Diversity in Otherness: Identity Formations in Intercultural Encounters

Abstract: Awareness of cultural differences mostly exists in the context of tourism, where stereotypical representations of the “Other” are taken for authentic cultural “knowledge”. The “Other” is held at bay or expected to stay with her/his own kin. However, the profitable “Other”, albeit the tourist or the skilled professional or the prosperous investor, is welcomed and invited to stay if s/he is profitable. Marcial Langton argues that any representation of the “Other” is an imagined construct, that is why identity formations need to be examined- and, if necessary, adapted to changes – in ongoing inter-subjective, intercultural dialogues.

 Keywords: ‘other’ breaking stereotypical representation, subjective intercultural dialogues, tourism, self-identification process, epistemological process, power strategies

Modern lifestyle and contemporary job strategies increasingly imply concepts of globalisation, profit, efficiency, new technologies and more. Cultural awareness hardly exists in this scenario any more. Awareness of cultural differences mostly exists in the context of tourism, or to be more precise, in the context of mass tourism, where stereotypical representations of the “Other” are taken for authentic cultural “knowledge”. I am speaking out of my own experiences. I am living in the very centre of a rapidly and fundamentally changing Europe, in an area where three cultures meet and where mass tourism contributes a considerable share to my home country´s revenue. I argue that tourism also relates to a multi-layered phenomenon: the interrelationship with the “Other”, or rather, with stereotypical representations of the “Other”. Generally speaking, I argue that stereotypical representations of the “Other” keep forming the mindset of political leaders and people in various speaking positions, and recent history shows that this tendency is still going strong. The “Other” is held at bay or expected to stay with her/his own kin. Yet there is an exception to the rule: the profitable “Other”, albeit the tourist or the skilled professional or the prosperous investor, is welcome and invited to stay under certain conditions. This suggests a controversial strategy: acknowledgement of the “Other”, if s/he is profitable, denial of the “Other”, if s/he is not. This is relevant for both the “Other” from another country and/or from another cultural background. I argue that encounters with the “Other” are processes of identification or exclusion that happen according to fundamentally similar patterns of behaviour. This phenomenon accounts for the fact that culture studies and, by the same token, intercultural research fulfil an important task, or to say it with the words of the American film expert E. Ann Kaplan:

we must address other cultures, since we increasingly live in a
world where we will rely on one another, where not to know will
be dangerous. We need to contribute to the decentering of
Western culture, and it helps for us to focus on other cultures.
Our own paradigms are further opened up, changed in beneficial
ways, through the challenges that other cultures offer. Yet we
can only enter from where we stand, unless we want simply to
mimic those we aim to know about. Mimicry…is not knowledge.
Knowledge can only happen as we enter into a dialogue with the
other culture, as we dare to look at it within frameworks we bring
with us rather than trying to get inside ´their ´frameworks, and
losing ourselves in the process. (Kaplan, 1989: 13)

In accordance with this perspective, I will investigate processes of intercultural encounters in a socio-political context, and I will draw attention to unbalanced power strategies and their relevance for ethnic minorities in this respect.

Intercultural encounters are indeed encounters with the “Other”, where identification processes draw borderlines between the “Other” and the “self”. Deirde Jordan (1988) defines identity as a social process in which individuals construct their identity within their particular world of meaning, and they can only build up a stable identity according to their ability to apply their “model” world to an objective, symbolic universe. On the one hand, difference can be marked by marginalising or excluding the “Other”, on the other hand, it can be construed as source of enriching plurality (Woodward, 1997: 35). This is also relevant for identity formations in the socio-political field. Thus a main issue in current identity politics, understood as “politics of recognition”, is the question of identity formations of minorities. As identity politics is based on collective representations of identity and their recognition or resistance, serious political problems arise with unbridgeable, dogmatic differences between groups claiming particular identities.

Consequently the question arises, how identification processes develop. The answer to this question will have to analyse how established identity positions are constantly challenged to allow for shifting identity formations, whereas, by the same token, fixed identity paradigms need to be taken into account. Any process of negotiation (on identity positions) necessarily requires some negotiable ´essences´ to draw upon.

This means that identity discourse takes place where essentialist concepts compete with concepts of flexibility and transformation, which has turned out to be one of the core problems of intercultural research processes. On one hand, identity can relate to historical, socio-political or other factors, on the other hand, it can be defined as temporary position that undergoes constant changes and adaptation. In the first case, the problem lies in the “politically correct” identification paradigms, or to say it in other words, in the above mentioned, (un)bridgeable, dogmatic differences between particular identities. The other case raises the question how change and transformation may be defined as such.

The recognition of socio-political identity constructions varies between the view that national identities are purely political inventions and the belief that such identities ´grow out of the existing, living memories and beliefs of the people´ (Stokes, 1997: 10). If history is conceived as a construction rather than an invention, identities are founded ´upon different measures of authentic inheritance … judicious interpretation, and unconscious selection´ (Stokes, 1997: 10).

Lattas (1992) is critical of theories which define identity as socially and culturally produced, because they deny people the ´myths of their own autonomous being´ and dis-empower them. He agrees with Beckett´s (1988) notion of an imaginary past, but he adds that the past is a necessary fiction where the meaning of present existence is defined through being differentiated and related to a past. It is a question of seeing the past as a necessary imaginary condition for living in the present. (Lattas, 1992: 163)

This means that the imagined, primordial past serves many indigenous people not as ´an essentialising prison controlled by whites´, but rather as an ´uncolonised space…from which to reflect upon the terms of present existence´ (Lattas,1993: 254). Lattas understands the critique of essentialism as a fear of difference and a fear of some essential Otherness, and he calls for an academic practice which is sympathetic to deconstructing dominating political power structures. By the same token, M. Dodson (1994) argues that it is important to resist a fixed, unchangeable essentialism. Dodson says,

But resistance to imposed categories is very different from
forbidding us to represent our cultures and peoples in terms of
our past, or our distinct ways of being and seeing the world. The
recent trend to charge self-representations by Indigenous peoples
with the politically incorrect crime of ´essentialism´ is little more
than a modern extension of the politics of control over knowledge
that has been going on since colonisation… (M. Dodson,
1994: 10)

Contemporary cultural theorists have increasingly focussed on this tension between essentialist and unfixed identity concepts. Stuart Hall conceptualises cultural identity as a matter of ´becoming´ as well as of ´being´ (1990). He admits the existence of the past, but he argues that we reconstruct it and transform it constantly in the identification processes. Consequently, the question arises, if there is any fixed positioning in identity formations. Stuart Hall´s (1990) view of identification processes offers a viable model. He argues that

[c]ultural identities are the points of identification or suture, which
are made, within discourses of history and culture. Not an essence,
but a positioning. Hence, there is always a politics of identity, a
politics of position, which has no absolute guarantee in an
unproblematic, transcendental ´law of origin´. …. [I]dentity does
not proceed, in a straight, unbroken line, from some origin,….
Difference, therefore, persists – in and alongside continuity.
(quoted in Woodward, 1997: 53)

I am well aware that Stuart Hall´s concept has been widely accepted by researchers, yet I argue that it favours established, socio-political power positions of majorities in their flexibility, without providing enough space for points of identification to ethnic minorities. The question of political correctness of identification processes in the context of a cultural “past” has gained global relevance in times of worldwide migration and ethnic minority policies. The concept of multiculturalism as a putative well-balanced system of equal opportunities for those involved seems to be politically correct at first sight. Yet I hold a different view. I argue that multiculturalism is based on unfixed, ever changing, open identity concepts that are supposed to relate to the mainstream identity paradigms, which do not adequately take into account the innate differences of concepts of “the past” as points of identification. I hold the view that minorities are disadvantaged within socio-political, mainstream power strategies, if they are granted equal rights within patterns of shifting identities, without taking into account the essentialist concern of these minorities. I argue that identification processes within multiculturalism happen at the expense of well-balanced diversity, as they favour assimilation to mainstream paradigms.

Consequently, I argue that identification processes need to take the ´risk Identity Formations in Intercultural Encounters of essence´, a phrase associated with Gayatri Spivak, who advocates a strategic essentialism as a method of asserting differences within a strategy of constant change. Going along with Spivak´s point, I understand essence as a kind of content, yet admitting that not all content is essence (Spivak, 1993: 18). Identity formations need a ´minimalisable essence´ in the bonding process, because ´[d]ifference articulates these negotiable essences´ (ibid). As a consequence, this means that participants in anti-colonial encounters need ´to think through the limits of one´s own power´ (Spivak, 1993: 19), thereby realising that ´knowledge is never adequate to its object´ (Spivak,1993: 8), but always open to negotiation. But in order to enter a process of negotiation, one needs to know some negotiable ´essences´ to draw upon. There is little doubt that identity formations remain ambiguous, as the ability to perform change necessarily requires a coherent entity to reflect upon: a phenomenon which Ian Anderson calls ´one of the fundamental paradoxes of human being´ (Anderson, 1995: 39).

It has become obvious so far that knowledge of the “Other” is generated in political acts. Unbalanced political power strategies are the ground where stereotypical representations of the “Other” justify political mainstream decisions that enforce further constructions of these imagined, stereotypical “Other” identities. I argue that there is a close interrelation between political power, epistemological processes and representations of the “Other”. By the same token, Andrew Lattas argues that constructions of the (post)colonial “Other” must be seen within colonial power relations, where lack is deliberately created as a function of the market economy of the dominating class. He concludes,

The secret truth is delivered to us through a hermeneutic process,
controlled by certain privileged groups of intellectuals who
appropriate the construction of our identities in the process of
asking us to confess the secrets they read into our existence. It is
time for us to stop treating the artist, the writer, the historian, the
priest and the explorer as outside of the power structures of our
society. .. It is time to recognise that these figures … are authorising
certain images of ourselves. (Lattas, 1997: 255)

To say it in different words, language creates “truth” which justifies imagined models of this very “truth”. Concluding, I hold the view that representations of culturally determined identity patterns are of socio-political relevance. That´s why cutural theorists are called upon to generate knowledge in interculturally adequate, epistemological processes. The Australian Indigenous anthropologist Marcia Langton (1993) has established such an inter-culturally adequate epistemological model. She argues that any representation of the “Other” is an imagined construct, that´s why identity formations need to be examined – and, if necessary, adapted to changes – in ongoing inter-subjective, intercultural dialogues. In these dialogues all participants need to act as subjects, not as subjects and object. The participants need to be constantly aware of their speaking positions and they need to focus on the interrelations between epistemological processes and shifting patterns in identity formations. These dialogues constitute encounters where identity concepts that relate to paradigms like “race” will not be mystified any more. Unbalanced power positions within the dialogue will be transformed, if each participant, being aware of his own identification paradigms, is ready to question her/his concepts in inter-subjective processes. Thus the ground is prepared for establishing, within balanced power zones, a variety of different speaking positions that generate knowledge of identity formations which is constantly examined, adapted and updated. Thus intercultural borderlines become transparent and reveal stereotypes as imagined constructions. As a consequence, the “Other” is recognised as an equal member of a transparent diversity that dissolves prejudiced stereotypes per se. Or to say it in different words, finally the “Other” will not be the “Other” any more.

Part-time lecturer at the University of Klagenfurt, Austria. Earlier this year she finished her Ph D thesis on ‘Indigenous Identity Formations in Black Australian Poetry’. She is currently preparing a post-doctoral project in Cultural/Aboriginal Studies

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Part-time lecturer at the University of Klagenfurt, Austria. Earlier this year she finished her Ph D thesis on ‘Indigenous Identity Formations in Black Australian Poetry’. She is currently preparing a post-doctoral project in Cultural/Aboriginal Studies

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