Paradoxes of Identities, Diasporas, and Cosmopolitanisms: A Response to Chinmoy Bannerjee

July 18, 2019

Sophie McCall

In “Identities, Diasporas, Cosmopolitanisms, and the Possibility of Global Humanities,” Chinmoy Bannerji reviews the many critical approaches to conceiving of identity that have gone in and out of fashion, particularly since the 1960s and into the explosive identity debates of the 1980s and 1990s, showing how these highly charged debates trace their roots to philosophical discourses that go back to Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers. One of his important insights is that conflicts over identity produce paradoxical effects: for example, that violent inclusion and violent exclusion of identities often occur at one and the same time, or that conceptions of hybrid identities and conceptions of pure identities reinforce one another in unexpected ways. Dr. Bannerji maintains the hope of uncovering conceptions of identity that avoid these either-or binary conceptions—particularly in thinking through the potential affiliations between migrant and Indigenous histories, grounded in a politics of difference. By turning to the Indian context, with its layered Indigenous histories comprised of thousands of years, his aim is to rethink the silences within and between a range of Indigenous, settler, and migrant histories. Ultimately, Dr Bannerji offers “critical dialogical cosmopolitanism” as a conceptual platform on which to build political and affective affiliations and to rethink the relations between identities in both North American and sub-continental contexts.

In surveying a diverse range of outbreaks of violence across numerous historical periods and in many places in the world, but particularly in India and Canada in recent decades, Dr. Bannerji demonstrates the high stakes of how we conceive of identity. He provides many thought-provoking examples that show that perceived threats to identity and a fear of contamination often lead to the violent suppression of change, a forgetting of mixed, complex histories, a perpetuation of regional chauvinism and nationalist hysteria, heightened racial profiling, and a persistent polarization of “The West” (now understood largely as Christian) and “The Rest” (homogenizing Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists). At the same time that identity formations give rise to tactics of domination and suppression, they also create openings for enacting narratives of resistance. He reviews some of the tactics that groups have used to resist imposed, simplified, homogenized identities, such as tactics of renaming (for example, the shift from “untouchable” to “dalit” in India, a shift that the Indian government attempted to curtail by banning the word “dalit” in its official documents).

One of the paradoxes that Bannerji addresses is the tendency in cultural studies to celebrate “hybrid” identities in ways that, ironically, risk reinforcing dangerously homogeneous notions of nationalism. He cites the example of a 1955 Bombay film, “Shree 420/Mr. 420,” which opens with Raj Kapoor as a Chaplinesque tramp marching to the city of Bombay, singing, “My shoes are Japanese, These pants English, The red hat on my head is Russian, But still my heart is Indian.” Dr Bannerji shows that this celebration of hybrid identity through textiles has an economic basis produced by trade circuits and colonial history. Moreover, while celebratory hybridity is the official identity India tries to maintain, it does so by deploying vast military resources to violently include groups that don’t want to be included. At the same time, a major national party, BJP, and its powerful civil society affiliates, push to transform the national identity to that of a homogeneous Hindu nation. This construction of India as a Hindu civilization not only requires the erasure of diversity within the category of Hinduism itself, but also depends upon ignoring a millennium of Buddhist history, centuries of Muslim ascendancy, an extensive Christian presence, and a significant Sikh history. The underlying question that Dr Bannerji returns to is: how is it that violent inclusion and violent exclusion often occur at the same time?

Dr. Bannerji’s discussion of hybridity has helped me understand why and how discourses of hybridity have been contentious in Indigenous studies in North America. In postcolonial and diasporic approaches, hybridity often is used as ammunition against essentialism, which is viewed as a politically dangerous valorization of purity, while hybridity is aligned with heterogeneity, openness, and a politics of difference. For the most part, as Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin argue in the Introduction to the section entitled “Hybridity” in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (2006), “most post-colonial writing has concerned itself with the hybridized nature of culture as a strength rather than a weakness” (137). Yet in Indigenous studies, claims to hybridity are treated with some suspicion. As Métis critic Emma LaRocque argues, “recent post-colonial emphasis on ‘hybridity’. . . , ‘crossing boundaries’ or ‘liminality’ can serve to eclipse Aboriginal cultural knowledges, experiences… and… the colonial experience” (222). LaRocque expresses a certain frustration with what she frames as a demand to become cross-cultural or hybrid in contemporary critical approaches at a time when Aboriginal communities are attempting to forge a stronger sense of a nation-specific identity in an era of land rights and self-government. Likewise, Peter Kulchyski, who writes about Dene communities in the Northwest Territories and Inuit communities in Nunavut, has little patience for critical approaches that “[c]elebrat[e] insurgent hybrid forms solely or merely for the fact that they are hybrid” (53), especially if this results in sidelining political projects pertaining to communities rooted in traditional territories and deemed somehow non-hybrid (54). Jace Weaver, Craig Womack, and Robert Warrior in American Indian Literary Nationalism (2006) also speak forcibly against hybridity as a conceptual tool, clearly demarcating Aboriginal sovereigntist positions from the “footloose, rootless, mixed-blood hybridity” of postcolonial theory (Weaver et. al. xx). For these critics, postcolonial theory has closer ties to “doctrinaire postmodernism” (xx) than to either viable theories of decolonization or meaningful engagement with the cultural and social contexts of Aboriginal communities. Another complicating factor in the debate over hybridity is the extraordinary weight of discourses of authenticity in Aboriginal studies. Colonial legislation, such as the Indian Act, as well as its modern-day correctives, such as Bill C-31, continue to pit ‘real’ Indians against ‘others,’ as Mi’kmaq scholar Bonita Lawrence compellingly explains in‘Real’ Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (2004). She argues that the very concept of “Indian status” is more about who is excluded than who qualifies.

Anxiety around contamination, inclusion, and exclusion with respect to identities becomes especially pronounced when people are displaced across national, cultural, and ethnic borders, producing what in recent years are referred to as “diasporas.” Though diaspora was at one time used exclusively to describe the Jewish exile, it has since been applied to describe the displacements that have occurred as a result of slavery, migration (voluntary or forced), war, environmental disaster, and exile. The paradox that Dr Bannerji explores is how notions of diaspora ironically enable “long distance nationalism.” He notes that the global flow of capital in neoliberal economies of the past twenty-five years have produced a world in which there is an unprecedented movement of people and circulation of information. The extraordinary human migrations during the 20th and 21st centuries have produced a variety of theories of diaspora. Postcolonial theories of diaspora, perhaps best represented by the work of Stuart Hall, is in the main an attempt to refashion conceptions of identity. Hall’s work on diaspora is representative of the celebration of the creative potentiality of the hybrid in postcolonial theory. Against the sense of loss in exile, postcolonial theory offers the utopian possibility of creating new identities. But Dr Bannerji demonstrates that this is far from the whole story. Diasporic communities often practice a form of what Benedict Anderson has called “long distance nationalism.” Dr Bannerji supplies the disturbing example of Hindu nationalists raising funds in diasporic communities around the world for the 1992 attack in India on the sixteenth century Babri mosque in order to set up a Ram temple in its place. This calculated campaign then sparked riots and killings across the country.

Theories of diaspora, like theories of hybridity, continue to have an uneasy relationship with Indigenous studies. This disjuncture is partly due to the close relationship between current notions of diaspora and postcolonial studies. The “post” in “postcolonial” has been a much disputed term in Indigenous studies. Following Thomas King’s well-known essay, “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial” (1990), critics often point out the shortsightedness of scholars who either a) fail to recognize that colonialism is ongoing in Canada, or b) persist in using European colonial incursion as a starting point in their analyses, thereby ignoring the complexity and persistence of tribal traditions. The erasure of Native agency, “first by colonial force, then by postcolonial analyses,” as Julie Cruikshank puts it (139; qtd. in Weaver 26), is a real concern, even though postcolonialism has produced a number of politically enabling critiques of the settler-nation. Theories of diaspora bring into focus the difficulties in critically navigating the differences between immigrant and Indigenous histories and experiences. Indeed, most critics are cautious about unproblematically conflating a diasporic critical model with an Indigenous one. James Clifford acknowledges some of the fundamental incommensurabilities between diasporic and Indigenous critical approaches at the outset of his landmark essay, “Diasporas,” stating that “[d]iasporas are caught up with and defined against 1) the norms of nation-states and 2) indigenous, and especially autochthonous, claims by ‘tribal’ peoples” (250). Clifford argues that “diasporist and autochthonist histories. . . do come into direct political antagonism” (253) and that “[t]ribal cultures are not diasporas; their sense of rootedness in the land is precisely what diasporic peoples have lost” (254). Clifford’s delineation of the differences between diasporist and autochtonist histories is contentious: it is not at all evident that diasporic peoples have lost their sense of rootedness, or that all tribal cultures are rooted in the land in the same way. Furthermore, as Wilson and Peters argue, Clifford approaches indigenous diasporas as a form of internal migration, which he assumes does not unsettle or challenge settler state norms and identities, and which only minimally allows for the possibility of Indigenous nationhood (398). Nevertheless, his point is valid that diaspora’s emphasis on rootlessness, mobility, and migration risks a certain complicity with a settler, colonial-capitalist hunger to continually seek out new territories. And the longstanding antagonism between diasporic and Indigenous histories, as Métis-Salish writer Lee Maracle has argued, reasserts itself in the language of academic debate, especially when scholarly writing on Indigenous issues does not acknowledge a longer history than one of contact with Euro-American communities (Maracle 55-6).

As a result of the accelerated pace of migrations and displacements, as well as the facilitation of the flow of finance capital in a period of neoliberalism, cosmopolitanism as a basis for conceiving identity has continued to gain ground in scholarly and popular debates. Dr Bannerji considers in depth a number of approaches to cosmopolitanism, showing both the potentialities and the limitations of the underlying concepts of identity. The paradox of cosmopolitanism is as sharp as the hybridity/purity, inclusion/exclusion, and diaspora/nation paradoxes. All too often, cosmopolitanism operates in the service of the neoliberal nation state—which means a consistent prioritizing of individual over collective rights, and the repeated deferral of revolutionary transformation. Dr. Bannerji draws attention to the pitfalls of utopian conceptions of cosmopolitanism in an era of neoliberalism, in which the very rich, the 1%, celebrate a borderless world. He is equally aware of the pitfalls of neoliberalism’s evil twin, here described as “military humanism.” Military humanism characterizes a post-9-11 world in which invasions of countries (such as Iraq or Afghanistan) are justified as an exercise of global citizenship and a sense of global responsibility. However, in spite of these difficulties, Dr Bannerji holds out hope for alternative narratives of cosmopolitanism: narratives that avoid the excesses of both utopian borderlessness and xenophobic nativism that he describes in his paper with vivid examples. He turns to “critical dialogical cosmopolitanism” and asks whether such a concept has the potential to become an emancipatory project able to challenge the hegemonic regime of neoliberal capitalism. He describes it as a “transformative ethical and political project grounded in epistemic diversality” – a neologism which suggests “diversity as a universal project.” For example, Aboriginal people under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which is banned by the Government of India, are engaged in armed struggle across one third of India. They exemplify the subaltern who is not only speaking (to the extent that severe censorship will allow their voice to be heard), but speaking out against the absolute grip of neoliberalism in the name of their forests, water, and land.

In raising the issue of Indigenous rights, Dr Bannerji turns to the question of forgiveness that currently animates discussions of truth, reconciliation, and healing from “crimes against humanity.” In particular, he addresses Jacques Derrida’s work “on hospitality and forgiveness in the context of a world in which an increasing number of people seeking refuge are met with increasingly hostile gatekeeping by states and the world is filled with enormous violence.” For Derrida, true forgiveness is both necessary and impossible. There is an aporia at the heart of forgiveness: forgiveness is in principle unconditional and has meaning only when it applies to what is unforgivable. Dr Bannerji concludes his paper with an inspired tribute to “the unbounded hospitality of the aboriginal people toward the strangers who came in boats long ago and to all migrants to their land that have enabled this practice of a possible cosmopolitanism. Perhaps in them we will find the forgiveness of the unforgivable that is the only true forgiveness.”

The paradox of forgiving the unforgivable raises questions concerning the current era of apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation, which implicates Indigenous peoples in Canada, given the ongoing work of the Truth and Reconciliation commission confronting the legacy of the Indian residential schools. Upon whose shoulders should the responsibility of forgiveness fall? Should victims be burdened with the necessity to forgive their perpetrators, particularly through the intercession of a third party? Recent truth and reconciliation commissions around the world have staged precisely these kinds of dramas, in which survivors must dialogue with and potentially forgive the murderer(s) or abuser(s) of their loved one(s). Furthermore, the responsibility of forgiveness implies that it is up to Indigenous people to restore themselves to health in spite of contending with the ongoing effects of assimilative and genocidal policies, overlooking the pathology of the perpetrator, and bracketing larger historical contexts of colonialism and the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Do discourses of forgiveness become all too quickly practices of violent inclusion—or enforced enfranchisement into the nation’s mythologies? For Aboriginal people, the problem with Canada as a nation state has always been more about its suffocating embrace of inclusion than its cold shoulder of exclusion. It could be argued that the current era of apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation carries on this historic norm. In the words of Indigenous studies scholar, Taiaiake Alfred, reconciliation is a “pacifying discourse,” which demands that Aboriginal people become “reconciled with imperialism” (Alfred 182, 183). Does the turn to forgiveness risk perpetuating an assimilative squeeze of forgetfulness?

I think Dr. Bannerji would answer, paradoxically, yes and no. The problem and opportunity that paradoxes present us with is their irreducible inconsistency. On balance, I find the manner in which paradoxes generate multiple points of view, and refuse to choose just one side of a question, to be critically enabling. Dr Bannerji’s paper has productively highlighted a range of paradoxes in constructions of identity that have illuminated how individuals and communities inventively have negotiated the shifting landscapes of neoliberal globalization, permanent security crises, rising fundamentalisms, and ecological crises. Ultimately the paper expresses a hope in crafting new critical directions to address and bring into being relations of solidarity between migrant, settler, and Indigenous histories, grounded in a politics of difference. Dr Bannerji’s conceptualization of “critical dialogical cosmopolitanism” is an enabling starting-point from which to build connections between identities. His illuminating examples of the twists and turns of identity formation and deformation, of domination and resistance, of suppression and revolution, help us to understand that looking at a problem through more than one lens yields a more complex picture.

Works Cited

Alfred, Taiaiake. “Restitution is the Real Pathway to Justice for Indigenous Peoples.” Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey. Ed. Greg Younging, Jonathan Dewar, and Mike DeGagné. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2009. 179-87.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. “Hybridity.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 137-138.

Clifford, James. “Diasporas.” Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1997. 244-277.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Hospitality. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. 222-37.

King, Thomas. “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial.” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 10-16.

Kulchyski, Peter. Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut. Winnipeg: U Manitoba P, 2005.

LaRocque, Emma. “Teaching Aboriginal Literature: The Discourse of Margins and Mainstreams.” Creating Community: A Roundtable on Canadian Aboriginal Literature. Ed. Renate Eigenbrod and Jo-Ann Episkenew. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus, 2002. 209-234.

Lawrence, Bonita. ‘Real’ Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Vancouver: UBC P, 2004.

Maracle, Lee. “Oratory on Oratory.” Trans.Can.Lit: Resituating the Study of Canadian Literature. Ed. Smaro Kamboureli and Roy Miki. Waterloo, Ont. : Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. 55-70.

Weaver, Jace, Craig S. Womack, and Robert Warrior. American Indian Literary Nationalism. Albuquerque : U New Mexico P, 2006.

Wilson, Kathi and Evelyn J. Peters. “’You can make a place for it’: Remapping Urban First Nations Spaces of Identity.”Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23 (2005): 395-413.