“Cultural Identity” and Resisting Cultural Imperialism:
Hall characterizes two specific ways of situating ourselves when we think about “cultural identity.” One position conceives of identity shared by a collective in which individuals can relate to one another through common history. Cultural identity stands for the common historical experience that individuals share; it is that which allows for the individuals of a collective to hold a profound sense of belonging and a “oneness,” which keeps a community together through even the gravest of adversities, like those of colonial oppression.
It is suggested that in order for colonized subjects to fight against colonialism, they must collectivize by uncovering their shared history stripped and manipulated by the colonizers. This idea is to strategically bring about empowerment by returning to the pre-colonial cultural traditions and representations that may have once given their existence meaning. “It lay at the centre of the vision of the poets of ‘Negritude’, like Aimee Cesaire and Leopold Senghor, and of the Pan-African political project, earlier in the century” (Hall 223). Yet there is another position we need keep in mind with the concept of identity. For example, Frantz Fanon was critical of this revitalization of pre-modern cultures and the connections made between identity and a common essential ancestry or origin. Rather than emphasizing the recovery of this idea of the pre-existing unity of a race or people, Fanon sought the production of identity based on the concurrent struggles of the colonized collective. Identity, in this case is not a begotten force unchanging and continuing to flow through those united by it, but it is constantly challenged according to any retelling of the past and any individual’s desire to negotiate his/her position through present struggles into the future. Hall argues, “Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power” (225).
We are indebted to thinkers and scholars like Hall and all who precede him in thinking about the critical discourses of cultural formation. Thanks to them, we understand that culture and power are not inherently contained in the bodies of a select few. Concepts like race also are not fixed or natural limiters of human power, but have been arbitrarily formed to give political advantage to a select few over the remaining majority. Although more of us now consider racial codification to be a result of non-essential social imagination, it has proven its real existence, manifested with real boundaries, and had real effects on the social conditions to which such classification of human beings has been applied. Historically, social phenomena such as slavery and colonialism have been legitimized and justified by hegemonic systems of racial codification, in which there was consensus based on the common understanding of the distribution of power, value of life, and human rights according to certain physical characteristics of the human body, namely the color of one’s skin. Yet, for such arbitrary associations like skin color signifying human value to maintain their status as truth claims, they need to be structurally supported by infrastructure of knowledge. Western consciousness found one through the intricate study of the Orient, or at least what it viewed and imagined to be the peripheries outside of the Western European center. Although the Orient covered in Orientalism does not refer to the “Far East,” or East Asian and Southeast Asian nations and cultures, it is worth looking at in order to grasp the concept of the Western gaze of the rest of the world and its knowledge systems.