Notes on: Hall, S. (1991)  Old and new identitites, old and new ethnicities. In A. King (Ed) Culture, Globalization and the World System. Hampshire: Macmillan.

Dave Harris

He wants to reconsider relations between global and local to inaugurate a 'more open-ended and contingent cultural politics' (41) [that free-floating intellectuals can take part in] , which raises questions about the subjects of politics and their identities, and the issue of identity and difference.

Identity is now important in British (cultural)  politics. Not the traditional coneption though as in the 1960s. This leads to 'never-ending theoretical work' (42). New theoretical discourses now interlock. So do new practices [convenient]

The old logic of identity took the form of the Cartesian subject which was the ground of action. There is a more recent psychological discourse of the self as 'continuous, self-sufficient, developmental, unfolding, inner dialectic', never fully accomplished. 'The logic of the language of identity is extremely important to our own self conceptions' [for academics] because it addresses the notion of the true self and thus is 'a kind of guarantee of authenticity' (43). [Then a bit about the guarantees of such notions of identity, they also lead to understandings of self other individual society and so on which 'helps us, I would say, to sleep well at night… One of the main functions of concepts is that they give us a good night's rest', because they provide stability within all the discontinuities and constant change.

He is going to 'sort the ideas into place very quickly by using some names as reference points' [although he could of course 'discuss this very elaborately']. The Cartesian notion of the subject was criticised by Marx [who might have 'slotted in' women] banging on about making history in conditions which are not of their own choosing, pointing to historical practices within which subjects operate, among which they are not the authors — 'a profound historical decentring in terms of social practice'.

Then there was Freud pointing to the unknowns of psychic life [the analysis here is carried by a kind of conversational style, speaking for Freud] and the role of the unconscious. Then there was Saussure and linguistics pointing out that language was there before we were and we only speak by positioning ourselves in discourses [again made up quotes], which made us think about the relation between language and truth. This is what modernity is like although it is not itself modernity which has a longer history — it is modernity 'as trouble… modernity as a problem' (44).

There were other 'enormous historical transformations' including 'the relativization of the ...Western episteme', and the 'displacement of the masculine gaze'. All these provide problems with the notion of identity. There has also been 'a fragmentation and erosion of collective social identity' especially the 'great collective' ones which used to unite us — class, race, nation, gender and the West. These were stabilised by long-range historical processes, industrialisation, capitalism, urbanisation and the world market, the emergence of the public civil sphere and the identification between the West and modernity.

Let's address class. It was once the 'main locator of social position', locating us in grids and groups, linking to material life through the economy, providing the code used to read each other and understand each other. There is also collective action which would unlock politics. None of the collective identities disappeared but none of them is 'any longer, in either the social, historical or epistemological place where they were' (45). They are not homogeneous but have inner differences, contradictions, segmentations and fragmentation is. They are no longer stable, totalising, no longer a key to positions or a 'code of identity'.

Perhaps they never quite functioned like that and there is never decisive historical evidence any more than there is for something like 'the organic community'. That was also 'just always in the childhood you have left behind' (46), based in 'historical nostalgia going on in… retrospective reconstructions'. They were always reconstructed more homogeneously and as more unified than they ever were. Again, no one thinks they affect the present as much.

This question of erosion and fading and 'lack of comprehensive explanatory power' is what has gone. They are no longer '"master concepts"' [unreferenced, like a lot of this]. Some things can still be explained in terms of class after recognising complexity, yet 'there are certain other things it simply will not or cannot, decipher or explain', because there is 'increasing social diversity and plurality'.

Doesn't this abolish identity altogether? However, theoretical work shows that 'the moment the concept disappears through the left-hand door, it returns to the right hand window, but not in quite the same place' (47). Subjectivity and the subject is still important [indispensable, people like Giddens have argued, to explain change, if only in the form of the bricoleur]. The languages of feminism and of psychoanalysis, for example have repositioned the notion of the subject although he 'does not want to go through the argument' and can only do it 'programmatically'.

Identities are never completed, subjectivity is always in process of formation. It always means 'the process of identification' identifying sameness, although always through ambivalence, splitting, for example, one and the other, and this attempt to expel the other is 'always compounded by the relationships of love and desire', one major difference from conceptions of the 'Others who are completely different from oneself' (48). This other belongs inside us, 'the self as it is inscribed in the gaze of Other' [looking glass self], and this breaks the old boundaries, including those whose 'histories cannot be spoken'. 'There is no other history except to take the absences and the silences along with what can be spoken. Everything that can be spoken is on the ground of the enormous voices that have not, or cannot yet be heard' [how on earth can this be done?].

We can see this doubled discourse 'in the ranges of given text', for example in Fanon Black Skin, White Masks — where a white child calls him a Black man and so he realises that this is how he is composed as an other. [Huge generalisation follows] 'the notion that identity in that sense could be told as two histories… Is simply not tenable any longer in an increasingly globalised world. It is just not tenable any longer'.

People like him arrived in England in the 1950s but have 'been there for centuries… Symbolically', in the sugar in the cup of tea, via the sugar plantations, and the tea plantations, in the very symbol of English life a cup of tea. 'There is no English history without that other history' [of the colonies] (49). Identity is not just to do with 'people who look the same, feel the same, call themselves the same', but is a process, and narrative 'always told from the position of the Other'. It is not something about which stories are told, 'it is that which is narrated'. He is going to illustrate this as a story. Generally, identity is never 'sealed or  closed' it is always 'written in and through ambivalence and desire'.

For example we know lots about sexual difference, including from Derrida and the two meanings of differance. That disturbs our understanding and lies between two French verbs. Thus 'language depends on difference', but the new ground is 'the extent to which "differ" fades into "defer"' (50). It's not binary and draws attention to 'anomalous sliding positions in every process' even in sexuality.

What about identity and the dangers of 'infinite postponement of meaning'? Unfortunately, Derrida's politics has been uncoupled from his theory especially in America. What we get is 'enormous proliferation of extremely sophisticated, playful deconstruction which is a kind of endless academic game'. Academics enjoy it. Politics, by contrast 'requires the holding of the tension between that which is both placed and not stitched in place… Positionality and movement… Not playing with difference… But living in the tension of identity and difference' [surprised didn't talk about bending the twig or holding both ends of the chain].

Meaning 'in any specific instance depends on a contingent and arbitrary stop, the necessary break' (51). To say anything involves such a stop, something 'contingent… Positioning. It is the cut of ideology which across the semioses of language constitutes meaning'. It is necessary just to get into that game. He has experienced graduate students who enjoyed French theory but ended up being unable to say anything. Real meaning involves 'a wager… A bet on saying something'. You have to be positioned even if you want to take it back and unposition yourself subsequently. 'There is no other way that is the paradox of meaning'.

We cannot think only of difference and not relations and 'the arbitrary over-determined cut of language which says something which is instantly opened again' [at last] we must not 'lose hold of the two necessary ends of the chain to which [sic] the new notion of identity has to be conceptualised'.

This raises the issue of politics and whether there might be 'a general politics of the local' to combat globalisation which occludes all differences. He thinks there is no general politics, but he will tell us about some local politics, cultural politics, and the formation of the Black diasporas in England.

For the first generation, the intention was to go back home, but by the 70s it was clear they were going to stay and then they encountered the politics of racism. The main reactions involved '"Identity Politics One"' (52), where a defensive collective identity was constructed to combat racism, to find an alternative having been blocked to an English identity, a search for roots. The language of home was being spoken, and histories retold. This was 'imaginary political re-identification, reterritorialisation and reidentification', but it was central to counter politics. The obvious result was 'the category Black' (53).

He was lower-middle-class in Jamaica. Although 98% of the Jamaican population is Black or coloured, they did not call themselves Black: there were 15 different shades of brown and dark brown and it was common to grade women according to the different shade of skin, 'the most complicated colour stratification system in the world'. Social status was a matter of grading quality of hair, physiognomy, shade. This shows that Black is not about colou but is 'a historical category, a political category, a cultural category', created equivalence. He heard it for the first time in civil rights as a political category, an attempt to reverse negative symbolism and re-articulate it. It was a most profound cultural revolution in Jamaica. Marley stood for Black and he was able to legitimate different political parties. His mother 'as a good middle-class coloured Jamaican woman, hated all Black people'.

He has had all sorts of identities — immigrant, for example, which he finally realised and grew into. Then he realised he was Black, and had to talk his son into that identity. It's not just a true self emerged, rather that the identification was learned. The notion of Black was important in the antiracist struggles of the 70s, to cover anyone in the huge wave of migration, including Asians. Asking for specifics like which island people came from was seen as divisive, and then 'the enemy was ethnicity' and multiculturalism, something exotic (55).

That moment of the struggle is not gone away, but a collective Black identity has not simply replaced all the others. There are silences as well, like the specific experiences of Asians. Some Black people did not identify. Some of the other dimensions that positioned individuals were ignored and that helped 'reconstitute the authority of Black masculinity over Black women' leading to a long silence which militant Black men would not break. There are also positionings in class terms, similar work, similar forms of deprivation. Blackness is therefore complex not entirely positive, and although it helps defeat marginalisation, there are costs in the essentialising it.

We are all 'composed of multiple social identities' and we can be located in 'multiple positions of marginality and subordination' (57). We need a war of position [sigh]. This might be difficult because no one knows conduct one. There are no guarantees and identifications are not stable. Things are not good just because Black people do them. There is an effect of history which has to be 'narrativized' (58). The recovery of oral testimonies for example has been important in history but we should not see them as 'just literally the truth'. 'There is no guarantee of authenticity' [take that you counterstory enthusiasts].

We are always 'in the strategy of hegemony'. It is important to realise that Gramsci did not mean complete incorporation, or the destruction of difference. Rather hegemony is 'the articulation of differences which do not disappear'. People know their position. They know there will be no state where false consciousness disappears. They also know that 'if they engage in another project it is because it has interpolated [sic] them, hailed them and establish some point of identification with them' (59) [even a radical Black academic one?]. Current politics is increasingly able to 'address people through the multiple identities which they have' even if they are contradictory and locate people differently. This is a politics conducted 'in the light of the contingent'. It is 'the only political game that that locals have left at their disposal'.

There is no point waiting for a politics of manoeuvre, a unity of all the locals to roll back the tide of the global in one great activity. It is a dream and we have to enter the world of contradiction and politics. Luckily ''some of the most exciting cultural work' is being done like that, by young Black men and women in England, who speak from being Black, Caribbean, and British, and reject the Thatcherite notion of Englishness and contest the old notion of Blackness as essential. They write poetry, make films and paint [sounds like an echo of Willis here], and this is 'the most important work in the visual arts'.

For example My Beautiful Laundrette 'is the most transgressive text there is' (60) because the two Black central characters are also gay, and one is white and the other brown. One has an uncle who is a Pakistani landlord opposing Black people. 'This is a text that nobody likes', because there are no positive images. The writer acknowledged he was in a difficult moral position but claimed that he was describing a position that will 'arise more and more' in Britain, and his is 'a serious attempt to understand', unsentimental. Hall sees it as imaginative writing that gives 'a sense of the shifts and difficulties within our society as a whole'. (61) Oppressed groups must not just accept themselves as occupying enclaves, to be invisible or marginalised.

[Responses to questions from the audience]

These questions are also universal and global as well as local, 'there is always an interpretation of the two', but confronting at the global level is not making much headway compared to counter movements at the local level. However, these are not easy to connect up. Ecology might try to establish itself as a single base of politics as an alternative political game compared to ethnicity. However, localised resistance even though unable to connect up offers a greater 'purchase on the historical present' (62). You can work at more than one level, there is 'a continuous dialectic between the local and the global'. The issues he has addressed really turn on boundaries and who is inside or outside, and the collapse of the old sense of knowing where you fitted compared to the new sense of unfinished plurality.

It is the politics that shifted. The revolutionary class subject never appeared, and revolutionary classes in the past, including the bourgeois class, often acted before they were fully formed anyway. Perhaps it will come? However, that might make it difficult if 'you are really trying to be politically active' (63). You can't rely on history which is not going to make everything right. Maybe you are waiting for the wrong thing. Perhaps the theory or the narrative is wrong. At least we must realise there are no guarantees and we must 'conduct politics contingently… positionally'. As a practical issue, deciding whether to support the miners' strike, for example. The miners' leader said there was unity but this was the wrong politics. We can't play that game any more, just so we can sleep at night and claim some heroic defeats. We need to win just a few, just a little, break with the past if it keeps you in place. [So what the fuck did he do?]

Can politics be rebuilt? Will 'exclusivist, solidified, ego identified consciousness' persist? The prospects are not good 'because the left is still stuffed with the old notion of identity, which is why I am thinking about it' [so this is his self appointed role]. The old identities will not return to the stage. There is a new game. We can get some clues — the old GLC was 'very pre-figurative' although it cannot be repeated. The groups and movements which were brought together and still retained their differences but had a conversation, not a nice polite conceptual one, more like 'an absolutely bloody unending row' (65), negotiating differences in the open. Some possibilities were shown. One group has to take on the agenda of the other and alliances have to be formed without assuming that it should take on identities. Priorities have to be established, and 'that is the sound that one is waiting for', not a return to the old politics in the old parties. Thatcherism has had an effect of making the old politics impossible, and, of course it destroyed the GLC. Thatcherism is better at mobilising different minorities and articulating differences, playing on differences, condensing different identities, presenting some unitary politics, claiming to represent the majority of the British people. Instead we have to pursue a politics of positionality that maintains difference. In a way 'my own view is that no one understands Gramsci better than Mrs Thatcher' although she has never read any (67) whereas we read Gramsci and we do not know how to do it.

I do not think there is a category called humanity or indeed the global outside 'varieties of articulated particularities'. Instead what we have is 'the self presentation of the dominant particular' (67). It would be dangerous to identify the global with the lowest common denominator notion of humanity. There is no basis to mobilise people. The global is 'the hegemonic sweep at which a certain configuration of local particularities try to dominate the whole scene'. This process is universal in quotation marks, the hope to be universal.

'And at the very moment, there I am. I remain Marxist' (68). Just at the moment where the discourse seems to be closed 'at the moment when you know it is contradictory' 'something is just about to open that out and present a problem. Hegemony, in that sense is never completed. It is always trying to enclose more differences within itself'. This is not a matter of making differences into similarities, but organising them under some larger project — the traditional family depends on larger economic and political development. No one has to be a replica[ for successful hegemony] , but to be naturalised, universal and closed, requires ' its boundaries to be coterminous with the truth, with the reality of history', but that is the very moment which always escapes it — 'something had better be escaping it'.