From the gasps of the right and liberal humanists about the decline of civilized social interaction between peoples these days, one might think that the United States, Europe, and Canada were once trouble-free, homogeneous societies recently taken over by furious dark hoards of multiculturalists. Old myths have a way of being revived at critical transitional moments like psychic shields against threats of change. It is all too convenient to forget that what we are now living is but the latest chapter in the saga of ethnic tensions that have shaped our world, and set and reset its borders. Geographic displacement, be it voluntary or involuntary, is as old as civilization. So is the distrust of the hybrids—those “bastard” peoples and cultures—that come out of those intercultural, interracial, and inter-ethnic encounters. Stateless hybrids, the “others within,” are evidence of the history of illicit unions created by European and American colonialism, of a transgressive desire across ethnic and racial “boundaries,” and of the failure of essentialist, nationalist, and other separatist paradigms that have structured our understanding of identity and difference for centuries.
What has changed perhaps is that the physical and cultural dislocation we associate with modernity has expanded and accelerated to an extent previously unimaginable. While it was once commonplace to organize most national and cultural identities in terms of geography, politics, and ideology, these factors have become variables in a larger shuffle. The right has taken on the language of the left and declared its own “revolutions,” criticizing the left for its “conservatism.” Seamless “national” cultures no longer emerge from social activity—they are now designed in the boardrooms of corporations and the communications offices of military regimes. Diasporic cultures parallel those of the homelands in size and often provide the capital to sustain imperiled “centers.” Some nations exist without a place, while others exist only through authoritarian enforcement. The ideal of a unified or homogeneous national culture is constantly disrupted by “foreign” information, media, consumer items, and peoples.
This changing landscape is not necessarily presented as threatening. Contemporary “Western” societies seem uncannily capable of absorbing the foreign (as long as it is either inanimate or identifiably different) through commodification, though recurring racial and ethnic conflicts within their borders indicate that this strategy of containment is hardly sufficient. What was once a colonial condition—that is, the need to adjudicate constantly between local and outside cultures and power structures—has not been swept away by the postcolonial age. In fact, that dynamic bears resemblance to daily life in postindustrial societies, where advanced technologies facilitate continuous transmission of information and commodities to different ends of the globe. The notion of a people’s link with a culture, then, is one that not even “non-Western,” non-capitalist, or non-white societies can provide proof of any longer. And yet for American culture, with its more than a century of faith in the capacity of “scientific” observation to determine, fixed truths, the end of stable identities signals the death of something very dear—that is, the ability to posit the other as outside itself.
It is this dramatic reordering of the world and our perception of it that artists engaged in “postcolonial,” “intercultural,” and “border” cultures are attempting to grapple with. Despite the frantic raising of banners in the name of identity, the idea of deploying “scientific” paradigms as a foolproof basis for racial classification has been displaced by the presentation of identity as constructed. Displacement and dislocation should not in these cases be understood as reducible to existential choice or cultural transvestism—they are the result of historical and political events the residue of which lingers in the psyche and in social life. The art developing out of these sensibilities explores the persistence of colonial dynamics and the themes of migration, exile, national and family division, biculturalism, and alienation from the two classic monoliths hybrids face—dominant cultures of the countries of “origin.” That sense of dual estrangement characterizes the developing hybrid sensibilities in many parts of the world. Unlike earlier, more sporadic efforts by exiled and immigrant artists in Europe and North America, the majority of these works are more clearly connected with the experiences of those who have undergone massive demographic shifts from the south to the north, and are made by and about people for whom feeling displaced and at home at the same time is a way of life. One of the most clear expressions of this paradox in the United States is the situation Chicanos, whose families continue to migrate to what was their own country not long ago. As Chicana theorist Rosa Linda Fregoso has pointed, their “return” is the end result of a history of American conquest of the Southwest and a diaspora generated by the crippling of the Mexican economy through American Imperialism—now known as economic “globalization.” More generally speaking, the dilemma of having constantly to negotiate nationality and identity in relation to territory, a sense of belonging, and the power of external forces to demarcate difference is shared by “new populations” within the “first world” and the culturally hybrid peoples of postcolonial societies in the “third world.”
Stateless hybrids are not only caught between worlds—they also find themselves in a mire of media about themselves and their cultures that they work off and against. It is no coincidence that the children of the Civil Rights movement and the television era, the inheritors of debates within various ethnic groups about negative images and stereotyping, should demonstrate a strong awareness of how one’s sense of identity and place is informed and even constructed by images propagated by forces beyond one’s control. This critical awareness of the politics of representation resonates with stylistic influences drawn from several avant-garde traditions. Some of the more formally experimental endeavors evoke an aesthetic of pastiche that challenges the cultural-nationalist position that a realist positive image can correct stereotyping, and tell the true(r) story. The stylistic vacillations and multicentric perspectives of the work of stateless hybrids completely undercuts social realist and naturalist approaches that seek to resolve misrepresentation with a “better” version of the other.
For many, the hybrid’s implicit critique of realism is precisely the problem, for it is often presumed that the objective of a “cross-cultural” artist should be to translate his/her culture for the “outsider”—in this case, a white American audience. Anything less than this reminds well-intentioned audiences that even their power to know can be short-circuited. To assuage their fears, then, difference must be tamed, contained, made intelligible, even familiar. Note the success of “naturalist” theatrical and cinematic representations of American “others,” such as John Leguizamo’s Mambo Mouth, Yvonne Rainer’s Puerto Rican character in Privilege or any number of “documentaries” about the downtrodden produced for mass (white) consumption. By resorting to dominant cultural stereotypes without subverting them, works such as these perpetuate the fantasy of the other’ immediate legibility and thus guarantee that there will be no fundamental disruption of the order of things, simply the extension of the space of American culture to include a larger, more colorful family, so to speak. Diversity, according to this model, would be contained and controlled by a reigning “universal” (i.e.. Euro-American) sensibility. This form of “multiculturalism” has dominated the policies and priorities of mainstream institutions and critics, as well as essentialists of all backgrounds, who are deeply invested in avoiding the destabilization of ethnic identities and communities, and preventing the de-universalization of “whiteness.” To allow the hybridization of American culture to flourish outside extremely limited spaces is something akin to removing the emperor’s clothes—it would implicitly take power away from those whose prerogative it has always been to distinguish between good and bad, true and false, us and them, and to speak on behalf of all, particularly on behalf of “others.” Those who have been able to consider themselves most immune to hybridization, those whose world view, culture, and identities have historically been posited as universal, are most threatened by being compelled to recognize their boundaries. The current climate of political conservatism and xenophobia sweeping the U.S., Europe, and Canada reminds is again of the dominant culture’s power to resist the immanent threat. Masked occasionally by fetishized desire for and celebration of the “other” or couched in the moral righteousness of those who lambaste “political correctness,” the reactions against crumbling walls and increasingly fluid boundaries rage behind every patronizing gesture of the acceptance of a few. It is no coincidence that the “multicultural” celebration of recent years has coincided historically with the amnesty clause of this country’s most recent immigration regulation; both measures provide a friendly face that superficially counters the brutal realities “others” face on a daily basis.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s phrase, “There is a third world in every first world and vice versa” has been quoted repeatedly in recent years. At stake for the stateless hybrid artists is the possibility not of escaping by returning to an original place, or by losing a sense of difference, but rather by defining that hybrid space as a shelter between cultures and a place to chart new beginnings. It would seem at this point that we must begin to take apart the notion of one world’s being “in” another, to speak instead of those hybrid spaces where worlds have already collided, melded, and blended. We might understand cultures and peoples as battlegrounds crossed by first, second, and third worlds, by the West and non-West, and by many languages, ethnic fantasies, and fears. Some behold those battlegrounds with wonder and others with terror. For the hybrid tribes that are its inhabitants and progenitors, the confusion and disruption of the new is not disturbing, but exciting.