Adjudicating Hybridity,
Co-ordinating Betweenness


by

R. Radhakrishnan

University of Massachusetts


Copyright © 2000 by R. Radhakrishnan, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.


  1. Allow me please to begin these speculations anecdotally, and I promise, after adequate elaboration, to gloss and nudge my anecdote in the desired thematic direction. I am off to the movies with a sense of excitement, to see a diasporic movie, shall we say "East is East," and the excitement has to do with my expectation that this movie will be about "hybridity." And hybridity is heady stuff: transgressive in more than one direction, de-territorializing, and immanently sui generis in its mode of signification. With hybridity, anything is possible for the simple reason that hybridity is about making meaning without the repression of a pre-existing normativity or teleology: in the exhilarating a-nomie between "having been deterritorialized" and "awaiting to be reterritorialized" there is all manner of unprecedented "becoming." I watch the movie where an all important question like, how will the cultural and political destiny of an Islamic family unfold in the heart of contemporary metropolitan London cannot even begin to get posed except within the Mobius strip like figurality of the diaspora that rigorously disallows the macrological plenitude of the Islamic worldview in itself, or for that matter, the putative and insular self-sufficiency of secular London. The two worlds need to be thought through co-terminously and co-evally through processes of negotiation and narrativization that are not "always already"anchored in the guarantee of an inevitable denouement. The interiority of each ethos is always and perennially in reactive and polemical production in response to the inevitable adjacency and simultaneity of the "other" ethos, and as a consequence, inter- and intra-identitarian valences and inter- and intra-historical complexities are rendered reciprocally indistinguishable. The project of "maintaining Islamic integrity" becomes inseparable from the politics of current location, i.e., the politics of maintaining Islamic integrity in a certain kind of London. In other words, locatedness in London cannot be waived away or trivialized as a purely epiphenomenal feature not organically related to the practice of Islamic self-styling. Equally and symmetrically, the project of normativizing and axiomatizing Englishness and English citizenship and the sovereignty that goes with it has to take into its very core the issue of Islamic ethnicity and its particular form of alterity. No Englishness without Islam and no Union Jack without black, and yellow, and brown.

  2. But of course, as the narrative unfolds, I feel uneasy with the way things are going: I want some things to happen, and some other developments not to materialize. From within the deterritorialized immanence of the hybrid experience I am looking for multi-directional and multi-lateral "norms" and "values" and "structures" to combat and resist a) English Racism on the one hand and Islamic sexism and patriarchy on the other, b) the vulgar and smug triumphalism of western secularism and its insensitivity to "other" traditions on the one hand and the paranoia, on the other hand, of the Islamic tradition that will not allow possibilities of a rigorous "internal critique" of the tradition for fear of losing oppositional edge against the dominant mainstream, c) the all too glib forgetfulness of the past as embodied by the diasporic sons and daughters on the one hand, and the inability, on the other hand of the parental generation to elaborate a scrupulous strategy of "counter-memory" to connect the past with the present within a critical nexus, etc. etc. The between-ness becomes unbearable for lack of a relationally realized direction and ethico-political purpose, and hybridity suddenly feels skin-deep and not profound, merely symptomatic and not erudite; feels more like an alibi or a mis-recognition that masks the reality of deeper issues and inequities that are the result of a world system structured in dominance. The jouissance of "anything is possible" is robbed of innocence, interpellated instead by dire contradiction and non-negotiable difference; and betweenness takes the form of a chronic double-whammy. And I also find myself asking what the perspectival impulse should be behind the practice of hybridity and how, on such a perspectival basis, differentiations ought to be made between subaltern and metropolitan hybridities. As I walk out of the theater I find myself murmuring sagaciously to myself, "Oh, man! If only hybridity could "speak for" and not merely "speak."

  3. Here are a few questions to be answered: What can be expected of hybridity, i.e., once we acknowledge its phenomenological immanence but want to go "beyond?" How can hybridity be made accountable both to itself and the multi-layered histories "whence it comes?" Or, to sneak in Gramsci into the problematic of "the hybrid as masala," what strategies of representation and post-representation are available to the hybrid subject so that it may compile a critical "inventory" of its many "traces" so that the history of its present could be lived as something other than the life of the commodified, eroticized masala to be "eaten"(bell hooks) in all its exotic alterity? Should the cultural politics of hybridity inaugurate its own "proper" epistemic-cogntive terrain, or should hybridity function as that "dangerous supplement," that moment of radical indeterminacy that haunts and destabilizes the discourse of dominant identitarian regimes? How is hybridity to be sustained in all its radical determinacy even as it is politicized as constituency in a determinate context?

  4. If hybridity had always seemed eccentric, idiosyncratic, and abnormal within canonical identity regimes and modes of representation, now in the rapidly emerging historiographies of the diaspora, hybridity would appear to have found its "proper" home, its ideal semantic register. But such a claim is in a sense "always already" scandalous for the very simple reason that the very idea of a proper and non-contingent home in the diaspora is fundamentally contradictory. For after all, what is the diaspora if not the denaturalization of "home" by the concept of "location"? Caught up in a constitutive "between-ness," the diaspora imagines home in opposition to discourses of ontological authenticity and domestic propriety. It is precisely to the extent that home is not natural that the diaspora is able to perform and inaugurate its representations of home as radical and incorrigible "lack." It is only by insisting on the integrity of its locational and phenomenological immanence that the diaspora can dwell in the "hyphen" vigilantly without succumbing either to the mystique of origins or to the seductions of "the here and now" as temporalized by mainstream discourses of assimilation. The creative production of diasporic hybridity has to take the form of a delicate double-session: deny coordination and adjudication as such in the name of a perennial "homelessness" and at the same time engage in the polemical politics of representation. Characterized by a symptomatic "double consciousness," diasporic hybridity has to both "enjoy itself as symptom"(Zizek) and simultaneously transform the body politic where it resides as "symptom."

  5. Salman Rushdie has one of his characters in The Satanic Verses say something to the effect that the English do not know their history since it happened overseas; and Gayatri Spivak begins her essay, "Reading The Satanic Verses," thus: "In postcoloniality, every metropolitan definition is dislodged." When read together, these two statements may be construed as an attempt at articulating the perspectival cultural politics of hybridity. In Rushdie, we find the insistence that the meaning of history, especially that of dominant histories, is always ek-static and exotopic. Without the adversarial implication of the colonized "other" occidental modernism cannot signify itself: dominant historiography is "always already" hybridized in ways not available to its dominant gaze or consciousness. In this sense hybridity is ubiquitous, but awaits perspectival instrumentalization. Who, which subject, which determinate agent will take on the task of "speaking for" hybridity even as hybridity as an omni-historical condition speaks through that subject or agent? In a sense then, the semanticization of hybridity is synchronous with the "dislodging" of metropolitan normativity by postcolonial double consciousness. It is from within this space of epistemic incommensurability and socio-cultural and political asymmetry that diasporic hybridity needs to express itself as "speaking" and as "speaking for" while realizing itself as an open and ongoing constituency. For indeed, the diasporic hybrid subject has the difficult double task of opening up hybridity as an allegorical and second-order space even as it envisions to empower and enfranchise determinate forms of hybridity in the name of historical contingency.

  6. The political project of diasporic hybridity, I wish to argue, takes the form of a question: Who am I and Who are We? To be even more specific, the diasporic subject has to learn to reinvent the political as a discourse of open-ended questions. Bereft of "the fakery of prepared answers,"(Foucault) and the guaranteed pedagogies of nativism, natalism, and nationalism(critiqued in different ways by Rey Chow, Sauling Wong, Lisa Lowe and others), the diasporic subject has to learn to invent and imagine community along multiple non-totalizable axes and cultivate tactics of resisting representation from within the field of representation. For if representation has already been spoken for in the name of dominance, it is only appropriate that the diasporic subject should cultivate strategies and protocols of resistance to resist "being had" by regimes of representation. And yet, "speak for," it must but without the finality of representational and representative hubris. I would go so far as to say that the diasporic hybrid conjuncture is the site of an aporia: a site where the epistemological finding that "Representation no longer exists" negotiates with the political truth that "There is no reality without representation." Furthermore, in complicating the passage from the "I" to the "We," and in refusing to acknowledge the automatic cathexis of the individual and singular in a pre-given collectivity, the subject of diasporic hybridity pries open and autonomizes the space of the hyphen that aligns the ""ethical" and the "political" within the category of "the ethico-political."

  7. Any study of diaspora and hybridity that is not also, by the same logic, a critical study of nationalism, would indeed be suspect. Figures of diasporic liminality and hybrid "impurity" always dance around the sovereignty of the nation and its stateliness both as determinate expressions of "difference from" the legitimacy of the national form and as forms of radical heterogeneity. Are national sovereignty and diasporan hybridity mutually constitutive? As Amitav and Ghosh and others have argued, the nation form, and here I would be paying particular attention to the Indian context, is internally heterogenized, "diasporized" from within. It is not coincidental that popular Hindi movies over the years, starting from around the time of India"s independence in 1947 and immediately after and right up to the present time, have invested in the deployment of hybridity as a desired enhancement and "internationalization" of the national imaginary. Thus we have the famous song(quoted by Rushdie), "Mera Jhootha hai Japani, mera pathloon Hindustani, sir pe lal topi, russi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani" as enacted by the famous Raj Kapoor who in movie after movie appropriated the Charlie Chaplin persona in the Indian context to delineate a protagonist of surpassing "pre-political" charm and authenticity. This particular song claims that "though my slippers are Japanese and my hat Russian, my heart is Indian." Utilizing the inner/outer divide (so brilliantly theorized by Partha Chatterjee), the lyricist allows India to be in a performative whirl when it comes to exterior trappings, but makes sure to secure the representation pedagogically(Homi Bhabha) through recourse to the heart that is all Indian. Hybridity is thus both acknowledged and sublated within the higher plenitude of national consciousness. Furthermore, the images of hybridity come not from within the nation but from an "hors-texte" of internationalism which is then re-centered along Indian nationalist lines.

  8. So, where is India, India: and where is hybridity, hybridity? Are the two sites the same? This obsessive theme has been repeated in as recent a potboiler with, surprise surprise, the title, Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani. The title lyric of this movie makes the same gestures towards the semantic and ideological resolution of hybridity, but the difference in the context of today"s MTV and techno-capital driven world of deideologized and depoliticized visuality, is that in this lyric hybridity is merely skin deep and a mere effect; and the management of hybridity a mere gimmick or opportune strategy that is often disingenuous and hypocritical. Opposites and contradictions meet within the figurality of the hybrid, but are easily resolved through recourse to an "Indian-ness" that is neither desirable nor credible. The problem that I wish to analyze here is that of "visuality." In a cultural-aesthetic ethos driven by techno-capital and the MTV model of virtualizing reality, hybridity has become the pure and formal characteristic of the medium itself. In other words, hybridity in the age of visuality has become a fait accompli. Hybridity is so eminently stagable as spectacle and as pure formal surface effect that it resists and trivializes historical explanation. Every thing and every phenomenon, thanks to technology, is inevitably hybrid and therefore there is no need to be erudite or critical about hybridity. One just lives it as the Real: i.e., a Real that has imploded into itself in total flight from historical forms of representation. MTV production techniques have made it possible to produce and package hybridity for consumption(and here I would be looking at a number of contemporary Indian MTV inspired videos) without having to produce a historical account of the phenomenon of hybridity. Indeed, hybridity has become the "proper" and "orthodox" register of the genre. What we have is a mediatized hybridity made easy for all, consumable by all: hybridity made safe and chic for the prurient gaze.

  9. So, how does one learn the diaspora? How does one teach the diaspora? How does one learn and teach the diaspora from within the living experience of the diaspora? As I frame these questions I am aware of my double situation as a diasporic being and as an intellectual who has chosen the diaspora as his field of specialized activity. So, when I say "theorizing the diaspora," I am in effect "willing" into the formation a professional desire for producing knowledge that may well be in active violation of the living dimension of diasporic subjectivity: its amateurish spontaneity and immediacy. Why indeed should the diaspora be theorized and what does theorization mean in the context of an emerging phenomenon that has barely articulated its conditions of emergence? Isn"t there a real danger that the lived history of the diaspora may well be allegorized all too easily and signified as an "intellectual condition?" In other words, isn"t there a danger that the project of theorization may well turn into an act of intellectual representation in the name of a radical critique of representation as such? For after all, it is difficult to deny the reality that it is precisely because the diaspora seeks to escape representation that it becomes the object of intellectual pleasure. So, back to my question: how does one learn and teach the diaspora?

  10. And here, by way of a response, is yet another anecdote. Just last week I was at John Hancock Hall, Boston, at a packed performance by the South Asian student group(from the University of Pennsylvania) PENN MASALA: an all male a cappella group that makes "fusion music" in direct response to its condition of being ABCD(American Born, Confused Deshi). On the one hand, the event is like a party: spontaneous, joyous and improvisatory, and really not all that much concerned with "expertise" or "critical evaluation." It is a direct and immediate endorsement of the diasporic condition, and therefore, the entire performance feels intimate like a get-together of similarly situated people who "kind of" know what it is all about and therefore have no need to agonize over questions of representation and self-reflexivity. The performance level is basically amateurish(as in non-professional and "for the love of it") and precisely for that reason is able to include the audience effortlessly: no barriers here between the expert and the non-expert, the initiated and the uninitiated, the "pro" and the amateur. And yet, there is something about the self-styling of the group that raises serious questions about what it means to "belong" or "not belong," to be "between" cultures: about the differences between being "ABCD: American Born Confused Deshi), and being a FOB: Fresh off the Boat). The aesthetic of the performance raises these profound issues "symptomatically" without ever wanting to come to grips with them theoretically: i.e., through the rigor of aesthetic form. So, I find myself wondering: on the one hand I am of this group, and yet, I am not, by virtue of my obsessively intellectual orientation. Is this but an expression of "the generation gap": a phenomenon made even more complex by the diaspora? Is there a divide between a "youth culture" way of expressing the diaspora and a more conservative academic mode of theorizing the diaspora? What can one expect of performances like these? Should the audience come out feeling good, having connected in solidarity: or should the audience have the right to "rate" the performance based on its level of expertise and mastery of "the fusion form?" Is it possible to do both from a position of critical solidarity?

  11. "How" does the diaspora "know" and "what" does it "know?" Moreover, what is the relationship between the "how to know" and "what to know?" Are these two terms mutually constitutive? What is exciting about epistemology in the diaspora is a certain freedom and a certain transgressive normlessness. The "content" of what is to be known does not exist as an a priori form of knowledge or as an "imperative of primacy" that commands and directs the processes of discovery. The answer, for example, to the confusion of the ABCD or the naivete of the FOB is not a ready made teleology, not a canonical representation either of the culture of origin or of the culture of the present location. It is only on the basis of a candid avowal of a constitutive de-territorialization that the diasporic subject can raise the question of re-territorialization in its new habitat. To put it in overtly philosophical terms, the modality open to diasporic subjectivity is that of the immanent critique: prey neither to the seductions of transcendence nor to the blissful quietism of contemporaneity as status quo. And as immanence would have it, the critique has to realize its position as neither "within" nor "without," and validate its knowledge or erudition as a form of hyphenated consciousness or problematized belonging. And as critique would have it, adjudications and evaluations have to be made on the basis of contingent "values" and "criteria. In other words, diasporic hybridity or fusion is not a carte blanche: for after all, there are hybridities and hybridities, fusions and fusions, some banal and semantically poor, and others erudite and semantically rich. And indeed, the immanent critique has to generate criteria for acts of aesthetic and ethico-political evaluation.

  12. It has become customary to say that different generations, and particularly so in the context of generations in the diaspora, operate from their respective "starting points," as though "starting points" were axiomatic in their historical transparency. What indeed is a "starting point," and when does a life "start?" Surely, "starting point" cannot mean something as fatuous as "the day I was born." In this seminar, I would like to study(with a lot of help from friends and colleagues and students), by way of a careful analysis of texts: literary, theoretical, visual and filmic, the aesthetic and cultural politics of "starting points." How are they inaugurated mnemonically and counter-mnemonically? How is the "history of the present" both honored and read diagnostically with reference to chosen memories and carefully selected "amnesias?" From within the legitimacy of the "starting point" how is historiography constructed as an aesthetic of self-styling: both individual and communal? How does the ethic of such self-styling operate dialectically and differentially between the "I-experience" and the "We-experience?" When is a starting point adequate and stable and when is it a necessary and inevitable invitation to an infinite regress that deconstructs the formal opposition between "anteriority" and "post-ality?" I hope these questions, raised in the context of the diaspora, will constitute an ongoing prolegomena of diasporic "becoming."


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