Ethnicity, Ethnoscapes and
Dialectics of Positioning/Positionality, Identification/Identity:
A Reading of Select Fictional Writings from Northeast India
Manash Pratim Borah, PhD
Assistant Professor in English
Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies
(An Autonomous Institute under the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India)
Dahung, West Kameng District, Arunachal Pradesh- 790116
Ethnicity, as a paradoxical locus of contestation between the primordialists and the instrumentalists and ethnoscapes as enduring dynamism of cultural negotiation and territorialisation of ethnic memory vis-à-vis cultural communities and folk-traits are two generative parameters, which, in turn, not only bear testimony to a community’s cultural and spatial traits but also a tactic towards ‘politics of location’, narratives of re-territorialisation and dialectics of positioning/positionality, identification/identity. Being internally destabilized with cognitive dissonance and lack of sync between positioning and positionality, both the notions can be categorized as enabling fictions within Queer politics converting them into catalysts of productivity and strategic maneuvers. Emerging as two focal considerations in a critical realist identity politics of Northeast India, both the notions are seen to be indispensable in documenting cultural and socio-political experiences of the region manifesting ideology of agency and the mentioned trajectories as dialectic discourses, which, in turn, brings into context the trajectories between identification to identity as discursive processes linking group or collectivity within a specific social space. It is the socio-spatial and structural positioning of collectivities of individuals that give rise to discourses of identification and take apart ‘ascriptive identities’ from subjective one. Within the arena of fictional writings of Northeast India, it seems always provocative how the writers from this marginalized zone manifest their ethnically oriented identitarian maneuvers, negotiation and reflexivity within fictional narratives in handling the dialectic of positioning/positionality and identification/identity for understanding ideological construct of ethnoscapes, ethnic identity and its contingencies. Within the ambit of ethnicity, these writers are also fascinated in reading socio-spatial structural positioning and restrains of positionality in constructing location and withstanding pressures of cultural expulsion. The present paper will discuss how these notions about positioning/positionality, identification/identity are revealed, queered and problamatized in select fictional narratives of Northeast India in terms of ethnoscapes and the epistemic value of ethnicity. (Total Words- 304)
Key Words: Ethnicity, Ethnoscapes, Positioning/Positionality, Identification/Identity, Queer/Identity Politics, Northeast India
Ethnicity, as a paradoxical locus of contestation between the primordialists and the instrumentalists and ethnoscapes as enduring dynamism of cultural negotiation and territorialisation of ethnic memory vis-à-vis cultural communities and folk-traits are two generative parameters, which, in turn, not only bear testimony to a community’s cultural and spatial traits but also a tactic towards “politics of location” (qtd in Mankekar 63), narratives of de/re-territorialisation and dialectics of positioning/positionality, identification/identity. Within the ambit of ethnic scholarship and intercultural ethnoscapes, if the eventual struggle is against forms of ideological and material dominations and processes of marginalization, then what is indispensable in such situations is definitely a ‘politics of location’, queer/identity politics and above all a postpositivist approach towards socio-spatial and structural positionality and identity for “generating agency and for creating spaces from which to resist and contest hegemonic shaping and defining “reality”” (Sanchez 31). Such hegemonic shaping and subjective definition of reality can be discussed under the head of identification/identity as two discursive paradoxical processes of identity inculcation and formation respectively. While all proponents and contingencies of ethnicity, ethnoscapes and identity are considered as ideological though economically discursive processes of dynamism and construction leaving many times stigmatized or debilitating effects of our life-chances, there are many critics who find these consequences as traumatic experiences coterminous to productivity and rehabilitation. In the very outset of this discussion, such critics will not be enlivened with any pleasing reply, which may too bear justification for the need of a postpositivist approach towards such ideological/economic constructions. My main objective behind writing this essay is to address and to interrogate those challenging aspects of ethnically oriented marginal sites of production having the constituent mix of contingency and blind spots which are ultimately grounded in social reality but are curtained and fossilized by hegemonic forces. If such locations are not explicitly visible and audible in public experience and discourses, the fictional writings and voices of violence, marginality and ethnic identity from Northeast India symptomatic to those locations are now emerging as intercultural ethnoscapes, which can also be considered and understood as Bakhtinian ‘chronotopes’ as a markers of intrinsic bond between spatial and temporal dimensions. Since Bakhtin initially meant to apply the concept of ‘chronotopes’ to the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature”, ‘chronotopes’ actually provide an entry point of all forms of pragmatic meaning (81). Bakhtin remarks that, “without such temporal-spatial expression, even abstract thought is impossible. Consequently, every entry into the sphere of meaning is accomplished through the gates of chronotope” (258). Hence for the convenience of our discussion, we can consider those fictional narratives created by the socially committed writers of this marginalized zone as ‘chronotopes’ as well as ‘ethnoscapes’ where literary artists draw how ethnic groups make geography and produce space to legitimize their existence in space and time and how such spaces are modified and de/re-territorialised in due course of time.
Ethnicity, Ethnoscapes and Ethnic Identity
“…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 foster those “socially effective” ways in which notions of ethnic group identities and boundaries were fashioned and maintained vis-à-vis the fixed or primordial cultural traits of ethnic communities (10). Understanding an ethnic community, hence, needs a methodical framework which may present various 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 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). 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 indefinite cultural traits.
As categories of identity formations, in both the binaries, the secondary one is always endowed with contingency and ongoing 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 stance to that objectively determined positioning. Whereas one’s positionality is conditioned by his/her positioning, but “not strictly determined…moreover, positionality is always at variance with other positionalities”, including one’s multiple perspectives (Sanchez 38-39). Whereas positioning is a kind of enabling discourse of subject formation with respect to other location, positionality is always marked with a kind of transcendent bravado depending on the dynamic context of living and ideology (Here ideology is manifested to us through Marxian base/superstructure model). Appadurai’s ‘constant flows’ or ‘scapes’ are hence marked with varied 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 mix 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 identity and global hybridity (Sanchez 39). Unraveling inherent 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 provide the material basis for understanding the reflexive and agential acts of individual identity formations.
With this framing at my disposal, I will also consider the fact that as ‘ethnoscapes’ are subjected to redefining ethnicity along with territorial and cultural reproduction signaling the social construction of ethnicity and ethnic identity within the domain of globalism, the scaffolding for those intercultural facsimileing is actually constituted by ‘chronotopes’. The entire process of that facsimileing is based on a material basis of cultural transformation beyond all sorts of ideological paradigms of identity formation and artistic creations. And what seems really fascinating in such formations and creation processes is that as identity, itself as a discursive process and discourse is grounded in social reality and context of belonging, i.e. all forms of social structures and relations, reality, by contrast is not based on such discursive domains and not reducible to those discursive discourses. Discourse cannot discus that structure in a nutshell. It is the inescapable relationality of identity formation for which we need postpositivist realist approach to scan the dialectical nature of identity construction by situating identity both in a “radical universalist” and a “multicultural” world view (Mohanty xii). The approach will provide a material basis of identity formation in relation to social structure incorporating the dialectic of positioning/positionality and identification/identity as discursive processes.
The ethnoscapic as well as the chronotopic analysis of most of the “tales of ethnographic representations” from Northeast India have fastidiously manifested how artistically such narratives are incorporating 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). Beyond the quotidian discourse of ethnicity propagated by the primordialists, such narratives are centred around the notion of ethnic reterritorialisation in consequence of transnational and intercultural phenomenon as sites of cultural and territorial productions.
Two such stories from Assam 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, Western cultural impact and 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).
In the context of both the ethnographic representations, an explicit travesty of time has 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.
Mamang Dai’s “Travel the Road” is also a story of an ethnic community living in the village Komsing of Arunachal Pradesh. With this symbolic title, the narrator accounts 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 easily 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.
Temsula Ao’s “The Curfew Man”, though embedded in the troubled time of Naga history, presents the territorial and intercultural changes in the ethnic identity of the Naga community in the course of time as consequences of deterritorialisation of ethnic belonging and global changes. The narrator through his epistemic construction of Naga identity fictionalizes the notion 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. 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 all these four ethnographic narratives, ethnic identity is itself set against a global podium of inherent dynamism to focus on intercultural and territorial productions which eventually counteract ethics of stable/imposed identity. 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. 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 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 articulation of new beginnings. 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).
The saga continues throughout 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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