ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Historical Identity and Cultural Difference

Questions of identity and difference have often been articulated within two broad strands of scholarship. One that stresses transnational processes and overlapping histories and the other that looks to the fragmentary and everyday processes in the past and the present, emphasising critical difference over historical identity. This paper explores two critical events of current history; two seemingly disparate cases that show persistent affinities - the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games in 2000 and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas early this year - as a starting point in thinking through discrete academic orientations toward identity and difference.

This brief essay explores issues of identity and questions of difference by considering key provisions of culture and power, particularly the stipulations of enchanted spaces and modern places. These issues and such terms lie at the heart of contemporary politics, finding distinct articulations within recent scholarship. For the purposes of the present discussion, we might usefully distinguish between two broad scholarly orientations.1 On the one hand, over the past two decades a close questioning of the limits of the ‘local’ has been accompanied by an emphasis on the multiple mappings of colonial histories and the plural plottings of contemporary cultures, especially within newer ethnography and historical anthropology. Here identity and difference are understood as constituted within transnational processes, intersecting cultures, and overlapping histories.2  On the other hand, during this time critical scholarship has interrogated the embedding of modern history in narratives of the nation, models of progress, and the ‘telos’ of modernity. It has turned rather to the recuperation of the singular, the fragmentary, and the everyday in processes of the past and the present, emphasising the ethics of critical difference over the reason of historical identity or sameness.3  Taken together, at stake in such dissimilar apprehensions are the place of identity and the presence of difference within modern regimes of power and disciplinary grids of knowledge.

It follows that one manner of articulating questions of identity and difference consists of focusing on such overlapping strains in contemporary scholarship. At the same time, this essay adopts a different tack in addressing the issues at hand, discussing rather examples from cultural politics and political cultures in the here and now. Actually, in its own way, such an endeavour also provides the basis for thinking through the discrete academic orientations toward identity and difference that I have outlined above. And so this paper explores two critical events of current history, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, and the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan early in 2001. At the risk of pre-empting matters somewhat, these seemingly disparate cases show persistent affinities. In both, dominant representations of difference appear simultaneously as embedded in the past and as emblematic of the present. Considered together, the first instance serves to highlight the rehearsal of difference within statist-stagist multiculturalism, also intimating the risks of privileging cultural difference and identitarian subjectivity as ethical, epistemological, and ontological a priori in front of power. The second example reveals the limits of envisioning the world in terms of historical identity – confronting the ruse of imagining all pasts, every present, each future in the mirror of a bloated and imaginary west.4  Briefly, by means of these examples and an analytical coda, I seek to rethink issues of identity and difference and questions of power and alterity through critical filters.


Enchanted and the Modern

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