Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Futility/Creation of Identity

Although I had read excerpts from Benedict Anderson's “Imagined Communities” before, I had never focused so intently on the questions he poses in the book; his definition of nationalism as an “imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” serves well enough for discussions of national politics and the ethics surrounding those issues in other courses. But of course a course on Imagined Networks would take this piece more seriously; and with good reason.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to move away from concepts and conceits that we've carried with us for years, and so it was the discussion on patriotism and racism that interested me the most; I had, for instance, already read the (now commonly quoted) truth that dying “for one's country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival” (144), but it was rewarding to consider the problem anew.

For it is, most might agree, a problem; why should an involuntary association with a body, even one so powerful in the imagination as the nation, be seen as morally superior to an association with a body that one chose? Most might say that there is nothing more moral about being an American, say, or a Swede than there is about being an employee of Amnesty International or the Peace Corps; but dying for Sweden or America is constructed as so much more meaningful than dying in a civil war in Latin America.

Which leads nicely into the question of racism – because as proud as any person might be of their racial and ethnic heritage (and the majority of most people are), racial identity is hardly any more voluntary than national identity, being thrust upon oneself not just by the accident of birth but by the perceptions of other people (for that perception is important, and undergirds such occurrences as “white-passing privilege” and the endless questions of, “What race are you? I could have sworn you were [x]” that any mixed-race or questionable-heritage people might face).

One of the most interesting points that Anderson reaches at the end of his discussion on race is the fact that “Spanish-speaking mestizo Mexicans trace their ancestries, not to Castilian conquistadors, but to half-obliterated Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Zapotecs” (154) – and they are not alone. Latinos up and down the Americas often emphasize their native roots when discussing their heritage. On the face of it, it might seem odd; both their native ancestors and their Castilian ancestors performed the same function in terms of producing the individual that stands here today. And yet occur it does, still, according to Anderson because of misplaced class sentiments; a conscious laying down of the claims to pseudo-aristocracy, remembering the ancestors one never chose but who suffered, lived and died under oppression to bring you here today. It is futile to deny one's ancestry; one's genetic makeup cannot be changed by fierce desire. And yet, the way that ancestry is interpreted, by others and by oneself, is so important.

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