New beginnings: American culture and identity
Stuart Hall has written that cultural identity is not a ‘fixed essence… lying unchanged outside history and culture’, and is ‘not [a] once-and-forall…to which we can make some final and absolute Return’ (Rutherford 1990:226). It is ‘constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth …made within the discourse of history and culture’ (ibid.: 226) and hence cannot be simply defined or ‘recovered’ like some lost, true being. To grapple with the idea of cultural identity, therefore, is to examine the lines and discourses of its construction and to recognise the existence within it of many meanings. As the introduction suggested, America is a place where different identities mix and collide, an assemblage, a multiplicity, constantly producing and reproducing new selves and transforming old ones and, therefore, cannot claim to possess a single, closed identity with a specific set of values. Some Americans, however, prefer the notion of identity to be hegemonic, fixed and clearly surrounded by distinct boundaries and definitions. For example, some would care to think of white, male and heterosexual as the standard measure of ‘Americanness’, with a deep respect for the flag and a strong sense of regional identity, say, to the South or to Louisiana or Boston. However, these are ideological positions that are not shared or representative of the nation as a whole; indeed, no set of beliefs or values can be, and this is precisely the point. Instead, America has to be interpreted or ‘read’ as a complex, multifaceted text, like a novel or film with a rich array of different characters and events, within which exist many voices telling various and different stories. And as with any such text, there are internal tensions, dramas and contradictions which contribute, indeed, constitute what might be called its identity.1 Postmodern and post-structuralist thinking has recognised these kinds of knowledges and approaches, and begun from the point of distrusting any ‘meta-’ or ‘grand narratives’, that is totalising stories that claim to speak for all and explain all. For example, to argue that America is exceptional and that its history
was divinely ordained and destined to follow a set course, is to read America as a limited and ‘closed’ text through a controlling meta-narrative or ‘master-story’. Rather than seek out the controlling, organising single meaning, it is more important to follow the different stories that constitute the threads of the text-its texture, to persist with the metaphor. In America these threads are diverse, divergent, coherent, contrary and competing, they cross and separate, clash and merge, weaving in and out of one another, forming and de-forming, gathering and fraying all at the same time.