Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Identity in a Globalized World

A confluence of events has made me ponder the concept of identity in our ever more globalized world. Last week Lucy Rees gave an interesting lecture on her research on the cinematic style of Mongolian film and the use of music within movies. She posed the question of how one might define a Mongolian film, and what were the minimum requisites for a film to become "Mongolian." Do the actors need to be Mongolian? Does the director need to be Mongolian? Does the theme need to be Mongolian? All of the above or more?

These questions were answered with another interesting question challenging the sentiment behind the original question, which was how to define the boundary where a person's perspective crosses over from being "authentic" to "foreign," to posit whether even the concept of filmmaking is foreign regardless of the people involved because cameras are not indigenous to the steppe. This question is not trivial, because the question of perspective is very important to great deal of people. A movie about American life, especially if critical, is more likely to be received as "authentic" by Americans if it is produced by someone Americans identify as authentically "American." The case for Mongolia is no different, and that is part of the reason Lucy posed her questions. But, the question that resulted from her questions added another level of complexity to the idea of authenticity and cultural identity.

I came across a blog post entitled: A Few Points about Debate. The author of the post examines the difference between black-and-white thought and black-and-white language. The former is something an open-minded and curious person tries to avoid, but the author argues that the latter is something that is used in debate and conversation to make conveying complex ideas more expedient. It is left to the listener to unpack those ideas and finesse out the greater complexities or to see the emphasis black-and-white language puts on certain points to convey a message but not necessarily to state an absolute truth.

This idea along with some other things I have observed in public debate recently and in a few books I have read has made me think about how difficult it is to discuss the idea of identity in the globalized world. The concept is complex and intricate, but it is also one that stirs up a lot of passion for some people. If we are inclined to mistake black-and-white language for black-and-white thinking, then we are bound to end up not really unpacking the full complexity of the questions authenticity and identity bring up.

The boundary becomes a bit blurred. If a filmmaker raised in Ulaanbaatar makes a film about rural life in Bayanhongor, is this an authentic film? From one perspective it is, because someone might see that the filmmaker is Mongolian and its about a Mongolian topic. From another perspective a person might suggest that maybe its not authentic, because the filmmaker grew up mostly in Russia, lives in Ulaanbaatar only part of the year, and has never actually lived in the countryside. Who is correct here? I am not sure that is even an appropriate question, because it is not really about being correct or incorrect. It is far too complex for that.

These are ideas that in other contexts seem both complicated and contridictory. Is Eric Clapton a real blues musician? Is a McDonald's in New Delhi American eventhough it has a Hindu menu? Are CDs and CD players Japanese? If not, then what are they? With so many cultures and so many traditions coming together and influencing one another, it is becoming increasingly hard to think about cultural identity and authenticity in black-and-white terms.

This is especially interesting in Mongolia because in the last 20 years the country has once again become a crossroads of ideas and identities. Defining what is authentically Mongolian from a literal or absolute stand point is bound to end in contridictions. Mongolia historically has been a place with such talent at absorbing new ideas and modifying them to suit the needs of individuals and groups, that it is often difficult to find things that are, from a literal sense, authentically Mongolian. This is not a bad thing. The same could be said about the United States, and yet there is a sense of identity and authenticity that allows most people most of the time to say "That's American." The same is true for Mongolia.

Identity is ultimately a malleable concept. Something that on an individual level changes over one's lifetime and on an societal level changes over generations. Authenticity is inexcricably linked to identity, because things are not authentic unless they project elements that coincide with a particular identity. A Mongolian film must meet certain criteria in order for people to accept it as a Mongolian film. The trick is that no one really knows what those criteria are, and they don't seem to be static.

In the United States this is an issue that remains unresolved, but a consensus more or less has evolved over the last century that the concept of "American" is not grounded in blood lines and history but rather in shared identity that forms organically in the lives of people who fall within the political boundaries of the territory called the United States of America. In a country like Mongolia where there are only 3 million people, one wonders if the concept of "Mongolian" can derive from a similar process of identity adaptation. I think it can, and it has from at least the 13th century.

This reminds me of a statement that a friend of mine once made in a lecture about Mongolian history. He said, "In Inner Mongolia, the Mongolians veiw the idea of Mongolism as something that must be preserved. In Mongolia, we veiw Mongolism in terms of the practicalities of living in a modern world." In other words, Mongolian identity in Mongolia is a dynamic process changing over time to meet the challenges of the 21st century and not a museum piece needing perservation.

I don't know if there are definitive answers to Lucy's questions or the question her questions elicited, but I do know that identity and therefore the authenticity of things produced by those who identify with one group or another is far more complex than black-and-white thinking can handle in helping us understand the world we live in. As more people come in contact and learn other languages and experience other ways of living, the whole concept of cultural identity will have to be unpacked in all its complexity to really get a sense of what things are. For now it is just something to think about.

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