Being “the people”

I’m giving a 90-minute lecture on American identity this upcoming weekend. The lecture provides motivation for me to work through many of the issues that arise in the literature on the multicultural construction of community, nation, civil society – issues that are central to my book. My seminar will deal with some of the same topics this week as well – post-modern and post-colonial treatment of culture. I assigned Chapter 8 of Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture which focuses on the construction of the idea of “the people” of a nation as product of a unique historical position juxtaposed with the performative nature of the internal diversity of the nation challenging the authority of claims regarding singular historical or political truths of “the people.”

Although I love the theory, sometimes I feel like I need to step back and take a more classically pragmatic approach to understanding multicultural America. The approach begins something like this, “Well, here we are. How do we hold it together every day?” So much of the thinking on culture, civil society, nation, diversity, etc is concerned with the way people “imagine” their national, local and identificational communities. That which is written considers the philosophical or political challenges and benefits of cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, globalization, transnationalism, etc. I am trying to do something else.

Multicultural America is not an abstract fact or hypothetical but, instead indicates characteristics of the material context in which people live their everyday lives. While they may be unfamiliar with the work of social theorists and philosophers, the people I observed are concerned about the boundaries of their communities and the cultural and discursive practices they believe constitute community membership – this concern is brought to the foreground through encounters with cultural diversity. People feel the tensions and ambiguity of their position within a discourse of “peoplehood” in which slippage in the categories of membership lays bare the implausibility of any lasting affinity stronger than the claim that we are/were/will be/aspire to be “here.”

In these circumstances, people develop working and practical notions of nation and neighborhood, the people and others which, first and foremost, guide them in their interactions with the “strangers” next door.

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