Cultural Turf and the Maintenance of Hybridity

How to Cite

Mason’s, E. D. (2004). Border-Building: Cultural Turf and the Maintenance of Hybridity. M/C Journal, 7(2).
Vol. 7 No. 2 (2004): Turf
Published 2004-03-01

Borders seem to be dropping all around us. Interdisciplinary university curricula, international free trade, wireless broadband technologies—these and many other phenomena suggest a steady decline in the rigidity and quantity of borders delimiting social interactions. In response to this apparent loss of borders, critical scholars might point out that university hiring practices remain discipline-bound, international tariffs are widespread, and technological access is uneven. But even as this critical response points out the limited extent of border-loss, it still affirms the weakening of these borders. Since the 9/11 tragedy, the world has witnessed much fortification of national and cultural borders through essentializing discourses (epitomized by America’s “us versus them” response to terror). But can critical scholars, as affirmative as they are of the dissolution and the crossing of borders, also support the building of exclusionary national and cultural borders? More importantly, can this reasoning responsibly emerge from a postmodern or postcolonial perspective that both favors marginalized voices and recognizes the routinely violent excesses of nationalism? By considering the practice of hybridity within the context of international capitalism, I will argue that maintaining the “conditions of possibility” for hybridity, and thus, maintaining the possibility of resistance to essentializing discourses, requires the strategic reinforcement of national and cultural borders.

Border-Crossing as Hybrid Practice

The most critical aspect of hybridity in relation to culture is the hybrid’s position as border-crosser. Postmodern theory typically affirms individual instances of border-crossing, but its overall project in regards to boundaries is more comprehensive. Henri Giroux writes:

…postmodernism constitutes a general attempt to transgress the borders sealed by modernism, to proclaim the arbitrariness of all boundaries, and to call attention to the sphere of culture as a shifting social and historical construction. (Border 55)

The figure of the hybrid emerges in postcolonial discourses as the embodiment of this postmodern critique of borders. Hybrid identities such as Gloria Anzaldua’s “mestiza consciousness”—a hybrid of white, Indian, and Mexican identities—creates the possibility of resisting oppression because such multiplicity disavows the reductive and essentializing binaries that colonizers employ to maintain power (Anzaldua 892). By embracing these hybrid identities, colonized people thus affirm cultural differences in ways that resist essentialism and which conceive of these differences in ways that “are not identified with backwardness” (Martín-Barbero 352). In studying the border-crossing work of critical intellectual Paulo Freire, Giroux claims that border-crossing offers the hybrid the “opportunity for new subject positions, identities, and social relations that can produce resistance to and relief from the structures of domination and oppression” (“Paulo” 18).

Prior to these claims, postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha wrote that the “third space” of hybridity surfaces as an “ambivalence” toward colonial authority and as a “strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal” (34). But what if we take seriously Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s claim in their book, Empire, that postcolonial theory, with its acclaim of the subversive potential of the hybrid, is “entirely insufficient for theorizing contemporary global power”? Or what if we admit that, unfortunately, the postcolonial hybrid is nowhere near as successful or as efficient a border-crosser as corporations have become, corporations which have made their own successful ‘runs for the borders’ by colonizing the markets of nations across the globe? In what forms can the ambivalence and disavowal identified by Bhabha emerge when cultures are now being colonized, not by other cultures, but by the influence of corporations?

In the context of this new state of empire, Hardt and Negri warn that traditional hybridity becomes “an empty gesture … or worse, these gestures risk reinforcing imperial power rather than challenging it” (216–17). But in a world where “the freedom of self-fashioning is often indistinguishable from the powers of an all-encompassing control,” how can scholars approve a program of aggressive national self-fashioning (Hardt 216)? Stanley Fish suggests one answer. In Professional Correctness, Fish states that only enterprises “bent on suicide” would fail to establish their “distinctiveness.” He writes:

An enterprise acquires an identity by winning a space at the table of enterprises …. Within the space that has been secured, all questions, including questions on basic concepts, remain open. Nor are the boundaries between enterprises fixed and impermeable; negotiations on the borders go on continually, and at times border skirmishes can turn into large-scale territorial disputes (19)

If we substitute the word “nations” or “cultures” here for “enterprises,” Fish’s text reminds us that the building of national and cultural borders is always at best a temporary event, and that ‘openness’ is only available within a “space that has [previously] been secured.” Although nations may risk many things when they resist colonization, cultural fixity is not one of them. Cultures can thus maintain distinctiveness from other cultures without giving up their aspirations to hybridity. Pragmatically, Fish might say, one needs to secure a space at the table before one can negotiate. Essentialist border-building is just such a pragmatic effort.

Building Borders That Disavow

Cultural turf and national turf are inseparable. In the idealistic American view of culture as a “melting pot,” cultural identity relinquishes its substance to a greater national identity. Especially in the wake of 9/11, nationalistic maintenance of identity has prompted a host of culturally-focused turf disputes ranging from the bombing of mosques to the deliberate dumping of French champagne. Such disputes reveal cultural antagonisms that emerge from essentializing discourses.

In his speech to the United Nations only two months after the September 11th attack, President George W. Bush explicitly connected the willingness of countries to form a coalition against terror (and thus to accept the essentializing “us versus them” mentality) with the ability to maintain secure borders by stating “Some nations want to play their part in the fight against terror, but tell us they lack the means to enforce their laws and control their borders” (n.pag.). Clear and manageable borders are presented here as stabilizing influences that enable the war against terror. By maintaining Western economic and political interests, these borders appear to delimit a space most unlike the subversive hybrid space that Bhabha imagines. Although essentializing discourses naturally seem to threaten the space of hybridity, it is important here to recall Bhabha’s definition of hybridity as a “strategic reversal of the process of domination” (emphasis added). Gayatri Spivak reminds us that “it’s the idea of strategy that has been forgotten” in current critiques of essentialism (5). In fact, essentialism, properly situated, can be used as a strategy against essentialism. While Spivak warns that a “strategic use of essentialism can turn into an alibi for proselytizing academic essentialisms,” she more forcefully claims that the “strategic use of a positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” is “something one cannot not use”; a strategy that is “unavoidably useful” (4, 5). For Spivak, the critical qualities of a strategic essentialism are its “self-conscious” use (i.e. its “scrupulously visible political interest”) and its ongoing “critique of the ‘fetish-character’” of its own master terms (3–4). Three short examples will serve to highlight this strategic use of border-building in service of “scrupulously visible political interests.”

While Russians may have the distinction of being the first to turn a candy bar’s name (“Snickers”) into a swear word, there have been no more visible borders that disavow multinational capitalism than those in France. Predictably, the key sites of struggle are the traditional repositories of French high culture: art, language, and food. One highly visible effort in this struggle is the ten per cent cinema tax (which, based on American dominance in the industry, affects mainly American films), the revenue from which is used to subsidize French filmmaking. Also, the controversial 1997 Toubon Law built borders by establishing fines and even prison sentences for refusal to use French language in venues such as advertising; as did the 1999 “dismantling” of a McDonald’s restaurant by José Bové, a French sheep farmer protesting U.S. sanctions, the WTO, and “Americanization” in general (Gordon 23, 35).

Two nations that erected “borders of disavowal” in regards to the war on terror are Turkey and the Philippines. In March of 2003, even after being offered $6 billion in aid from the U.S., Turkey refused to allow 62,000 U.S. troops to be deployed in Turkey to facilitate the war in Iraq (Lee). While Turkey did allow the U.S. the use of airbases for certain purposes, the refusal to allow U.S. troops to cross the Turkey-Iraq border marked a significant site of cultural resistance. Even after the Philippines accepted a $78 billion increase in military aid from the U.S. to fight terrorism, public outcry there forced the U.S. to remove its “active” military presence since it violated a portion of the Philippines’s constitution that banned combat by foreign soldiers on its soil. (Klein). Also significant here is the degree to which the negotiation of national and cultural borders is primarily a negotiation of capital. As The Nation reported:

For [Philippine President Arroyo], the global antiterrorist campaign is first and foremost a business proposition, and she made this very clear when she emerged from her meeting with President Bush in Washington in November and boasted to Filipino reporters that "it's $4.6 billion, and counting.” (Bello)

All of these examples reinforce cultural and national borders in order to resist domination by capital. In French Foreign Minister Védrine’s words, the “desire to preserve cultural diversity in the world is in no way a sign of anti-Americanism but of antihegemonism, a refusal of impoverishment” (qtd. in Gordon 30). This “refusal of impoverishment” is the accomplishment of identities that refuse to supplant culture with capital. As these examples show, borders need not simply reinforce existing power relations, but are sites of resistance as well.

But Is This Turf Really Cultural?

Can one legitimately refer to the examples of Turkey and the Philippines, as well as the web of forces that structure the interactions of all nations in a system of multinational capitalism, as being “cultural”? If the subtitle of Fredric Jameson’s book, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, does not suggest strongly enough the particularly cultural turf of these systems, Jameson makes this explicit when he states that we have witnessed

. . . a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life—from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself—can be said to have become ”cultural.” (48).

One of Jameson’s basic arguments in his second chapter is that “every position on postmodernism in culture . . . is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (3). I would like to transpose this statement somewhat by asserting that every position on culture in postmodernism is necessarily a political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism. Therefore, actions that negotiate cultural turf and modify national identities can be methods of influencing the contours of multinational capitalism. In other words, strategic border-building maintains the space of hybridity because it seeks to disavow the dominance of cultural turf by capital. Without such protectionist and essentializing efforts, the conditions of possibility for hybrid identities would be at the mercy of market forces.

The pragmatic use of essentialism as a mode of resistance is a move one can imagine Fish would approve of, and that Hardt and Negri hint at the necessity of when they state:

The creative forces that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges. The struggles to contest and subvert Empire, as well as those to construct a real alternative, will thus take place on the imperial terrain itself. (xv)

Essentialism is admittedly one of the “creative forces that sustain Empire.” The dangers of struggling “on the imperial terrain itself” lie in not retaining the critical self-consciousness of one’s own strategies that Spivak argues for, and in not remaining mindful of the histories of genocide and tyranny that have accompanied much modern nationalism. In constructing a “counter-Empire,” cultures can resist both the seductions of aggressive nationalism and the homogenizing forces of multinational capitalism. The turf of hybridity provides a space from which to launch this counter-Empire, but this space may only exist between cultural identities, not between multiple versions of a homogenized consumer identity maintained by corporate influence. Nations should neither be afraid to rebuild self-consciously their cultural borders nor to act strategically to maintain their distinctiveness, despite postmodern theory’s acclamation of the dissolution of borders and political appeals for global solidarity against the terrorist ‘Other.’ In order to establish resistance in the context of international capitalism, the strategic disavowal necessary to hybridity may need to emerge as a disavowal of hybridity itself.

Author Biography

Eric D. Mason's