Stuart Hall, the man known as the “godfather of multiculturalism” died this Monday at the age of 82. Born in Jamaica, he was one of the founders of the school of British Cultural Studies, and his interdisciplinary approach was pioneering. I have read his essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” many times. It expands on the ideas of colonial theorists such as Aimé Césaire and Franz Fanon through a semiotic approach that builds on Barthe and Eco. From the essay:
There are at least two different ways of thinking about ‘cultural identity’. The first position defines ‘cultural identity’ in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common. Within the terms of this definition, our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people’, with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history. This ‘oneness’, underlying all the other, more superficial differences, is the truth, the essence, of ‘Caribbean- ness’, of the black experience. It is this identity which a Caribbean or black diaspora must discover, excavate, bring to light and express through cinematic representation.
Hall proposes a new way of thinking about cultural identity:
There is, however, a second, related but different view of cultural identity. This second position recognises that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute ‘what we really are’; or rather – since history has intervened – ‘what we have become’. We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’, without acknowledging its other side – the ruptures and discontinuities which constitute, precisely, the Caribbean’s ‘uniqueness’. Cultural identity, in this second sense, is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.
There is still much to be learned from Stuart Hall, who saw culture as something more to be studied, but a place in which we can intervene. For more on Hall, watch the trailer for “The Stuart Hall Project.”
Photo credits: Antonio Olmos and David Levene.
—Rachael Benavidez, Zeteo Associate Editor