How are we re-creating ourselves?
It's hard to believe that a year has passed since “Points of Departure,” a four-part series of articles I wrote last May intended to reflect on the key areas of cultural development and planning strategies, which were tabled in the weeks leading up to our departure from British rule. After physically sifting through the newspaper archive of the then Guiana Graphic, I extracted and made reference to a number of pre-independence writings by columnists who made clear their expectations of the new government. It was evident that in addition to focusing on regional integration one of the more immediate concerns was the examination of cultural pluralism as a possible framework that would allow for the shaping of a new national identity, a framework that recognized and respected our many cultures without compromising the integrity of any for the sake of nationalism.
A lot has happened since I wrote that series but unfortunately a lot more has remained unchanged. It’s unsurprising really, since change of any kind particularly as it relates to any type of national cultural “identity” moves as slowly as molasses on a cold day. Surely then, this must not come as a surprise, right? But now that the dust has settled a year after the grand Jubilee festivities, exactly how much has changed? How do we take stock of the time that has passed? Is it even realistic (or fair) to expect change, sweeping or otherwise, in just a year? While I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions, I do think it’s important that we keep them at the front of our minds.
In the last article of the series I quoted A.J. Seymour in his 1977 cultural policy proposal as saying: “[…] The Guyana man has to re-create himself in his own image as an indispensable basis on which to realise the image of a national identity.” In my opinion, that statement cannot be emphasised enough. How are we re-creating ourselves? What does our image look like? We don’t seem to be any closer to figuring that out now than we were fifty-one years ago. The same questions are being deliberated year after year but could we identify any significant shift in the way we understand and therefore project ourselves beyond the Guyana context? It seems to be an exercise in futility but yet we persist. Simply put, it’s an act of necessity lest we are willing to risk spiraling even further down the rabbit hole of cultural ambiguity.
While I took to the archives last year to get a more accurate understanding of how creatives at the time were attempting to situate themselves with regard to a national cultural identity on the heels of our independence, I thought this time around I would examine some of the concepts of identity put forward by the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Perhaps it would be easier to place “us” if we studied an already existing model of categorisation. His chapter “The question of cultural identity,” in the much larger text “Modernity, An introduction to Modern Societies” begins with his recognition of three identity concepts: the enlightenment subject, the sociological subject and the post-modern subject. His objective in putting these forward was to determine if there was indeed a “crisis” of cultural identity in “late-modernity,” as he described it.
Hall describes the enlightenment subject as being an “individualist” conception, one where the subject is equipped with “reason, consciousness, and action,” all of which would’ve developed with the subject from birth and would more or less remain the same throughout the subject’s life. The sociological subject, on the other hand, is not characterised by the same kind of independent thinking and being. Instead, it is shaped largely in relation to the “significant others” in the subject’s life, all of whom would’ve assisted in the translation of various aspects of the cultural space the subject occupies. According to this notion then, identity is forged in the interaction between self and society. The subject’s core center is there as it is present in the enlightenment subject, yes, but it is continuously modified through dialogue with “outside” worlds. By bridging the divide between both public and private worlds, the sociological subject “sutures” himself/herself into his/her unique cultural space by internalizing and projecting multiple cultural identities, creating a unified and “predictable” entity in the process.
Finally, the post-modern subject, perhaps best and most simply described as the resulting product of the sociological subject. It is an ever-shifting, fragmented and therefore unstable subject that is recognized as being a composite of several intersecting and often opposing/unresolved identities. It is characterised as having no fixed identity but instead one that is continuously undergoing a series of transformations within the subject’s cultural systems. Rather than a single coherent self around which the subject could build himself/herself (as in the case of the sociological subject), they are many contradictory selves that the subject assumes at different times and in various situations. The result is a kind of controlled schizophrenic personality where the subject temporarily taps in to one identity until the circumstances change and another must be employed.
So now that I’ve highlighted the three concepts of identity as proposed by Hall, how do they relate to our particular situation here in Guyana? Is it possible to situate “us,” and by extension, our society within the parameters he so carefully outlined? What instruments do we use to measure the rate of change from one concept of identity to the other, if there has been any change or development at all? How do we determine if the pace has been fast, steady or slow? What image do we see when we wipe the mirror clean? Is the reflection staring back at us an accurate present-day representation of who we are? I put forward these questions not only as a challenge to myself but also to everyone reading this. I don’t have the answers, as I suspect no single person does either, but perhaps a collective contemplation of these ideas could hasten our understanding of the identity we would like to project to each other and the world over.
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on May 21, 2017. Click on the link to be redirected to their website: