Contemporary cultures — especially First World cultures — seem increasingly marked by an anxiety over authentic cultural identity. One might ask this question: Why do we still cling to notions of authenticity and authentic identities at all in an increasingly globalized, hybridized world that has deconstructed and exploded notions of authentic essences and absolute differences? Who is “authentic” and who is “other” in a given culture? Why do we feel anxious about a loss of our “authentic” identities, and what are we doing to try to reclaim such supposedly vacated identities? Why do we resist the fact that cultures and, thus, cultural identities are constantly changing and evolving, choosing instead to try to “freeze” identity in a past moment of nostalgic “authenticity?” These are critical questions that our contemporary world, brought both closer together and further apart by globalism and economic disparity, struggles with in many registers.
For example, the existence of one’s “nation” as a natural category that one is born into — like one’s “race” or gender — is for most of us an unquestioned fact, so taken for granted that we seldom wonder what we mean by our “nation” and our “national identity.” But as political scholar Benedict Anderson has persuasively argued, each nation is an “imagined community” whose members share confidence in a sense of an authentic national identity and homogeneous community. This is, he argues, a necessarily constructed and imagined identity and community, in view of the great heterogeneity and difference that actually exist within any national population. Anderson’s general point about national identities is equally true of the cultural, racial, religious, and ethnic identities we similarly construct as imagined communities with authentic and definable essences.
For example, I am a Chinese male who spent my childhood and teen years in various countries overseas. Now, I’m a naturalized American. But I often find myself having as much or more in common with, say, certain Canadian women, Dutch nationals, African Americans, or gay men than with most other heterosexual Chinese-American males. Nevertheless, so strong is our impulse and yearning toward an authentic identity, that we continue to believe that labels such as “African American,” “Irish Catholic,” “Serbian,” “Bosnian,” “Chinese,” or “Jewish” have real, inherent, and definable meanings with an aura of authenticity. Why — in our post-20th-century world of global communication and international commerce — should this still be so (and in such an insistent, sometimes violent, manner)?
The pressure to define a unique and authentic national character and identity, one that is distinct from all others, may be growing more urgent with the globalization of our own contemporary moment. It is a moment in which cultural and natural distinctiveness is fading, and cultures are growing increasingly to resemble not distinct and unique entities, but rather predictable simulacra of millennial inauthenticity, complete with CNN and a McDonald’s in every village. One may well argue that behind the need to construct and maintain a cultural authenticity lies an unarticulated anxiety about losing one’s cultural identity and specificity — one’s cultural subjectivity and distinctiveness.
It is along these lines, perhaps, that we may speculate on the cultural forces behind the continuing construction and maintenance of “authenticity” and ethnic identity in the world today — especially at a time when identity politics seems to be less necessary as distinct cultures gradually meld into a transnational global culture. However, rather than needing now to depend less on cultural differences and identities, previously distinct cultures actually suffer an anxiety about the perceived loss of identity and subjectivity, a fear of melding into a global sameness and what Irish scholar Seamus Deane calls the “harmony of indifference.” This anxiety results in the need to continue constructing and maintaining imagined identities and “authenticities,” so as to continue to be able to assert difference and superiority — whether in the form of World Cup soccer competitions, sectarian politics, or ethnic warfares.email print