"Postcolonial Diasporas"

David Chariandy

We are still struggling to develop adequate terms for the profound socio-cultural dislocations resulting from modern colonialism and nation-building, dislocations epitomized in the histories of indenture, transatlantic slavery, and the expulsion of indigenous peoples from ancestral lands. Of course, in addressing these dislocations, we aspire not to mythologize victimization but, rather, to better appreciate how historically disenfranchised peoples have developed inventive tactics for transforming even the most sinister experiences of dislocation into vibrant and revolutionary forms of political and cultural life. In the past fifteen years, ‘diaspora' has emerged as a highly favoured term among scholars whom we might associate with contemporary postcolonial studies; and while there exists within the nebulous field of postcolonial studies no simple agreement on what diaspora is or does, scholars such as Paul Gilroy, Floya Anthias, Stuart Hall, Carole Boyce Davies, Rey Chow, Smaro Kamboureli, Diana Brydon, and Rinaldo Walcott all seem to share these hopes: that diaspora studies will help foreground the cultural practices of both forcefully exiled and voluntarily migrant peoples; that diaspora studies will help challenge certain calcified assumptions about ethnic, racial, and, above all, national belonging; and that diaspora studies will help forge new links between emergent critical methodologies and contemporary social justice movements.

I share these hopes for what might (in fact very tentatively) be called ‘the postcolonial diasporas.'[1] However, I here want to argue that there remain at least two preliminary tasks which cultural critics of ‘the postcolonial diasporas' must now confront. These tasks are each preliminary in the sense that they require us to postpone close analyses of the many unique representations of ‘diasporic consciousness,' such as lavish performances of the Ramayana in Indo-Caribbean festivals, or horrific depictions of the middle-passage in contemporary African-American visual art. These specific representations demand serious and sustained attention; however, we also need to explore the broader political and epistemological stakes in naming such representations ‘diasporic.' As such, the first task addressed here is to recognize that ‘the postcolonial diasporas' have at times been conceptualized in a sharply antagonistic relationship with ‘the nation,' an antagonistic relationship which was once helpful to assert, but now threatens to limit how we assess the broader political implications of the emergence of diasporic theory in a paradoxically ‘global' era. The second task addressed here is to recognize the robust cultural and intellectual legacies which have historically consolidated themselves around the term diaspora, legacies which are genuinely inspiring but simultaneously threaten to undercut or obscure the specific agendas of ‘the postcolonial diasporas.' In general, I want to suggest that ‘the postcolonial diasporas' might best be understood not as self-evident socio-cultural phenomena, but as ‘figures' which may help us to better read and animate the cultural politics of specific racialized collectivities within the modern West.

The Politics of Diaspora

One way of introducing the postcolonial diasporas is to accept, if only momentarily, the relatively common claim that ‘postcolonialism,' though a profoundly heterogeneous body of debate, nevertheless exhibits an original investment in ‘the nation' as the ground or master trope of resistance, a claim that might find complicated backing from such different texts as The Wretched of the Earth, Imagined Communities, and The Empire Writes Back.[2] The appearance of ‘the postcolonial diasporas' would then mark a (not-so?) new disenchantment with nation-based articulations of postcolonialism, a disenchantment which we might ascribe to at least three discursive factors. The first of these factors is a renewed awareness, born largely of the vital interventions of Feminist, Marxist, and Queer post-colonialisms, of the patriarchal, classist, ethnocentric and homophobic aspects of many ‘Third World' or ‘ethnic' articulations of nationhood. The second factor is the profound impact of First World ‘ethnic studies' commentary in the establishment of postcolonial studies, commentary which often reflects both spatial and psychic ‘distance' from ‘Third World' nationalisms, as well as a strong impulse to critique ‘First World' nationalisms. The third factor is the emergence of either the reality or the discourse of globalization, in which nation states are (or else presumed to be) fatally eroded by the circulations of global capital and the rise of new communications technology.[3] Already, this inventory presents certain logical slippages and inconsistencies — for instance, is the nation now a dangerous category to be challenged, or a defunct category to be ignored? Nevertheless, we may provisionally assume that what remains fundamental to articulations of ‘the postcolonial diasporas' is an impulse to worry the nation.

This impulse is clearly evident in Paul Gilroy's work, perhaps one of the most influential sources of postcolonial diasporic discourse. Gilroy's work is often notoriously complex and not easily reduced to brief summaries; but most relevant here is his book The Black Atlantic and its many polemical statements on the "fatal junction of the concept of nationality with the concept of culture" (2) which, Gilroy believes, leads directly to "the tragic popularity of ideas about the integrity and purity of cultures" (7). Gilroy's argument is that cultural nationalisms of all sorts too easily devolve into fascism or "ethnic absolutism;" and, in contrast, cultural diasporas, such as ‘The Black Atlantic,' inspire us to recognize cultural hybridity and endorse social plurality and inclusiveness. What is also significant about The Black Atlantic is that its turn to ‘diaspora' as that which might inspire better cultural politics is, simultaneously, a turn to ‘race,' or at least a specially strategic understanding of racialized culture. In his latest book, indicatively titled Against Race, Gilroy appears to question the benefits of even such strategic or ‘anti-essentialist' turns to race; yet his faith in diaspora as an agent of global justice is apparently unwavering. Gilroy claims that the idea of diaspora "offers a ready alternative to the stern discipline of primordial kinship and rooted belonging..." (Against 123), that it "is a useful means to reassess the idea of essential and absolute identity precisely because it is incompatible with that type of nationalist and raciological thinking" (Against 125), and that it "provides conceptual "distance" from "the disabling assumptions of automatic solidarity based on either blood or land" (Against 133).

Current critical articulators of the postcolonial diasporas have benefited immeasurably from Gilroy's work; and we must, in addition, recognize that Gilroy's work often seems consciously polemical and normative on the topics of nation and diaspora respectively. Nevertheless, even with this in mind, Gilroy's generalizations could be accused of being somewhat uncritical. There remains the simple fact that certain ‘Third World,' ‘Black,' and ‘ethnic' nationalisms have been crucial not only for past decolonization efforts, but also for the ongoing anti-Imperialist politics of our current era, including the founding of the very ethnic studies, postcolonial, and ‘Black' academic programs within which Gilroy's work is now frequently taught and disseminated. There is also the fact, recently illustrated by Imre Szeman, that discussions of ‘national culture' in postcolonial contexts accomplish vital epistemological work in relating culture production to political activism — work with ramifications far exceeding ‘the nation' as a specific socio-political category. Moreover, although Gilroy seems (again, perhaps polemically) to pit nation against diaspora, it is, in fact, not altogether clear that these two terms are necessarily oppositional, or at times easily distinguishable. For instance, the first issue of the groundbreaking journal Diaspora announces that "Diaspora is concerned with the ways in which nations, real yet imagined communities (Anderson), are fabulated, brought into being, made and unmade, in culture and politics, both on land people call their own and in exile" (3); and the editor, Khachig Tölölyan goes on to argue that "transnational communities are sometimes the paradigmatic Other of the nation-state and at other times its ally, lobby, or even, as in the case of Israel, its precursor" (5). A final point, need we mention it, is this: just as there is no guarantee that nations are inclined towards fascism, there is also no guarantee that diasporas are socially pluralist, devoid of ‘ethnic absolutism,' and brimming with postcolonial liberation. Here, we might remember Robin Cohen's provocative description of Imperial Britain as a diaspora (see Global Diasporas); and we might just as well remember the work of many self-consciously diasporic individuals (Hindu, Sikh, and Jewish, to name a few) in absolutist aggression based precisely on the rhetoric of sacred homeland and racial purity that Gilroy would, rather wishfully, like to associate only with nationalisms.[4]

Gilroy's polemically celebratory descriptions of diaspora find an important counterpoint in the work of Rey Chow, another profoundly influential source of contemporary diasporic discourse. In a chapter from Writing Diaspora entitled "Against the Lures of Diaspora," Chow argues that Chinese diasporic intellectuals living within the West can often fall into the role of being cultural "brokers" (164) who claim to represent ‘Chinese' concerns, but in fact primarily seek to maintain institutional and geo-political privilege over their ‘Third World' counterparts:

The space of the ‘third world' intellectuals in diaspora is a space that is removed from the ‘ground' of earlier struggles that were still tied to the ‘native land.' Physical alienation, however, can mean precisely the intensification and aestheticization of the values of ‘minority' positions that had developed in the earlier struggles and that have now, in ‘third world' intellectuals' actual circumstances in the West, become defunct. The unselfreflexive sponsorship of ‘third world' culture, including ‘third world' women's culture, becomes a mask that conceals the hegemony of these intellectuals over those who are stuck at home.... Hence the necessity to read and write against the lures of diaspora: any attempt to deal with ‘women' or the ‘oppressed classes' in the ‘third world' that does not at the same time come to terms with the historical conditions of its own articulation is bound to repeat the exploitativeness that used to and still characterizes most ‘exchanges' between ‘West' and ‘East." (180)

Aijaz Ahmad and Arif Dirlik have made comparable claims about postcolonialism, suggesting that the field's ideological biases reflect the privileged status and professional aspirations of wealthy ‘Third World' migrants.[5] At times, these comments seem unduly cynical, and run the risk of too hastily dismissing emergent fields of inquiry and accidentally lending credibility to reactionary ‘neo-conservative' institutional agendas. Nevertheless, such comments force us to consider if the recent ubiquity of the term diaspora within postcolonial studies suggests not only a breakthrough in cultural politics and social justice, but, rather, the final stage in the ascendancy of migrant, ‘cosmopolitan,' and first-world metropolitan biases in representations of ‘the post-colonial experience.'

Further objections to uncritical representations of the postcolonial diasporas as exclusively ‘anti-nationalist,' and thereby specially ‘resistant' or ‘radical,' can be found when we invoke the sometimes extraordinarily helpful, sometimes vague and hubristic, discourse of ‘globalization.' References to globalization are ubiquitous in many recent theorizations of diaspora. For instance, the editors of a recent anthology entitled Theorizing Diaspora, make the argument that diasporas provide alternatives not only to nation states but also to globalization understood as homogenizing of difference. This is an attractive and to some degree an intuitive idea; but it is complicated, and perhaps undercut completely, when the mentioned editors later cite a passage by Arjun Appadurai which argues that "[i]n the postnational world that we see emerging, diaspora runs with, and not against, the grain of identity, movement and reproduction" (Theorizing 14). Indeed, we might well ask ourselves if there is more than mere coincidence that the flourishing of diasporic theory comes in an era of free trade and globalization, an era where the virtues of fluid and border-crossing identities are endorsed not only by radical scholars, but, sometimes, ever more earnestly, by the powers-that-be.

Hardt and Negri's (in)famous book Empire thus speaks to some of the challenges faced by advocates of the postcolonial diasporas. Hardt and Negri do not really address contemporary diasporic theory to any real extent; but they do comment scathingly about postmodern and postcolonial intellectuals who, like many contemporary diasporic theorists, presume to challenge Western Imperial power by celebrating anti-essentialist, hybrid, mobile conceptions of ethnic subjectivity. Too late, argue Hardt and Negri. Such anti-essentialist projects have reached a "dead end:"

the postmodernist and postcolonialist theorists who advocate a politics of difference, fluidity, hybridity in order to challenge the binaries and essentialisms of modern sovereignty have been outflanked by the strategies of power. Power has evacuated the [territorially bounded, ethnic absolutist, etc.] bastion they are attacking and has circled around to the rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference. These theorists find themselves pushing against open doors.... This new enemy is not only resistant to the old [anti-essentialist] weapons but actually thrives on them, and thus joins its would-be antagonists in applying them to the fullest. Long live difference! Down with essentialist binaries!" (138)

In a somewhat amusing effort to be diplomatic, Hardt and Negri invoke but ultimately draw back from the idea that postcolonial and postmodern intellectuals are straightforward "lackeys of global capital and the world market" (138); nevertheless, Hardt and Negri do conclude by arguing that postmodern and postcolonial theory (diasporic theory too?) are not enemies but "effects" of Empire (138).

This is not really the place to suggest what is weak in Hardt and Negri's otherwise remarkable manifesto. However, a few points need to be made. Empire too casually conflates postmodern and postcolonial projects, not to mention the many simply irreconcilable projects that can be found within each profoundly heterogeneous ‘field' (see, for instance, Hutcheon, Mukherjee). Empire also works on the presumption that the old fashioned ‘Imperialism' of the past, ruled by straightforward military coercion and the fierce assertion of racial and national borders, has been ‘sublated' by the Empire of the present, which now works through (cynical) endorsements of ‘consent,' ‘human rights,' and cultural difference; yet this very presumption would seem rather dubious from the perspective of certain diasporic peoples now living within a post 9/11 world, and now confronted with the suspension of basic human rights, as well as the resurgence, often in the guise of homeland security provisions, of old-fashioned racial essentialisms and absolutist nationalisms. For some diasporic peoples, the doors to even cynical endorsements of plurality and heterogeneity are not effortlessly swinging open, but remain tightly locked. Admittedly, Hardt and Negri's pronouncements about the emerging Empire (like Gilroy's about nationalism) seem more polemical than genuinely analytic. Nevertheless, no contemporary critic can afford to ignore the possibility that, in the global era they map out, an uncomfortable collusion might emerge between proponents of Empire and proponents of what we here call the postcolonial diasporas.

All of this is to suggest that we cannot afford to conceptualize the postcolonial diasporas in any simple (oppositional?) relationship either to ‘the nation' or to ‘globalization.' James Clifford makes this point splendidly in his survey of contemporary invocations of diaspora. At the beginning of his essay, he argues that "contemporary diasporic practices cannot be reduced to epiphenomena of the nation-state or of global capitalism. While defined and constrained by these structures, they also exceed and criticize them: old and new diasporas offer resources for emergent postcolonialisms" (244). Clifford elaborates upon this near the end of his essay:

in diaspora discourses..., both loss and survival are prefigurative. Of what? We lack a description and are reduced to a merely reactive, stopgap language of ‘posts.' The term ‘postcolonial'... makes sense only in an emergent, or utopian, context. There are no postcolonial cultures or places: only moments, tactics, discourses. ‘Post-' is always shadowed by ‘neo-.' Yet ‘postcolonial' does describe real, if incomplete, ruptures with past structures of domination, sites of current struggle and imagined futures.... Viewed in this perspective, the diaspora discourse and history currently in the air would be about recovering non-Western, or not-only-Western, models for cosmopolitan life, nonaligned transnationalities struggling within and against nation-states, global technologies, and markets - resources for a fraught coexistence. (277)

Here, the postcolonial diasporas are not viewed as straightforward reactions to ‘Western' political formations, but as "moments, tactics, discourses," as the confluence of recovered models, political realities, and "imagined futures," as an agile and complex cultural politics. Critics of the postcolonial diasporas must follow suit with adequate critical methodologies.

The Legacies of Diaspora

In order to accomplish this aforementioned goal of developing adequate critical methodologies for work on ‘the postcolonial diasporas,' we need to appreciate better the meanings, effects, and epistemologies that have historically consolidated themselves around the term diaspora, and have thereby affected the ways in which the postcolonial diasporas have initially been conceptualized. Of crucial importance here is the uniquely robust and compelling articulation of ‘diaspora' in Jewish thought, whereby ‘Diaspora' (capital ‘D') names specific histories of Jewish exile, and is most of the time associated with experiences of traumatic displacement and suffering tightly bound to the companion term ‘Galut.' Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the influence of Jewish thought upon many other peoples who have later come to understand themselves as traumatically displaced diasporas. New World Blacks and especially Rastafarians have readily appropriated the language of the Hebrew Bible in order to represent their own mournful dislocation;[6] and many of the leading ‘postcolonial' theorists of diaspora today, notably Paul Gilroy, have repeatedly stated how influential Jewish thought has been upon their work.[7] Nevertheless, the appropriation of the traditionally Jewish term diaspora into postcolonial discourse is not without controversy. For certain scholars such as Safran and Tölölyan (analyzed below), there exists a meaningful difference between the traditionally sinister and sorrowful understanding of diaspora in Jewish thought, and an emergent ‘postcolonial' understand of diaspora which seems to overly idealize or even celebrate experiences of dislocation or displacement in order to advance postmodern theories of identity.

Articulators of the postcolonial diasporas need to be sensitive to the origins of diasporic thought in Jewish histories and commentary, not only because difficult questions of cultural appropriation lurk here and need to be confronted, but also because, as Gilroy points out, so much stands to be gained from a deeper rapport between ethnic, postcolonial, and Jewish studies (see, for example, the profoundly suggestive ‘bridging' work of Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin).[8] At the very same time, by privileging one particular historical conception of diaspora we threaten to directly or indirectly make all other conceptualizations of diaspora derivative or secondary, or illegitimate. As James Clifford argues "[w]e should be able to recognize the strong entailment of Jewish history on the language of diaspora without making that history a definitive model" (249). Clifford is in part responding to an otherwise very helpful survey of diaspora provided by William Safran in the inaugural issue of the journal Diaspora. In this survey, Safran begins by arguing that, for many years, there was a "very specific meaning" to diaspora (Safran 1), predicated on the experiences of violent exile associated with Jews. Safran compares this traditional meaning of diaspora to the broader one that has emerged today: "Today, ‘diaspora' and, more specifically, ‘diaspora community' seem increasingly to be used as metaphoric designations for several categories of people - expatriates, expellees, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants, and ethnic and racial minorities tout court" (1). This new "metaphoric designation" of diaspora worries Safran; and his response, lest "the term lose all meaning" (1), is to assemble a revised list of features that make up a diaspora, and to name groups that might have a claim on this term. Yet, although Safran mentions "Armenian, Maghrebi, Turkish, Palestinian, Cuban, Greek, and perhaps Chinese" groups, he ultimately claims that "none of them fully conforms to the ‘ideal type' of the Jewish Diaspora" (2).

Comparable anxieties about both the shifting meaning and application of diaspora appear in another helpful overview of the term by Khachig Tölölyan. Tölölyan's essay is profoundly different from Safran's in intentions, scope, and conclusions, but it too seems to assume that diaspora once had a self-evident ‘Jewish centered' meaning, and that, in recent years, diaspora is "in danger of becoming a promiscuously capacious category" (8). Like Safran, Tölölyan represents the shifting meanings of diaspora as cause for concern; but what is most interesting and significant about Tölölyan's essay is that Tölölyan helpfully personalizes his anxiety over diaspora's new meanings. He describes giving a lecture on Jewish and Armenian diasporas, and, more specifically, on the related concepts of Galut and Gaghut in the respective cultures. He then describes how he received a puzzled reaction from "[a]n associate professor" who liked his paper, but expressed astonishment that the term ‘diaspora' was in fact used by Jews and Armenians; apparently, the responding professor believed the term's "appropriate use to be reserved for postcolonial minorities of colour in Caucasian dominated countries" (10). As a longtime Armenian diasporic activist, Tölölyan describes his very understandable concern for such "amnesia" about diaspora's earlier meanings and contexts, and mentions, in an apparently jocular mood, the increased casualness of scholars in invoking such ideas as "the Californian diaspora in Seattle" (10).

We must recognize that Tölölyan seems less interested than Safran in preserving an ‘ideal type' of diaspora associated with specifically Jewish and perhaps Armenian experiences of traumatic dislocation. Tölölyan clearly states this: "I am not advocating an effort to return to an older definition of diaspora" (29). However, he does end up subscribing to the same tendency, previously observed in Safran's work, of ascribing a ‘literal' (and presumably coherent) meaning of diaspora to the Jewish experience, and subsequently ‘metaphoric' (and presumably vague and worrying) meaning of diaspora to ethnic and racial minorities ‘tout court.' This tendency appears in the "Coda" to his paper, entitled "Diaspora, the Figure of our Discontent." Here, Tölölyan tries to praise recent postcolonial invocations of diaspora. In a footnote, he claims that "Certainly much of the best work appearing in Diaspora emanates from a postcolonial perspective." (footnote 34). And in the body of his Coda, he states this:

This essay has not celebrated the vital body of work that constitutes the humanist intervention in the discourse of diasporas over the last three decades; that intervention - to which novelists and critics of postcolonial diasporas, as well as of diasporic and transnational cultural productions have contributed a very great deal - is both the single most indispensable factor in the discursive and scholarly transformation of dispersion into diaspora, and the best-known to at least half the readers of Diaspora. This indispensable humanist intervention has used the figure of diaspora to investigate structures of identity and subjectivity. (28)

While Tölölyan appears to praise "humanist" articulators of "the postcolonial diasporas" for using "the figure of diaspora," this praise is tempered, and likely undercut completely, by his rather odd statement that "Like them [novelists and critics of postcolonial diasporas?], diasporic theorists have been able to talk about identity in texts and subjects with barely a gesture at the structures of diasporic polity and collective being, within which such subjects are embedded" (28). It would appear that while "novelists and critics" of the postcolonial diasporas have profoundly transformed diasporic studies, their recourse to "the figure of diaspora" (inevitable, since they cannot claim to be literal diasporas?) has compromised their ability to appreciate the "real" socio-political bases of diasporic existence.

This same subtle denigration of cultural invocations of the postcolonial diasporas inflects what is to date quite likely the most important book-length comparative survey of diasporas: Global Diasporas by Robin Cohen. In this book, Cohen departs significantly from both Safran and Tölölyan in asserting from the beginning a decidedly pluralist notion of diaspora. For Cohen, there is no longer any one ‘ideal' diaspora bound to any particular cultural group or experience of dislocation; there is, instead, many different ‘types' of diaspora, distinguished by the experiences or ambitions that create them, such as ‘Victim' diasporas, ‘Labour' diasporas, ‘Trade' diasporas, and even, astonishingly, ‘Imperial' diasporas.[9] Nevertheless, even though Cohen expresses a strong desire not to associate ‘diaspora' with any one experience or agenda, he ultimately seems to exhibit the now familiar awkwardness with the cultural dimensions of the postcolonial diasporas. This appears in his meditations on the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, which he understood as a typical ‘Cultural Diaspora.' In preparing to explore this diaspora, Cohen draws attention to "postmodernists" who map a

constantly changing set of cultural interactions that fundamentally question the very ideas of ‘home' and ‘host'. It is demonstrable, for example, that unidirectional - ‘migration to' or ‘return from' — forms of movement are being replaced by asynchronous, transversal flows that involve visiting, studying, seasonal work, tourism and sojourning, rather than whole-family migration, permanent settlement and the adoptions of exclusive citizenships." (127-8)

Cohen does much, in his words, to "loosen the historical meanings of diaspora once more, this time to encompass the construction of these new identities and subjectivities" (128). But he repeatedly expresses his hesitancy in exploring what he calls "the somewhat labyrinthine trails of postmodern understandings of diaspora" (128). In his introduction he self-deprecatingly announces that he will "swim (perhaps flounder would be more accurate) in the choppy seas of postmodernism..., trying to make sense of the idea of fragmented, postcolonial and ‘hybridized' identities and how these might relate to the case of the Caribbean" (xii). And at the conclusion of his chapter on the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, he admits that, in assessing "whether the Caribbean peoples constitute a ‘new,' ‘postcolonial,' ‘hybrid' diaspora of the type envisaged by novelists and scholars of cultural studies," he had to "examine and assess postmodernist and anthropological literature of which I previously had little knowledge and with which, it has to be confessed, I initially had little sympathy" (151).

Like Tölölyan, Cohen offers some profoundly valuable glimpses of why emergent notions of diaspora may be worrying for certain scholars:

Migration scholars - normally a rather conservative breed of sociologists, historians, demographers and geographers - have recently been bemused to find their subject matter assailed by a bevy of postmodernists, novelists and scholars of cultural studies. A reconstitution of the notion of diaspora has been a central concern of these space invaders. (127)

Cohen seems to distance himself from the disciplinary conservatism of these migration scholars, for he admits that "[s]omewhat to [his] surprise, [he] found the general arguments [of postmodern articulators of diaspora] quite suggestive" (151). Nevertheless, like Tölölyan, Cohen ultimately pays the critics and writers of the postcolonial diasporas a profoundly awkward compliment by refusing to address their work with full seriousness:

... rather than follow the authors I have cited a long and endless roller-coaster of meanings, discourses, representations and narratives, I sought to introduce what I have called ‘reality markers' to the argument. What was the history of settlement in the Caribbean and migration from the area? What were the fates and fortunes of Caribbean peoples in different destination areas ...? (151)

Ultimately, in spite of the "quite suggestive" theories of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, or the literary statements of Caryl Phillips and Samuel Selvon (all of whom Cohen mentions), serious critics would apparently have to assert their own historical, political, and economic "reality markers" in order to transform articulations of the postcolonial diasporas into practical value.

Let me clarify my concerns. Safran, Tölölyan and Cohen all provide invaluable discussions of what a diaspora ‘is.' In doing so, they (and many others such as Vijay Mishra, Lisa Lowe, Brent Edwards, Gayatri Gopinath, James Clifford, etc.) explore with great subtlety a variety of difficult and important questions. Is there an ‘ideal' or ‘original' conceptualization of diaspora? Are racial and ethnic groups automatically diasporas? Can diasporas be created through voluntary migration, rather than traumatic exile? Must a diaspora have an extant homeland culture before dislocation, or can it develop or invent one retrospectively? How does generational difference impact the imagining of a diaspora? Must people in a diaspora long to return home? If so, what type of return is this: physical or symbolic? How is the diasporic condition gendered or sexed? What is the relationship of diaspora to various cognate sociological descriptors such as "immigrant, expatriate, refugee, guest-worker, exile community, overseas community, ethnic community" (Tölölyan 4), or theoretical keywords such as "‘border,' ‘travel,' ‘creolization,' ‘transculturation,' ‘hybridity'") (Clifford 245)? We have benefited immensely from scholars who have sought to answer these questions, and, in many (though not all) cases, have tried to argue for what a diaspora properly ‘is.' However, my belief is that if we are truly going to appreciate how dislocated peoples have managed to produce the complex "moments, tactics, discourses" previously gestured at by Clifford, then we will have to shift the discourse of diaspora beyond what may be seen as a traditional social scientific preoccupation with ontology (‘what is a diaspora?') and its concomitant positivistic methodologies and biases.

For this reason, it is crucial to note that scholars who might be considered originators of postcolonial diasporic discourse - Paul Gilroy, Rey Chow, and Stuart Hall - have each decided to understand diaspora not as a ‘reality' to be empirically analyzed, but as something self-consciously ‘figurative' or ‘metaphorical' and thus a special agent for social change. For Gilroy, diaspora, like ‘the black Atlantic,' is invoked "heuristically" in order to disrupt what he sees as contemporary nation-focused cultural debates (Black Atlantic). Similarly, Rey Chow, drawing upon the work of Michel de Certeau, sees diaspora as a "tactic" of intervention, a "para-site" on existing institutional structures and critical strategies (Writing Diaspora). And Stuart Hall, in attempting to develop an ethical understanding of diaspora, ends up admitting this:

I use this term [Diaspora] here metaphorically not literally: [D]iaspora does not refer us to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea. This is the old, the imperialising, the hegemonising, form of ‘ethnicity'... ("Cultural Identity and Diaspora" 402)

We seem to have returned to the idea, held by Safran, Tölölyan, and Cohen, that articulators of the postcolonial diasporas are doing so ‘metaphorically' or ‘figuratively.' But notice the crucial difference. For Gilroy, Chow and Hall, the term diaspora is not whimsical or ineffective because it is understood as figurative; on the contrary, its very status as figurative enables these critics to make inventive demands on existing political, institutional, and epistemological constraints.

We need to proceed with great caution here. As Leela Gandhi has convincingly argued, postcolonial theory often exhibits a deeply romantic investment in the transformative power of the poetic word (see Postcolonial Theory) - an investment which some might accuse the present theorizing of the postcolonial diasporas of uncritically replicating. Clearly, the privileging of ‘the figurative' in analyses of diasporic displacement could be interpreted as distracting attention away from the grim socio-economic dimensions of many modern diasporas, dimensions oftentimes most compellingly articulated in Marxist analyses of capitalism and Western Imperialism. At the very same time, to simply equate postcolonial diasporas with these particular (Western?) socio-economic paradigms and histories would be to ignore or negate the alternative analytic frameworks and experiences which are not only evident in diasporic culture, but have been historically invoked and re-deployed to revolutionary effects. Similarly, to read the emergence of the term ‘diaspora' in contemporary cultural discourse as a mere symptom of newly complacent or opportunistic shifts in bourgeois metropolitan institutions (much as Aijaz and Dirlik and Hardt and Negri view postcolonialism itself) would be to ignore the crucial work that the ‘figure' of diaspora has accomplished in both the re-routing and re-energizing of Marxist, Feminist, Queer, and Critical Race theories and practices. For instance, we might observe that it is precisely the ‘figure' or ‘metaphor' of diaspora which has allowed Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy to advance leftist cultural studies beyond the ‘white-British' work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart,[10] and into a deeply productive rapport with African American critics such as Mae Henderson, Wahneema Lubiano, and Brent Edwards, not to mention Black Caribbean critics such as Carol Boyce Davies or Black Canadian critics such as Rinaldo Walcott.[11] In general, we now need to show how many of the formative moments in the development of contemporary cultural studies as a concertedly interdisciplinary and interventionist discourse have emerged through the inventive re-figuring of specific forms of human dislocation and disenfranchisement as diasporic.

Many other critical tasks remain. How do we adjust our current methodologies to adequately show how diasporic peoples adopt, transform, and contest both ‘Western' and non-Western epistemes in order to produce new forms of knowledge? How do we understand the body in a diaspora, its ethnic inscriptions, its racial, gender, and sexual particularities and vagaries, its signification and relay of affect (See, for instance, the work of Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin, Hortence Spillers)? How is time represented in a diaspora, and what is its relationship to the "homegenous empty time" associated with national imaginary, or the compressed time/space of globalization, or the disjunctive histories and re-memberings that constitute ‘the postcolonial moment' (See Benedict Anderson, Homi Bhabha)? Finally, how do we understand space in the diasporic imaginary, and its relationship to both contemporary developments in cultural geography, as well as emergent non-Euclidian theories of space (See Derek Gregory, Arjun Appadurai, Richard Cavell via Marshall McLuhan)? These questions all require much more elaboration than allowed here in order to prove that they are not rarified or abstract, but in fact lead us sharply back to everyday practices of diasporic life.[12]


In another place, not here, a woman might touch
something between beauty and nowhere, back there
and here, might pass hand over hand her own
trembling life, but I have tried to imagine a sea not
bleeding, a girl's glance full as a verse, a woman
growing old and never crying to a radio hissing of a
black boy's murder. (No Language is Neutral 34)

This passage by author Dionne Brand indicates just how preliminary this essay is. A more robust analysis of the postcolonial diasporas would closely attend to specific articulations of diasporic identity: how the passage above signals the horrors of the middle passage, but at the same time the possibility of imagining travel over "a sea not bleeding;" how it registers the contemporary stigmatization of peoples of African descent within New World cultural forums and mediums ("a radio hissing..."); how it testifies to the often intensified dislocation, but also special hope, of ‘migrant' Black women (see especially the work of Carol Boyce Davies); how it evokes through a paratactic rhetorical structure a mobile, ‘migrant' consciousness, an ongoing desire for freedom, and the dauntless hope for a fuller existence; how it represents the existential pain but also the utopian promise which are both implied in the phrase "in another place, not here."

Yet Brand's ‘passage' (in both senses of the word) may be an adequate place to conclude this essay, or else to chart a new beginning. For we ought always to remember that the postcolonial diasporas, often articulated and theorized with great hope (indeed outright euphoria), and now, in this essay, represented as a ‘figure' for certain types of epistemological work, have their ‘origins' in profoundly painful histories, brutal realities. Our work as cultural critics should never neglect these realities in pursuit of ‘the figurative;' but neither can we neglect the fact that the postcolonial diasporas have always indicated ‘something else' - irrepressible desires, imagined pasts, projected futures - and that it is precisely this ‘something else,' which perhaps cannot but be articulated ‘figuratively' or ‘metaphorically,' which has helped change the lives not only of self-consciously dislocated peoples, but also all who have found themselves thinking of ‘another place, not here.' Indeed, the lesson of diasporic displacement may be this simple, and this politically and theoretically radical: a different space beckons.


I would like to thank the two anonymous readers of this paper for their advice and support. I would also like to thank Professor Lily Cho for sharing with me her continually inspiring thoughts on diaspora.



There are, admittedly, certain conceptual risks in yoking together two highly contentious and volatile terms. I do so not in order to suggest that ‘the postcolonial diaspora' (any more than ‘postcolonial' or ‘diaspora') carries any universally fixed meaning or agenda, but, rather, to gesture, however imperfectly, at the heterogeneous discursive terrains now conspicuously shared by both postcolonial studies and the newly emergent field of diaspora studies.


See Fanon's seminal, if also profoundly complicated, endorsement of ‘national consciousness' in anti-colonial initiatives (Wretched of the Earth). See also, Anderson's comments that "...since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms" (Anderson 2), as well as comments by Ashcroft et. al. that "[t]he development of national literatures and criticism is fundamental to the whole enterprise of post-colonial studies. Without such developments at the national level, and without the comparative studies between national traditions to which these lead, no discourse of the post-colonial could have emerged" (Empire Writes 17). Important recent statements on the complicated status of postcolonial nationalisms can be found in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism, edited by Cynthia Sugars, and Zones of Instability: Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation by Imre Szeman.


Indicatively, the editors of the recent collection Theorizing Diaspora attempt to indicate the significance of emergent theories of diaspora by making the following argument: "In the last century, under the pressure of monumental transnationalist and global shifts (economic, politically, geographically), the nation as a political ideal and as a state form has undergone significant transformation, if not massive ideological erosion" (7).


See Rey Chow's critique of diaspora below. One could well make the argument, contrary to Gilroy, that, in diasporic spaces, identities can better achieve an uncritically mythological status, enabling ‘ethnic absolutism' to thrive, not diminish. In building a cautious case for the heuristic potential in the word diaspora, Floya Anthias nevertheless warns that "the concept of diaspora, whilst focusing on transnational processes and commonalities, does so by deploying a notion of ethnicity which privileges the point of ‘origin' in constructing identity and solidarity" (558).


Ahmad caustically argues that postcolonialism caters to the cultures and desires of relatively privileged migrants and minorities, thus retreating from the ever pressing concerns that once fell under that contentious but still crucial sign ‘class.' Ahmad thus links the rise of postcolonialism to a "sea-change" in social situation in metropolitan countries, liberal democracies:

For this is the first time large ethnic communities from various ex-colonial countries have gathered in the metropolises in such a way that considerable segments are making historically new kinds of demand for inclusion in the salaried, professional middle class and its patterns of education, employment, consumption, social valuation and career advancement. (81)

Like Chow, Ahmad identifies instances of "the institutionalized symbiosis between the Western scholar and the local informant" (79), and of an "opportunistic kind of Third-Worldism" (86), whereby ‘Third World' intellectuals "can now materially represent the undifferentiated colonized Other... without much examining of their own presence in that institution" (93-4). Dirlik makes a similar claim, answering Ella Shohat's question "When exactly... does the ‘post-colonial' begin?" with the "only partially facetious" answer "When Third World intellectuals have arrived in the First World academe" (328-329)


For instance, "The Melodians" here translate the biblical language of Babylonian exile into a profoundly influential Reggae statement on Afro-Caribbean displacement:

By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion.
‘Cause the wicked carry us away captivity
Required of us a song
How can we sing King Alpha's [God's] song
In a strange land?


In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy states his great appreciation for the work of Jewish intellectuals such as Zygmunt Bauman for theorizing ethnic or racial minority belonging within Western modernity. Moreover, Gilroy here argues that a return to the concept of ‘diaspora' in Black Studies might (re)affirm precious links between Blacks and Jews.

I want to suggest that the concept of diaspora can itself provide an underutilized device with which to explore the fragmentary relationship between blacks and Jews and the difficult political questions to which it plays host: the status of ethnic identity, the power of cultural nationalism, and the manner in which carefully preserved social histories of ethnocidal suffering can function to supply ethical and political legitimacy. (Black Atlantic 207)


In their essay "Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity," Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin theorize Jewish ethno-racial identity in ways that seem profoundly relevant to contemporary post-colonial theory.


Cohen's argument is complex and is worth addressing a bit more elaborately. Cohen essentially agrees with Safran and Tölölyan that "For over 2500 years, one notion of the word ‘diaspora' has been dominant - one which highlights the catastrophic origin, the forcible dispersal and the estrangement of diasporic peoples in their places of settlement" (177). But Cohen departs strongly from Safran in ultimately arguing that "To mount a defence of an orthodox [ideal?] definition of diaspora, which in any case has been shown to be dubious, is akin to commanding the waves no longer to break on the shore" (21). Moreover, Cohen, again unlike Safran and Tölölyan, indicates his dissatisfaction with under-interrogated representations of the Jewish diaspora as originally and ipso facto sorrowful - representations which, he believes, themselves testify to historical amnesia, as well as dangerous concessions to "Zionist doctrines" which portray life out of the homeland as necessarily impoverished and thereby requiring ‘return' at any and all costs. Notably, in an early chapter of Global Diasporas, Cohen attempts to reread historical Jewish exile (even the traditionally sorrowful Babylonian exile) as, at times, providing opportunities, not obstacles, for the development of Jewish identity. (Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin have elsewhere embarked on the same ‘revisionist' project.) Again unlike Safran and Tölölyan, Cohen is comfortable providing examples of different types of diasporas, and has "suggested that instead of arising from a traumatic dispersal, a diaspora could be caused by the expansion from a homeland in search of work, in pursuit of trade or the further colonial ambitions" (57).


See, for instance, statements by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies.


The impact of ‘diaspora' upon Black discourses could be compared to the impact of postcolonialism, as explored in Ann duCill's essay "Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity: Discourse and Dat Course."


I should mention that these topics and others will be addressed in a book that I am presently co-authoring with Professor Lily Cho.

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