Epistemic Value Of National Identity Cultural Studies Essay

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I define epistemic value of national identity as the capacity of a national identity for one to construct knowledge of the self as a citizen. Existing literature regarding the

Singaporean government-constructed national identity agrees that it bears political value to its leaders. However, does it have epistemic value? Can it help one to construct "true" knowledge about himself as a citizen?

I first assess the construction of national identity in Singapore by the Singaporean government, by understanding the government's position as dominant discourse through Gramsci's theory of hegemony, before establishing­­ the epistemic value of such an identity. Secondly, I argue that the government-constructed national identity is intrinsically essentialist, inadequate in representing the Singaporean. Such a national identity will thus limit the construction of knowledge of oneself as a Singaporean.

However, is an objective and representative national identity even possible? I attempt to answer this question by examining postmodern perspectives on self-identity questioning the objectivity of national identity. I then propose an epistemically valuable alternative means of understanding identity construction and its implications on the construction of knowledge of national identity by the self through reconciliation and synthesis between the two viewpoints. Ultimately, I evaluate the framework of Gramsci's Hegemony and its notion of counter-hegemonies, and assess the roles of counter-hegemonies and hegemony in the construction of a more representative and epistemically valuable national identity.

Construction of National Identity In Singapore

A nation is defined as a 'daily plebiscite' [2] , based on the willingness of the people to consent to the state's existence, its set of norms and values, through daily participation in civic activity and their continued membership in the state. While there are other definitions of nation, they are often based on common ethnic culture and lineage [3] , and thus prove difficult to apply to Singapore's case, since Singapore's history of immigrants and multi-ethnicity would hardly qualify the state as a nation using ethnic definitions of a nation. A civic definition would thus facilitate the understanding of the construction of national identity in Singapore by the Singaporean government, one based on shared secular experiences, values and norms, rather than ethno-religious differences. How does the Singapore government construct such a civic national identity? The next chapter examines the Government's position as dominant discourse in society which facilitates the understanding of national identity in Singapore.

2.1 Gramsci, Hegemony and the Government as Dominant Discourse

Gramsci argued that political power is backed up by hegemony, attained through the dissemination of ideas of the ruling group to society to gain the people's consent, to in turn sustain the hegemony [4] , thus acting as a self-enforcing cycle.

Since a nation is defined by the people's continued consent to and civic participation in the state, it can be said that the government naturally has hegemony over the people. Thus, the government is able use its position of hegemony to disseminate ideologies and ideas through socialization - the internalization of the government's ideologies - through institutions such as schools, which inculcates the government's notion of national identity in the people. Since national identity inspires loyalty to the state, any government finds it politically expedient to construct national identity. However, a truly representative national identity should be able to encapsulate the values, norms and experiences of its people. Can the government-constructed national identity do so?

Since any government policy will bear a political agenda, a government-constructed national identity thus has political value in mind, rather than epistemic value. The constant socialization process may thus change what one knows of oneself as a Singaporean, and gradually erode one's knowledge of national identity to fit into the social norms created by the government-constructed national identity. One example of the Singaporean national identity the government has tried to remove or reduce has been the popular colloquial language Singlish, a variety of English mixed with Chinese, Malay and Indian words and dialects. As Stephan Ortmann points out, "For many Singaporeans, Singlish has become a 'badge of identity'". [5] However, the government has on countless attempts disparaged and opposed the proliferation of Singlish, as it does not fit into their development plans, through campaigns such as a nationwide Speak Good English movement, promoting English and restricting the use of Singlish. Such actions taken by the government highlights the erosion of culture through the process of socialization which limits what one knows of himself as a citizen of Singapore to what the government-constructed national identity narrates.

The next chapter uses the Asian Values as a case study to show the epistemological problems of a government-constructed national identity.

3.0 The Asian Values and problems of Essentialism

3.1 The Asian Values

The Asian Values are a set of values that includes obedience to authority, intense allegiance to groups, and submergence of individual identity in collective identity [6] , which the government constantly expouses as common characteristics of Asians. It has attempted to integrate these values into national identity, through the "Shared Values", first conceived as part of Singaporean identity in 1988 by the then Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong. The key shared values are listed below:

· Nation before community and society above self

· Family as the basic unit of society

· Community support and respect for the individual

· Consensus, not conflict

· Racial and religious harmony [7] 

It serves as a continuation and institutionalization of the Asian Values discourse that the Government had embarked on earlier in the 1980s. [8] Immediately, epistemological problems arise. How are these values supposedly "shared" by all citizens of Singapore?

3.2 The Epistemological Problems of Essentialism

This can be seen as a problem of essentialism, the view that the identity common to members of a social group is stable and more or less unchanging, since it is based on the experiences they share. [9] This stable and unchanging essence of identity is often based on generalizations and the epitomizing of a single axis of an identity as common and definitive of members in that social group, in this case the Asian Values and Singaporeans. For example, Singaporeans are supposedly held to have "Asian Values": to respect authority, uphold the family, and find it inappropriate to guarantee individual rights over the welfare of the group. [10] 

However, do these values apply to all citizens of Singapore? One key epistemological problem of essentialism is the tendency to ignore historical changes and gloss over internal differences within a group by privileging only experiences that are common to everyone, [11] overlooking the individual experiences of the people in favor of general experiences of the nation. While this is admittedly politically valuable, is it epistemically valuable for the people? Can such an identity help one to construct "authentic" and objective knowledge of the self as a Singaporean citizen?

The socialization process through which such a national identity is constructed disseminates such values and affect one's knowledge of national identity, and shapes one's values to "fit" into the Asian Values. Even if such values are not applicable to one's perception of national identity, the socialization process through various institutions such as schools and media will fit their knowledge of nationhood into the government-constructed notion of nation.

This will bring about the phenomena known as "ideological consensus", a condition in which the ruling group's ideas are loosely accepted and reproduced by the governed as part of their "natural reality of everyday life", [12] in which one's knowledge of national identity slowly distorts itself to fit into the "reality" that the dominant government discourse has created.

The "Asian Values" can thus be seen as hegemonic discourse, the dominant discourse in society, which attempts to suppress the counter-hegemonies, opposing experiences and ideologies contrasting the hegemonic discourse, for example Singlish, and downplay the importance of these counter-hegemonies in one's knowledge of national identity, gradually limiting what one knows and constructs of national identity to that of the dominant discourse.

The notion that there is an objective, unchanging essence of national identity is thus problematic, as it is inadequate in accounting for individual experiences, and indeed mutes such experiences through socialization, causing one's understanding of knowledge of national identity to be limited by what the government-constructed national identity narrates.

4.0 Possibilities of Representative National Identity - Postmodern Perspectives

So far, I have assessed the problems of the government-constructed national identity based on the notion that such an identity is inadequate for its citizens. This suggests that there is an "authentic" and objective identity out there, one that encompasses all the differences in experience, one truly representative of its citizens. However, is this even possible?

Postmodern perspectives bring up problems of the objectivity of the self itself. Hill states that "since unconscious, social, ideological and cultural forces permeate consciousness, the self is decentered and dispersed" [13] , meaning that the notion of an authentic centre of thought is non-existent, and all thoughts are influenced by social phenomena and predominant ideologies. In effect, a national identity itself serves no epistemic value. Since a national identity seeks to represent the multitude of selves in the nation, the notion that the "self" is itself constantly changing seems to debunk the need for national identity, since national identity will always fail to account for changes and differences which themselves are constantly changing. As Paula Moya asserts, "social and cultural identities, it is argued, are similarly fictitious because the selves they claim to designate cannot be pinned down, fixed, or definitively identified," [14] meaning that any iteration of national identity will prove inadequate in explaining experiences and norms shared by the nation's citizens. Moya goes on to claim that:

"Inasmuch as the desire to identify ourselves and others remains complicit with positivist assumptions about a fully knowable world--a world that can be described, hierarchized, named, and mastered--identity as a concept will serve oppressive and reductive ideological functions. Under this view, to speak of identities as "real" is to naturalize them and to disguise the structures of power involved in their production and maintenance." [15] 

Moya's claim suggests that any attempt in searching for an objective or "authentic" identity will necessarily face problems of reducing individual differences of experiences, itself relative to the social and power structures of the society, to simplistic claims, and thus, any national identity in the postmodern viewpoint cannot truly represent the people.

Any national identity, as understood by postmodernists, will thus be unable to help one construct any knowledge of the self as a citizen of the nation at all, since the notion of self is driven by social forces and constantly changing. There is in fact, no real national identity, and thus no knowledge can be gained from national identity.

5.0 Conclusions

5.1 Reconciling Differences: Synthesis

Both essentialist and postmodern perspectives posit different problems on the epistemic value of national identity. The essentialist claim that national identity is defined by a few objective values limits what one knows about oneself as a citizen of a nation. On the other hand, the postmodern perspective asserts that there is no national identity, and no self to speak of. One can thus never know about himself or construct epistemically valuable knowledge about himself as a citizen, since identity and self are constantly affected by social forces, ideologies and power structures.

I however wish to reclaim the notion of identity as epistemically valuable, albeit not of the objective nature, by evaluating the two perspectives of national identity to propose an alternative to understanding national identity.

While an essentialist claim limits the construction of knowledge of national identity to certain key values, these values are not totally unrepresentative, but are rather inadequate in explaining one's existence as a citizen of Singapore. There is thus some sense of unattainable "authenticity" in such a national identity. What implications does this have? It suggests that there is some sense of "authentic" national identity out there, something one can consistently work towards. Postmodern claims of ideologies and power structures can then provide one with the framework through which one can understand and work towards a more "authentic" construction of national identity.

Postmodern claims present problems of situating an objective self and identity, due to constant existence of social forces, ideologies and power structures. However, rather than accept that national identity is unable to produce knowledge of any sort, I in turn accept these problems and provide a methodology through which one may still construct knowledge of the self through national identity. While one may never know about a "truly objective self", renegotiations of national identity through differing social forces, political power structures and prevalent ideologies can allow one to construct knowledge of national identity through inter-subjectivity, the collective subjectivities of the people, influenced by the very social forces postmodernists point out to be problematic. Such social forces will be accepted and acknowledged as a factor for national identity and the inherent subjectivity of such an identity, to perhaps "approximate" towards an "authentic" and truly representative identity.

By understanding the problems of post-modernity and accepting its incapability of producing objective knowledge, one can continue to construct knowledge of national identity, albeit of an inter-subjective nature.

5.2 Gramsci's Framework of Hegemony, Counter-Hegemony and the Construction of National Identity

I propose an interpretation of Gramsci's theory of hegemony in the Singaporean context as a conceptual framework on how inter-subjective national identity can be formed, and how it can approximate towards an "authentic" identity. Gramsci speaks of hegemonies as not the sole authority in society, but the dominant one. There will always be ­counter-hegemonies, competing ideologies and viewpoints opposing the dominant hegemony -that is, the government's discourse- groups with "opposing world-views" constantly contesting to gain hegemony, which leads to constant renegotiation of hegemony between the people's counter-hegemonies and the leaders. What role does these minor narratives, the counter-hegemonies, play?

Understanding the valuable nature of both hegemony and counter-hegemonies in the knowledge of national identity, I interpret both the viewpoints of counter-hegemonies and hegemonies as components of the hegemonic framework in the construction of national identity, each with their own subjective interpretations of national identity. For example, while the dominant discourse by the Government on national identity sees Asian values as part of Singaporean identity, numerous counter-viewpoints out there views the Singaporean identity differently. One example is the notion of kiasu (literally translated as "scared to lose"), the fear of losing out, which refers to the strong materialism and individualism in Singaporeans, [16] a popular interpretation of national identity that runs contrary to the official government version of national identity.

While both emphasize different aspects of national identity, none can be truly representative of the people or allow one to construct "authentic" knowledge about oneself as a Singaporean. However, they are both subjective components of the hegemonic framework. Through interpretation of these subjective components of national identity, one can perhaps come to know a more "authentic" inter-subjective version of national identity, which allows one to construct epistemically valuable knowledge of oneself as a citizen of Singapore.

The construction of knowledge of national identity is thus done not only by the Government, but also by counter-hegemonies. Each plays a role in construction of inter-subjective knowledge of national identity.

Such conceptual framework proves expedient in one's understanding of inter-subjectivity and national identity as constant discourse between the government-constructed national identity and individual experiences of the led, constantly affected by social forces and power. This leads to constant renegotiation of national identity, in the process making it more representative of the individual differences within the nation, and approximate towards an objective national identity.

5.3 Ending notes

I argue that an inter-subjective national identity, one capable of narrating some form of social truth, understood through Gramsci's hegemonic framework and counter-hegemonies, may allow for constant renegotiation of identity between the people and the government, to form inter-subjective knowledge of national identity. While it may not be the most epistemically valuable, it provides some middle-ground between the conflicting viewpoints of essentialism and post-modernism.

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