National and cultural identities can be conceived as symbolic constructions, argues Renato Ortiz in the following article. He demonstrates that the classic principles of integration, territoriality and centrality that have been held to characterise the nation - and to offer the bases for national identity - have in significant measure been displaced by processes of globalisation.
What should we really understand as cultural identity? To a considerable extent, the North American culturalist school tried to answer this question. Their studies sought to connect the individual to a broader horizon. From this perspective, culture determined the content of personality, and personal identity flowed from a 'structure', a universe that included all members of a community. Each culture therefore evidenced a 'pattern', a coherent whole whose design would be realised in peoples' actions. An author such as Ruth Benedict could then speak of the 'character' of a people such as the Zuni of the Southwestern United States , who were defined by their Apollonian attitude, prescribed for the entire society. Zuni culture was characterised by the rejection of personal, political and religious excesses in favour of prudent and cautious behaviour. Moderation thus becomes synonymous with the Zuni identity. Margaret Mead's study of the Samoans followed similar lines.
The concept of character is applied at various levels. First, it is manifested in the individual. Then, as a product of socialising forces, it can be extended to social organisation as a whole. In a sense, the culturalist school ended up psychologising the social domain: what is individual becomes collective identity. The ethnic character of a group then comes to be seen as a culture shared by its members. This reasoning, while simple at first glance, presupposes several steps that merit examination. Of these, I would like to highlight three aspects: the notions of integration, territoriality, and centrality.
Dimensions of integration
For anthropologists, culture is above all an integrated whole, a totality in which different dimensions of social life are organically connected. Ethnographic investigation - which extends from the material domain to kinship, from exchange to rituals - provides the observer with a framework for reconstituting this broader whole. In the case of the culturalist school, another aspect should be pointed out: culture is also characterised by its integrating function, moulding individuals to society's demands. Personality and culture may then be understood to be intrinsically linked. However, a culture's reach is limited to a physical territory; primitive societies have well-delineated borders. This means that within its own territory each culture is an indivisible whole; it is distinguished from all the others, and is defined by a particular 'centrality'. Therefore, anthropological literature is concerned with its core. Clearly, this centre may change, but, anthropologists emphasise, such change is incremental and slow. From this perspective, the core controls the changes that are imposed upon it, whether these come from inside or outside the territory. Identity is thus maintained, virtually unaltered.
When North American anthropologists became interested in nations and nationalism, they simply applied a previously bequeathed theoretical scheme to the interpretation of another type of society. Identity gained a new dimension, metamorphosing into 'national character.' This argument was based on an analogy between primitive societies and national societies, which is, to say the least, theoretically imprudent. Various studies along these lines were carried out.
I am not interested in presenting a detailed critique of these analyses of national character. After all, they did not differ substantially from other approaches predominant in various countries. It seems to me more productive to focus on the reasoning underpinning this type of attitude. Clearly, anthropologists are aware that there are different types of social formations: tribal societies, city-states, empires. Nonetheless in applying the methods used for studying primitive societies, they ended up postulating that the degree of cohesion in national societies could be likened to the coherence of earlier cultures. This integration now extends to a larger territory, marked by the boundaries of nationality. It thus became possible to speak of how the nucleus of a national culture could express its own identity. As each culture is unique, it is assumed by extension that each national society, whose material base is the nation-state, is an integrated whole, irreducible to other cultures. The world is thus made up of a constellation of national cultures, each with its own idiosyncrasy, its own character. Moreover, it must be added, although this identity is mutable, it is characterised above all by permanence.
Integration, territoriality, centrality. Strictly speaking, anthropological thought took up points that are well-developed in Herderian philosophy. Opposed to the idea of progress, critical of the Enlightenment, Herder rejected the notion of historic evolution. He valued the specific in contraposition to the universal. For him, it was impossible to rank civilisations in any historical sequence. Each people was a sui generis whole, a modality with its own essence. The Herderian vision was thus based on a relativistic perspective, one also cultivated by cultural anthropologists. In this sense, culture, and particularly the nation, would be a civilisation centred on itself. Thence Herder's interest - and that of the Romantics - in popular culture: it would express the 'true' national character.
Discussions of identity are therefore characterised by a certain ontological obsession. Whether in its anthropological or philosophical version, identity is conceived of as a 'being', something that truly 'is'. It possesses a precise shape, it can be observed, delineated, determined in one way or another. Thus identity needs a centre from which its territory - that is, its validity - emanates. It is not an accident that a good part of this debate, especially with respect to Latin America, begins from the same assumptions as before. When philosophers, artists and politicians debate the dilemma of identity, they passionately seek 'authenticity'. There might then be an 'essence' of Latin American thought, something specific, particular to the 'me' of an America that, in contrast to Anglo-America, is so very Latin. The same reasoning extends to the national level.
How can this problematic be considered without slipping into an essentialist vision of the social? I take up a suggestion by Levi-Strauss. He said: 'identity is a kind of virtual place, which is indispensable to us as a point of reference and for explaining certain things, but, in truth, it does not possess a real existence'. This idea of virtuality provides us with an exit from the earlier impasse. It removes the analytical gaze from the configuration of Being, of its character, and fixes it upon the aspects related to the problem confronting us.
Thus, I can propose a preliminary definition of identity: it is a symbolic construction made in relation to a referent. The types of referent can clearly vary: they are multiple - a culture, the nation, an ethnic group, a colour or a gender. But in any case, identity is the result of a symbolic construction that has these as reference points. Strictly speaking, it makes little sense to look for the existence of 'one' identity; it would be more correct to think of it in terms of its interaction with other identities, constructed according to other points of view. From this perspective, the opposition between 'authenticity' and 'inauthenticity' becomes an inadequate conceptualisation.
Constituting the nation
In his study of the nation, Marcel Mauss put forward the following proposition: 'We understand by the nation a society materially and morally integrated by a stable and permanent central power, with specific borders, and a relative moral, mental and cultural unity of its inhabitants, who consciously adhere to the state and its laws'. His definition presupposes a few assumptions. The notion of citizenship not as a philosophical principle but as a political reality was brought into being only after the transformations of the nineteenth century (the French Revolution, the crisis of 1848, the extension of the vote to women, and, in countries such as the United States, to blacks, etc.). Material integration - that is, the emergence of a national market - was also a product of that era, which Polanyi has described as one of the 'great transformation'. During the Ancien Regime, capitalism was limited to external transactions, and did not include in its logic states' internal markets.
As for Mauss's 'moral, mental, and cultural unity', we know this developed slowly. In the early nineteenth century, when France experienced the first stirrings of its industrial revolution, more than a quarter of its population did not speak French. Territorial integration, promoted by the advent of the 'mass' press and by the railway system, had not yet occurred; there were no schools that inculcated the children with the national sentiment; and much of the peasantry was excluded from national society. It was in mid-century that the peasant population became French. In sum, the French nation did not yet exist, it was in formation. This process was not unique to France; Hobsbawm is right to insist that the appearance of the nation is a recent phenomenon.
Elsewhere, a similar trend was evident. This trend included not only the already-familiar requirements of political and administrative centralisation, but other elements as well. For the nation to constitute itself in terms of a 'spiritual principle' and 'moral consciousness' a whole cultural apparatus had to be set in motion. Linguistic unification and the invention of symbols are fundamental to the elaboration of nationality. Civic festivals, patriotic parades, the flag, the anthem, and national heroes, inculcated in primary schools, are the glue for this new solidarity. In this context is forged an image in which the members of a 'community' recognise themselves: a national identity. But, it must be stressed, this is a 'community of destiny', as Otto Bauer reminds us, not one of character. However, because destiny is subject to interpretation by various social and political forces, the direction taken by a nation is always a source of controversy. As the debate over identity is permeated by conflicting interests, intellectuals play a dominant role in its elaboration, acting as symbolic mediators who link the past and the present. There is also the legitimation of one vision or another, one destiny or another. National memory is therefore a battleground in the struggle between different views of society.
But the nation is more than a historical novelty. It represents an entirely new type of social organisation. Ernest Gellner, in all his radicalism, understood this well. It is a type of society in which mobility is a determining factor. Therefore culture can no longer reproduce previous patterns; it must necessarily have a greater capacity for integration, for encompassing all members of that society. The nation plays this role, representing the whole that transcends individuals, groups, and social classes. Thus nation and industrialism converge. For the purposes of this discussion, I would propose the following: the nation is historically realised through modernity. I can then tie the national problematic to a broader question: the dilution of borders. This theme is intrinsic to modernity.
In order to grasp this, I find Giddens's notion of 'disembedding' interesting. The advent of modern societies means that social relations are no longer limited to local interaction. While in earlier societies it seemed as though time and space might be physically contained, modernity breaks this continuity, shifting social relations into a wider arena. Space becomes dilated because of the circulation of persons, products, symbolic referents, and ideas. The process of national construction provides a good illustration of this dynamic. The idea of the nation implies that individuals cease to consider their regions as the territorial base for their actions. This presupposes the extension of the geographic horizon, removing people from their localities in order to reclaim them as citizens. The nation 'disembeds' them from their particularities, from their provincialisms, and integrates them as part of a society. Individuals who live the experience of their 'places' immersed in the dimensions of regional time and space are thus referred to another overarching framework.
An example of this transformation is the modern communication system. Before it developed, countries consisted of disconnected parts; regions didn't 'talk' to one another, and only with difficulty did regions talk to their own capitals. The communication network (railroads, motorways, urban transport, telegraph, newspapers) - a nineteenth century development in France, Germany, England and some other European countries - linked up this profusion of points for the first time. The part thus found itself integrated into the whole. Local space became deterritorialised, acquiring a different meaning.
However, this shift was not realised without tensions. On the contrary. We should not forget that modernity is based on the principle of individualism - this is its distinctive feature in relation to other cultures. Sociologically, this signifies the rupture of fundamental attachments, leaving the individual 'free', 'unleashed' to act according to his or her own volition and consciousness (or, better, according to the possibilities implicit in his or her class position and condition). Ideally, the individual chooses his or her own destiny, but it turns out that a force that overrides the individual seeks to impose a collective will: the individual has to express him or herself as a citizen of a nation. Free will is opposed by something that transcends the individual.
This opposition lies at the root of the debate between holism and the individualism so dear to modern society. At the same time that modernity is embodied in the nation, it carries within it the seeds of its own negation. National identity is in this regard out of step with the movement that engenders it. It is the result of a double movement: people's deterritorialisation and their reterritorialisation in the compass of another dimension. Its existence is therefore 'precarious', needing constant reelaboration by social forces. Far from being complete, definitive, it requires continuous reconstruction.
Different nations have different destinies: complementary or antagonistic, dominant or dominated. Yet each of these is configured in a core of influence. A nation defines a geographic space within which political aspirations and personal projects are carried out. In this sense, the nation-state is not simply a political-administrative entity, it is a locus for the production of meaning. Identity galvanises the concerns that are expressed within its territory. Certainly it is not affirmed without problems. Over a relatively long period, the nation-state managed to square the circle of these difficulties. In the face of alternative reference points, national identity was affirmed as hegemonic. Using a Weberian expression, I would say the nation as a reference point has a monopoly on the definition of meaning. It is the dominant principle of social orientation. Other possible identities, or, better, the referents used in their construction, are subordinate to it.
This situation prevails as long as existing contradictions are contained within the borders of the nation-state. So far as this is concerned, it is necessary to return to the theme of modernity. We may see how historically it is realised through the nation. But, it should be noted, its dynamic is different. The deterritorialisation provided by the nation is partial; it favours the mobility of things barely on the horizon of its geography. Modernity requires a deeper uprooting. At the moment at which it radicalises, accelerating the forces of decentring and individuation, the previous limits become trivial. The 'moral, mental, and cultural unity' is imploded. Understanding globalisation not as an external process, alien to national life, but rather as the expansion of world-modernity, provides new elements upon which to reflect. The contradictions inaugurated by industrial society, which cross national spaces, now gain another dimension. They spill over to the global level. In this context, national identity loses its position as the privileged producer of meaning. Its legitimacy is challenged by the emergence of other referents.
Thinking of globalisation in terms of world-modernity avoids several stumbling blocks. In the same way that it makes no sense to speak of 'global culture' it would be illogical to seek a 'global identity'. We should understand world modernity as driving the movement of deterritorialisation beyond national borders, accelerating conditions of mobility, and 'disembedding'. The globalisation of culture engenders new referents of identity. Youth, for example: in contemporary societies, the behaviour of a particular stratum of youth can be understood only when it is placed within the framework of globalisation. Tee-shirts, sneakers, jeans, rock idols, surfing, are deterritorialised references that form part of a lexicon of an international-popular youth memory, ritually inculcated through the large pop concert (an effervescent youth potlatch), MTV programmes, or comic books. These are deterritorialised points of reference that bind an age-segment (and one of class), bringing people together regardless of their nationalities and ethnic groups.
The collusion, the 'moral unity', of these young people is woven into the circle of global structures. To construct their identities they select symbols and signs decanted by the globalisation process. Through these, they identify with one another, and differentiate themselves from the adult universe. The same process takes place with consumption. Groups of the globalised middle class share the same tastes and the same inclinations, circulating in a space of common expectations. In this sense the market, the transnationals, and the media are sources of cultural legitimation. Their authority imposes models of aesthetic dispositions and behaviours. In the same way that the school or the state constitute privileged actors in the construction of national identity, the agencies that act at the world level favour the elaboration of deterritorialised identities. Like the intellectuals, they are symbolic mediators.
Transformin g the notion of space
Integration, territoriality, centrality. These concepts as previously postulated cannot be reproduced without difficulty. With globalisation, the notion of space itself is transformed. The core of each culture - that is, the referent for the construction of identity - loses its centrality. This causes the sense of crisis that threads through contemporary debate. The nation's borders no longer manage to counter the identity movement in its midst. Ecological and ethnic discourses testify to this. Take, for example, the musical practices that express black consciousness. Africa-Bahia-Caribbean form a universe that is sustained by starting from the subaltern condition of blacks in contemporary societies and from the playfulness of the generations descended from slaves. A circuit is constructed, a set of symbols that unifies groups and consciousnesses separated by distance and nationalities.
At first glance, certain identities are reinforced by the relaxation of national borders. In countries that have multiple languages, the 'low', or subaltern, language takes on new life by virtue of the relativisation of the national language. Also, certain 'local' identities, suffocated by the need for national cohesion, gain new ground. This is often the case with popular cultures in Latin America. Poorly integrated, when not rejected by national projects, and marginalised, they encounter in the movement of globalisation a counterpoint for self-affirmation. But we must bear in mind that they, too, do not have a monopoly on the definition of meaning.
I think that we can understand this problematic using two concepts proposed by Michel de Certeau. He terms 'strategy' the calculus of relations of force that are possible when you start with a subject (an entrepreneur, a proprietor, a scientific institution, etc.) that occupies a space. This means that any strategy is linked to a territorial base from which it is managed, that weighs and measures the movements of others - adversaries, competitors or clients. There is a distance between the subject (institution) that applies the strategy and the object to be attained.
To the concept of strategy, de Certeau counterpoises that of the 'tactic'. This is 'a calculus which cannot count on a 'proper' (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a border-line distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance'. The problem that directly interests de Certeau is not the question of identity, but that of popular culture: how the user of a product behaves in a different way from the entrepreneur who puts it on the market. The vendor acts according to a strategic calculus, with a definite objective, whereas the consumer reacts to an accomplished fact. His action cannot be all-inclusive; it is localised.
The identity game is similar. Each person must 'negotiate' his or her existence in the context of a previously-demarcated territory (to take up an idea of Néstor García Canclini ). For example, popular cultures in Latin American are multiply intersected by national and global realities. Their affirmation is the vector of diverse lines of force. To 'negotiate' is to delimit symbolically a territory, to take into consideration the numerous competing actors. Nonetheless, identities operate from within distinct positions. Some have greater scope because they are tied to institutions whose 'strategies' impel them into the territory of 'the others'. This is the case for national or deterritorialised identities; they cut across the diversity of the 'locals'. Others, however, must resign themselves to the 'tactic', that is, they must act under constant pressure from their 'opponents'. Therefore, the game is unfair.
World-modernity makes available a set of referents for collectivities. Some are established: the ethnic group, locality, region; others, more recent, result from the globalisation of culture. In elaborating its collective identities, each social group will appropriate from these referents in a distinctive way. This does not, however, mean that we are living in a 'democratic' state in which everyone has the right to choose. To represent the sociological panorama in political terms is deceptive. Global society, far from stimulating an equality of identities, is cut across by a clear and merciless hierarchy. Identities are different, and unequal, because their inventors, the forces that construct them, occupy different positions of power and legitimacy. Concretely, identities are expressed in a field of struggles and conflicts, in which prevailing lines of force are shaped by the logic of the social machine.
Translated by Nancy Morris and Philip Schlesinger.