Diaspora

Lynne Pearce

Abstract


For the past twenty years, academics and other social commentators have, by and large, shared the view that the phase of modernity through which we are currently passing is defined by two interrelated catalysts of change: the physical movement of people and the virtual movement of information around the globe.

As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, it is certainly a timely moment to reflect upon the ways in which the prognoses of the scholars and scientists writing in the late twentieth century have come to pass, especially since—during the time this special issue has been in press—the revolutions that are gathering pace in the Arab world appear to be realising the theoretical prediction that the ever-increasing “flows” of people and information would ultimately bring about the end of the nation-state and herald an era of transnationalism (Appadurai, Urry).

For writers like Arjun Appadurai, moreover, the concept of diaspora was key to grasping how this new world order would take shape, and how it would operate:

Diasporic public spheres, diverse amongst themselves, are the crucibles of a postnational political order. The engines of their discourse are mass media (both interactive and expressive) and the movement of refugees, activists, students, laborers. It may be that the emergent postnational order proves not to be a system of homogeneous units (as with the current system of nation-states) but a system based on relations between heterogeneous units (some social movements, some interest groups, some professional bodies, some non-governmental organizations, some armed constabularies, some judicial bodies) ... In the short run, as we can see already, it is likely to be a world of increased incivility and violence. In the longer run, free from the constraints of the nation form, we may find that cultural freedom and sustainable justice in the world do not presuppose the uniform and general existence of the nation-state. This unsettling possibility could be the most exciting dividend of living in modernity at large. (23)

In this editorial, we would like to return to the “here and now” of the late 1990s in which theorists like Arjun Appaduri, Ulrich Beck, John Urry, Zygmunt Bauman, Robert Robertson and others were “imagining” the consequences of both globalisation and glocalisation for the twenty-first century in order that we may better assess what is, indeed, coming to pass. While most of their prognoses for this “second modernity” have proven remarkably accurate, it is their—self-confessed—inability to forecast either the nature or the extent of the digital revolution that most vividly captures the distance between the mid-1990s and now; and it is precisely the consequences of this extraordinary technological revolution on the twin concepts of “glocality” and “diaspora” that the research featured in this special issue seeks to capture.

Glocal Imaginaries

Appadurai’s endeavours to show how globalisation was rapidly making itself felt as a “structure of feeling” (Williams in Appadurai 189) as well as a material “fact” was also implicit in our conceptualisation of the conference, “Glocal Imaginaries: Writing/Migration/Place,” which gave rise to this special issue.

This conference, which was the culmination of the AHRC-funded project “Moving Manchester: Literature/Migration/Place (2006-10)”, constituted a unique opportunity to gain an international, cross-disciplinary perspective on urgent and topical debates concerning mobility and migration in the early twenty-first century and the strand “Networked Diasporas” was one of the best represented on the program. Attracting papers on broadcast media as well as the new digital technologies, the strand was strikingly international in terms of the speakers’ countries of origin, as is this special issue which brings together research from six European countries, Australia and the Indian subcontinent.

The “case-studies” represented in these articles may therefore be seen to constitute something of a “state-of-the-art” snapshot of how Appadurai’s “glocal imaginary” is being lived out across the globe in the early years of the twenty-first century. In this respect, the collection proves that his hunch with regards to the signal importance of the “mass-media” in redefining our spatial and temporal coordinates of being and belonging was correct:

The third and final factor to be addressed here is the role of the mass-media, especially in its electronic forms, in creating new sorts of disjuncture between spatial and virtual neighborhoods. This disjuncture has both utopian and dystopian potentials, and there is no easy way to tell how these may play themselves out in the future of the production of locality. (194)

The articles collected here certainly do serve as testament to the “bewildering plethora of changes in ... media environments” (195) that Appadurai envisaged, and yet it can clearly also be argued that this agent of glocalisation has not yet brought about the demise of the nation-state in the way (or at the speed) that many commentators predicted. 

Digital Diasporas in a Transnational World

Reviewing the work of the leading social science theorists working in the field during the late 1990s, it quickly becomes evident that: (a) the belief that globalisation presented a threat to the nation-state was widely held; and (b) that the “jury” was undecided as to whether this would prove a good or bad thing in the years to come. While the commentators concerned did their best to complexify both their analysis of the present and their view of the future, it is interesting to observe, in retrospect, how the rhetoric of both utopia and dystopia invaded their discourse in almost equal measure.

We have already seen how Appadurai, in his 1996 publication, Modernity at Large, looks beyond the “increased incivility and violence” of the “short term” to a world “free from the constraints of the nation form,” while Roger Bromley, following Agamben and Deleuze as well as Appadurai, typifies a generation of literary and cultural critics who have paid tribute to the way in which the arts (and, in particular, storytelling) have enabled subjects to break free from their national (af)filiations (Pearce, Devolving 17) and discover new “de-territorialised” (Deleuze and Guattari) modes of being and belonging.

Alongside this “hope,” however, the forces and agents of globalisation were also regarded with a good deal of suspicion and fear, as is evidenced in Ulrich Beck’s What is Globalization? In his overview of the theorists who were then perceived to be leading the debate, Beck draws distinctions between what was perceived to be the “engine” of globalisation (31), but is clearly most exercised by the manner in which the transformation has taken shape:

Without a revolution, without even any change in laws or constitutions, an attack has been launched “in the normal course of business”, as it were, upon the material lifelines of modern national societies.

First, the transnational corporations are to export jobs to parts of the world where labour costs and workplace obligations are lowest.

Second, the computer-generation of worldwide proximity enables them to break down and disperse goods and services, and produce them through a division of labour in different parts of the world, so that national and corporate labels inevitably become illusory. (3; italics in the original)

Beck’s concern is clearly that all these changes have taken place without the nation-states of the world being directly involved in any way: transnational corporations began to take advantage of the new “mobility” available to them without having to secure the agreement of any government (“Companies can produce in one country, pay taxes in another and demand state infrastructural spending in yet another”; 4-5); the export of the labour market through the use of digital communications (stereotypically, call centres in India) was similarly unregulated; and the world economy, as a consequence, was in the process of becoming detached from the processes of either production or consumption (“capitalism without labour”; 5-7).

Vis-à-vis the dystopian endgame of this effective “bypassing” of the nation-state, Beck is especially troubled about the fate of the human rights legislation that nation-states around the world have developed, with immense effort and over time (e.g. employment law, trade unions, universal welfare provision) and cites Zygmunt Bauman’s caution that globalisation will, at worst, result in widespread “global wealth” and “local poverty” (31). Further, he ends his book with a fully apocalyptic vision, “the Brazilianization of Europe” (161-3), which unapologetically calls upon the conventions of science fiction to imagine a worst-case scenario for a Europe without nations. While fourteen or fifteen years is evidently not enough time to put Beck’s prognosis to the test, most readers would probably agree that we are still some way away from such a Europe.

Although the material wealth and presence of the transnational corporations strikes a chord, especially if we include the world banks and finance organisations in their number, the financial crisis that has rocked the world for the past three years, along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ascendancy of Al-Qaida (all things yet to happen when Beck was writing in 1997), has arguably resulted in the nations of Europe reinforcing their (respective and collective) legal, fiscal, and political might through rigorous new policing of their physical borders and regulation of their citizens through “austerity measures” of an order not seen since World War Two.

In other words, while the processes of globalisation have clearly been instrumental in creating the financial crisis that Europe is presently grappling with and does, indeed, expose the extent to which the world economy now operates outside the control of the nation-state, the nation-state still exists very palpably for all its citizens (whether permanent or migrant) as an agent of control, welfare, and social justice. This may, indeed, cause us to conclude that Bauman’s vision of a world in which globalisation would make itself felt very differently for some groups than others came closest to what is taking shape: true, the transnationals have seized significant political and economic power from the nation-state, but this has not meant the end of the nation-state; rather, the change is being experienced as a re-trenching of whatever power the nation-state still has (and this, of course, is considerable) over its citizens in their “local”, everyday lives (Bauman 55).

If we now turn to the portrait of Europe painted by the articles that constitute this special issue, we see further evidence of transglobal processes and practices operating in a realm oblivious to local (including national) concerns. While our authors are generally more concerned with the flows of information and “identity” than business or finance (Appaduri’s “ethnoscapes,” “technoscapes,” and “ideoscapes”: 33-7), there is the same impression that this “circulation” (Latour) is effectively bypassing the state at one level (the virtual), whilst remaining very materially bound by it at another.

In other words, and following Bauman, we would suggest that it is quite possible for contemporary subjects to be both the agents and subjects of globalisation: a paradox that, as we shall go on to demonstrate, is given particularly vivid expression in the case of diasporic and/or migrant peoples who may be able to bypass the state in the manufacture of their “virtual” identities/communities) but who (Cohen) remain very much its subjects (or, indeed, “non-subjects”) when attempting movement in the material realm.

Two of the articles in the collection (Leurs & Ponzanesi and Marcheva) deal directly with the exponential growth of “digital diasporas” (sometimes referred to as “e-diasporas”) since the inception of Facebook in 2004, and both provide specific illustrations of the way in which the nation-state both has, and has not, been transcended. First, it quickly becomes clear that for the (largely) “youthful” (Leurs & Ponzanesi) participants of nationally inscribed networking sites (e.g. “discovernikkei” (Japan), “Hyves” (Netherlands), “Bulgarians in the UK” (Bulgaria)), shared national identity is a means and not an end. In other words, although the participants of these sites might share in and actively produce a fond and nostalgic image of their “homeland” (Marcheva), they are rarely concerned with it as a material or political entity and an expression of their national identities is rapidly supplemented by the sharing of other (global) identity markers. 

Leurs & Ponzanesi invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “rhizome” to describe the way in which social networkers “weave” a “rhizomatic path” to identity, gradually accumulating a hybrid set of affiliations. Indeed, the extent to which the “nation” disappears on such sites can be remarkable as was also observed in our investigation of the digital storytelling site, “Capture Wales” (BBC) (Pearce, "Writing"). Although this BBC site was set up to capture the voices of the Welsh nation in the early twenty-first century through a collection of (largely) autobiographical stories, very few of the participants mention either Wales or their “Welshness” in the stories that they tell. Further, where the “home” nation is (re)imagined, it is generally in an idealised, or highly personalised, form (e.g. stories about one’s own family) or through a sharing of (perceived and actual) cultural idiosyncrasies (Marcheva on “You know you’re a Bulgarian when …”) rather than an engagement with the nation-state per se. As Leurs & Ponzanesi observe: “We can see how the importance of the nation-state gets obscured as diasporic youth, through cultural hybridisation of youth culture and ethnic ties initiate subcultures and offer resistance to mainstream cultural forms.” 

Both the articles just discussed also note the shading of the “national” into the “transnational” on the social networking sites they discuss, and “transnationalism”—in the sense of many different nations and their diasporas being united through a common interest or cause—is also a focus of Pikner’s article on “collective actions” in Europe (notably, “EuroMayDay” and “My Estonia”) and Harb’s highly topical account of the role of both broadcast media (principally, Al-Jazeera) and social media in the revolutions and uprisings currently sweeping through the Arab world (spring 2011). On this point, it should be noted that Harb identifies this as the moment when Facebook’s erstwhile predominantly social function was displaced by a manifestly political one. From this we must conclude that both transnationalism and social media sites can be put to very different ends: while young people in relatively privileged democratic countries might embrace transnationalism as an expression of their desire to “rise above” national politics, the youth of the Arab world have engaged it as a means of generating solidarity for nationalist insurgency and liberation. 

Another instance of “g/local” digital solidarity exceeding national borders is to be found in Johanna Sumiala’s article on the circulatory power of the Internet in the Kauhajoki school shooting which took place Finland in 2008. As well as using the Internet to “stage manage” his rampage, the Kauhajoki shooter (whose name the author chose to withhold for ethical reasons) was subsequently found to have been a member of numerous Web-based “hate groups”, many of them originating in the United States and, as a consequence, may be understood to have committed his crime on behalf of a transnational community: what Sumiala has defined as a “networked community of destruction.” It must also be noted, however, that the school shootings were experienced as a very local tragedy in Finland itself and, although the shooter may have been psychically located in a transnational hyper-reality when he undertook the killings, it is his nation-state that has had to deal with the trauma and shame in the long term.

Woodward and Brown & Rutherford, meanwhile, show that it remains the tendency of public broadcast media to uphold the raison d’être of the nation-state at the same time as embracing change. Woodward’s feature article (which reports on the AHRC-sponsored “Tuning In” project which has researched the BBC World Service) shows how the representation of national and diasporic “voices” from around the world, either in opposition to or in dialogue with the BBC’s own reporting, is key to the way in which the Commission has changed and modernised in recent times; however, she is also clear that many of the objectives that defined the service in its early days—such as its commitment to a distinctly “English” brand of education—still remain. Similarly, Brown & Rutherford’s article on the innovative Australian ABC children’s television series, My Place (which has combined traditional broadcasting with online, interactive websites) may be seen to be positively promoting the Australian nation by making visible its commitment to multiculturalism. Both articles nevertheless reveal the extent to which these public service broadcasters have recognised the need to respond to their nations’ changing demographics and, in particular, the fact that “diaspora” is a concept that refers not only to their English and Australian audiences abroad but also to their now manifestly multicultural audiences at home.

When it comes to commercial satellite television, however, the relationship between broadcasting and national and global politics is rather harder to pin down. Subramanian exposes a complex interplay of national and global interests through her analysis of the Malayalee “reality television” series, Idea Star Singer. Exported globally to the Indian diaspora, the show is shamelessly exploitative in the way in which it combines residual and emergent ideologies (i.e. nostalgia for a traditional Keralayan way of life vs aspirational “western lifestyles”) in pursuit of its (massive) audience ratings. Further, while the ISS series is ostensibly a g/local phenomenon (the export of Kerala to the rest of the world rather than “India” per se), Subramanian passionately laments all the progressive national initiatives (most notably, the campaign for “women’s rights”) that the show is happy to ignore: an illustration of one of the negative consequences of globalisation predicted by Beck (31) noted at the start of this editorial.

Harb, meanwhile, reflects upon a rather different set of political concerns with regards to commercial satellite broadcasting in her account of the role of Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya in the recent (2011) Arab revolutions. Despite Al-Jazeera’s reputation for “two-sided” news coverage, recent events have exposed its complicity with the Qatari government; further, the uprisings have revealed the speed with which social media—in particular Facebook and Twitter—are replacing broadcast media. It is now possible for “the people” to bypass both governments and news corporations (public and private) in relaying the news. 

Taken together, then, what our articles would seem to indicate is that, while the power of the nation-state has notionally been transcended via a range of new networking practices, this has yet to undermine its material power in any guaranteed way (witness recent counter-insurgencies in Libya, Bahrain, and Syria).True, the Internet may be used to facilitate transnational “actions” against the nation-state (individual or collective) through a variety of non-violent or violent actions, but nation-states around the world, and especially in Western Europe, are currently wielding immense power over their subjects through aggressive “austerity measures” which have the capacity to severely compromise the freedom and agency of the citizens concerned through widespread unemployment and cuts in social welfare provision.

This said, several of our articles provide evidence that Appadurai’s more utopian prognoses are also taking shape. Alongside the troubling possibility that globalisation, and the technologies that support it, is effectively eroding “difference” (be this national or individual), there are the ever-increasing (and widely reported) instances of how digital technology is actively supporting local communities and actions around the world in ways that bypass the state. These range from the relatively modest collective action, “My Estonia”, featured in Pikner’s article, to the ways in which the Libyan diaspora in Manchester have made use of social media to publicise and support public protests in Tripoli (Harb). In other words, there is compelling material evidence that the heterogeneity that Appadurai predicted and hoped for has come to pass through the people’s active participation in (and partial ownership of) media practices. Citizens are now able to “interfere” in the representation of their lives as never before and, through the digital revolution, communicate with one another in ways that circumvent state-controlled broadcasting.

We are therefore pleased to present the articles that follow as a lively, interdisciplinary and international “state-of-the-art” commentary on how the ongoing revolution in media and communication is responding to, and bringing into being, the processes and practices of globalisation predicted by Appadurai, Beck, Bauman, and others in the 1990s. The articles also speak to the changing nature of the world’s “diasporas” during this fifteen year time frame (1996-2011) and, we trust, will activate further debate (following Cohen) on the conceptual tensions that now manifestly exist between “virtual” and “material” diasporas and also between the “transnational” diasporas whose objective is to transcend the nation-state altogether and those that deploy social media for specifically local or national/ist ends.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) for their generous funding of the “Moving Manchester” project (2006-10). Special thanks to Dr Kate Horsley (Lancaster University) for her invaluable assistance as ‘Web Editor’ in the production of this special issue (we could not have managed without you!) and also to Gail Ferguson (our copy-editor) for her expertise in the preparation of the final typescript.

References

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization. Cambridge: Polity, 1998.

Beck, Ulrich. What is Globalization? Trans. Patrick Camiller. Cambridge: Polity, 2000 (1997).

Bromley, Roger. Narratives for a New Belonging: Diasporic Cultural Fictions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000.

Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. 

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Pearce, Lynne, ed. Devolving Identities: Feminist Readings in Home and Belonging. London: Ashgate, 2000.

Pearce, Lynne. “‘Writing’ and ‘Region’ in the Twenty-First Century: Epistemological Reflections on Regionally Located Art and Literature in the Wake of the Digital Revolution.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 13.1 (2010): 27-41.

Robertson, Robert. Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage, 1992. 

Urry, John. Sociology beyond Societies. London: Routledge, 1999.

Williams, Raymond. Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.


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