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Latest update: September 29, 2000
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Colonial Identity and Commodification

Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Participating Students

Part of Peacemaking Identity Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, September 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

"Thus, there is a binary temporal perspective at work in this definition of Ireland: that of the imaginary time of King Henry V and the French wars which is seen through theperspective of Queen Elizabeth’s time and the Irish wars. Declan Kiberd has made the point that Ireland, as specific identity, can be seen as the creation of English rulers at a specific moment in English history (Kiberd 1985, 5), and the categorization of Irishness as ‘a villain, and a basterd, and a knave, and a rascal’ is a locus classicus of seeing the other in terms less favourable than the self, and as such, providing a differentiated place upon which the edifice of colonial identity can be constructed. (fn. omitted)"

Notice that O'Brien is starting with Shakespeare, looking at the historical antecedents that led to Shakespeare's perception of the Irish identity, and then interpreting that history and perception through a modern theoretical perspective that takes into account the Other. This is precisely the kind of cross-disciplinary understanding that Osgood speaks of in Stealing Theory from Our Friends

"For Shakespeare, Irish identity is based on four central categories, which radiate through the Irish character in the play. These characteristics enunciate a position of fixity, an element which Homi Bhabha sees as a central feature of colonial discourse (Bhabha 1994, 66). 4 This fixity is one aspect of a common epistemological constitution of issues of identity, with the essential national, ethnic or racial characteristics seen as fixed, trans-historical, and generally applicable.

Notice particularly the emphasis on "fixity." We used to call this "stereotyping." Why do you suppose Bhabha uses "fixity" to describe the stereotypical image we hold of the Other? Could it be that, bereft of real knowledge, our adversarial compulsion leads us to hold more intensely to what our position in the hierarchy permits us to believe we do "know"?

I would suggest that Bhabha is correct in adverting to the ‘position of fixity’, but incorrect in seeing such ascription as confined to colonial and imperial discourse. I would argue that such attempts to ‘fix’ an identity are central to the commodificatory tendencies of capitalism and society. Shakespeare, in the above example, is attempting to commodify Irish identity so that its contemporary consumption by an English army will seem to be right and just."

Now comes the meat of the issue: O'Brien's contention that this concept of fixity goes beyond "colonial and imperial discourse," which is the perspective from which Bhabha and Spivak are coming, and applies to the emphasis on commodification, which takes us back to Marx.

Look on the Progressive Sociologist Network for the recent entry on the U.S. Government "patenting" an aboriginal man's genes. Now, it isn't nearly as straight-forward as that provocative headline makes it sound, but it is a reflection of the extent to which Marx was saying something we cannot simply ignore now that we are past industrialization.

Exam question:

In what ways do we commodify humans in the 21st Century?