Ethnicity is the set of communal boundaries into which in part we are put by others…in part which we impose upon ourselves, serving to locate our identity and our rank among the state… [Ethnic identities] are always contemporary constructs, and thus always changing.
Perhaps instead of thinking identity as an already accomplished, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside representation.
This essay has a somewhat sweeping character. Primarily it is an attempt to read ethnicity in general applying queer as an instrumentalist and the birth of intercultural ethnoscapes as consequences of inherent dynamism of spatio-cultural positioning and positionalities applying the postpositivist realist approach within the locus of an ethnic community in a polyethnic region like northeast India. But such an effort is more favoured to constitute a theoretical paradigm than to read ethnicity and ethnoscapes for the sake of exploring thought only. In the introspective level, hence, the essay is a consolidating effort of applying a theoretical paradigm fabricated with the mentioned critical parameters in reading or rather re-reading the identity politics of some of the selected ethnic communities in representative fictional narratives of the region. And in doing so, my own role as an instrumentalist and my approach as the postpositivist realist effort will thoroughly be justified as I will not consider ethnicity or ethnic identity as given or ineffable but constructed or malleable and applying my keen observation on the topic I too will suppose that a theory-mediated knowledge will always be possible or reliable and any sorts of identity constituted without social significance is deceptive and thereby needs reinterpretation. With this framing at my disposal, I will incorporate the socio-spatial significance of identity construction with the notion of intercultural ethnoscapes as dynamic processes of ethnic stratification and de/re-territorialisation in select fictional narratives of this marginalized region namely northeast India. In preparing the theoretical paradigm, I am comprehensively indebted to the notions of Arjun Appadurai, Paula M. Moya and Satya Mahanty who have read ethnicity and identity as dynamic epistemic sites and resources in the discourse of human sciences and sociological debates and have incorporated most recent epistemological developments in those concerned areas.
Using the term ‘queer’ as a judging parameter of identity with the hope to destabilizing its various categories has undoubtedly distanced me from the primordialists who conceive identity (as well as ethnicity) as given and ineffable, the sacred bond, hereditary or historical, linking a community and individuals together corresponding to cultural commonalities. Such essentialised notions of identity even always conceive the relationship between the ascriptive and subjective identity as absolute one. In this present paper, the reason behind discarding the essentialists’ notion of identity is not purely theoretical one; I have discarded the essentialists’ notion of identity as they always undermine the referential and social nature of identity. They fail to conceive the dynamic nature of social arrangement and the context of living along with identity contingencies as well. Even the idealists also negate that intimate bond between the ascriptive and subjective identities and claim that there is “no stable or discoverable relationship between the ascriptive and subjective aspects of identity” (Moya 98). Both the notions of identity have theorized in such utopian and quintessential ways that ultimately fail to catch the dynamic nature of social reality, context and substantial things of identity formation. Both the notions too are not instrumental in mapping the processes of the birth of intercultural and interstitial ethnoscapes depicted in most of the ethnographic representations of our time. All those narratives can be analyzed with the postpositivist realist approach conceiving identity and ethnicity as dynamic productive categories not either totally free or totally dependent on social categories and referentiality.
Queer Ethnicity and the Birth of Intercultural Ethnoscapes
…ethnicity is the way individuals and groups characterize themselves on the basis of their language, race, place of origin, shared culture, values, and history... Central to the notion of ethnicity is a conception of a common descent, often of a mythic character.
(Ali and Weiner 2-3)
In their views, what remains central to the notion of ethnicity is a triangular reciprocity among collectivity, context and a historical sense of that collectivity for the sake of sustaining and promoting shared consciousness. Such efforts of sustenance and augmentation of ethnicity are optimistically culminated with the forces of economic and cultural globalization as a matter of counteracts movement which may be termed as ‘ethnicity boom’. In the context of Northeast India, that ‘ethnicity boom’, in many cases is emerged with high levels of violence and separatist conflicts promulgated by various inter-group ethnic clashes and movements leading to the establishment of sovereign territories or councils and identity assertion. As it has been mentioned earlier that ethnicity as a locus of contestation between the primordialists and the instrumentalists arouses a lot many vital issues regarding ‘politics of location’ and dialectic of positioning/positionality, identification/identity, the primordialists’ notions of ineffable and hereditary or historical aspects of ethnicity in our modern debates are always placed in tough assessment in front of instrumentalists’ noninterventionist and postpositivist views of ethnicity. For the instrumentalists, owing to historical circumstances such as migration and colonization, ethnicity is considered as socially constructed, malleable, and often deliberately produced or manifold. As a paradoxical locus of contestation, hence, if ethnicity, on the one hand renders the promise of social recognition of pious attachment and cultural difference; on the other, illuminating its fictionality produced in the process of nationalization, it shows the underlying social hybridization and internal contingencies.
Fredrik Barth have sought to cultivate those “socially effective” ways in which notions of ethnic group identities and boundaries were fashioned and maintained vis-à-vis the predetermined or primordial cultural traits of ethnic communities (10). Understanding an ethnic community, hence, needs a methodical framework which may present an assortment of principles concerning ethnic stereotyping and differences with other ethnic groups and how such notions and principles are formed, hackneyed and thereby traditionalized in changing historical context and location. In shifting historical context, ethnic communities not only concoct their locations but also transport memories and pattern behavior with them. Such reterritorailisation may be occurred in terms of spatial or chronotopic dimension indicating the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” (Bakhtin 84). In this way, such writings will turn out to be kinds of Bakhtinian chronotopes to provide us a ‘gate’ of entry into the sphere of meaning. As Bakhtin remarks, “[W]hatever these meanings turn out to be, in order to enter our experience (which is social experience) they must take on the form of a sign that is audible and visible to us. Without such temporal-spatial expression, even abstract thought is impossible. Consequently, every entry into the sphere of meanings is accomplished through the gates of the chronotope” (258). In consequence of such ethnic reterritorialisation as result of migration and global changes, new ethnoscapes are emerged as ways of cultural and territorial production of ethnic identity (Appadurai 221). As Appadurai remarks, “landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live” and transnational and intercultural phenomenon, new ways of territorial and cultural reproduction of group identity are emerged through ‘ethnoscapes’ (222). However, as Appadurai remarks such ethnoscapes are not the primordial products of ethnic communities; eventually of future development, re/negotiation with reality, such ethnoscapes are emerged gradually as processes. Appadurai says, “This is not to say that there are not anywhere relatively stable communities and networks, of kinship, of friendship, of work and of leisure, as well as of birth, residence and other filiative forms. But it is to say that the warp of these stabilities is everywhere shot through with the woof of human motion, as more persons and groups deal with the realities of having to move, or the fantasies of wanting to move” (ibid). Hence we need to think about ethnicity or ethnic identity in terms of distinct flows or ‘scpaes’ as unrestrained dynamic interconnectedness between the temporal and spatial. It is the ongoing dynamism that fosters cultural renegotiation and thereby creates threats to ideologies of static homogenized ethnic communities. Due to this enduring dynamism, ethnic identities must be analyzed in terms of specific historical context and locality in which they are re/produced, transformed and maintained as imprecise cultural traits.
Ethnoscapes are Heterotopias
Now central to the notion of ethnicity is the intercultural ethnoscapes which can be further theorized with the Foucaultian notion of heterotopias. Queering ethnicity indicates the flexibility of ethnicity as a cultural description manifesting its fictionality and the perceived sense of belongingness, identity and ‘home’ related with the notion. In the contested domain of Northeast India, ethnicity of a specific ethnic group at a time incorporates manifold dimensions and spaces as dynamic fictional constructs. As Foucault describes heterotopias as “a single real place” juxtaposing varied irreconcilable spaces in a way of “counter-arrangement in which all other real arrangement (state/theories/nations) that can be found in a society are at one and at the same time represented, challenged and overturned” (350). Within the locus of heterotopias, places and spaces function in a non-hegemonic mutual condition which may have more meaning than its physical appearance. As multiethnic and polyethnic cannot be understood within the ambit of structuralism and binary system, likewise heterotopias need to be analysed from the perspective of micro-spaces which are mutually in a dynamic condition but are represented to us in the form of societies. To indicate the spatial dimension of heterotopias, Foucault uses the metaphor of a garden which represents the notion of one space irrespective to its multifaceted environment with different plants and flowers. Ethnic communities are too representing the heterotopic dimension of cultural production curtaining the inherent ‘scapes’ and illusions of spaces and cultures. Such ethnoscpaic and heterotopic dimensions always create illusion vis-à-vis intercultural productions, spatial changes and hi/stories of identity formation and assertion as well.
Ethnoscapes and Periplum
Periplum indicates new discoveries and change of consciousness in the course of movement and paradigm shift. The journey of a cultural community can be viewed through this notion of periplum in which several socio-cultural and contextual elements are added up and erased in due course. From this perspective, periplum can be related with Joycian theme of voyage where new consciousness is emerged with every new discovery.
Applying that composite phenomenon of adding and erasing physical and mental elements in a movement of individuals and ethnic communities, the processes of identity formation and assertion along identity politics can be read as processes of successive loosing/discoveries depending on the dynamic context of living. Such processes always integrate the trajectories between positioning to positionality and identification to identity as dialectical relationships linking strategic edges of identity and its various contingencies. As categories of identity configurations, in both the binaries, the subsequent one is always endowed with contingency and enduring dynamism. If positioning is one’s social location within a specific historico-economic context reverberating precise discourse and ethics of objective identification, positionality, by contrast is one’s imagined relation and posture to that objectively determined positioning. Whereas one’s positionality is conditioned by his/her positioning, but “not strictly determined…moreover, positionality is always at discrepancy with other positionalities”, including one’s multiple perspectives (Sanchez 38-39). Whereas positioning is a kind of enabling discourse of subject formation respecting other location, positionality is always marked with a kind of transcendent bravado depending on the dynamic context of living and ideology. Appadurai’s ‘constant flows’ or ‘scapes’ are hence marked with speckled kinds of positionalities as makers of ethnic, technical, media oriented or ideological ‘scapes’. As socio-spatial positioning is not necessarily unitary and singular, such distributions of collective communities are found to be providing specific linkage and stipulation to individual for credentials. It is through relative contestation which in turn labels individual with specific grouping and thereby differs him/her from others. One’s socio-spatial identification, hence, is always collectively drawn vis-à-vis socio-spatial and constitutive positioning. Such positioning, in turn, incorporates constitutive jumble of social, political, economic and cultural forces within a global context. On the other hand, fostering the inherent “cognitive dissonance, asymmetry or lack of sync between one’s positioning and one’s positionality”, the discourse too enhances politically productive spaces for queer ethnicity, identity and global hybridity (Sanchez 39). Unraveling innate tension in both the dialectics, hence, needs postpositivist realist approach that may fastidiously provide a global justification of ethnic identities. Within a tapered paradigm of individuation/identification, a realist view of identity may endow with the material basis for understanding the reflexive and agential acts of individual identity formations.
The dynamic nature of ethnoscapes as products of itinerant ethnicity and ethnic identity always stand for heterotopic as well as chronotopic dimensions of any ethnic community. Such ethnoscapic and the chronotopic investigation of most of the “tales of ethnographic representations” from Northeast India have fastidiously manifested how artistically such narratives have incorporated territorial and cultural reproduction of ethnic identity within the arena of a global podium along with the dialectics of positioning/positionality, identification/identity (Bhattacharjee 244). Outside the quotidian discourse of ethnicity proliferated by the primordialists, such narratives are centred around the ideas of ethnic rehabilitation in consequence of transnational and intercultural phenomenon as sites of cultural and territorial productions. Within the ambit of an ethnic community, what is vindicated in such situations is identity politics as a dialectical and intersubjective process of negotiating, interrogating and creating novel identities to open up new opportunities for individuals to be engaged with emerging ethnoscapes and periplum.
One fine piece of imagination representing the intercultural ethnoscapes of an Arunachali ethnic community in the village Komsing in the course of voyage from tradition to modernity is Mamang Dai’s “Travel the Road”. With this symbolic title, the narrator represents the ethnic historiography of the community in the changing context starting with the time of British invasion to rehabilitation of ethnic settlement focusing on the essential cultural traits of the community in a way that effortlessly brings into the context the ethnoscapic dimension of territorial and intercultural negotiation and production. The narrator speaks the voice of the shaman, the Miri- “Out of this place of great stillness, the first flicker of thought began to shine like a light in the soul of man. It became a shimmering trail, too shape and expanded and became the pathway” (19). The community starting with “nothingness” came into being as an ethnic community with new cultural and territorial location through perplexing processes of mythmaking and resistance (ibid). Such contestation vis-à-vis positioning and identification is explicitly revealed to us when addressing the whites the Miri remarks “They think we are a village of horror, but it is not true! The leaves of the orange trees glisten…we are not a village of shame” (18). In due course of reterritorialisation, what is needed is territorialisation of ethnic memory in the form of therapeutic re-membering and rehabilitation.
Two another such stories from this polyethnic region manifesting the notion of ethnoscapes as moving melting ground of the old and new are Rong Bong Terang’s “A Smiling Village” and Maushumi Kandali’s “The Crossroads of Mukindon”- as two fine pieces of literary imagination presenting the Karbis of Assam in a crucial juncture of lived history, where the ethnic ‘community’ is found under the legacy of displacement and identity crisis provoked by European civilizing mission and Western cultural impact along with global changes afterward. If in the ‘smiling village’ of Baithalangshu, Saroika- the leading character of Terrang has “wondered whether conversion implied that one had to change one’s name as well?” (76), the leading character in Kandali’s version namely Hangmizi is himself uncertainly oscillating in between two poles: “At one was the woman set against the dense forest and mysterious hill, and at the other a gyrating metallic world- two parallel canvasses: one a naturalistic landscape and the other a futuristic city-scape with its thousand lights and million sounds” (126). The characters soaked with the sweet and scent of essential Karbihood have revealed a deep sense of loss and despondency while speaking about the territorial and intercultural changes and about a new generation living at the crossroad of lived history. The “scapes” of the Karbis’ ethnic identity become more explicit to us when a distracted Karbi namely Chomang in Kandali’s narration reveals his Karbi ethics- “Life is like that column in the Sunday Supplement of the Asian Age, What’s In What’s Out. Every week, ins go out and the outs come in” (129). Identity for that distracted Karbi is “social constructs that draw upon available social categories” linking the heterotopic and ethnoscapic dimensions of time, place and actions (Moya 99). Within the locus of that Karbi community, what is really fascinating is that there are many divisions of Karbi myths, identities and spaces which are re-written many times in due course.
In the context of both the ethnographic representations, an explicit travesty of time has also come into view when memory and orality are placed alongside the present changes which, in turn, has brought the characters into the ‘crossroads’ of ideological stance of being rooted and uprooted at the same time. Presenting a crucial historical rupture of a secluded community through the method of paradox, hence, both the narratives have located the community in an arena of in-betweeness of real and imagined or rooted and uprooted simultaneously irrespective to any fixed notion of identity.
Deeply embedded in the troubled time of Naga history, Temsula Ao’s “The Curfew Man” presents the territorial and intercultural changes in the ethnic identity of the Naga community in the course of time as consequences of de-territorialisation of ethnic identity, belonging and global changes. The narrator through his epistemic erection of Naga identity overtly fictionalizes the idea of travelling identities of Naga villagers through two representative characters namely Satemba and Jemtila, who going against their will move from one location to another in search of livelihood and thereby debunk the notion of unwavering ethnic identity. Being the eventual victims of that sovereignty movement, two innocent Naga villagers namely Satemba, a retired constable in Assam police and his wife Jemtila came to Mokokchung town in search of a new beginning of life. But after an alarming accident Satemba became lame by one leg and could not able to do any physical work. Thereby he was appointed as detective to army by the SDO and made him a messenger against those hideous groups. But unfortunately he was caught by the members of one of the underground groups and warned him to leave the job. Both the husband-wife, after that event, was terrified with the risk of their lives and thought of leaving the town. But this time he was again ‘fortunately’ wounded by another leg and Jemtila informed the SDO that by now Satemba could not continue his job. The SDO appoints another person for the job. The mockery of situation as upshot of Satemba’s second accident is that this time both husband and wife became happy with Saemba’s accident that he does not need do the job again. What is vindicated in varied locations of Satemba’s livelihood is not the essential Nagahood, but a dynamic hybrid identity decentered from the very center. In every location, the past one is always customized and new work and identity is re-invented.
In Kallol Chaudhuri’s “Haflong Hills”, Dipankar Goswami, and his wife Minati and other members of Central Excise receive a call from one underground organization that “twenty percent of the total salary of all the office staff should be sent to them at Dhopaline along with a list of employees…” (146). Whereas Dipankar believes that “they’ve (the underground members) taken into insurgency only as a means to earn their living breads”, Minati remains obstinate and wants to know the ideology behind tormenting other people of those underground organizations (145). She accompanies her husband and meets the “commander-in-chief” and asks some questions which should be asked by all the characters in all these mentioned narratives: “What’s the ideology behind your taking up arms? ...The railway tracks would be blown up it seems, if suitable development is not made. But the general public would be most affected if the railway lines are blown up. We don’t find any reason for your resorting to destructive ways if you love this country…” (149). Although the “commander-in-chief” did not give any unambiguous answer of her questions, still he considered the fact that her words “motivated” him internally (150). In the course of the voyage from the office to the underground organization, the thought and consciousness of all the characters are drastically changed with every new discovery of knowledge which in turn connotes the notion of periplum occurring inside ethnic groups.
A Dynamic Trilogy
In all these ethnographic narratives, ethnic identity is involved with identity politics within the ambit of a global podium of intrinsic dynamism to focus on intercultural and territorial productions which eventually counteract ethics of stable/imposed identity. In all sorts of spatial and mental dimensions, identity is revealed to us both as real and constructed depending on the nature of characters. The difference between Chomang and Saroika in Terrang’s account is an epistemic indication of emerging ethnoscapes and periplum as well. But what seems interesting all these stories is that starting with Terrang to Ao, ethnoscapic rehabilitation is occurred in case of both stable and mobile races. Karbis are the inhabitants of the Tika Pahar of Baithalangshu since three centuries back but the new generation Kabis considers their territory is reterritorised many times in due course. Those shifting ethnoscapes emerged out of the process of transnational and intercultural reproduction discard the primordialists’ notions of stable positioning and identification and thereby triumph the second ones in both the binaries as dynamic categories. In Kandali’s account of newly emerged Karbi myths, identity is itself varied within the same ethnic community, same generation. The enunciation of memory and orality in both the stories, as two empowering devices which enable a bygone time to re-affirm its value and the sense of loss in present, hence, has located the community in a verge of identity crisis and displacement and too has opened newer spaces and contexts in the present for the younger generation to reclaim and affirm what have been lost and disappeared. In case of Temsula Ao, Satemba not only invents locations but also identities and in turn memories. If they reinvent territories and new myth of ethnicity, they too are reinvented by territories and ethnic mythology.
In these fictions, ethnoscapes are emerged not only as consequences of transnational and intercultural phenomenon but also through intrinsic reciprocity within the dialectics of positioning/positionality and identification/identity and which in turn bear testimony for reterritorialisation of ethnic memory signaling creativity and vulnerability of ethnic identity at the same time. I find Prof. B. K. Danta’s one comment very useful in this regard-
“…when we see narratives trying to retain or to return to the beginnings of the subject, we sense an admission of defeat, uncertainties on account of late arrival in the scene. Similarly, when we see narratives trying to celebrate the moment of arrival, we sense a crisis. The euphoria of arrival is undercut by an allegory of loss” (109).
In this way, the loss-gain-crisis trilogy becomes an intrinsic part of every ethnic community writing own history within the history of mankind. Every community explores new locations, memory and identity in due course and set narratives for enunciation of new beginnings. As Susan J. Hekman remarks, the “social, political, and psychological theorists each have a particular position to argue on the question of identity and identity politics… the problem of identity will not go away... (N)o one approach to identity solves all the issues raised” (1). The saga continues all the way through ages. New ethnoscapes, mythology, narratives are created and recreated in due course; once local, ethnic is converted into a global commodity and global is melted within the local as commonality. What we loss is curtained by what we gain and thereby welcome new ontology of hi/stories and identities to explore newer abode to re-explore.
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