, it was the strangest feeling of coming home and simultaneously feeling out of place. A unique sense of alienation and belonging intertwined
irreversibly. Here I’m seen as an ‘Indian’ often expected to cater to subtle and blatant stereotypes – ranging from an assumed knowledge of spiritualism to penchant for curry! The English themselves, I found were nothing like what I was brought up to subconsciously expect - a motley mix of Shakespeare in college and P.G Wodehouse at home. I find myself using quaint English phrases sometimes, such as ‘it’s just not cricket’ or ‘not seeing the
wood for the trees’ and so on, and it is startling to realise that young English people have no clue what I’m talking about. Such are the ironies and homogenizing tendencies of what one could call ‘globalisation’ I suppose – two products of the Empire coming at each other from different ends, unable to have a meaningful cultural connection, even while speaking what is apparently the same language. The only explanation is that while we all today share a similar web of sociality – language, cultural products, similar exposure to global news etc. we still find it hard to connect because of divergent pasts and memories.
Much of this feels like elite navel-gazing with no real consequences apart from a few who are privileged enough to travel and live outside the country. However, to dismiss such thoughts is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The specific conditions of my perceived alienation may not matter, but the route through which such mini crises of identity take place are revealing. They reveal ways in which identities are forged. They
remind us of representational strategies through which imagined but strongly affective bonds are created – and how these bonds in turn become scaffoldings upon which we attempt to construct our own identity. They also show how this entire construction process
while heavily influenced by external cultural milieus, they are also profoundly fragile and can be disrupted if one finds oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The even broader question therefore to ask is where does this fragility of identity construction stem from? Perhaps the answer lies in how does meaning itself stabilize for anything? An interesting answer is that all concepts arrive at their meaning by excluding something. For example, white is merely not-black, male is not-female and so on. Thus we need the other for our own meanings, but the other has to be outside. In the words of Stuart Hall, this other can be called the ‘constitutive outside’, i.e. it constitutes meaning from the outside. To identify with something, one needs a constitutive outside – and this thing that lies outside is rarely acknowledged. Identification is seen as identifying with something, but also simultaneously and necessarily excluding something else. The latter process slips into the subconscious for we tend to focus on the positive identificatory moment and develop an amnesia for that which is excluded.
Perhaps this amnesia is what really returns to us when our societies get into structural trouble. In some cases, it may be that our cities face skyrocketing housing prices (real estate bubble) and declining employment prospects. In other cases, it may be that new laws force a intermingling of castes at schools and so on. In such cases, what has been subconsciously repressed makes a return as the Other – a consolidated figure that now appears to contain all the ills that plague us. This Other is a magical figure – for we project every single major problem with our society as embodied and contained in the figure of this Other. The most
famous example of this is of course the figure of the Jew in early 20 th Century Europe. But it is not hard to see similar ‘return of the repressed’ process emerging in countries like India.
At a political level, the answer to these troubling phenomena lies in steering humanity away from structural problems, so as to prevent the repressed other from returning. However this is neither possible nor fully desirable since it doesn’t attack the root of the issue – merely prevents its resurfacing. What is needed is a deeper appreciation of two processes – first the moment when we think of how we construct our own identities and therefore who’s left out of such constructions; and second, when these individual stories we tell of ourselves are taken up by Culture, so individual trends become group trends. It is in the latter moment that a relatively harmless moment of identity construction morphs into full blown discrimination and violence. Of course, identification and classification is by its very nature exclusionary. We cannot avoid it if we are to arrive at stable meanings. Thus it is a futile
exercise to keep countering discriminatory discourse with empirical facts. Facts do nothing for what is a deeply irrational process in the first place.
When we find ourselves in societies that engage in the politics of identity, the only psychoanalytical answer, as suggested by Zizek, is a radical self-violence. One must attempt to completely deconstruct how we see ourselves before stepping out to blame others. This symbolic suicide can take us back to that radical open moment where meaning is unstable and in flux. Hopefully every time we return to that open moment, we can only hope that new constructions are more equitable and inclusive.
by Ram Bhat