Pitfalls and Politics of Identity in the Philippines

A look at identity and solidarity through Gilroy's "British Cultural Studies and the Pitfalls of Identity"

In "British Cultural Studies and the Pitfalls of Identity", Paul Gilroy examines the different issues raised by identity - identity as subjectivity, identity as sameness, and the question of communal solidarity - and how identity (both individual and collective) has been studied throughout the continuous transformation of society in history. Through this, he is also able to examine the birth and impact of a cultural identity. He places particular emphasis on the process of identification, as grounded in historical materialism and the transformation of class relations, as an agent for political thought and action.

This manner of problematizing identity is not exclusive to Britain, but may be applied to all nations, even and especially to those in the bottom half of the colonization era's political hierarchy - the colonized. Between over three centuries of Spanish rule, the short yet traumatic years of Japanese Imperialism, and the ever-present influence of American politics and culture, the Philippines has had its share of social upheaval and identity crises, both in its relation to other national identities and cultures and in its still-fragmented sense of "self".

This being the case, the issues Gilroy raised can therefore be translated into the Philippine context as well, this time seen through the point of view of the previously non-ruling class. In continuing the discussion of the Filipino identity, we turn to culture and, more specifically, to media, another agent for political thought and action (whether as a reinforcer of the same power relations or as an agent for change). We see the many facets of the national identity and its relation to politics not only in the content of the media, but also in the production process which determines the media output. We must also remember that in the discussion of Philippine identity and media/culture, it will be impossible not to delve into post-colonial territory, one of the ways in which the re-contextualization into Philippine culture may deviate from the original study. This cannot be avoided because the formation of the Filipinos' national identity only officially begun with the recognition of the Philippines as a nation, which happened only after decolonization.

In his essay, he cites the implications of looking at identity as subjectivity, as an abstract, inner experience. Identity as subjectivity results in the identification with multiple identities, as we see ourselves in others or define ourselves according to our relationship with others. In addition to personal relations, the media also plays a significant part in this identification because it is part of an individual's immediate surroundings (more often than not). However, with our varied ways of interacting with different kinds of people and consuming the media, the identification leads to a varied, fragmented self as well. The acknowledgment and fascination with the multiple self can be found in Philippine entertainment, culture, and politics (in essence, going back to the media), with conflict usually arising from the latter, due to a clash between the plural selves (or perceptions of the self).


The Doble Kara
The Filipino's fascination with the fragmented self

This is a valid issue in the Philippines, where individuality and personal freedom is valued - within the norms dictated by relationships with family and peers, that is. Having been a communal people even before the arrival of the Spaniards, we still find ourselves in a society where everyone is separated by six degrees, so to speak. (With the improvement of communication technologies, this proximity is not even limited by physical distance anymore.) But in our identification with our immediate relations and thus the recognition that they are like us and we are like them, we implicitly disassociate ourselves from those who are not like us. This is even more problematic for an archipelagic country like the Philippines, because it adds to the territory (the separate islands of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, for example) as another obstacle for national unity.

This unity must be achieved (or must conveniently appear to have been achieved) in order for Filipinos to form a national identity. This attempt is made through social and cultural mechanisms, such as our language, our rituals, and our government institutions. These institutions and the unity it aims to achieve, however, reduces each individual into a faceless member of the society, indistinguishable from all other members of said society for it to become a seamless entity itself. This entity is undoubtedly influenced by its cultural and historical background. Here, colonialism figures in the formation of the Filipino identity in a way it does not for old Western/world powers.

Looking at it from the country's history and collective consciousness, we may notice the relation between the difficulty of homogenization today to the stigma of homogenization in our colonial past. At that time, the homogenization was based on race, and the superiority of the colonizers' race to ours. In the study of race in sociology, it is pointed out that differentiation is socially constructed and not entirely accurate, making out the characteristics associated with a "racial" group to be inherent and biological. In a world of decolonized nations, it would not be too far-fetched to point out the trauma of racism (from constant abuse and exploitation) and how homogenization may bring out old fears of racial classification. At the same time, this could also be part of the subconscious desire and determination to create and define our own national identity, as opposed to that which was, and in fact is still, imposed on us by foreigners.


Our Maid Imelda
An interesting combination of the Filipina maid stereotype
and Imelda Marcos as a representative of the nation

As this collective identity is examined, we begin to move towards the idea of solidarity, and how both difference and sameness can be the basis for social action. Gilroy proceeds by stating that, from this, another question arises: the balance between affirming our responsibility in the process of self-creation and recognizing the historical limits by which we can act. In the end it is the historical and economic structures, Gilroy says, where we base our identity on and, from there, our solidarity. Here, media enters the discussion, being both a historical and economic institution, and one of the more influential ones at that, by which the Filipinos can unite in solidarity.

It is hoped that, as we carry on in a modern/postmodern world characterized by ever-changing political and cultural relations, we may be open to the discussion, deconstruction, and eventual reformation of individual and national identities and its representations in the larger society.

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