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….