Reconceptualising the Southern Chinese: From Community to Diaspora



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"Reconceptualising the Southern Chinese: From Community to Diaspora"

Australian National University, 27 February 1999




Introduction


In an effort to take advantage of Professor Wang's visit, as well as to stimulate a re-thinking of major scholarly issues, the CSCSD also sponsored a day-long 'free-for-all' to discuss how best to approach the study of the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and Australasia - including heated discussion of the propriety of the term 'diaspora'.

Keynote speakers were the writer and television journalist Annette Shun-wah, who discussed what it meant to be 'Chinese' in Australia today, as well as the noted academic Professor Carl Trocki, who recalled his own experiences as a student of the Nanyang Chinese. Both were followed, in the morning and afternoon respectively, by panel discussions.


John Docker


Humanities Research Centre (HRC), The Australian National University

Opening remarks of chair for Roundtable Discussion of Christine Inglis, Shen Yuan-fang, Jane Lydon, and Ien Ang.

It is with a feeling of honour and privilege in being asked to chair the following roundtable discussion that I participate today in this colloquium.

In cultural studies in the 1990s the surge of interest in the theory of diaspora cuts across the generalities and totalisings of some postcolonial theory, the postcolonial theory that dominated cultural studies in the 1980s and into the 1990s. As the American anthropologist James Clifford argues in a synoptic essay, now part of his book Routes, diaspora was once a term that referred primarily to the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian dispersions. It now refers as well to contemporary situations that invoke the experiences of the immigrant, expatriate, refugee, guest-worker, exile, and ethnic community. Diaspora usually presupposes a distance and separation from a society of origin that has affinities with exile, where there is a taboo on return, or its postponement to a remote future; though, Clifford feels, diaspora, in its emphasis on maintaining a collectivity, is different from exile, with its frequent individual focus. Diaspora, associated with minority and migrant populations, is involved with experiences of transnational identity, of memory and longing across space and time.

Clifford argues against the view that diasporas are based on an ideal-type, in particular, the Jewish diaspora as guiding model. (Actually, I think in recent postcolonial theory it is the Indian diaspora which has been regarded as normative.) Clifford suggests there is no single model, that diasporas exist and are defined in their individuality and diversity, as the term has been continuously adapted to new situations, for example, to the Chinese diasporas. Diasporas are shaped in specific mappings and histories; in memories and practices of collective identity over long stretches of time.

Diaspora defines itself against, or is in entangled tension with, the claims to autochthonous origins in a particular land and landscape of indigenous peoples. Spatially, diaspora collides with the claims to unity of the nation-state, for diaspora communities maintain allegiances and connections to a homeland or to dispersed communities elsewhere: diasporas continuously cross borders, continually invoke collective identifications and identities that traverse and go beyond the nation-state's desire for narratives of assimilation or self-sufficiency.

The accommodations of diaspora are an alternative to nationalist rebellion and violence. Clifford recognises, nevertheless, that diaspora communities are not necessarily anti-nationalist, indeed they may yearn for or actively support nationalist claims to a homeland somewhere else.

Within a nation-state, however, diasporas are, Clifford argues, necessarily cosmopolitan, combining skills in community maintenance, adaptation, accommodation, with resistance to cooption, assimilation, discrimination, exploitation and exclusion. Diaspora embraces the arts of exile and coexistence, a people maintaining its own distinctiveness in relations of daily converse with others. Diasporas are always gendered, though there is a tendency to talk of travel and displacement in unmarked ways, thus assuming male experience as normative, displacing the specificity of male and female inflections. Experiences of loss, marginality, and exile, mediated by class, are in tension with attachments to visions of other places, other times, ties to forces that surpass the nation-state, like Christianity or Islam or Judaism, or a sense of being African or Chinese as well as English or American - or, we can add, Australian. Diasporas constitute themselves in double or multiple consciousness, of being both here and there, now and then, a state of inbetweenness in relation to a perhaps distant mythological origin and an eschatalogical or messianic future.

In diasporic consciousness, time is a substance, to borrow a term from Spinoza: a substance thick with idea, desire, and fear.

Time is contrapuntal (Clifford calling here on a phrase from Edward Said's well-known essay `Reflections on Exile'), or syncopated, similar to Walter Benjamin's notion of time crossed by prophecy, by messianic visions. In syncopated or discrepant time, belying the homogeneous time of the nation-state's narrative of progress, effaced stories are recovered, different futures are imagined. Diasporas live in the tension of loss and hope, old and new, tradition and novel possibilities, the dystopic and utopic. Diasporas exist in the shadow of suspicion and vulnerability, disaster and cruelty.

In the phenomenology of diaspora, then, displacement and exile can be suffering and loss, and opportunity for adventures of identity and self-fashioning. Diasporas can experience relations of hierarchy, power, and exploitation within themselves. Diasporas can be influenced by societies of origin to perform ideological and political work on their behalf. Diaspora communities can be subject to desires for power by those who wish to control them, with attendant internal relations of majority and minority, centre and margin, othering and exclusion.

The experiences of diaspora have complex relations with the history of colonialism. Since the tumultuous events of 1492, European colonists have exhibited a curious contract with history, that wherever they go in the world, and despite the little time they may have been in a new place, and despite themselves having often been victims of colonial contempt and violence, they are not aliens or outsiders from distant continents but the immediate rightful settlers at home in this their new home with the confidence to do immediate injury to those already there or not from Europe or not from the right part of Europe: people who can be immediately designated by the new settlers as aliens or outsiders or not belonging. In these terms diasporic communities can experience racist hostility, disdain and contempt from a majority society. But in the history of settler-colonies diasporic communities - whether European or Asian - are migrants in a more general sense just like the migrants of the majority society; that is, they are colonizers in relation to the colonised and they can be perceived by the colonised as another set of invaders, not brothers and sisters on the margins, not the fellow oppressed and dispossessed. Yet they can also be perceived as fellow subjects of racism, creating commonalities, the attraction of outsiders to fellow outsiders.

The poetics of diaspora are indeed intricate and tortured.

Copyright © 1999, John Docker.

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