The Middle Way: On being an Indian in Britian today Ranjit Sondhi CBE Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Dinner, Leicester Stage Hotel, 18 November 2005
It is now universally accepted that the modern age has given rise to a decisive form of individualism. The individual has been torn free from his/her stable moorings in traditions and structures. Those who hold that modern identities have been let loose argue that we are not simply estranged from others but also dislocated in themselves. The social scientist, Stuart Hall argues that this dislocation has resulted from five great influences in social thinking during the second half of the twentieth century.The first of these was the way in which Marxist thought was first rediscovered and reworked in the sixties in the light of the argument that individuals could not be in any sense the agents of history. There was no universal essence of man, no free will, and that he was entirely determined, not by cultural tradition or by divine grace, but by social and economic relations. His identity was not internally generated but externally imposed. His destiny was determined not by himself but by larger processes over which he had no control.The second of the great dislocation was Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. Our identities, our sexuality, and the structure of our desires, are formed by the psychic processes of the unconscious, not by reason. Now, like Marxist thought, Freudian thought also plays havoc with the notion of man as an all-knowing rational subject in complete control of himself. Freud says that we learn about ourselves gradually, and the feelings that our ‘self’ is divided, or is somehow incomplete, remain with us for life. Thus identity is something that is formed through unconscious processes over time, rather than being innate in consciousness at birth, and that the process is never finished. So identity arises not so much from the fullness of an identity which is already inside us, but from a lack of wholeness which is filled from outside us by the ways we imagine ourselves to be seen by others.The third great dislocation arises from the work of the linguist Saussure. He argued that we are not in any absolute sense the authors of the statements we make. We can only use the rules and meanings of a language constructed by others. Language was there before us. It is a social, not an individual system. To speak a language is not so much to express our own innermost thoughts but also to activate the vast range of meanings already embedded in our language and our cultural system. Our identity is structured like language which in turn is fixed by our cultural system. And like language, identity is not entirely in our control. No matter how much we try to fix our identity, it is constantly sliding away from us, just as we cannot close down the meaning of what we say.The fourth major dislocation of identity is to do with the work of the philosopher Focault. He tried to show how our lives are controlled by what he calls disciplinary power. This power arises out of the regulation and government of whole populations and of individuals. The control centres of this power are the workshops, the schools, the hospitals, the prisons, the barracks. The aim is to bring the individuals’ physical health, sexual practices, family and work life under stricter discipline and control, to turn the human being into a docile body. The interesting and paradoxical aspect of such control is that collective institutions bear down upon people to further individualise and isolate them.The fifth great dislocation occurs through the impact of identity politics like feminism which appealed to the specific social identity of its followers. Such movements questioned opened up whole new areas of debate around the family, housework, domestic division of labour, and child-rearing, and the individuals place in relation to these issues.The result of all these developments has been to transform the idea of fixed and stable identities of the past into open, contradictory, unfinished, fragmented identities of the present. Now what is happening to the rest of this society is also, up to a point, also happening to its constituent parts.