Diaspora Criticism Literary Theory

In attempting to set itself up as ‘a genre of theoretical writing’ (Frow, 1997, 15), diaspora criticism takes as its object a thing called ‘diaspora’. The viability of the critical genre, it follows, rests on defining and delimiting the object of its inquiry. This act of positing a new critical site through the inscribing of parameters is, paradoxically, at odds with the site-violating implications of its primary signifier or object, since diaspeir is Greek for ‘scattering’ (speir) and was originally employed to explain the botanical phenomenon of seed dispersal. In any event, this post is concerned with diaspora criticism’s attempt to mark itself off as a new theoretical domain by targeting an object called ‘diaspora’, an enterprise in which the present writer is wryly implicated. What it says or avoids saying about this object creates (after Foucault) the condition for the emergence, delimitation and specification of the domain itself. So, to begin with the obvious question, what is this thing called `diaspora’?

One of the founding editors of the multidisciplinary journal Diaspora (inaugural issue, 1991), Khachig Tololyan uses the term to designate specific ‘social formations’ that are ‘exemplary communities of the transnational moment’ (Tololyan, 1991, 5). By limiting himself to the transnational temporality, Toloyan means to draw a distinction between the pre-modern or classical ‘ethnodiasporas’ – Jews, Greeks and Armenians – and the large-scale dispersal of significant ethnic clusters, or what Arjun Appadurai terms ‘ethnoscapes’ (Appadurai, cit. Roberts, 1992, 234), witnessed in the time of advanced capital. While murmurs of protest have been raised in various quarters concerning the modern application of an ancient category,1 scholars in the field have largely endorsed this annexation. Iain Chambers, for instance, claims that the ‘chronicles of diasporas – those of the black Atlantic, of metropolitan Jewry, of mass rural displacement – constitute the ground swell of modernity’ (Chambers, 1994, 16). While this assertion correctly reinserts Jews into the narrative of modern diasporas, Chambers‘ timescale is too sweeping for any meaningful discussion of the specific historical causality of such social formations. Vijay Mishra, on the other hand, conceives of diasporic formations as ‘the exemplary condition of late modernity’ (Mishra, 1996, 426), although his account of the labour migrants of indenture directs us to an earlier modernity driven by colonially administered plantation capital. Mishra argues that the practice of issuing emigration passes facilitated the peasant labourers’ entry into `the regulative history of the Empire’ (Mishra, 1996, 429), but, somewhat oddly, declines to dwell on the supplementary function of the variant modernity articulated by the same subjects in their formulation of girmit, a term collectively assigned to the atemporal ontology of suffering, hardship and deceit in the plantations. The history of modernity as rendered by the girmityas, that is to say by those who endured girmit, departs significantly from the archives of officialdom. Several years before Mishra, Paul Gilroy had written a ground- breaking study on a different diasporic formation of classical modernity in his book, The Black Atlantic: Double Consciousness and Modernity. In this study, Gilroy chronicles the subaltern history of the `black Atlantic’ – a phrase he coins to describe the intersecting threads (of politics, music and memory, for instance) linking the deterritorialized descendants of plantation slavery – that discontinuously haunts and radically infects as well as inflects the unfinished project of modernity. Gilroy‘s main assertion is that ‘commercially deported’ blacks and their descendants were not only victims of modernity, but also producers of the post-middle passage dimensions of Euro-American culture and history (Gilroy, 1993). Sorting through the general confusion regarding periodization, it seems that there are three distinct historical moments corresponding to the emergence of diasporic social formations: the classical or pre-modern, the (early) modern and the late (post) modern.

While diasporists have stressed the last of these moments to record the types of socio-economic pressures that have led to the emergence of diasporas of late modernity, the mapping of this different historical vector has occurred in relation to schema drawn from earlier diasporic social formations motivated by their specific historical circumstances. Mishra‘s account of the `new’ border diaspora in his Indian example is made possible, for instance, by his articulation of the differential/definitional relations between it and the `old’ exclusivist diasporas of indentured labour that `share many of the characteristics of the so-called ideal type of the Jewish diaspora’ (Mishra, 1996, 427). Although one can see the historical disjuncture that sustains Mishra‘s distinction, the exact kinship between the exclusivist diaspora and plantation capital as a subspecies of political economy, or the connection between the border diaspora and late modernity, remains partially developed. The attempt by diasporists to tease out the complications that pervade the relationships between diasporic social formations on the historical horizon, that is to say the diachronic horizon in which the various diasporas come into being, and the synchronic links (or discontinuities) perceived in the triadic interaction among social formations, their cultural productions and the brute socio-economic processes that underpin them, often culminates in theoretical confusion. Furthermore, there is a trend among diasporists to adopt a happy reflective model when discussing the above three items as they jostle on the synchronic scale. Here the assumption is that transnational economics encourages the transnationalization of certain social formations and their cultural productions. Opposed to this is Appadurai‘s identification of `the fundamental disjunctures between economy, culture and politics’ (Appadurai, cit. Roberts, 1992, 233) in the global system, although this too is problematic if it licenses popular diasporists to engage with one of the categories in comfortable isolation from the rest. An added pitfall is that very few diasporists undertake to investigate the actual workings of transnational or what economist Samir Amin calls ‘delinked capital’ (1997, 1). Are we really in the middle of a metamorphic stage in the history of capital? Has post-Fordist speculative capital based on market predictions and exchange rates mechanisms – the spectral economy – finally replaced the humdrum systems of surplus value production and accumulation? Is it true that floating capital no longer relies on classically anchored modes of production for its daily proliferation? Has the information age indeed brought with it a new mode of production or does it generate (technological) effects or ‘mediascapes’ (after Appadurai) that conceal the old dialectic of value production? Clearly the domains of material production are no longer nationally based (German cars manufactured in India, Australian electric lamps made in China), but should this new arrangement be taken to intimate a seismic shift in capital’s structure or just an operational one? Is transnational or global capital, in other words, merely another way of describing a new strategy for the old game of surplus value acquisition, with the difference that selected groups from the ex-colonies have penetrated, possibly for the first time in the scheme of modernity, at all levels but in different degrees the hierarchy of social relations set up by the bourgeois political economy? When was capital, in any event, not transnational if value is found, in one form or another, in every society?

When not dodging such base-level questions, most diasporists prefer to go along with the idea that `the transnationalization of capitalism’ involves `the breakdown of national economies, and the creation of a more interconnected world economic system’ (Jusdanis, 1996, 141), but the statistical data needed to support this claim is typically absent. It could be argued, for instance, that workers from Kerala who flock to the Gulf States are lured there by auxiliary industries that rely on a relatively primitive mode of production (although the `means’ employed are certainly advanced), namely the extraction of crude mineral oil from the bowels of the earth; it could also be argued that the 80,000 Indo-Fijians who left Fiji after the events of 1987 and 2000 did so as the scapegoats of a belated indigenous nationalism rather than as willing subjects of a hypermobile capital; and, finally, as Milton J. Esman shows, `large-scale labor  migration’, whether documented or undocumented, may be directly induced by vulgar demographics inasmuch as `[h]igh-income and growing economies’, due to low birthrates, `have a compelling need for labor’ whereas `[l]ow-income economies with high rates of population growth generate large and chronic labor surpluses’ (Esman, 1992, 3). All too hastily, then, the transnational moment is invoked by diasporists as a mantra to prepare the ground for the engendering of `models’ that identify the characteristics of one or another diasporic social formation or for expatiating on the hybrid texture of diasporic aesthetic productions. This lack of rigorous engagement with the inner workings of late capital is what makes diaspora criticism a genre of theoretical writing rather than an economically informed analysis of such social formations. In short, then, diaspora criticism is concerned with the social and aesthetic effects of transnational or global capital which it assumes as a condition of late modernity when it might be a condition of late capitalist ideology about economics. The point is that by treating the global economy as a ‘given’ rather than as a site for in-depth investigation, the implied links between diasporic social formations and the transnational moment are based on, at best, appearance and, at worst, conjecture. Having said that, it is necessary to assess the ‘coming into being’ of diaspora criticism in relation to the discursive (literary, sociological, historical, philosophical, psychological and so on) apparatuses it deploys around what it conceives of as unique types of social formations engendering specific kinds of cultural and aesthetic products.

A common strategy among diasporists is to classify diasporic social formations by (1) identifying new structures of being (identity) of an uprooted ethnic collectivity as it oscillates between homeland (the absent topos) and hostland (the present topos), (2) by tabulating a set of defining characteristics of this collectivity and (3) by alluding to some kind of departure manifested on the plane of consciousness, as reified in memory. Diasporists also tend to draw on the cultural productions (aesthetic, musical, electronic, etc.) of such social formations to back up their assertions. Sometimes, this leads to an oversimplification of the entangled relationship that actually exists between a social formation and its cultural productions. Of all the models proposed by diasporists, William Safran‘s enumeration of six characteristics for defining and delimiting a diasporic formation has stimulated the most debate on the subject. Concerned that ‘diaspora’ is used too freely ‘as a metaphoric designation for several categories of people – expatriates, expellees, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants, and ethnic and racial minorities tout court’, Safran suggests pinning it down `[l]est the term lose all meaning’ (Safran, 1991, 83).  Citing Walker Connor‘s broad-brush definition of diaspora as `that segment of a people living outside the homeland’, Safran adds that members of this `expatriate minority community’ must share `the following characteristics’:

1) they, or their ancestors, have been dispersed from a specific original `center’ to two or more `peripheral’, or foreign, regions; 2) they retain a  collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland – its physical location, history, and achievements; 3) they believe that they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it; 4) they regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return – when conditions are appropriate; 5) they believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration of their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity; and 6) they continue to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship. (Safran, 1991, 83-4)

Scholars have reacted diversely to this schema, but all responses have served to promote, in one form or another, the accretion of discursive matter around the term `diaspora’. Robin Cohen, for one, contends that Safran needlessly belabours the issue of a diaspora’s relationship to the homeland, thereby down- playing `the nature of the diasporic group in its countries of exile’. He also feels the need to supplement Safran‘s list by adding the following items: (1) `the memory of a single traumatic event’ that sustains the diaspora in the aftermath of dispersal; (2) the dream harboured by some diasporas to actively create a spatial homeland out of an imagined one, as is the case with Sikhs and Kurds; and (3) the inclusion of those diasporas ‘that scatter for aggressive or voluntarist reasons’, such as colonial settlers and traders, distinguishable from the `victim’ diasporas of slavery and genocide and the `labour’ diasporas of colonial plantation economy (Cohen, 1997, 22-5). Curiously, neither Safran nor Cohen feel the need to critically reflect on the dangers of representing model diasporas as class-neutral, gender-neutral and generation-neutral ethnic collectivities that uncritically project homelands and hostlands as homogeneous territorial entities. Too much emphasis is also placed on the diaspora’s collective agency vis-a -vis homeland and hostland. In ascribing to the diaspora this will-to-self-definition (‘they retain’, `they believe’, `they regard’, `they . . . relate’), Safran gives short shrift to a whole host of external factors, both `here’ (hostland) and `there’ (homeland), which may nurture the necessary conditions for the type of interpellation he describes. Discussing the fate of Turkish guest workers in Germany, Esman affords us one example of these `external factors’ that powerfully impress on, and to a large measure determine, the psychological constitution of such (quasi)-diasporic formations:

In an exercise of calculated self-deception, the political elites of Germany have cultivated the myth of return, the comforting illusion that resident foreign workers and their families will one day return to their country of origin. The myth asserts that, having benefited economically from their presence, Germany will one day again be ethnically pure . . . The Turkish government has been an ally in perpetuating this myth, because it clings to the policy of ius sanguinis, that all persons of Turkish blood must remain forever Turkish, and rejects categorically the notion that Turks in Germany should be offered the option of German citizenship. A venal reenforcement of such Turkish nationalism is its government’s recognition that more than half of Turkey’s foreign exchange is earned by remittances from its nationals working abroad. (Esman, 1992, 20-1)

Here the German and Turkish nation-states insert quasi-diasporic worker- subjects into ideologies of provisional residence and eventual return for mutually self-serving reasons; it is reasonable to suppose that the agency of the worker-subject is partially determined by such extra-subjective processes of interpellation.

In his influential article entitled Diasporas, James Clifford takes issue with the topographic certitudes regarding the homeland that inform Safran’s conception of the social and psychological attributes that define diasporic identity and consciousness. Declaring that `there is little room in . . . [Safran’s] definition for the principled ambivalence about physical return and attachment to land which has characterized much Jewish diasporic experience’, Clifford makes the point that `multi-locale diasporas are not necessarily defined by a specific geopolitical boundary’ (Clifford, 1994, 304-5). Arguing against teleologies of origin and return, he refers to Gilroy‘s formulation of an Afro-Caribbean- British-American or black Atlantic network where Africa is no longer the primary referent and to S. D. Goitein‘s account of the medieval Geniza world (linking the Mediterranean countries, North Africa, Arabia and coastal India) in which commerce, travel, familial, cultural and communication networks are determined by the `lateral axes’ of dissemination rather than by bipolar concepts of origin and return, symbolic or otherwise (Clifford, 1994, 315-27). Although Clifford does not put it in such terms, his remarks on the Geniza world end up describing the extensive ‘affiliational structures’ (Shapiro, 2000, 80) that governed ancient concepts of citizenship. In any case, his central argument seems to be that, as border communities, diasporas are not necessarily attached to or detached from macrocosmic centres of homeland and hostland; they may, as is illustrated by his Geniza world example, create microcosmic alliances by attending to `cultural forms, kinship relations [and] business circuits’ or by attaching themselves to religious institutions and cities (Clifford, 1994, 305).

Admittedly there is much merit in Clifford‘s resistance to Safran’s emphasis on solid and symbolic bipolar topographies and his encouragement of the border (decentred, lateral) dimensions to the diaspora experience (though one could justifiably argue that the border itself is a centring motif in his scheme); even so, his paradigm departs only marginally from Safran’s in its persistent focus on identity formations, identifications, defining features and distinctive consciousness, in short, subjectivity and subject constitution. Clifford refers more than once to `transregional identities’ when discussing Roger Rouse’s observations about spatially disaggregated Aguilillans who maintain filiations  through `telephone circuits’; he talks at length about `diaspora consciousness’ as it is negatively and positively constituted – negatively, he asserts, `through discrimination and exclusion’ and `positively through identifications with world historical cultural/political forces such as “Africa” or “China” ‘ (Clifford, 1994, 311-12). One suspects that the category of `world historical cultural/political forces’ is not altogether dissimilar to Safran’s notion of symbolic homelands that are, whether one admits it or not, politically and culturally constituted mythic points of reference. Clifford remarks that identifications when hitched to `a negative experience of racial and economic marginalization can . . . lead to new coalitions: one thinks of Maghrebi diasporic consciousness uniting Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians living in France, where a common history of colonial and neocolonial exploitation contributes to new solidarities’ (Clifford, 1994, 312). Such coalitional solidarity based on short-term identifications may – to give another example of this type of empathetic transference – periodically unite the Australia-based descendants of Indo-Fijian `coolies’ with the progeny of indentured or blackbirded `Kanaks‘ shipped to the sugarcane plantations of Queensland in the nineteenth century. In essence, then, Clifford does not depart substantively from the practice of accounting for group subjectivities of diasporic social formations, albeit he does make a significant intervention by breaking away from territorially and ethnically based `models’. Instead, he commends (after Gilroy) the anti-teleological `history of displacement, suffering, adaptation, or resistance’ (Clifford, 1994, 306) as the target topos for the inscription of definitional possibilities about diasporic peoples. What this means in practice is that the geopolitical entities of homeland and hostland fade as referential points in the analysis of diasporic formations. In brief, the conceptual framework need not extend beyond the dynamic situational narratives of dispersal itself. So it turns out that a history of roots predicated on purist cartographies of the homeland is jettisoned in favour of a history of routes, predicated on itineraries of travel, hybrid exchanges and shifting localities. And while the border paradigm may at times resemble a postmodern hyphen adrift from its prefix and its suffix, it has the virtue of stimulating debate on the unstable relationship between classically autocentred and ideologically homogenized nation-states and ethnocommunities whose affiliations and allegiances may be territorially as well as culturally disaggregated.

In fact, the question of the bourgeois nation-state5 and its troubled relations with diasporic groups and practices, frequently seen as symptomatic of global capital, has preoccupied many diasporists. The debate seems to focus on the perceived divergence between the ideology that undergirds the nation-state and the ideology disabusing – and this need not be, and seldom is, a deliberate act – presence and practices of diasporic subjects and formations.6 So what is this ideology propping up the bourgeois nation-state? Drawing on the work of Habermas, Michael Shapiro writes that `[t]he primary understanding of the modern “nation” segment of the nation-state is that a nation embodies a coherent culture, united on the basis of shared descent or, at least, incorporating a “people” with a historically stable coherence’. Since this is so transparently a myth, ‘the symbolic maintenance of the nation-state requires a management of historical narratives as well as territorial space’ (Shapiro, 2000, 81). It is this activity of symbolic maintenance that renders the nation-state an `imagined political community’ (Anderson, 1991, 6). Indeed citizen-subjects receive a `double coding’ in that `citizenship is located both in a legal, territorial entity, which is associated with the privileges of sovereignty and the rights of individuals, and in a cultural community where it is associated with a history of shared ethnic and social characteristics’ (Shapiro, 2000, 81). Diasporic groups are inserted schizophrenically into this ideological scheme, by integrationist as well as pluralist nation-states. As documented citizen-subjects of the nation- state, diasporic clusters may enjoy the abstract rights and privileges of citizen- ship manifested in a juridical or constitutional sense. Since, however, they may not share a common cultural ground with the hegemonic community whose particular values and goals are, at least in an ideological way, mediated by the nation-state and subtly incorporated into its laws, the right to culture-specific practices may be denied them. Even a pluralist nation-state will tolerate only those practices that do not directly collide with the universal rights abstracted from the belief systems, historical struggles, discursive practices and economic ambitions of the foundational community. If a British-Pakistani subject were to wed more than one wife as is possible under Islamic practices, his action would be in direct violation of British marriage laws based on the monogamous structures of its `mythic’ foundational community. It would also be claimed that the practice of polygamy is an anachronism in the time of modernity and violates the individual rights of women.

If they are documented resident-subjects (not citizens) of the nation-state, diasporic constituents may find certain rights and privileges withheld from them. Although required by law to pay taxes that make the business of governing possible, they may not be allowed by this same law, as is clearly evident in the Australian case, to participate in national elections or, if newly arrived, to qualify for social welfare benefits. Of course diasporic subjects may exercise the option of declining the right to citizenship (as is the case with a significant number of North Africans living in France),7 thereby foregoing the entitlements extended to them by the hostland for the (symbolic, spiritual, nostalgic or plainly material) entitlements of the homeland. Falling outside the purview of legally sanctioned subjects of the nation-state, undocumented diasporic subjects are the least happy of the three categories delineated above. Even when they succeed in surmounting the deadly obstacles involved in crossing borders (only in 2000 several Chinese `illegals’ suffocated to death in the hold of a truck that had crossed the English Channel on a ferry bound for Dover), the great majority live `underground’ lives in the bourgeois nation-state and earn low (unofficial) wages in manual work or service (including sex) industries. Holston and Appadurai claim that this is the result of a trade-off between nation-states that are out to attract resources and global economic institutions that are on the lookout for scab labour. This pact is manifested in new legal regimes designed to render `significant segments of the transnational low-income labor force illegal by using the system of national boundaries to criminalize the immigrants . . . [that the nation-state] attracts for low-wage work’ (Holston and Appadurai, 1996, 199). Illegality, according to this perspective, is a tactic used by the nation-state in complicity with itinerant capital to produce a docile, non-unionized labour force that may be exploited through renewed threats of deportation. Not able to impose direct taxes on this underground labour force, the nation-state will frequently levy consumer taxes (VAT and GST) on goods essential for its subsistence.

Contemplating the tricky issue of the `nexus-cum-rupture’ between `incom- pletely nationalized’ (Appadurai, cit. Chuh, 1996, 93) diasporic populations and nation-states, Vijay Mishra attempts to come up with a theory of diasporic subjectivity (although he restricts his analysis to the citizen-subject type) by attending to what he calls `the semantics of the hyphen’ (Mishra, 1996, 433). He builds his theory on the understanding that the subject’s unresolved positionality in relation to the homeland and hostland creates a severed/sutured identity that may be conceived of as `the third time-space’ (Lavie and Swedenburg, 1996, 16):

Within a nation-state citizens are always unhyphenated that is, if we are to believe what our passports say about us. In actual practice the pure, unhyphenated generic category is only applicable to those citizens whose bodies signify an unproblematic identity of selves with nations. For those of us who are outside of this identity politics, whose corporealities fissure the logic of unproblematic identification, plural/multicultural societies have constructed the impure genre of the hyphenated subject. (Mishra, 1996, 433)

Mishra cites Slavoj Zizek to justify his remark about the ‘unproblematic identification’ of citizens who require `no particular verification of this “Thing” called “Nation”. For this group the “nation” simply is (beyond any kind of symbolization)’ (Mishra, 1996, 423). This Lacanian loss of selfhood through absorption into the imaginary realm of the nation is a condition available only to those citizens that perceive themselves as belonging to the foundational community ruled by the ‘idea of “homogeneous, empty time” (Anderson, 1991, 24) and not to those groups that bear in body (clothing, speech, culinary habits, etc.) and in mind (corporeally `here’ but neurologically `elsewhere’) the markers of difference, creating the symbolic fracture. A theoretical difficulty arises from the above argument. How is it possible for the foundational citizen to achieve an imaginary identification with the nation thing in the space of the diasporic other without experiencing a rupture from the homogeneous, empty time of the imaginary? To put it differently: if the other is here in the same `imaginary’ space that I inhabit, then where am I? (The very act of posing this question signals a loss of the imaginary order.) Am I then outside the imaginary space and so in the space of the heterogeneous, brimming time of the symbolic? Surely this is the abiding contradiction of nationalistic avowals of racial homogeneity – that it must be predicated on its loss. Stumbling upon the Patels at their dinner in the family-run motel, the narrator of Bharati Mukherjee‘s `Loose Ends’, a hitman yearning for a mythically pure America, maliciously admits to the loss of this imaginary order: ‘They look at me. A bunch of aliens and they stare like I’m the freak’ (Mukherjee, 1988, 52).

One of the persistent dilemmas confronting diaspora criticism is how to configure diasporic subjectivity as hybrid, liminal, border and hyphenated without recourse to the strategy of consigning non-diasporic groups to imaginary domains of non-liminality, non-hybridity, non-heterogeneity and so on. Then again, if non-diasporic subjects are capable of the type of diasporization, then where does this leave the diasporic subject or, for that matter, the whole enterprise of diaspora criticism? By ascribing to the diaspora a third time-space, that is ‘the borderzone between identity-as-essence and identity-as-conjuncture’ (Lavie and Swedenburg, 1996, 17), diasporists withhold from non-diasporic subjects the experience of similar on-the-verge critical subjectivities in contextually driven moments of epiphany. If we take the threshold of diasporic enclave spaces (restaurants, video outlets, cinemas, religious institutions, etc.) within the bourgeois nation-state as inscribing the hyphenated third time-space, then any subject inhabiting that zone would be susceptible to the experience of the border flux that constitutes identity-as- essence on the one hand and identity-as-conjuncture/disjuncture on the other. To their credit, diasporists are aware that while the border zone encourages democratic porosity and fusion, it also facilitates reactionary identity forma- tions, identifications, dangerous disavowals of otherness (the anti-hybrid values of the Muslim patriarch married to an English woman, as depicted in the film East is East, comes to mind) and nostalgias for racially pure domains. Drawing on Amit S. Rai‘s research on the virtual web, Mishra points to six site ‘postings [that] indicate a desire to construct India in purist [Hindu] terms’ (Mishra, 1996, 424). Thinking along the same lines, Steven Vertovec asserts that `right- wing religious organizations in the homeland are known to gain much support from overseas populations: most notably Hindus, through the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (and, by extension, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP) in India, and Muslims, through Jamaat-i-Islami, a prominent Islamicist political party in Pakistan’ (Vertovec, 1997, 280). What these examples indicate is the danger of ignoring the principle of cognitive congealment in identity-talk whereby the subject or collectivity may get off at the identity-as-essence station before the hybrid train can chug along to identity-as-conjuncture.

Perhaps in an arcane and implicit way this post has professed that the focus on ethnic identity formations allows diasporists to pay lip service to or to flagrantly disregard disjunctures as well as conjunctures that occur because of but also in spite of identifications based on class, gender, sexuality, kinship, generation, profession and ideology. While digging for specificities may admittedly lead to  the discovery of further layers of such specificities (or a rosary of pieties about them) in an endless series, thus rendering impossible the task of theorizing, it is the business of theory to develop rigorous paradigms that subsume most parts of any given complexity. For this reason, the primacy afforded by diasporists to deterritorialized ethnic identity formations over other types of identity constitution and identifications may be theoretically suspect. With some justification, they can be accused of reproducing an ideological manoeuvre when they ought to be interrogating it. Targeting racial identity formations among South Asians in the United States, Kamala Visweswaran, makes this point bluntly:

Without more attention . . . to how class determines the differential nature and experience of racial formations, there is a danger . . . that `popular diaspora theory’ of neoliberals like Joel Kotkin or conservatives like Thomas Sowell will substitute uncontested stories of culture for accounts of capital, contributing to the deployment of culturalist arguments against economic `failures’ of inner-city minorities. (Visweswaran 1997, 5) Later, she goes on to pose a most penetrating question: `. . . what does it mean when culture increasingly grounds the language of capital?’ (Visweswaran, 1997, 11).

The classical answer from the left would be that instead of being the secondary effect of the relations of production, it means that culture now acts as its primary agent. It is no longer the discursive domain where the social contradictions get played out, either subversively or symptomatically, but an autonomous value system that determines the success or failure of the capitalist enterprise. Culture has some degree of autonomy and agency certainly, but the increasing tendency among cultural theorists to treat it as somehow anterior to or detached from surplus accumulation, and yet capable of impinging on it negatively or positively, is cause for worry. Visweswaran observes that popular diasporists explain `the economic failures of inner-city blacks’ as opposed to `the success of particular Asian immigrant groups; not by accounting for how Asians organize capital, but by positing the existence of essential cultural traits which blacks are seen to lack’ (Visweswaran, 1997, 7). Any paradigm that equalizes the different degrees of causal intensity associated with such terms as culture, race, gender and class or assigns surplus causal value to the wrong category (to culture instead of economics, race instead of class) is bound to come up with highly dubious conclusions.

Rather than ride rough shod over them, diasporists would do well to attend more closely to those elements of identity formation and identification that fissure the imagined ethnic collectivity and bring to light the social relations that underpin it. Discussing the contemporary fate of what Hamza Alavi calls the subcontinental `salariat’, a comprador middle class that stood in a subordinate relationship to the British colonizer but was the dominant class in its own cultural environment, Visweswaran, summarizing Alavi, observes how `in- creased competition for a limited number of positions’ at home coupled with the acquisition of an `English education’ led to the global mobilization of `large  sections of this community’ but also contributed to its fragmentation `along ethnic or communal lines’, consequently `preventing the consolidation of class interests’ (Visweswaran, 1997, 11). Presumably this type of fragmentation along ethnic or communal lines is followed by strategic class/ethnic/gender alliances with non-subcontinental social formations in the hostland. Class divisions across the same ethnic formation are also obviously vital to interrogate. For instance, if we were to consider the Chinese diaspora in its multi- locations, we would need to sort out, among other things, the temporal, social and psychological agreements and disagreements between the `coolie’ sojour- ners of nineteenth-century Malaya, the service and garment industry workers `temporalized’ in various global metropolitan centres and the taikongren or `astronaut’ professionals that leave their families in safe havens and `commute . . . between Australia and New Zealand and the booming cities of Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Guagzhou, [and] Shanghai’ (Giese, 1997, 5). Moreover, we would have to include in this diagram those diasporic subjects who hold `flexible citizenship’12 as well as `diasporic entrepreneurs’ who, according to Lever-Tracy, Ip and Tracy (1996), draw on the `guanxi (personal relationships)’ system to invest in the homeland with the result that `they have contributed over three-quarters of foreign investment in China’ in terms of `investment and export generation’ (Bolt, 1997, 216). An examination of guanxi would also mean exploring how such personal networks encourage a social psychology based on obligations that lead to periodic transclass coalitions, which no doubt account for the tremendous inroads made by diaspora capital in this particular home territory.

Generation and gender are perhaps the pivotal factors for diaspora criticism. Generational changes can and do affect the nature of diasporic formations and sometimes their very existence. Some diasporas do vanish into the homogenizing ideology of the nation-state (one need only think of the Irish diaspora in Australia) while others go on to create their own nation-states, such as the Chinese diaspora in Singapore, thereby shedding the minority expatriate status that is a defining feature of such formations. Gender, it goes without saying, is a common factor in determining the nature of a diasporic group. The most striking example of this is afforded by the statistics available on Filipino migrant workers in Europe. Of the 500,000 workers that were, legally and illegally, residing in Europe (Italy, Britain, Spain, Greece, Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands) in 1995, a vast majority (95 per cent in some countries) were women hired as private domestic helpers or employed in the service sector (restaurants and hotels), while a significantpercentage that made up the diaspora in Austria and the Netherlands worked as nurses. What is the impact of this type of gender imbalance combined with low-status employment on this diasporic formation? Is it a diasporic formation? Is gender imbalance simply determined by the sexual division of labour or are other factors involved? Do migrant Filipino women define themselves as a displaced collectivity, exhibiting the characteristics enumerated by Safran? How are Filipino women interpellated in the ideologies of these nation-states, prior to and after their arrival in Europe? Such gender-oriented questions may open up vistas into Europe’s relationship to Asia, the links between patriarchy and capitalism, and women as highly valuable transferable commodities in a resource-impoverished Third World. Loretta Ann Rosales points out `that official bank remittance receipts of 1997 from the [Filipino] migrant labor market amounted to $6.2 billion’.Another example of gender playing an important historical role is within the old labour diasporas of indenture. The gender breakdown for the `coolies’ shipped to Fiji between 1879 and 1916 was `forty women for every hundred men’. Even at that historical juncture, it was admitted by the recruiting company `that the sex ratio was an important cause of murder, suicide, and labour trouble . . .’ (Gillion, 1962, 56). Clearly gender disproportion played a less than negligible `sexual’ role in the psychopathology of indentured men and women that made up the Indian diaspora in Fiji; however, more archival work needs to be carried out to determine the precise links between gender, violence and the girmit (indenture) consciousness.

When they move away from the slippery area of transnational capital and the development of general models for dispersed social formations to analysing the symptomatic presence of the above elements in specific cultural products and productions, diasporists tend to be at their most persuasive. They can also be at their most infuriatingly simplistic. Discussing bhangra music, for instance, Gayatri Gopinath writes that `the diasporic web of “affiliation and affect” ‘ (Gilroy, 1993, 16) that bhangra calls into being within and across various national contexts displaces the “`home” country from its privileged position as an originary site and redeploys it as but one of many diasporic locations’. She continues:

Similarly, bhangra’s incorporation into the nation in its transformed and transformative state refigures, to a certain extent, the very terms by which the nation is constituted. In this sense, an analysis of bhangra demands not only that diaspora be seen as part of the nation but that the nation be rethought as part of the diaspora as well. (Gopinath, 1995, 304)

One can see how the transnational dissemination of bhangra can reshape its form/content, whereby the originary country becomes, for the genre, another location in a network of diasporic locations and no longer a primary geocultural defining point, but it is very difficult to see how, in its metamorphosed condition, bhangra can be thought to engender new terms and conditions for the nation’s constitution. Surely a minority song and dance form, seemingly sundered from economic and political motivations, cannot possibly have the kind of nation-redefining impact Gopinath has in mind. A more persuasive account of diasporic cultural flows and formations is afforded by Martin Roberts. Investigating the emergent world music `as a new kind of commodity in the global marketplace of the popular music industry’ (Roberts 1992, 232-3), Roberts refutes the seductive argument that mass culture simply territorializes vernacular cultural forms by pointing to `a complex process of indigenization, whereby the interaction of global mass culture with local cultures produces hybrid cultural forms which render simple oppositions between core and periphery problematic’ (Roberts, 1992, 230). He goes on to demonstrate how western musical forms have been assimilated into or vernacularized by `non-western musical cultures’. To his credit, Roberts rarely loses sight of the commodity function of world music and refers to the `six transnational recording companies (RCA, CBS, Time Warner, EMI, Polygram, MCA) and their subsidiary labels’ that control the `global music finanscape’ (Roberts, 1992, 236). Furnishing relevant data, he also shows how multinational and transnational corporations, whose modus operandi is governed by shifting localities, disrupt nationally based economies where the raw material (music) gets disengaged from its cultural terrain (community, nation-state, region) in the process of its reproduction (overseas recording studios) and consumption (First World markets). Roberts refuses, however, to see world music simply in terms of its commodity function; he acknowledges the ambiguous energy in cultural artefacts that can turn power against itself:

On the one hand . . . the ideoscapes that world music articulates are co-opted as just another marketing strategy. Recognizing a booming sector of the market, record companies and musicians alike have in recent years been jumping in the world-music bandwagon. The very idea of alternative, globally aware politics has been commodified: consumers are sold the idea that they are responsible, even participating in a form of cultural resistance, by the very system they are supposedly resisting . . . On the other hand, the implication of world music in the system of global capitalism allows for the possibility of turning that system against itself by using world music’s mass cultural status as a kind of Trojan horse for disrupting the system from within, as sales from records, concerts, and tour merchandise are put to work, funding progressive political agendas, causes, and movements. (Roberts, 1992, 239)

While the last assertion may be mildly utopian considering the actual might of the corporate system the `progressives’ are battling, the general point about the way a cultural product can function antagonistically in spite of its co-optation tells us a lot about the elusive, anarchic character of the sign, whether it is sign musical, sign filmic or sign literary. This may, in turn, have a great deal to do with the aesthetics of affect that, in the final count, evades the commodity function but acts enigmatically on the consuming subject. It is on this threshold of inquiry that Roberts, unfortunately, terminates his stimulating account.

Source: Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century by Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh University Press, 2002.


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