Hybridity and Diaspora

Big non-debate yesterday with our visitors, so I am posting the beginnings of a chapter just out to show I was not just warbling on (yet again):


It is by now established that authors writing on diaspora very often engage with the mixed notion of hybridity. We will see that this term also offers much for debate, and that this debate in turn offers material that elaborates, and may further complicate, the cultures and politics of diaspora. This [excerpt from a] chapter (from the book Diaspora and Hybridity] explores this uneven terrain and presents a kind of topographical survey of the uses and misuses of hybridity, and its synonyms.

In its most recent descriptive and realist usage, hybridity appears as a convenient category at ‘the edge’ or contact point of diaspora, describing cultural mixture where the diasporized meets the host in the scene of migration. Nikos Papastergiadis makes this link at the start of his book, The Turbulence of Migration: Globalization, Deterritorialization and Hybridity, where he mentions the ‘twin processes of globalization and migration’ (Papastergiadis 2000:3). He outlines a development which moves from the assimilation and integration of migrants into the host society of the nation state towards something more complex in the metropolitan societies of today. Speaking primarily of Europe, the Americas and Australia, Papastergiadis argues that as some members of migrant communities came to prominence ‘within the cultural and political circles of the dominant society’ they ‘began to argue in favour of new models of representing the process of cultural interaction, and to demonstrate the negative consequences of insisting upon the denial of the emergent forms of cultural identity’ (Papastergiadis 2000:3). Hybridity has been a key part of this new modelling, and so it is logically entwined within the coordinates of migrant identity and difference, same or not same, host and guest.

The career of the term hybridity as a new cultural politics in the context of diaspora should be examined carefully. The cultural here points to the claim that hybridity has been rescued – or has it? – from a convoluted past to do duty for an articulation of rights and assertions of autonomy against the force of essential identities. The hybrid is a usefully slippery category, purposefully contested and deployed to claim change. With such loose boundaries, it is curious that the term can be so productive: from its origins in biology and botany, its interlude as syncretism, to its reclamation in work on diaspora by authors as different as Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Iain Chambers, Homi Bhabha, and James Clifford. It is in the dialogue between these works especially that hybridity has come to mean all sorts of things to do with mixing and combination in the moment of cultural exchange. Gilroy, for example, finds it helpful in the field of cultural production, where he notes that ‘the musical components of hip hop are a hybrid form nurtured by the social relations of the South Bronx where Jamaican sound system culture was transplanted during the 1970s’ (Gilroy 1993a: 33). Hall, as we will see in more detail presently, suggests hybridity is transforming British life (Hall 1995:18), while Chambers finds talk of tradition displaced by ‘traffic’ in the ‘sights, sounds and languages of hybridity’ (Chambers 1994:82). As we have previously noted, Bhabha uses hybridity as an ‘in-between’ term, referring to a ‘third space’, and to ambivalence and mimicry especially in the context of what might, uneasily, be called the colonial cultural interface (more on this in the next chapter). Clifford uses the word to describe ‘a discourse that is travelling or hybridising in new global conditions’ and he stresses ‘travel trajectories’ and ‘flow’ (Clifford 1994:304-6, italics in this paragraph are our emphasis). Worrying that assertions of identity and difference are celebrated too quickly as resistance, in either the nostalgic form of ‘traditional survivals’ or mixed in a ‘new world of hybrid forms’ (Clifford 2000:103), he sets up an opposition (tradition/hybrid) that will become central to our critique of the terms.

There is much more that hybridity seems to contain: ‘A quick glance at the history of hybridity reveals a bizarre array of ideas’ (Papastergiadis 2000:169). In addition to the general positions set out above; hybridity is an evocative term for the formation of identity; it is used to describe innovations of language (creole, patois, pidgin, travellers’ argot et cetera); it is code for creativity and for translation. In Bhabha’s terms ‘hybridity is camouflage’ (Bhabha 1994:193) and, provocatively he offers ‘hybridity as heresy’ (Bhabha 1994:226), as a disruptive and productive category. It is ‘how newness enters the world’ (Bhabha 1994:227) and it is bound up with a ‘process of translating and transvaluing cultural differences’ (Bhabha 1994:252). For others, hybridity is the key organizing feature of the Cyborg, the wo-man/machine interface (Haraway 1997). It invokes mixed technological innovations, multiple trackings of influence, and is acclaimed as the origin of creative expression in culture industry production. With relation to diaspora, the most conventional accounts assert hybridity as the process of cultural mixing where the diasporic arrivals adopt aspects of the host culture and rework, reform and reconfigure this in production of a new hybrid culture or ‘hybrid identities’ (Chambers 1996:50). Whether talk of such identities is coherent or not, hybridity is better conceived of as a process rather than a description. Kobena Mercer writes of ‘the hybridized terrain of diasporic culture’ (Mercer 1994:254) and of how even the older terminologies of syncretism and mixture evoke the movement of ‘hybridization’ rather than stress fixed identity. Finally, a turn of the millennium volume Hybridity and its Discontents is able to describe hybridity as: ‘a term for a wide range of social and cultural phenomenon involving “mixing”, [it] has become a key concept within cultural criticism and post-colonial theory’ (Brah and Coombs 2000: cover).

Hybridity and the Anterior Pure

The idea of borrowing is sometimes taken to imply a weakening of a supposedly, once pure culture. It is this myth of purity that belongs to the essentialist nationalisms and chauvinisms that are arraigned against the hybrid, diasporic and the migrant. It is to combat this rationale that so many writers insist that affirmations of hybridity are useful in the arena of cultural politics. Such affirmations are proclaimed precisely because of varieties of cultural borrowing that are thereby entertained undermine the case of a pure culture. These claims may be more important than the philosophical incoherence of the terms, but this incoherence has to be considered. A key question would be: to what degree does the assertion of hybridity rely on the positing of an anterior ‘pure’ that precedes mixture? Even as a process in translation or in formation, the idea of ‘hybrid identities’ (Chambers 1996:50), relies upon the proposition of non-hybridity or some kind of normative insurance. This problem is taken up again in the next chapter, but our interest here is the specific manner in which notions of purity are related to the biological antecedents of hybridity. Hybridity theorists have had to grapple with this problem and have done so with a revealing degree of agitation. Gilroy for example has moved away from an allegiance to hybridity and declared:

‘Who the fuck wants purity? … the idea of hybridity, of intermixture, presupposes two anterior purities … I think there isn’t any purity; there isn’t any anterior purity … that’s why I try not to use the word hybrid … Cultural production is not like mixing cocktails’ (Gilroy 1994:54-5).

The latitudes of sexuality fester in the earthy connotations of this quote as Gilroy knowingly references the less reputable anxieties at stake. It was probably work like that of Robert Young’s Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (1995) which provoked the outburst. Numerous scholars have examined the botanical and biological parameters of hybridity, but the matter is perhaps best exemplified in Young’s historical investigation which traced the provenance of the term hybridity in the racialized discourse of nineteenth century evolutionism. The Latin roots of the word are revealed as referring to the progeny of a tame sow and a wild boar (Young 1995:6). Is this old usage relevant to the diversity of cultural hybridities claimed today? In the sciences of agriculture and horticulture, hybridity is used with little alarm: the best known hybrid being the mule, a mixture of a horse and donkey, though significantly this is a sterile or non-productive mix. In the world of plants, hybrid combinations are productively made by grafting one plant or fruit to another. Although in this field such graftings may seem legitimate, only a mildly imprudent jump is needed to move from notions of horticulture and biology to discussions of human ‘races’ as distinct species that, upon mixing, produce hybrids.

Both Gilroy and Hall have made efforts to distinguish their use of hybridity from its dubious biological precedents. Gilroy clearly recognises the problem of purity when he laments ‘the lack of a means of adequately describing, let alone theorizing, intermixture, fusion and syncretism without suggesting the existence of anterior “uncontaminated” purities’ (Gilroy 2000:250). He is correct that the descriptive use of hybridity evokes, counterfactually, a stable and prior non-mixed position, to which ‘presumably it might one day be possible to return’ (Gilroy 2000:250). Who wants to return is a good question. But equally, can a focussing and tightening of descriptive terminology, or the even further off ‘theorizing’, be adequate to the redress that is required? Does it disentangle the range of sexual, cultural and economic anxieties race mixture provokes? Gilroy continues, this time with the arguments of Young firmly in his sights:

‘Whether the process of mixture is presented as fatal or redemptive, we must be prepared to give up the illusion that cultural and ethnic purity has ever existed, let alone provided a foundation for civil society. The absence of an adequate conceptual and critical language is undermined and complicated by the absurd charge that attempts to employ the concept of hybridity are completely undone by the active residues of that term’s articulation within the technical vocabularies of nineteenth-century racial science’ (Gilroy 2000:250-1)

Check the book here. And a longer version of the above on the Translate Site here. A different story about the trajectory of the concept through Ranajit Guha, via Mao, to Homi Bhabha is in Bad Marxism.

The Mao (dew) picture of the crapo soft drink – very topical – is courtesy of *bri, and pointedly in tribute to the comrades visiting CCS yesterday. Red Salute to all hybrid types….


2 thoughts on “Hybridity and Diaspora

  1. Opinion
    By Ronald Elly Wanda
    The contestation of multiculturalism in Britain is not as new as “multiculturalists” would have us believe, in actual fact, it has always been around. Nonetheless, politicians in their attempt to please “middle England” (an imaginary social constituency) tend to amplify it by mistakenly concocting it (as if indistinguishable) with immigration and asylum-se eking. As for political and social observers (including right wing media houses), they tend to deny its relevance by simply diminishing it to a “conceptual” exercise. Calculatedly, they collectively seem to forget that Britain has always been a country involved in migration, although in recent centuries emigration has been far more important than immigration. Indeed a fresh report by University College London (UCL) titled “Migration Matters” revealed that in 2003 alone there were 191,000 Britons who emigrated from Britain whilst the number of those who returned from Abroad was only 106,000. The report which came out in May 2005 explicated that in spring of 2004, just before European Union (EU) enlargement there were 2.857m foreign nationals living in the UK, 4.9 percent of the total population. Forty three percent of them were European, of which 79 percent were from European Economic Area, within which citizens have the right to move freely between countries and take up work. Around quarter were Asian, 17 percent African and 10 percent were from the United States. Women were more than men (53 percent) the report said. Researchers John Salt and James Clarke who wrote the report moreover noted that: “UK has a modest size of foreign population when compared to countries such as Austria, German and Spain, but it is second to Germany in numbers of those emigrating”. According to the report, there were more people who left Britain than those who came in during the 19th and 20th centuries. Even at the present moment, the Home Office itself admits (though reluctantly) that net flow of immigrants and asylum seekers to the UK has been on a downward trend for years. So why then, as well one might wonder does the African community still incur the continuous victimisation under the pretentious label of multiculturalism.

    For registered Africans dwelling in the UK (these days baselessly and pompously labelled [BBA] Black British Africans by Home Office’s statisticians) in sub-zero London, If asked, as well one might, why multiculturalism matters, and why Africans matter in particular, I think one would have to shallowly reply: were it not for them would the debate subsist today? I mean does Wanda fit in Wimbledon, Kinuthia in Kensington or how about Nagudi in North Yorkshire? On the face of it this may seem an odd ponder, but for me this ought to be the “real” contestation of multiculturalism. Unencrypted, multiculturalism means a mutual cultural respect for all communities in a given locality- this, however, has never been the case for the African community in Britain. This is because it is often supposed that the African community in Britain came here after the period following the Second World War. This is not true. There is indeed strong evidence that suggests that before the European colonial encounter in the 15th century, there was an African presence in Britain as far back as the 9th century, some historians have even traced black presence here much earlier than that.
    One obscurity about the multicultural bandwagon is that it consciously fails to acknowledge this historical fact and subsequently denies Africa’s and Africans input in British society. Globalization (the interconnectedness of the world; the flow of ideas, criminal activities, goods, images, weapons and a world wide flow of capitals and so forth) now being a poignant reality means that almost every cultural community exists in the midst of others and is resultantly inescapably influenced by them. As such, in 2006 it is almost impossible to think of a culture except perhaps for the most primitive and isolated that is not influenced by others. Perceptively, I concur with the Labour peer Professor Bhikhu Parekh in his respected testimony The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (commissioned by the government) when he termed United Kingdom a “community of communities”. The disposition, however, is made stickier because cultural as well as the political and security establishments are culturally drunk with imperialism in still naively subscribing to the mythical notion that Britain is still a homogeneous society (if at all it ever was).
    In this connection, it is just to pronounce cultural imperialism, deep rooted in British political and cultural veins, as one of the obstacles that is hindering equal cultural respect by suffocating recognition of Africa and Africans countless contributions to British society. As far as the African community is concerned, the UK government (regardless of its political ideological manifestation or disguise) as well as politicians, neo-fascist political organisations, the mass media, employers, institutions representing the labour movement and sections of the British working class have all acted upon and articulated racist beliefs, and by doing so they have identified africans and collectively the (BME) Black Minority Ethnic groups as an excluded lot and as such crucified them enduringly on the periphery of society.
    Nowadays the registered African specie armed with his British citizenship (virtue of birth or naturalisation) find himself with legal rights and responsibilities to the state, yet he remains culturally an alien to society and the country regardless of his nationality status. For most young Africans born or brought up in the diaspora (or to solicit the trendy Home Office lingo: black British Africans) the notion of culture has to a degree been problematic, because they find themselves caught up between two cultures- the static and unyielding parental culture (whereas when we were growing up, receiving the occasional smack for displaying anti-African behaviours was perfectly customary) and the dubious freedoms of Britishness (where almost everything is seen through legal lens. For instance, at school and the outside world what we at home understood for generations as our parents rights to discipline us was rearticulated to us as either child abuse or domestic violence. No other categorization was given) – leading to cultural conflict and not (as many would rather we say) an identity crisis. We have, however, been caught up in a double blind-damned for having not enough culture or for having too much. On the contrary, when visiting my ancestral homes in East Africa, as often I do, natives are often astonished by my cultural simplicity, especially given that I am inexorably subjected to hybridism – proudly embedding chunky parts of africaness as well as inevitable elements of britishness. paradoxically, it is almost impossible to tell apart the local youth culture from that of London, New York, Paris or Berlin. In the past few years, whilst on visits to several African countries this has always been the reality. Instead of burgeoning culturally through an African vein such as Nairobisation, Durbanisation, Kampalisation, Sowetisation or Dar-Saalamisation the local urban youth culture has at best hurriedly adopted aggressive unmistaken junky American popular culture and at worst seem to have accepted the false hypothesis of westernisation as modernisation by localising the imposition.
    From an African diasporal lens, given such a racially categorised background, it is thus non-toxic to avow that were it not for the wealth violently extracted largely from Africa and a small portion of it from parts of the developing world that were subjected to the phases of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and now globalization (all dedicated to the erosion of human dignity) by Britain alongside her other European partners in crime, Brutish Britain would not have imperially graced herself “Great Britain”. Hence, the impact of migration and immigration has been and continues to be one of unswerving gain to the UK. For instance the Commonwealth (a club that consists of former British colonies headed by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth), in the 1950’s was an important cornerstone of foreign policy in British politics, and its trade and support were of vital importance to Britain’s survival, perhaps more crucial than is the EU to Britain in today’s geopolitics. In the Commonwealth were the considerable economic advantages of colonial immigration that resolved the problem of acute shortage of workers which recruitment from Ireland and southern Europe were unable to remedy at the time. The benefits have not only been of an economic nature, they have also been cultural, spiritual as well as intellectual in nature. The most conservative estimate of the debt that Britain owes to Africa was recently made by Dr Robert Beckford’s documentary “The Empire Pays Back”. The programme intrepidly broadcasted by Channel 4 on the 15th August 2005 approximated Britain’s debt to Africans (in Africa as well as in the diaspora) to be in trillions of pounds.

    Today it is the African physicians and nurses as well as the carers and cleaners input on the National Health Service (NHS) that is keeping Britain’s population alive, healthy and prosperous. The Prime Minister Tony Blair during a speech last year was strained to confess that were it not for them the NHS could have collapsed due to staff shortage and lack or expertise in some areas of the medical profession, where it is estimated that nearly 40 % of all NHS doctors and nurses are from an ethnic minority, of a predominant African and Asian origin. The input is also visible in the arts and sports as well as in the academic world- where it has been approximated that over 50,000 African PHD holders are operational in the western world. The debate on brain drain goes on. Yet again, due to reasons that can only be described as cultural imperialism (another form of domination); one finds that there is a real reluctance in acknowledging African efforts in British society, however tangible they are. Britain’s wealth is dependent on the continuous exploitation of Africans and other “economic immigrants” who provide cheap labour by accepting jobs that white Britons do not want and are inappreciably exploitatively remunerated.
    The African community continues being hammered by racism and prejudice even when it tries to better itself in order to continue contributing evocatively to British society. A recent report by the Racial Equality Council (formerly the Commission of Racial Equality), concluded that there is great under-representation of ethnic minorities across all public sector institutions. In specific, the report noted that “ethnic minority unemployment is around three times that for white people. African graduates find it seven times harder to get a job, in particular, African men with degrees are seven times more likely to be unemployed than white males graduates.”
    In spite of all the negative vices calculatingly calibrated by British institutions to permanently keep the African specie at bay the African community has somehow managed to progress. This is owed to the fact that the African community has had to invent physical as well as psychological instruments to deal with snags it culturally encounters in its daily struggles, when not doing insignificant and low paid jobs, Africans have ventured into self employment; thriftily, all helping towards quantifying the ethnic minority spending power that currently stands at a healthy 40 billion pounds a year!
    Francis Fukuyama in his controversial yet winning 1992 thesis “The End of History and the Last Man” agreeably observed of inequalities due to convention rather than nature, or necessity, that the hardest to eradicate are those arising from culture. His interpretation of the black communities’ exertions of the US bears resemblance (though not exclusively)to the situation facing Africans in the UK. He contended that the obstacles confronting young black persons growing up in Detroit or the South Bronx begins with substandard schools, a problem which could in theory be remedied as a matter of public policy. In a society where status is determined almost entirely by education, such persons, he argued, are likely to be crippled even before they reach school age. Professor Fukuyama argued that lacking a home environment capable of transmitting cultural values needed to take advantage of opportunity, such youngsters will feel the constant pull of the “street” that offers a life more familiar and glamorous than that of middle class America. Fukuyama observed that under such circumstances, achievement of full legal equality for black people in America, and the opportunities provided by the US economy will not make terribly much difference to the lives of such people. 14 years later, Fukuyama’s “endism” analysis is today exemplified by the recent social upheavals in south of Paris by ethnic elements. Africans in Paris as in London faced by poor housing; unemployment, social exclusion, police harassment, politically unrepresented, feel they have nothing to lose by taking to the streets following Nicholas Sawkowsky’s under the weather comments as well as proposing a law that efectively says that anyone under the age of 26 can be fired from a job without a reason. As far as I am concerned, the ongoing Paris suburban revolts are perfectly justified. For a simple reason; when all non-violent, democratic means of achieving a just end are unavailable, exhausted, redundant- what else is there for one to do? When state agencies charged with protecting communities fail to do so or actually attack them, self defence becomes necessary, and as Fredrick Douglas (the black American writer) once fittingly remarked: “where there is no struggle there is no progress”.

    On a conclusive yet semi-positive note, the 2002 Race Relations Amendment Act in Britain, which requires service providers to engage with communities such as ours, has to a degree been helpful to us. But on too many occasions one finds that it is the public sector which decides what the consultations with the African community should be as well as whom the black community representatives are. These have often been sycophants such as Trevor Phillips (chair, Racial Equality Council), David Lammy (Tottenham MP), Dianne Abbott (Hackney MP), Dr John Sentamu (Archbishop and Church of England’s number two in command), to mention but a few, who have little credibility in the grassroots communities, and have no links to the neediest, this has meant that any new resources ends up not reaching those who need it most in our community.

    As such, It is thus in the government as well as British institutions and the public’s interest to rid itself the cultural subordinations of ethnic minorities in this country. If we are to have a constructive debate on multiculturalism, the voices of ethnic minorities needs to be heard and their grievances resolved whilst acknowledging their achievements and contributions in this society. Rather than having western and westernised armchair professors of cultural studies and politics mimicking out what is best for us. For the arguments are simple, making mistakes that upset individuals or groups can be costly. Failing to rectify those mistakes or providing the opportunity for them to be rectified can be disastrous, both in terms of maintaining legitimacy and in terms of efficient delivery of services and programmes to all communities. The multicultural bandwagon ought to be an inclusive circle and not an exclusive one as is the presence; unless this changes I remain irked.

    The writer lives and works in London.


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