People’s minds & stories

Read in ‘The Power of Identity’ (1997) of Manuel Castells:


Is our personal identity changing in a globalizing world? Will it become ‘unlimited’? The symposium of the Veer Stichting (Veer Foundation) in Leiden (Leyden), the Netherlands, on 15 and 16 October 2015 was on ‘Unlimited Identity’. Speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ahmed Aboutaleb, Jang Jin-sung, Pat Cox, Simon Kuper and Mario Monti presented their views on the subject. Some 250 students and 250 policymakers discussed the theme. The organization had asked me to lead one of the workshops. Theme: ‘Cities and Identity’. In less than an hour, all twenty-five participants had to come up with powerful stories on their own city, every story containing elements of its identity in an positive, meaningful and productive way. There should be a hero, some killing or disaster, lessons learned. The result was amazing. One of the participants told the history of the ‘Maastunnel’ (1937) in Rotterdam, connecting the poor south with the rich north, she recounted its symbolic meaning, events in the war, anecdotes, its anniversary in 2017. Someone else told about how the French king Louis Napoleon became loved by the Leyden population, after the gunpowder explosion of 1807, and how the citizens felt in his behaviour a true sense of leadership. There were also stories from Schiedam, Blaricum and Het Westland, south of The Hague. We enjoyed the exercise, there was pleasure, relaxation, sociability, even togetherness; many even tended to feel more confidence in the future.

To prepare myself I had read ‘The Power of Identity’ of Castells again. Great visionary book. Information technology is changing the way we perceive and organize our society, it does so in a most radical way. Social change in the network society means the modern nation-state is losing much of its sovereignty. Liberal democracy is getting weaker, shared identities are dissolving. Castells: “The new power lies in the codes of information and in the images of representation around which societies organize their institutions, and people build their lives, and decide their behavior. The sites of this power are people’s minds.” Castells discerned an endless battle around cultural codes. “This is why identities are so important, and ultimately, so powerful in this ever-changing power structure – because they build interests, values, and projects, around experience, and refuse to dissolve by establishing a specific connection between nature, history, geography, and culture.” The battle is not yet won. While institutions are crumbling and political forms get exhausted, new stories on cities come to the fore. They could be the positive new keystones in the process of world urbanization.






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