Friday, August 13, 2010

Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism

Werbner, Pnina and Tariq Mohood, ed. Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism. London, United Kingdom: Zed Books, 1997.

In Werbner's introduction to Debating Cultural Hybridity, the co-editor of the collection outlines the major conceptual models that the essays therein cover. For starters, she parses out the difference between modern hybridity and postmodern hybridity. The former conceived of hybrid forms as a “transgressive power” that subverts “categorical oppositions,” thus creating “the conditions for cultural reflexivity and change” (1); the latter, on the hand, complicates notions of transgression, in that “cross-cultural” politics and “transversal alliances”engender “the very same sorts of difficulties that generate the contemporary dual forces of hybridity and essentialism in the first place” (3). Likewise, Werbner explicates the distinction between Bakhtin's “organic” and “intentional” hybrid. For Bakhtin, both types of “hybridisation [are] the mixture of two languages, an encounter between two different linguistic consciousnesses” (4). Yet, organic hybridity “is a feature of the historical evolution of all languages” and does “not disrupt the sense of order and continuity” (4-5) within language and culture because such transformation are, or at least are inherent to, language and culture. In contradistinction to the organic, intentional hybrids “create an ironic double consciousness,” in that they are “internally dialogical, fusing the unfusable” and foster “a heteroglossia 'that rages beyond...boundaries'” (5). Addiotnally, Werbner explores the importance of Haraway's cyborg politics, the difference between cosmopolitans and transnationals, and hybridity versus essentialism. The introduction concludes with a brief outline of the “problems with this celebration of hybridity,” one of which is the possibility that its “ephemeral and...contingent” aspects “mask long-term social and political continuities” (21), which tend to create and maintain hegemonic orders. True, “the centre..has its own official forms of...dissent,” but “we have to recognise the differential interests social groups have in sustaining boundaries” (22). To wit, the center's motives, aspirations, and interests in crossing and maintaining boundaries differ, if not in kind, then at least to degree vis-a-vis the periphery's. While most of the essays in the collection provide unique, critical perspectives on the issues presented by the editor, several pieces offer particularly compelling arguments. Johnathan Friedman's “Global Crises, the Struggle for Cultural Identity and Intellectual Porkbarrelling,” for example, argues that “hybrids and hybridisation theorists are products of a group that self-identifies and/or identifies the world in such terms” (81). To attribute the term to those other than the self is a form of objectification, and thus essentializes the other. The most damning critique of the term “hybrid” within Debating Cultural Identity resides in John Hutnyk's essay “Adorno at Womad: South Asian Crossovers and the Limits of Hybridity-Talk.” Through a critical, Adornian analysis of the Peter Gabriel curated “world” music festival, the author demonstrates the manner in which “the multiplication of differences has become repetitive to the point where diversity and difference as commodities seem to offer only more and more of the same” (106). More specifically, “Womad seems to maintain a form of nationalist cultural essentialism that must remain blind to the inconsistencies of its own designations. At the same time crossover articulates as 'world music,' which in white hands often also loses its political edge,” thus promoting “white musical hegemony...through appropriation of non-European rhythms” (111). Moreover, Hutnyk's claims should reorient our understanding of academia and poetry's co-opting of the term “hybrid” in contemporary discourse (i.e. Swenson and St. John's American Hybrid), in that it is “now fashionable and even marketable” (118) to do so. To this extent, the hybrid becomes “conventional” and the “radical critiques” it once provided give way to a nullification of critical thinking (118), entering into “collusion with State policy-making” (119). Hutnyk believes that, to remain “radical,” once must go “beyond hybrid...politics towards a more 'stable' transnational anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and...anti-racist politics” (129). Such a stance is needed because, when “hybridity and diversity...are merely calls for access to the market”, artistic, politcal, and “academic works and the constructs [they] employ are part and parcel of a wider context that includes exploitation, oppression, racism, and cultural chauvinism” (131). The collection closes with “Tracing Hybridity in Theory.” This Nikos Papastergiadis penned essay traces the “incorporation of the concept of hybridity into the mainstream cultural discourse” and presents some of the “new problems” raised in doing so (257). At the forefront of Papastergiadis piece is Spivak's agrument “that the preoccupation with hybridity in academic discourse has tended to gloss persistent social divisions,” opting instead for “more cheerful populist claims” that attempt to erase “white supremacist ideologies” (258) so deeply inscribed within the word. In an effort to combat these historical and conceptual erasures, the author provides an in-depth narrative that describes the origins of the word “hybrid” and the racist/oppressive contexts under which it flourished.

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