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Contact Zones

Hybridity and Diaspora

John Hutnyk

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 text 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 (which we discuss further in chapter Six). 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)

It is difficult to agree with the view that scholarship should avoid examining the antecedents of emergent critical terminologies (we will see in the next chapter that certain other terms are not used). Hall also reacts, naming Young, admittedly in defence against an even more sweeping condemnation of postcolonial theory, yet significantly with the penultimate words of a volume entitled The Postcolonial Question, where he writes:

‘a very similar line of argument is to be found … [in] the inexplicably simplistic charge in Robert Young’s Colonial Desire … that the post-colonial critics are “complicit” with Victorian racial theory because both sets of writers deploy the same term – hybridity – in their discourse!’ (Hall 1996:259, emphasis in original).

It is absolutely imperative that the uses and usefulness of hybridity as descriptive term, as political diagnostic and as strategy, be evaluated without recourse to petty common room squabbles. That the use of a term can be condemned because of one sort of association or another remains problematic unless the consequences of that association can be demonstrated to have unacceptable consequences. As hybridity appears in several guises, it is important to look at what it achieves, what contexts its use might obscure, and what it leaves aside.

Contact Zones

As a process with a long pedigree, hybridity evokes all manner of creative engagements in cultural exchange. Some works stress the developmental temperament of the migrant encounter, starting with – this is a somewhat arbitrary ‘origin’ – anthropological studies of syncretism of the 1940s. Ethnographic field researches, such as those concerned with migrant work communities in the ‘copper belt’ of what is now Zambia, were carried out under the colonial auspices of the Rhodes Livingston Institute and the Manchester University Anthropology School (see Schumaker 2001). Syncretism was the word recruited to describe the formation of new cultural practices in the urban work towns set up near the colonial copper mines. Anthropologists had previously only been interested, in a diminutive, salvage kind of way, with the ‘loss’ of cultural forms under ‘contact’ and acculturation. Salvage anthropology was concerned with documenting ‘disappearing worlds’ and lost customs, survivals and traditions, and it was only in belated recognition of the resilience of indigenous communities that they began to think in terms other than decline and fade. The studies of the mining communities initiated by the Manchester School (Gluckman et al 1955) were instrumental in the first effervescence of ‘syncreticism-talk’ in the post World War II period, but later South American examples of creative communal response to mining colonialism were prominent. Michael Taussig’s study among tin mine workers in South America supplements economist readings of commodity fetishism with cultural contextualization. It shows how local ideas about Christianity (itself problematically local and global), and especially the idea of the devil, produced specific understandings of money’s malevolent force (Taussig 1980). Fusions here provide a cogent yet unorganized take on ‘mixed’ economic conditions (see Nugent 1994 on transition). Yet, other modes of developmental syncretism were not so explicitly culturalist. Consider for example the Green Revolution adoption of new seed technologies, ostensibly to feed the Third World, but in reality leading to massive environmental devastation. This could not so easily be described as cultural hybridity, without deep irony. The same today applies to those with specific commercial interests who are involved in genetic patenting overwriting diversity in the agricultural sector (see Visvanathan 1997).[i]

Investigations into and descriptions of the acculturation process had been governed by what can only be characterized as a period of anthropological prejudice and single-minded ethnocentrism – the whole discourse about westernization and diffusionism suggests an obsessive fear about identity and with maintaining and even extending the cultural hegemony of the dominant culture. In settler societies, such as Australia and South Africa, this took on the racist appearance of first extermination programmes, and then more insidious forms of ‘ethno-cide’. Institutions such as the farcically mis-named Aborigines Protection Society in Australia, in the first part of the twentieth century, were engaged in the allegedly benevolent ‘smoothing of the dying pillow’. This idea of easing the pains of the violent destruction of the Aboriginal peoples, was an unforgivable companion to the white Australia policy. Here, atrocities such as the forced removal of ‘mixed’ and ‘half-caste’ children from the care of their aboriginal parents in favour of fostering (and domestic slavery) in white missions and with white families have long caused concern. As documented in the film Lousy Little Sixpence (dir. Alec Morgan and Gerry Bostock 1982 – sixpence was the compensation Aboriginal parents were offered) and fictionalized in Rabbit Proof Fence (dir Phillip Noyce 2002, the rabbit fence was an Australia-wide divide erected to secure farmland from breeding bunnies), the ‘stolen generations’ remain a running sore in race relations in Australia.[ii] Remembering that the dispossession of Australia’s original inhabitants had as much to do with mineral and agricultural capitalism, it is not necessary to stress that the notion of ‘culture clash’ also betrayed significant pathologies on the part of the self-proclaimed ‘masters’. Interestingly, the analysis of the clash of cultures as adopted by anthropologists, even where critical of colonialism (Worsley 1964:51) often took on a culturalist bent, paving the way for concerns less to do with political redress than with the management of colonial relations. The very idea of cultural survival through fusion, mixture, miscegenation, creolization etc., provoked apoplexy among the great and the good of colonial rule, and much academic energy has subsequently been expended attempting to unravel the violent consequences of a paranoid ‘first contact’. It remains an open question as to what degree fears of cultural mix were governed by base economic interests and how far psycho-social categories must be contextualized.

Another field where the notion of hybridity has a distinct history focused on preservation is in linguistics. The concept of creolization and the idea of a linguistic continuum both evolve from the study of the interactions like that between African and European peoples in the Caribbean. Out of the violence of slavery there emerged a number of new languages which were classified in a derogatory mode called pidgin and more locally patois. French patois (Haiti) or English patois (Jamaica) provided for the development of the idea of hybrid languages, which consisted crudely of one language’s vocabulary imposed on the grammar of another. It is important to remember that the process of slavery also produced an amalgamation of various African languages. There are other examples such as the ways colonialism in the Pacific spawned a range of idiomatic ‘tongues’ – and entailed a separate but similar history of violence, acculturation, missionary activity, ‘black birding’ (meaning the kidnap of islanders to work on Queensland sugar plantations) and ongoing underdevelopment. The resulting creolized languages offered fruitful material for linguistic research, but these researches were often undertaken in isolation from, and even blissful neglect of, socio-political contexts. Some examples of a political linguistics can be found (eg., Newmeyer 1986). However, amongst linguistics scholars there is often a good deal of resentment of the way a technical term – creole – has been appropriated metaphorically to do work in culturalist discourse.[iii] The precious anxieties of scholarly terminology often inhibit clarity and analysis. Although outside of linguistics, the cultural translation model for creolization is popular and often invoked.

Translation is loosely regarded as a metaphor for method in many disciplines and has thrived in Cultural Studies and social theorizing inspired by writing from Clifford Geertz to Jacques Derrida and beyond. Geertz presented the idea of the anthropologist as interpreter, providing ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz 1973) while observing ‘over the shoulder’ of his Balinese informants. With The Interpretation of Cultures and later with Works and Lives (1988) Geertz set off a cascading debate on the propriety of translation and interpreted/translated texts of culture in the hands of institutionally resourced academics. The translator is a broker between cultural forms or documents, and is thereby in a powerful position, not always evenly ‘in-between’. The question of who translates and why has been broached several times, for example recently by Virinder Kalra in relation to the analysis of Bhangra lyrics in the seemingly hybrid musical cultures of British-Asian creativity. The argument is that in making the hybrid the focus of attention, intended and explicit political content falls away in translation. This is due to, variously, the idiomatic and/or institutional situation of the translator (see Kalra 2000, Spivak 1999). Another interesting, yet still problematic, commentator on this set of issues has been Derrida, who wrote that ‘In a sense, nothing is untranslatable; but in another sense, everything is untranslatable; translation is another name for the impossible’ (Derrida 1996/1998:56-7). His argument is that language and cultural experience is idiomatic and the idea of a perfect translation is misguided, and yet, attempts to translate are necessarily made, however quixotic. If there is no ‘pure’ access, from outside, to the idiom of a language or culture there can be no absolute equivalence of translation. This idea undermines the sanctity of the scene of translation in ways now recognized by many, but not all. The self-appointed ventriloquists of culture still prevail and the metaphor of translation as a code word for ethnographic studies of ‘otherness’ has not been displaced. Yet Derrida also identifies the translator as a ‘rebel against patriotism’ (Derrida 1996/1998:57) and translation as an art enabling a side-stepping of a singular, homogenous frame of understanding.

Thus, in many formulations, the hybridizing moment is a communication across incommensurable polarities, with or without peculiarities of idiom or grammar (often left without). At an abstract level this translation syntax implies the possibility of a calculus of difference, though it is reliant upon an idealized and perfect assumption that translation across difference can actually occur. Oftentimes translation is assumed by those who can enforce their way, those who have the power and resources to engage in (sanctioned) translation, and so the translated text becomes an appropriation of (cultural) ownership and even of creativity without attention to contexts. Terminological ambiguity in this contact zone complex means we should perhaps take seriously the possibility that a discussion of hybridity can open up crucial issues of power and control such as who translates and why. This is not the same as saying hybridity can be effective despite, or even because of, its' problematic conceptual difficulties. But neither would we deny the usefulness of a technical term that potentially allowed questions to be asked as to the political context and investments engaged in the scene of translation or in ‘contact’ itself. Whether it does so, however, is a bigger problem. In these circumstances, the impossible governs a politics of translation where the only plausible response is to engage a constant critique of the process.

This text is part of the book "Hybridity and Diaspora" written by Virinder Kalra, Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk, published by Sage, London, 2005



Bhabha, Homi (1994) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.

Chambers, Iain (1994) Migrancy, Culture, Identity, Routledge, London.

Clifford, James (2000) 'Taking Identity Politics Seriously: "The Contradictory Stony Ground..."' in Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie eds Without Guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall, London: Verso pp. 94-112.

Derrida, Jacques (1996/1998) Monolingualism of the Other, or, The Prosthesis of Origin, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

Gilroy, Paul (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart (1996) ‘When was the Postcolonial: Thinking About the Limit’ in Chambers, Iain and Curtis, Linda eds The Post-colonial Question, London: Routledge p242-260

Haraway, Donna (1997) Modest_witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™, New York: Routledge.

Kalra, Virinder S. (2000) From Textile Mills to Taxi Ranks: Experiences of Migration, Labour and Social Change, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Mercer, Kobena (1994) Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, London: Routledge.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. (1986) The Politics of Linguistics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Papastergiadis, Nikos (2000) The Turbulence of Migration, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1999) Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Visvanathan, Shiv (1997) A Carnival for Science: Essays on Science, Technology and Development, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Worsley, Peter (1964) The Third World, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

[i] For those interested in resource politics, Shiv Visvanathan’s work is essential reading (Visvanathan 1997), but see also the organizations Minewatch and Partizans for the development of a global anti-mining activism (see Moody 1990).

[ii] Old news for some, the history of this period cannot be contained under the sign of mixed racism as the later duplicities of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs continue up to the present with betrayals of the Land Rights and Reconciliation movements by the Australian courts and the refusal of Prime Minister John Howard to acknowledge Aboriginal grievances continuing up to the time of writing (2003).

[iii] We owe thanks to Steve Nugent for this point and for alerting us to Newmeyer.

John Hutnyk