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New Left Review 23, September-October 2003

After ethnic definitions of collective identity, is a new scenery—hybrid cultures intertwined with a universal genome—becoming visible? Could St John Perse’s cosmopolis on the Bosphorus furnish a template for a world beyond national and multicultural imaginings?



Cultural studies have come strongly into their own in this, the first age of really existing internationalism. Nowadays, the latter features regularly in tuxedo and bow tie at Rotary Club dinners and Mayoral receptions, with a standard guest-card reading ‘globalization’; and on such occasions the opening grace, keynote addresses and concluding prayers are still economic in tone. But we should not be over-impressed by this liturgical language, and cultural studies can provide a perspective that brings one down to earth about the process. Internationalism was once saintliness, sandals and dewy-eyed propriety. Then, after 1989, the real thing suddenly disembarked, complete with democratic crotchets, contradictions and resentments—and attendant culture clashes. Naturally, the discipline has been driven towards the closest encounter with this appalling and exhilarating reality. One side effect has been a mounting preoccupation with ‘identity’, as discussed in Lutz Niethammer’s recent essay, ‘The Infancy of Tarzan’. [1] nlr 19, Jan–Feb 2003. See also Kollektive Identität: Heimliche Quellen einer unheimlichen Konjunktur, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2000. So many millions are now compelled to re-identify themselves, amid new mountains of documentation, that the basics of this process are being forced into more open scrutiny. Identity used to be a favoured playground for epistemology and psychology, even for metaphysics. For growing masses of people, however, issues of identity are not metaphorical but treasured, if deplorable, bits of cheap plastic: matters of everyday life and death. [2] For an illuminating recent survey see Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds, Documenting Individual Identity: the Development of State Practices in the Modern World, Princeton 2001.

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Tom Nairn, ‘A Myriad Byzantiums’, NLR 23: £3

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