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A Place Called Home: Identity and the Cultural Politics of Difference JONATHAN RUTHERFORD The old forms ofexistence have worn out, so to speak, and the new ones have not yet appeared and people are prospecting as it were in the desert for new forms .1 Saul Bellow When I began thinking about difference I was drawn to that 'boy's own' fantasy of Lawrence of Arabia. It didn't surprise me when it reappeared, to much critical acclaim, on the big screen. It wasn't just my own feelings of masculine nostalgia that were pulled in its direction. The film and the myth engage with a man who was grappling with contradictory emotions, loyalties and identities. The desert confronted Lawrence with his sexuality, his manliness and his English ethnicity. His identification with the Arabs and their culture displaced the centred position of his identity as a white man. The story is a compelling image of a postmodern world that is challenging so many of our own certainties and our cultural, sexual and political identities. To the Western European eye, the desert seems an uncanny space, its borders marking out a margin between the habitable and the inhabitable. Yet despite its strangeness it holds a seductive fascination: 'In my case', wrote Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 'the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me'. Here lies the desert as a cultural metaphor: 9 Identity in representing the margins of our culture and the knowledge and values that underpin it, it is also the place of their undoing. For Lawrence the desert left him neither Arab nor English: 'I had dropped one form and not taken on another'. In a more contemporary setting Baudrillard has commented, 'in the desert one loses one's identity'.2 In the hierarchical language ofthe West, what is alien represents otherness, the site of difference and the repository of our fears and anxieties. My fascination with Lawrence was that he experienced and expressed the disruptive and unsettling effect of the encounter of the marginal with its centre. The desert as a metaphor of difference speaks of the otherness of race, sex and class, whose presence and politics so deeply divide our society. It is within their polarities of whitelblack, masculine/feminine, heterolhomosexual, where one term is always dominant and the other subordinate, that our identities are formed. Difference in this context is always perceived as the effect of the other. But a cultural politics that can address difference offers a way of breaking these hierarchies and dismantling this language of polarity and its material structures of inequality and discrimination. We can use the word difference as a motif for that uprooting of certainty. It represents an experience of change, transformation and hybridity, in vogue because it acts as a focus for all those complementary fears, anxieties, confusions and arguments that accompany change. But as an approach to cultural politics it can help us make sense ofwhat is happening: it can be a jumping-offpoint for assembling new practices and languages, pulling together a diversity of theories, politics, cultural experiences and identities into new alliances and movements. Such a politics wouldn't need to subsume identities into an underlying totality that assumes their ultimately homogeneous nature. Rather it is a critique of essentialism and mono-culturalism, asserting the unfixed and 'overdetermined' character of identities. The cultural politics of difference recognises both the interdependent and relational nature of identities, their elements of incommensurablity and their political right of autonomy. 'Masochism', wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, 'is characterised as a species of vertigo, vertigo not before the precipice of rock and earth, but 10 APlace Called Home before the abyss of the Other's subjectivity'.3 In Sartre's masculine and ambivalent attitude to masochism lies the centre's characteristic fear of difference - the racial supremacist's fear of pollution and swamping, the homophobe's fear of contamination and homosexual seduction, the masculine taboo of passivity. The centre invests the Other with its terrors. It is the threat of the dissolution of self that ignites the irrational hatred and hostility as the centre struggles to assert and secure its boundaries, that construct self from not-self. In political terms, it has been the Right which has always appealed to this frontier of personal anxiety...


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