Thursday, June 10, 2010

Identity Claims and the Media

© Mukesh Williams

We all make identity claims for one reason or the other. Usually our identity claims reflect our concerns, anxieties and desires. Usually our identity claims are harnessed in our self-interest or the interest of our community, tribe or nation. A selfless identity claim is a misnomer. Though nations may be imagined, they nevertheless provide an opportunity for people to make specific identity claims (Anderson, 1991; Hall, 1997). When we have a soccer match between two countries and the captain of the winning team drapes his country’s flag around him he is making an identity claim that spectators can relate to and identify with.


Advertising also lays claim to our identity. Successful modern advertisements force us to place ourselves in the situation occupied by one of the characters and identify ourselves with what they say or do. Image advertising also works in similar fashion. Media photographs work for us if they excite our emotions of pity, anger, joy or resentment. We then indentify ourselves with them and claim them as they claim us. For example a bird covered in oil sludge, a child crying from hunger, soldiers killed in war, a volcanic eruption and so on. The picture implicates us, forces us to produce meaning in the act of looking. As we enter this fantasy world again and again we become a part of that world.


People come together into a group and imagine an identity. We have many identities—such as racial, local, city, gender, national and religious—and we use different aspects of these collective identities to our advantage. Identity is therefore neither single nor fixed but constantly reconstituted and in a state of eternal flux. We give meaning to things through the use of language. At the same time we are reconstituted by those collective identities we use to define or redefine ourselves. The reconstitution and redefinition of our identities have been further accelerated by digital and mobile technologies.


There are different strategies to understand the way we signify, the way we represent and the way we create meaning. It is possible to divide theories of representations into three broad categories: reflective, intentional and constructionist. The first implies that meaning is inherent in objects, persons, ideas or events and language merely acts as a mirror to reflect such meaning. The Greek notion of mimesis grew out of this conception of the world where painting and drawing mirrored the real world of nature. The reflective theory of representation is therefore often termed as mimetic theory. Obviously visual arts do attempt to represent the shape and texture of objects, but they also represent objects as two-dimensional signs. Literary theory is full of it. The second theory argues that the observer, speaker or author gives meaning to the world through the use of language. Meaning therefore depends on intention. But language is a social discourse organized along shared codes and conventions and must follow a well-formulated pattern in order to be intelligible. The third premise moves away from the first two approaches and argues that meaning does not lie in objects but we create meaning using signs, signifiers, concepts and strategies. We are constructionists in our representation of the world. The material world exists per se but meaning is created through the discourse of language and linguistic practices (Hall 1997, 24-25).


Both modernity and post-modernity have deeply affected our sense of identity—the way we constitute it and the way we are affected by it. Modernity brought in a new urban revolution in our inner psychological space and outer physical space. Both our ways of thinking and the city spaces we live in changed radically from the earlier medieval times. In the post-modern era, though the urban landscape is still present, it is the mass media that defines our sense of individuality and cultural identity. Some of the ill effects of modernity felt in urban architecture, knowledge areas and psychological spaces are reduced in post-modern world. The oppressive effects of modern city spaces and rules of behavior are somewhat lessened in postmodern city spaces where the individual becomes once more important. The process of globalization as a function of late modernity has further accelerated an economic process that connects with mass migration and reassertion of pan identities on new levels. The “cultural resonance” of postmodernism as a “structure of feeling,” to use Raymond Williams phrase, distracts us from its impact upon economic organizations, marketing and advertising (Jameson, 2001 xiv).


The notion of identity crisis is a post-structuralist idea that began to dominate the sub-discipline of structuralism from the 1960s. With the breakdown of the old world order old collective identities lost their validity. Micro level identity politics connected to lobby groups, localism and even nationalism began to dominate the identity project. The individual in the postmodern world was more fragmented than alienated (Jameson, 2001). Alienation assumed a unitary core self but the postmodern self is seen as unstable and multiple. Therefore the concept of alienation within identity is replaced by anxiety. The Internet further destabilized identity by creating a “culture of simulations” by substituting reality with virtual communities (Turkle, 1997).

The 1960s was a momentous decade. Lacan began to attack the concept of the embedded self and posited the notion of a de-centered self. The dominant theory thesis and hegemonic ideas connected with it began to give way to micro politics. By 1970s it became rather difficult to say, both on the individual and group level, “Who am I? or Who are we?” As we go into the 1980s again new groups get formed such as Yuppies and DINKS. Identity is no longer what we have learned or experience but something to be consumed and used. The consumer culture acquired greater intensity during this decade. Today it is difficult to assert an ‘authentic identity’ as postmodernism undercuts modern history, psychology and philosophy.

Works Cited

ANDERSON, BENIDICT. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1991.
APPADURAI, ARJUN. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
HALL, STUART. “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Stuart Hall ed. London: Sage, 1997.
JAMESON, FREDRIC. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Post-Contemporary Interventions). Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
TURKLE, SHERRY. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Post-modernDual Identity

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