Places, like men, have a particular way of being, a personality… To this you combine the collection of memories and experiences that triggers the mind of a future visitor, that solidifies in the place’s history, and is presented to us as a character to understand.
– Esteban Tollinchi
As the topic of identity occupies a special position in today’s world, complicated by cultural and economic globalization, the transformation of political paradigms and the increasing scale of massive immigration, the task of systematically approaching the topic of identity becomes a very difficult mission to achieve. Such difficulties are not only fostered by the magnitude and ubiquity of the issue- as evidenced in a voluminous multidisciplinary and multigenerational world literature, but also because today’s world is connected to a new planetary logic, labeled by Zygmunt Bauman as the political economy of uncertainty.
The effect of this new trend regarding institutional decay, as social protections traditionally associated with the State disappear, represents an enduring anemic condition of uncertainty that substitutes the links of modern natural identity like guarantors of authenticity, replacing them with a new homogenous power of extraterritorial market, or a supranational and global market.
However, identity is a mandatory topic of deliberation to understand and interpret the world in which we’re living and be able to imagine futures of self-realization. With this in mind, this essay presents an approach to the topic of identity, pondering about some aspects that could contribute to penetrate its labyrinths, as “architectonic” as well as puzzling labyrinths.
The problem of identity is a byproduct of modernity. It comes from the rupture of the traditional and natural notion of belonging produced by the energy of a disenchanted, laic, mobile and individualized universe. The modern humanist world invents the notion that the human being does not have to be attached to the circumstances borne from birth; its natural, creative capacity provides the intellectual and spiritual resources to generate change in its environment, which transcend the limits of tradition. One discovers the possibility of ameliorating the quality of life, that is, the idea of progress emerges. Under this new humanist philosophy (ethos), the human being does not reflect in the mirror of a universal identity validated by institutions and the authority of tradition, but in an image of the future, an opportunity idealized in time as different. And it is this progressive notion of the future that gives birth to the problem of identity. As stated by Bauman: “people wouldn’t consider having an identity if the sense of belonging would continue to be its destiny and a condition without alternative. They will start to consider a similar idea only as a task to carry out continuously, instead of just one time.”
1 The demise of the ancient regime, a system of extraterritorial states and empires governed by absolute (or limited) monarchies with the structural support of religious (ecclesiastical) powers and indemnifiers of a commercial order of economic relations, rendered necessary in the western world the creation of a new social and political order incorporated into another institution of State. The introduction of this new order, which we know as modernity or illustrated modernity, is due to a historic, violent revolutionary process that, as such, was as destructive as it was innovative. The French Revolution and the U.S. wars of independence (and later Latin America) are events that have become the representation of the advent of a new political order: the new republican order. It is the beginning of the republic, as the governing political structure of modernity and organized around national states, what transforms the notion of national identity into the supreme topic of public life.
2 Nationality is a term that in it-self constitutes identities. The nation, as a historic modern project, is sustained by the idea of nationality; in other words, by a national identity that shall occupy the empty space created by old identities, and in this way comply with the transformational imperative of incorporating new loyalties in another political region. From the 19th century on, individuals were no longer subjects of kings and queens or residents of territories, but citizens of freedom and equality united by a Nation State established under a modern, republican and capitalist philosophy. At the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, the ideas of the Enlightenment served as the cornerstone to legitimize the political revolution and wars of independence in the United States and Spanish America. This means that the idea of free and republican national states proliferated throughout the entire American continent to replace monarchies and empires. The call was not arbitrary; it was based on the citizen’s inalienable right to politically organize according to its particular cultural and geographical identity.
The most successful institution in realizing this transformation- becoming the most representative myth of the illustrated modernity – was precisely the Nation State in its republican structure. But creating a new institution of the State was not enough. The cohesion needed to maintain this new order of citizens, to preserve the new nation states and the principles that shaped them, would depend in great length on the strengthening of the perception of national identity as an instrument and a requirement of progress, as a symbol of individual and collective prosperity. For this reason, the 19th century was witness to a constant stream of public policies and proselytist expressions with the sole purpose of creating and promoting those national myths that would later standardize as an idea and strengthen as a source of patriotic emotion the newly created state institutions.
The United States is a good example. The new federated nation, created at the time of its independence, immediately started a comprehensive process of nation building. As the structures of a central government consolidated and a territorial expansion to the Pacific was organized at the expense of other States (England, France, Spain, Mexico and Russia), a permanent internal campaign to create and expand the principles and national symbols of the young republic was launched. The creation of heroes or founding fathers; the celebration of national holidays; the glorification of the Constitution as the cornerstone of the new nation; the official historical memory as the basis of its education; the glorification of its centralized political institutions; and the notion of unification (i.e. one country, one military body, one coin, one nation, one State) were established as symbols of a particular identity, of being American. A State was created out of thirteen heterogeneous colonies, a nation made up of American citizens who in its most profound state of identity were different from the rest of the world, particularly from monarchical and anachronistic Old Europe. Following the pattern of justifying state policies with criteria of national identity, the new country launched its expansionist movement to the west based on an important myth: Manifest Destiny. This myth gave way to the idea that territorial expansion was not an imperial adventure but the nation’s imperative; in other words, a national project originated from superior and inevitable forces.
After half a century of nation building, the first and maybe only constitutional crisis experienced by that nation occurred. Several states of the southern region who saw their political power in Congress decline due to the inclusion of new central and western states of the territory, thought that because their participation in the federal republic (the Union) was voluntary and a product of an act of sovereignty, it would also be a legal sovereign act to break the original political agreement and create, amid animosity, a new confederation. After all, they argued, the southern states were endowed with their own identity, different from the other states in the Union, it also followed that they could exercise their natural and sovereign right as true southerners to remain loyal to themselves and create their own Nation State: The Confederate States of America. The Union was conceptualized as one country, with one political body and one national identity, even if it was composed of regional variations and other peculiarities. The result, as we all know, was a bloody civil war. The central government won the battle, and to forever avoid the intent of separation, charged itself with the task of strengthening the concept of a single nation, legitimized by the legal and political indivisibility of the State. As time went by, the principle of e pluribus unum, which manifested the original concept of diversity, yielded to the indivisible concept of one nation, indivisible, under God.
But the political and bureaucratic unity, accomplished by the success of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Benefactor State under the policies of the New Deal, did not fully recognize the diversity of social and ethnic identities that continually permeated the core of the country. At the height of the civil rights movement and the cultural revolution of the sixties, the call for individual identity challenged nationalism.
3 More than being one of the most talked about topics of modernity, identity has become one of today’s most controversial and universal obsessions, both collectively and individually, in Puerto Rico and the world. Not only is identity a topic of concern amid anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, politicians, salespersons, communicators, publicists, artists and cultural critics, among others, but also a topic discussed in the streets, found in the minds of ordinary citizens. That is why all organized political parties of the post-modern world position the identity issue as a priority in their political agendas, of both allies and enemies.
In addition, due to the fact that we live in a universe where intercommunication is more and more pervasive- sometimes described as fluid, liquid or hybrid, literature in various fields of study is filled with manifold reflections and investigations on identity, presented in different historical, political and cultural contexts. As we see everyday, the issue of identity is used to move progress in political, social, commercial, media, analytical, and even personal agendas. At times, obsession with identity reaches such an emotional height or angst that in certain cases it incorporates deplorable pathological features expressed in public disputes, partisan conflicts (including arguments between intellectuals) and hostility towards the other, the foreign. In extreme cases, albeit not uncommon, that hostility has led to xenophobic practices and spontaneous outbreaks of social violence. At worst, it has occasionally served as the breeding ground for State violence, including the adoption of official genocide and discrimination policies. There are plenty of relatively recent cases, for example: the systematic genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany and the fight for civil rights to eradicate racism in the United States; the ethnic cleansing wars in Europe, Africa and Asia, among others. The most sensitive pathological features of this obsession with identity are usually nourished by a fundamentalist mentality that encourages hatred against the other, against the one who is not part of the group identity (i.e. national, cultural, racial or religious), and classifies a person as an enemy, or at the very worst, as less than human.
4 Aside from the countless cases of extremism and violence, a quick look at the everyday language of political parties and the paparazzi offers clues as to how pervasive the obsession with identity and its multiplicity of expressions truly is. In this universe plagued with politicians and populist “artists”, adhesion to symbols of identity- usually national symbols – is compulsory; the only variables of this universal alignment are the degrees of demagogic emotion and extremism. For example, it is no surprise to see that main national symbols, like national flags or anthems, are mostly found during in popular shows, official events and political campaigns. In the United States, for example, it is customary to play the national anthem at the beginning of sports events. Most recently, professional and college teams of all kinds of sports have embroidered the design of the national flag someplace on their uniforms. And in Major League baseball, God Bless America, with the participation of the audience, is now interpreted alongside the anthem during games. In politics, each time a media event is organized, such as a television message from the President or a political debate between aspiring candidates, there are always one or more flags serving as backdrop.
5 While simple group identity flags are raised front and center, market institutions have generalized the hypothesis that social groups considered to be homogenous show, in its real structures, a huge assortment of identities, which influence and sometimes determine lifestyles and attitudes. It is important to recognize that those variables of identity, real and pretended, that have been systematically incorporated into the operational dynamics of the market. In other words, the analysis of marketing techniques considers variables of cultural and sectorial identity in the development of advertising strategies on a daily basis. It is somewhat ironic that, in a world where globalization is commonplace, marketing techniques regulate the organic process of leveling and standardizing markets, at the moment of organizing promotional and publicity messages, by means of the systematic incorporation of differential criteria of identity, better known as demographics.
Similarly, the media organizes its production and programming according to demographics. Categories such as children, housewives, yuppies, jocks, adults and Christians, among other types of consumers, are examples of the utilization of secondary identity criteria at the time of creating and selling products or services. The programmed hours of radio shows and publication of magazines and newspapers are also targeted according to demographics, which provide a formal segmentation of the market. This way, big media players become a very important strategic component of the market, revealing an essential structural involvement in order to carry out the daily task of creating and strengthening identities. Many social scientists, including Mexican anthropologist Ernesto García Canclini, conclude that the widespread presence of the media in homes of all social sectors very intimately influences the socialization process, and as a result, the creation of identities.
This allows us to recognize that, even though identity is traditionally thought of as something real, as a set of characteristics that outlines a particular way of being, another type of identity runs parallel, in modern social contexts, to what the market designates as an aspiration. Because populist cultures value and focus on social mobility, what are perceived as “symbols of the good life”, no matter how different they are from the immediate reality, occupy a prominent place in the collective identity imaginary. Besides that, mass media’s enormous influence continues to keep that illusion alive, blending the uncertainty of everyday life, with fantasies of access to consumer-driven prosperity and privilege. When the market uses identity as a strategic criterion for an advertising campaign, it is not giving preference to social reality, but to the goals it seeks. That is why the settings recreated in service or product ads do not correlate with real popular environments, but those to which we aspire. Celebrity status works in a similar way. Its popularity in sports, showbiz or politics rides on the fantasy of luxury and privilege.
6 On the other hand, the speed at which migration has increased during the last decades as a direct result of the unequal distribution of material goods, has made identity an issue, often deemed as intrinsic to the pressing question of survival and collective reaffirmation, natural and historically, when faced with the threat of the other. In Europe, the United States and Latin America, the immigration issue has caused extensive social and political conflicts. During France’s last elections, one of the main issues in right-wing candidate Nicolás Sarkozy’s campaign agenda (currently the President of France) was immigration. The presence of numerous Muslim immigrants in the country, their persistent claim to retain the religious and cultural identity at the heart of their nation, the resentment of natives who feel displaced by the new neighbors, and the tensions resulting in spontaneous acts of social violence, have polarized France, as it detaches from the rhetorical intensity of the past elections.
In the United States, well-known Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington appealed to decrease the flow of Hispanic immigrants, specially from Mexico, given that they are the most numerous and visible. As argued by Huntington, his purpose is to preserve the cultural identity of the country. According to Huntington, the traditional dominant culture of the United States is Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, and its official language is only one: the English language. The considerable increase of Hispanic immigrants dilutes and weakens the cultural identity, posing a threat to its integrity and permanence. Huntington, who technically does not consider Puerto Ricans as immigrants but for the sake of his argument he does, advocates for a strict level of migratory control and a policy of assimilation. His argument is not racist, in the traditional sense of feeling superior to those who arrive, but it is indeed exclusivist, since he claims the right of the social group to protect the integrity of its cultural environment. It is not necessary to label the other as inferior, it is enough to regulate and limit the flow of immigration.
7 In Puerto Rico, in spite of our secular familiarity with migration waves, we have not been able to avoid the post-modern problem of the immigration phenomenon. While we are used to not having control over immigration issues (first under the sovereignty of Spain and then the United States), this has not stopped the increasing Dominican immigration from creating confusion in social spheres, to an extent where it affects cultural rules and exacerbates our differences through exclusion and mockery at the expense of the more traditional sentiment of solidarity. The problem with the large influx of Dominicans to the island coincides with the introduction of three of the most defining characteristics of the global economy: the increase of economic inequality around the world; the massive displacement of populations, from poor zones to more thriving areas; and the increasing instability and insecurity of labor markets.
8 The migration – identity relationship is more problematic when it comes to the Puerto Rican diaspora. It is very well known how Puerto Rican individuals and families that migrate to the United States insist on maintaining Puerto Rico’s “national” symbols to preserve the emotional link to their culture of origin. In addition to favoring the physical proximity of places of coexistence and entertainment, Puerto Rican expatriates obsessively value language, family traditions, popular art (music in particular) and gastronomy, elements that become daily connections to identity during exile. “Dreaming of Puerto Rico” functions within this context as an anthem revered by Puerto Ricans living abroad who dream of returning to the island.
The Puerto Rican diaspora has generated an identity controversy that seems to have no end. Some maintain that the migratory displacement does not affect the essential identity, even among second and third generation Puerto Rican exiles. But others contend that, by migrating, individuals who have moved and Puerto Rican communities that have established themselves in the United States become part of the ethnical dynamic of this new country, as done by the descendants of previous Irish and Italian immigrants. The term Hispanic American reflects this differentiated concept that compartmentalizes the Latin American immigrant, while assigning a new identity distinct from the white, Anglo Saxon mainstream. The political discourse in Puerto Rico reflects this dichotomy. For example, those who advocate for the first theory maintain that immigrants must preserve (based on the inalienable right of being Puerto Rican) the right to participate in our plebiscite processes. The concept of a divided nation properly expresses such theoretical stance. However, others argue for the territorial status and linguistic unity of the national identity, particularly when it comes to second and third generations. A Puerto Rican who temporarily resides in New York said, as he watched the Puerto Rican Day parade, that for the mainstream American citizen, the Puerto Rican flag represents the ghetto rather that a national symbol.
9 In view of this problem, we must bear in mind that the Puerto Rican community presents a huge diversity of personal and family experiences, where generational, professional, personal, ethnic and, above all, social elements play a role. In this set of variables, and according to the experiences of various generations, the immigrant’s origin and social causes are diversified, and the pattern of geographical distribution increases, thus making it impossible to generalize the issue of identity. The controversy over the diaspora’s identity is included in a general crisis, one that arises from acknowledging the plurality of individuals within national limits. Recognizing the coexistence of multiple identities, which compete among themselves, has raised the question of whether “national identities” exist or not. In fact, these identities have been created by cultural, political and historical projects to legitimize the institution of the Nation State and social order, even though it has nothing to do with the social and historical reality.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany entered extensive political discussions regarding the unification of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The argument in favor of unification two distinct lines of reasoning: one historical and one cultural. The first one recognized that, prior to the war, both territories were part of one country; the second one maintained that the geographical expression of the German culture must be established in one German Nation State. However, German writer Günther Grass took a different and minority position on the issue. The previous Nation State- both under the Wilhelmine Empire (as denominated by William II, Germany’s last Emperor) and the Third Reich, fostered tension in the continent, giving free rein to unbelievable levels of violence and destruction. On the other hand, the political division that, for centuries, was characteristic of the German territory fostered the creation of high cultural levels.
Therefore, the notion that a culture should find political expression in a unique Nation State could result, said Grass, in increased political tensions within the continent. It is true that a German culture exists, but said culture was then divided among various States (East and West Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and Poland), and should continue to be so. In other words, for Günter Grass, cultural identity is one thing and national identity another. Hence, it is anachronistic to say that one identity should respond to the other.
10 Nationality and national identity, its direct point of reference, can be defined in various ways. In Puerto Rico, for example, two hypotheses have been suggested. One claims that there is no nation without political sovereignty. Sovereignty, according to this theory, is an unavoidable requirement for national identity. This is the position taken by Governor Pedro Rosselló when he publicly expressed that Puerto Rico is not a nation because it is not established as a political nation, or better said, as a sovereign nation. On the other hand, others argue that cultural unity is enough to support a national identity regardless of having or not legal sovereignty. Sovereignty in this case is not a requirement for nationality, but a legitimate and authorized aspiration, as the inalienable right, of every real and historical nationality.
The relationship between nationality and Nation State has been the cause of great debate for over two centuries. Since the first half of the 19th century, beginning with the wars of independence and during the despotic Spanish regime, creative energy was directed toward discovering the characteristics of an identity different from the rest of the territories under the regime. Precisely during 1840 when the literary works which would happen to initiate Puerto Rico’s identity project emerge: Aguinaldo puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Carol 1843), Album puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Album 1844), Cancionero de Borinquen (The Songbook of Borinquen 1846), and El Gíbaro (The Puerto Rican Country Farmer 1849) by Manuel Alonso. Later, paintings by Francisco Oller, who was educated in Spain and France, burst into the cultural stage, dedicating his last phase to the identity project. Oller’s art looks for signs of a mature agrarian culture that already incorporates a distinctive nationality. His landscapes depicting the physiognomy and environment of his people are evidence of his panoramic and inclusive worldview. His fascination with typology reveals a controversial political position in the presence of a regime that does not recognize the country’s identity, much less its right to political liberty. Oller dignifies nativeness with everyday visuals, like a simple still-life with pineapples, claiming through it his space in the world. In his own words: “We are in need of portraits that represent our traditions that fix our imperfections and praise our good actions”.
11 Historical examples of national claims during the 19th and 20th centuries are constant, creating an impressive thread of continuity that has not ceased to exist to date. Discovering who we really are is an obsession and an obligation to further future projects. Literary icons like Hostos, Baldorioty, Betances, Zeno Gandía, Brau, Llorens, de Diego, Pedreira, Albizu, Corretjer, Tomás Blanco, Palés Matos, René Marqués, and José Luis González, among others, produced a lengthy catalogue of texts, all resolved to discover and validate our particular identity. The visual arts sprang forth when the modernization of Puerto Rico came about under the aegis of the Popular Democratic Party, which brought to light the most distinguished and prolific generation of artists of our history: the generation of 1950. Three different and complementary projects on the subject of identity are conceived during this period. The first is depicted by Rafael Tufiño, who looks for the clues of identity in the faces and events of everyday people. Second is Carlos Raquel Rivera, who prefers to depict an anti-establishment vision of social reality, capturing in his images the transformation of said reality into a better world. Thirdly is Julio Rosado del Valle, whose conventional focus conditions the individual to the representation of colors, textures, and other visual elements drawn from his unique Puerto Rican experience will prevail in succeeding generations. Here, identity is not a conscious search focusing on images of our particular circumstances but the inevitable result of the creative process itself, insofar as it expresses, in its unlimited diversity, the signs of its cultural roots.
12 In Puerto Rico, the rise of a neo-nationalist sensibility has generated criticism with regards to the issue of identity. Some observers note that the obsession for discovering and fostering characteristics of the national ideal (traditionally understood as something given, and thus, static) wears itself out in the presence of the general recognition of social plurality and the harsh process of historical transformation. To insist that an essential national identity exists, one that deserves our loyalty and devotion because it represents the first line of defense before a foreign culture is imposed has created a false neo-nationalist sentiment, which trivializes the political dialogue and cultural production, hindering the real agenda of imagining more reasonable and dignified futures.
The accusation that identities are digressive inventions that do not represent reality but distort it, has made critics look at the writers and artists who have taken it upon themselves the task of articulating the identity issue, and are described as accomplices of the dominant classes’ historical project. There are many Western works that highlight the close historical relation between the rise of the bourgeoisie, nationalism and Nation States. This growing bourgeoisie found a wide structural support in the humanist, republican and liberal rules, with its new political, scientific, literary, and artistic paradigms. Meanwhile, the agrarian classes of Latin America’s feudal system strengthened their survival by integrating modernity’s new rules into their ideological universe, particularly those concerning nationalism, high culture, and Nation State.
Nevertheless, Puerto Rico’s neo-nationalism is more of the populist type than bourgeois. Certainly landowners, represented for instance by José de Diego, embraced the Hispanic identity as a symbol of leadership and resistance opposite the hegemonic aspiration of the United States. The nationalist movement that emerged during the first quarter of the 20th century, characterized by its opposition to the U.S. regime, adopted an essentialist view of our identity by associating it with Spanish heritage and traditional Catholicism. Both cases show certain political rebelliousness, but in truth, they display conservative attitudes regarding culture and social vision.
The arrival of modernity in Puerto Rico, as of the post-war era and the Popular Democratic Party project, accelerated the development of a populist culture. One of the main characteristics of 20th century populist culture is that it favors State paternalism over the social class conflict. Promises of prosperity offered by the progress of technology break up old loyalties and place modern values, as promoted by State institutions, at the top of the political sensibility charts. In other words, the dominant populist culture is fundamentally nationalist, as it favors national identity, above all, as subject of the benefactor-state paternalism. People and nation become synonyms, and it is within the context of Nation State where territorial frontiers of identity are located.
We must remember that the main social value of populism is social mobility, according to Bauman’s previous quote. Populism praises the topic of identity because it favors the promise of change over the value of permanence. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the idea of “progress through change” ushers all electoral events. However, if the future must be different or, in other words, better, the subject continues to be “the people” as considered today- defined, dignified and praised through the national symbols.
In the independent countries of America during the 1950’s, the terms people and nation were synonyms. However in Puerto Rico, due to its political subordination to the U.S., the term People of Puerto Rico flourishes, which means the same in terms of identity. During the 1950’s, during the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a new political project called Operation Serenity was launched, including the creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, which incorporated the mission of strengthening and promoting the essential identity of the People of Puerto Rico into its program.
Promptly, the issue of the values of identity of the people dominated the political discourse. And one must point out that, before the adoption of terms like country and nation by the Popular Democratic Party, the statehood movement integrated the national populist symbols into its political belief. The establishment of the New Progressive Party, which replaced the old Republican Statehood Party, represents an acknowledgement of the populist hegemony over the political culture of the land. Within this context, we must conclude that neo-nationalism is not a sectorial project in Puerto Rico but a phenomenon of a country attached to a populist mentality that defines Puerto Rico’s modernity.
13 In Spanish America, the historical process was similar vis-à-vis the destruction of the Old Spanish Empire and the adoption of republican values. But contrary to the United States, the creation of political entities ended up being more of a pattern of dispersion than of unity. Pan American unity was not achieved, in spite of all the efforts made, including those of Simón Bolívar, and instead more than twenty sovereign republics where established, starting from Central America to Argentina, all under the national republican myth and the moral values of an illustrated modernity.
The need to create internal cohesion within the new republics was incorporated into the institutional process of nation building, by defining these new national identities as different from those of their sister republics. The fact that the territoriality of the new states was not arbitrary had to be adopted, knowing that it was not an accidental or circumstantial event. Here, the process became more complicated than it had in the United States due to the interest of highlighting cultural differences, not only before the old empire and the rest of the European nations, but also before neighboring republics that had share their historical experience for centuries. The political, social, economic, religious and linguistic unity of the Spanish empire was now broken into separate sovereign States.
Therefore, during the 19th and 20th centuries, there is a plentiful supply of historical, theoretical, artistic and critical literary works in Latin America, determined to discover the particular characteristics of each nationality. The 19th and 20th centuries are very aggressive when it comes to the production of literature about identity. Examples such as Civilización y barbarie (Civilization and Brutality), Ariel, Doña Bárbara (Mrs. Bárbara), La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race), El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), Radiografía de la Pampa (X-ray of the Pampa), Calibán (Caliban), Contrapunto del tabaco y de la caña (The counterpoint of tobacco and sugarcane), Nuestra América (Our America), Siete ensayos para una interpretación de la realidad peruana (Seven essays on the Interpretation of the Peruvian reality), provide us with just a taste of this fixation with identity.
14 A clear glance at modern-day nationalism reveals cases of abnormal violence and destruction. There is a superfluity of examples where the perpetration of crimes against humanity challenges the imagination. Nazi Germany and Franco’s National Catholicism in Spain are two examples which illustrate the consequences of brutality when the national identity does not halt at the recognition of shared characteristics as a justification for unity (both cultural and political), but transcends and perceives the other as an enemy that must be displaced, annihilated and conquered. But such pathological deviations do not necessarily go hand in hand with nationalism. It is also possible to use the cohesion provided by the concept of national identity for nation building and liberation purposes, not in opposition to others but in solidarity with them. The destruction of the old empires at the end of World War II was possible because of the resurgence of national liberation movements riding on ideas of identity. The liberation of the Eastern European countries, Singapore, India, The Philippines, many English-speaking Caribbean islands, and later Vietnam, would not have been possible without a nationalistic beginning. In Ireland, cultural identity was central in the creation of political projects and fight strategies, which resulted in its independence from England and the creation of the Republic of Ireland.
15 It is worth adding a comment about a possible confusion. We previously mentioned that the problem of identity is an invention of modernity, but this assertion does not invalidate what some historians of ideas, like the Chilean historian, Eduardo Devés, have observed. We refer to the fact that, beyond a binomial, a kind of identity-modernity antinomy has also been identified, which has critically led Latin American thinking since mid-19th century. According to Devés, various groups of Latin American thinkers in each historical period (i.e. fashion, generations, schools, etc…) have stressed either modernity or identity. Modernity has evolved from period to period, shaped according to specific and usually foreign issues, perceived as strange, that come from those countries that seem to be at the forefront of progress and have some type of technology as a symbol. On the other hand, although the issue of identity also changes in accordance with each period, it sticks to what is native, which is not understood as a limitation but as the recognition of a particular reality that allows us to think in more realistic and consistent futures. The alternative: the adoption of philosophies originating from other environments, from the center of the modern world, which lean toward alienation and uselessness. At the present time, Latin American thinking, concludes Devés, continues to have this dilemma and is in search of conciliation.
Epilogue Globalization’s leading project, of the political economy of uncertainty, focuses on the destruction of the ability of Nation States to limit the behavior of capital. Said condition sans frontières, promoted by media companies that are also global in structure and vision, have had dramatic effects on the social reality of the world. Let us mention the production of unthinkable wealth; the unequal distribution of resources; the impoverishment of the marginalized populations and the middle class; the brutal influx of immigrants; the instability of labor markets; the escalation of corruption in government (recently nicknamed “cleptocracy”); political uncertainty and tensions among sectors; the appropriation of environmental resources by the market; the proliferation of penal institutions; the decrease of public spending on education; the hegemony of the neoliberal canon that interprets globalization as inevitable, and last but not least, a never-ending state of powerful cultural changes that influence the general levels of trust and hope, among others.
In view of this worldwide crisis, flags of criticism have been raised. We condemn the state of economic deception and of reemerging authoritarianism that regulate traditional liberties. We regret that men and women prefer short-term objectives, lack life plans and abandon themselves to the banality and selfishness of hedonism, above all of consumerism, without measuring the personal and collective consequences. The search for options to take the place of skepticism and institutional deterioration is seen everywhere nowadays, while we lament the proliferation of cynical and negative attitudes. Critics of this expansive cultural decadence feel that this anemic condition is a reasonable response when faced with the real circumstances of a world where the future is perceived as more of a threat than a promised land.
However, many of these critics refuse to find solutions in the Nation State structure, in spite of its historical success and proven statutory and benefactor ability. It seems there is little hope in the protection that could be offered by the discredited bureaucracies of the mega-States, what we call “governments”. And there is also a call-to-action to create new identities that supplant the traditional notions of nationality.
Nevertheless, the world where we have to live (in short, as all the rest) is a temporary state of humanity. And, as a result of history, it is intended to be transformed. The current institutional order, far from reacting to natural laws, nourishes itself with interests and ideological notions that are, by nature, transitory. Right before dying, Pierre Bourdieu wrote that the Nation State, regardless if it does not deserve much enthusiasm and loyalty, continues to be the only legal and political mechanism to control the expansion of global economic interests. In other words, it seems that the world agenda shall be centered in the transformation of the Nation State, not its destruction.
The vital task of developing new political projects is just beginning. But let us not overlook the fact that thinking in valid options and organizing transforming corrective actions, by means of the State or not, inevitably requires the nourishment of a feeling of identity that establishes us in the reality and future. Enabling political projects with transformational value does not require the exaltation of the historical and collective identity, but it recognizes that we cannot avoid its claims. The fundamental need to rescue illusion, to allow us to shelter the daring of hope, as stated by Barack Obama, forces us to question who we are and where we are, without giving up on the unattainable.
Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 28, 2010.
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