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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Asian Ethnicities (13)—Dynamics of Ethnicity (i)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Asian Ethnicities
A year ago on Round and Square (27 July 2012)—The Accidental Ethnographer: Opening Geil's Book
Two years ago on Round and Square (27 July 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: Downtown
[a] Katmandu RF
In the next dozen entries, I will be posting an initial draft of a book introduction on Asian ethnic groups. It is meant for the blog, and does not represent anything like what will eventually be published. I do so especially because this represents a compilation of my thoughts after a full year of intensive teaching and research on Asian ethnicity. The introduction to this series shows some of my thoughts from last year—before I taught my advanced seminar by the same title as this series. This is something of a culmination of the process, even though I will be now moving in many new directions in the teaching and study of Asian ethnic groups.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
Dynamics of Ethnicity
[b] Interstices RF
To set all of this into motion, we will now examine two cultural theorists whose work has been enormously influential in the past thirty years. During that time, we have gone from thinking of ethnicity almost exclusively in terms of separable elements—not unlike the dolls, rugs, or engine parts of our examples—to a complex weave of similarity and difference. Homi Bhabha and Pierre Bourdieu give us new ways of approaching the dynamics of ethnicity, in Asia and beyond.

The first key idea can be seen in hints and passages in the sections above. In a nutshell, Homi Bhabha emphasizes that the truly influential and fascinating aspects of culture must be found in the intersections—the “interstices”—of actions, patterns of life, and ways of knowing. The study of how group identity came to be is important, to be sure, but the dynamics of understanding flow from the various cultural units bumping up against each other, like so many rugs on a vast hallway floor. Here is how Bhabha puts it. While his prose is sometimes challenging, note that he emphasizes that “singularities” (our rugs, our dolls, our ethnicities) should not only be understood alone.
[c] Unpacking RF

The move away from the singularities of ‘class’ or ‘gender’ as primary conceptual organizational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions—of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation—that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.

It is in the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated.[1]
[d] Contested RF

These ideas are worth unpacking, pondering. They speak directly to the challenge we have before us in understanding ethnic groups of Asia. While we surely must understand the details in the entries themselves, we must never forget that the most dynamic and persistent changes in Asian history took place when these entities connected—from ethnic groups such as the Mongols or Manchus to budding nations such as Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and even Taiwan (or the Republic of China on Taiwan, in the increasingly fuzzy political language of the island). We surely can understand individual entities, and must seek to do so. Yet it is in the way they click, crash-into, and even displace others that we see the flow of human history. As Bhabha maintains, that can be found only in the interstices—in the ways that the Han and Bai people, for example, clashed (and married), as well as the manner of conflict and redemption found between smaller groups themselves, from the Miao and Zhuang to the Achang and Bouyei.

Take note of Bhabha’s use of the word “contestation.” We often think of definitions, when we read them, as the thing itself. Bhabha reminds us that definitions are always contested. In isolation, this is a challenging concept. It is less so when we give it a concrete meaning. Think of your favorite sport. I’ll use baseball as an example. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees meet more than a dozen times a year. Fans in each city feel strongly about their teams. Ask a Yankees fan to describe the Red Sox. In fact, ask her to write a description of the team. Now, ask a Yankees fan to describe the Yankees, her home team.
[e] Angle RF

You may see where this is going. If you do the reverse for the Red Sox fan, asking him to describe both the Yankees and his hometown Red Sox, you will have a fairly stark set of renderings. Why is this so? Precisely because it is “contested.” The participants care deeply about how they are portrayed, and do what they can to portray others in a manner that suits them. They are, to use Bhabha’s images, in the center of things.

If we move to the interstices, we can start to sense ways in which the Red Sox and Yankees merge, cohere, and repel. What if we were to ask another observer, someone who rooted for, say, the St. Louis Cardinals, to describe the Yankees and the Red Sox? Surely, her answer would not be quite as jaded as those of the participants. But would it be “right?” Let’s take it just one step further. Imagine that we engage a fine writer who is familiar with baseball, but not really a fan of any team at all—a matter more of other interests than lack of passion for the sport. She writes another account of the Red Sox and the Yankees. Is this one “true,” if only because she has the least “interest” in the subject?
[f] Outgrowth RF

Homi Bhabha, of course, would say no, and quite emphatically. From his perspective, there is no “outside,” “objective” position. We are all, and always, complex “subjectivities.” Even the outside observer views the teams from an “angle.” Some people consider this to be problematic, and rail against the “postmodern” assaults against our knowing. I see it quite differently, and that is the spirit of this introduction and this book. While we can, and should, strive, for accurate, factual accounts (and we can get many, even the vast majority, of details “right”) our overall accounts are going to be an outgrowth of our very humanity. This is always “subjective” (we have known this since Kant’s day) and the real key to understanding a complex social world.

As Bhabha might say—if he had interest in American baseball— the keys to understanding lie in jamming together the various accounts. It is as though we imagined a complex geology of understanding, and the various versions were so many tectonic plates ramming up against each other and creating vast new mountain ranges of knowledge. We cannot ever know the Red Sox or Yankees. We can come to know so much, and in such dynamic fashion, however, that we never again want to go back to the false pretenses of isolated portraits alone.

Although I have been speaking of baseball, it is not difficult to see the same dynamic at work with ethnicity in Asia. Ask a thirteenth century Mongol about northern groups charging through the continent, and you will have one picture. Ask a sedentary Han farmer in the Yellow River valley the same thing, and you will have quite another. Now ask a historian of China…from China…the same question. Finally, ask another historian of China…from, say, Britain, to do the same.

Ethnicity is multi-layered and complex.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
[g] Multi-layered RF
Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 1994), 2.

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