Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Further thoughts on Identity

September 13, 2009 · 1 Comment

I have been given further thought on the issue of identity in London. After reading Prof. Quall’s thoughts on the rebuilding of Sevastopol, I asked myself, how does London reflect its people’s identity, if it does at all. I am a firm believer in materialism, and in that ideology is reflected in every building and site that surrounds us. The sites that we visited, those that are known as “religious”, like St. Paul’s, the Sikh Gurdwara and the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, will articulate the ideology behind the religion. By this I mean the myths of origin, the “imagined communities” of the particular ethnic group we are looking at. For example, at the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, we could appreciate pictures from every temple there is throughout the world. This is a clear connection to Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities”; the idea that every person from a certain ethnic group or religion is in a way interconnected, when in reality, they might have different cultural practices. We could also see the clear claiming of the myths of origin and “official history” of Hinduism by the museum or gallery which described the history of the religion. At the same time, the Hindu temple made me, the visitor, feel the tension between the Us/Them. For example, at the end of the visit, the young man who accompanied us throughout the visit asked me: “What do you do to show respect for your elders?” I thought about it for a second and replied: “Well, I show respect to my parents by saying thank you for the things they give me and maybe also by clearing the table after having dinner every night”. He looked at me and said: “Well, I kiss their feet”. At that point, I felt the vast breach among us; two human beings expressing gratitude but through such different cultural practices.

Prof. Qualls deals with the re-construction of a city as a way to construct identity. By the way, since we are on the subject, I read parts of a great book that I’m sure Prof. Qualls knows, called “The Political Lives of Dead Bodies” (1999) by Katherine Verdery, who deals with destruction instead of construction by describing how Russian identity is being reshaped through the destruction of statues and burial sites. 

Like the people in Sevastopol after the Second World War, minorities in London need places of identification at a “local level”. Maybe that is the reason why minorities built places of congregation in the first place, because they are not identified with the culture at a national, higher, or following Marx’s thought, the superstructural level where ideology is manifested. I believe that this is also why minorities maintain strong boundaries, what defines an ethnic group. Boundaries with food (Halal, Kashrut, Vegetarianism, etc.), exogamy, clothing, and the fear of assimilation, are generally reinforced when outside their countries of origin. 

However, ideology is present not only in temples. Our visit to Canary Wharf made me think of how businesses have a trend of their own. The spectacular glass buildings of this area, all the men dressed up in suits, the after-office venues, the news headlines written down on boards at the tube stations, even the very tube station being much more modern than the others in the city, these are all characteristics of the “business culture” that is practiced each day by men and women that work in Canary Wharf and The City. These are “City people”. Secular, maybe, but having capitalism very present as their everyday religion. 

Every London borough has its own identity and cultural practices. We tend to think that we can only find “culture” in a museum or what for us is an exotic temple, but if we think harder, we can understand that cultural practices are all around us, and therefore identity will be articulated in every building and every corner in London.

Categories: Azul

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