British Cultural Studies and the Pitfalls of Identity, Paul Gilroy

If stereotyping helps define the dominant order by excluding a marginalized other, then the concept of a national identity may not be too different. This is what Paul Gilroy explains in his piece “British Cultural Studies and the Pitfalls of Identity.” By looking into the social construction of national identity, he questions what purpose it serves in the larger social landscape. Citizenship means one thing, but does that necessarily invoke pride in where you reside? Gilroy instead says that national identity is but a mass mediated scene of engagement that provides us with a social space to discuss in the realm of the public sphere. It is not something that can be seen or tested, but rather an imagined experience that connects people to those within a certain physical region that they don’t actually know. This connection separated from physicality then relies on emotional responses and ideological commonalities.

The language employed within a certain community can help foster this national identity, as we saw in sample propaganda material post-World War II against Nazism and communism. Another extreme example of how national identity is constructed through the work of the hegemony is the very state of North Korea. French photographer Eric Lafforgue used his visual lens to see this work in action in his numerous visits to the country under the guise of a tourist. As long as he stayed away from conversations surrounding politics, he could see the ways in which the regime’s powerful leaders and their governmental order created the social constructs of North Koreans. One such project called “I’m 20, I’m north korean” follows a young woman, Miss Kim, and her interactions with the photographer as she shows him around her home country. In their conversations, it is evident that everything from music to dancing, beauty standards to acceptable transportation, or Kim Jong Il creating the hamburger in 2009 are all imposed by the political leaders of the state. These practices ensure a shared sense of identity among the North Koreans despite what we would consider forms of brainwashing and totalitarianism.

This reinforcement of the hegemony and national identity is also safeguarded by Justin Barthes’ privation of history. Sociologist Hyeon Ju Lee explores this in connection with perceptions of history among North and South Koreans in the essay “Remember and forgetting the Korean War int he Republic of Korea.” The piece begins with a group of students being asked when the Korean War ended, with none of the children being able to recount the date that satisfied Lee. One subject of an interview recalled being a North Korean refugee who, upon arriving in South Korea and learning that the North had initiated the aggressions, eventually distrusted  educational accounts of what happened. The way that each country had framed the incidence were constructed to maintain a favorable social order.  In Gilroy’s terms, this is the work of sustaining a national identity, which works to the advantage of the hegemony already in place.

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