Monday, October 17, 2011


Identity, it's who we are. But it isn't just who we are to ourselves, it is also who we are to other people. I shall try to keep my thoughts reasonably linear, but this is a topic that has come up in a variety of facets recently, so it may be difficult to isolate it from the surrounding context to discuss in a stand alone fashion.

One important facet of our identity is our cultural heritage. This, in some sense, grounds us to a specific place or places in history, "our ancestors were these people and came from here." It might be argued that many people in the United States lack this sense of heritage, but I think that it would be more accurate to say that they have incorporated the American ideal of settlers and intermixing as their heritage.

The question arises, what must be done to lay claim to a cultural heritage? I would assert that the act of laying honest claim to such a heritage validates itself. Of course, if I were to jokingly claim to be heir to the royal traditions of the Incas, this would not carry a lot of weight. However, if someone genuinely believes themselves to be an inheritor of a specific culture, then it is self evident that their identity is shaped by a sense of inclusion in that culture.

On the other hand, one might hold that, in order to possess a cultural heritage, one must take an active role in exploring that culture. While this is a perfectly valid way to organize people into culture groups, I think it is unnecessarily restrictive. At the risk of seeming ego maniacal, I will provide an illustrative example from my own life, simply because it is the only life with which I am familiar enough to say things with confidence.

Among my mix of European ancestors, I have some Germans and some Italians. And, while this has led me to study a little bit of German and put some effort into learning about German culture, I identify more strongly as Italian, despite having invested less effort in my Italian identity. I believe this is simply because my last name, if you unravel some Ellis Island mishaps, is Italian. So, just by identifying myself by name I am asserting my Italian identity, and it has caused people to react to me differently, thus further reinforcing my "Italian-ness."

And here we see how one's self identity and the manner in which others construct identity groups have such tricky interrelation. As I mentioned earlier, I think organizing people into identity groups based on putting effort into claiming a cultural identity is a valid way of organizing people, by which I mean that the groups that one obtains from such organization will likely share some distinguishing characteristics of interest and this organization doesn't seem to inherently promote ethnic cleansings. However, it may be quite at odds with how other people think about themselves, and indeed, how other people organize the world into cultural groups. So, it seems important to acknowledge that people can come to their identity through a variety of methods.

Further confusing the matter is the practice of assuming identities. For example, a European manga/anime enthusiast who feels their hobby confers a cultural legacy from Japan. First, let me note that this does not apply to every manga/anime enthusiast, just those who feel their hobby includes them in the penumbra of Japanese culture. Secondly, while this notion of cultural heritage may be at odds with the traditional notion of culture as inheritable from one's parents, it is entirely in keeping with both my criterion and, it seems to me, with the contrasting criterion from above, as the person in question both self identifies with Japanese culture and is investing effort into the cultivation of this cultural identity.

This highlights a further complication, in that essentializing Japanese culture down to anime and manga; or even anime, manga, and quirky gadgets; does Japanese culture a disservice, and, depending on one's views, may even be insulting. However, otaku are a part of Japanese culture, so one perhaps should not say that this view of Japanese culture is incorrect, insomuch as it is incomplete. So, toward what concept of a culture ought we direct our efforts in order to "earn" cultural inclusion?

So far we have mentioned three reasonable but incompatible methods for assigning cultural heritage; self identification, cultural participation, and parental inheritance. These are by no means exhaustive, geographical inheritance (Italians are people who have lived in Italy for some duration, which varies from person to person) and nationalism (Italians are citizens of Italy), for example, also have adherents. In light of this complexity, I am inclined to broaden my original position. While I still believe in accepting how others identify themselves, I also believe that we should accept that other people will have other ways of organizing people into cultural groups. That said, not all such organizations are "reasonable," which I would like to address at a later date.

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