As Gilroy points out James Clifford is known for his work on the topic of traveling cultures (1992, 97). If Gilroy focuses on the image of the ship, Clifford invokes the image (chronotope) of the “hotel” as closely and especially intertwined with travel vocabularies and metaphors: “The hotel epitomizes a specific way into complex histories of traveling cultures (and cultures of travel) in the late twenty century” (105).
The hotel is a place of transit, not of residence. It is both a “launching point for strange and wonderful voyages (…) a place of collection, juxtaposition and passionate encounter” and “somewhere you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary (…) as a station, airport terminal, hospital and so on” (96).
Clifford specifies that the concept of the ‘hotel’ does not refer only to a simple description of a physical space, it also works as a research tool for interpretation. However, this metaphor of the hotel as an organising research-image is necessarily ambivalent. On the one hand it represents the moving and provisional nature of the travelling experience understood as a process; on the other hand, it allows looking to the past and recollect traces and vestiges of travel histories whereby class, gender and race relations of inequality and privilege become pervasive. According to Clifford, the notion of traveling is handled in two different ways within the field of anthropology. Firstly, the ethnographer moves in the literal sense to the extent that he or she must leave home in order to carry out research work: “Ethnographers, typically, are travelers who like to stay and dig in (for a time), who like to make a second home/workplace” (99). Secondly, at the epistemological level, the ethnographer finds the need to describe knowledge as contingent and partial: “Every focus excludes; there is no politically innocent methodology for intercultural interpretation” (97).
All in all, the object of travelling cultures is to rethink culture in terms of journey and travel. The subject of the travelling experience conveys the idea that the notions of mobility, fluidity and process are more suitable than the notions of stability, solidity and fixity in order to express the dynamic character of human cultural practice. In addition, by rethinking culture as travelling, certain naturalising and organic preconceptions conventionally associated with the concept of “culture” as cultivation may be contested: culture is not understood as a coherent and rooted organism that grows and lives according to the permanently ordered laws of nature (On this issue see also Raymond Williams’ Keywords, 1976, and Culture, 1981).
However, when dealing with the specific topic of travelling cultures there is a main issue that must be addressed which refers to the overall politics involved in this all out emphasis on mobility, fluidity and process. Clifford, for instance, chooses the concept of “travel” as the more appropriate to the needs of this particular domain of cultural enquiry and criticism. According to Clifford, ‘travel’ is endowed with the possibility of a more general application than other related terms such as “displacement”, “tourism”, “migration”, “pilgrimage” or “nomadism”. The idea of the “nomadic subject”, on the other hand, is usually related to certain forms of post-structuralist thinking (Gilles Deleuze, Nomad Thought, 1977) with which Clifford is duly acquainted. A main ontological proposition deriving from this overall paradigm underlines the necessity to theorise and re-present the emergence of a ‘de-centered’, fluid, fragmented and provisional subject. From the viewpoint of both diaspora and subaltern theory this deserves close attention to the extent that the notions of a unitary, homogeneous and universal subject formation are “un-fixed”.
However, as emphasis is placed on a sense of permanent mobility, fluidity and process conveyed by the experience of nomadic travel room for skepticism soon widens. Often, far too ‘superficial’ an understanding of nomadic wandering and hybridity leads to an interesting paradox: is it not that by way of always being ‘in-between places’, comfort and refuge may be sought with little risking and daring involved in the process. Yet as Said would continue to argue:
There is no real escape, even for the exile who tries to remain suspended, since that state of inbetweenness can itself become a rigid ideological position, a sort of dwelling whose falseness is covered over in time, and to which one can too easily become accustomed (43).
With no possible evasion from the necessity of continuous self-assessment, appeals to the nomadic and the hybrid become problematic on one main account. Nomadic exaltations of travel often rely on a well-known mystification of journeying conceived of as free movement. Within the context of Western nomadic journeying any sense of constraint is lost. The compelling reality of travel as compulsory voyaging and asymmetrical cultural exchange disappears from analysis. Thereby hybridity is often reduced to describing instances of superficial cultural “intermingling” among different others, so to speak. In this respect, while notions of fixity and solidity may be challenged, the problem still remains that an acute question feminist cultural critic Janet Wollf (1992) came with sometime ago must still be answered:
How is it that metaphors of movement and mobility, often invoked in the context of radical projects of destabilizing discourses of power, can have conservative effects? (235)
It is only legitimate to think that whatever remains of a possibility nowadays to develop coherent projects of social change can only benefit from participating in a critique of stasis. The issue is that for a political critique to take place it must be also located somewhere. As Wolf continues:
…I think that destabilizing has to be situated, if the critic is not to self-destruct in the process. The problem with terms like ‘nomad’, ‘maps’ and ‘travel’ is that they are not usually located, and hence (and purposely) they suggest ungrounded and unbounded movement – since the whole point is to resist fixed selves/viewers/subjects. But the consequent suggestion of free and equal mobility is itself a deception, since we don’t all have the same access to the road.
It must be said that Deleuze’s work on ‘nomadic thought’ has little to do with the idea of free, ungrounded/unbounded travel. At the same time, Deleuze would certainly stay well away from what Stuart Hall (1993: 356) denounced otherwise as the “trendy nomadic voyaging of the postmodern version”. Therefore, it is necessary to stress that for Deleuze being, feeling and acting as a ‘nomad’ keeps a precise political dimension: nomadism means opposition to central power (see also Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaux (1980) where the notion of Rhizome accounts for such connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity etc, constituting valid principles from which to articulate resistance). In this sense, the Deleuzian idea of nomadism also equates to the idea of displaced (groups of) people, able to contest authority and develop a critique that originates from a particular place – the margins, the edges, the less visible spaces…
Unlike the ‘unfixable’ Western nomadic subject, the burden and gift of double consciousness I bear also displays a particularly contradictory mode of being a ‘de-centered’ and fragmented subject. In knowing different places and peoples, the nomadic subject moves about without any sense of constraint and little commitment to these places and peoples. As I face the irremediable obligation to negotiate different identities in the new places I inhabit, as I am placed between the ever fluid, groundless process of nomadic unconstrained journeying and the solid, cold structures of the nation-state, my hybrid experience is carried forward through an inherently fragmented identity that splits consciousness into ambivalent languages of discontent and provisional, perhaps even puzzling self-identifications.
To my mind, for instance, come now reverberations of the margins and edges that late Gloria Anzaldúa located in a concrete space, the Borderlands (1987). As Anzaldúa herself self-consciously vindicated her ‘mestiza’ subject position: a lesbian and feminist woman of white, Mexican and Indian descent, the borderlands constitute that space in which experiences of people from different cultures, races, classes, and sexual orientations are both embraced and endorsed in a way that the bland multicultutalist notions pervading dominant discourses nowadays will never be able to do:
So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself […] and as long as I have to accommodate […] English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence (54)
Paradoxically also, as one of our tasks will still remain to interrogate the validity of certain of our own critical practices, one of these less visible spaces can also be ‘home’. Such is the case, for instance, with the ‘house of difference’ of global feminism that Teresa de Lauretis (1987) devised or ‘constructed’ as “a separate space where ‘safe words’ can be trusted and ‘consent’ be given un-coerced”.
Anzaldúa, G. Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco, Spingsters/Aunt Lute, 1987
Clifford, J. “Travelling Cultures” in Grossberg, L., Nelson, C. Treichler, P. Cultural Studies, New York, London: Routledge, 1992 pp. 96-116
Clifford, J. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997
Deleuze, G. “Nomad Thought”, The New Nietzsche, Allison D. (ed), New York: Delat 1977
Deleuze, G, Gattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus,1980
De Lauretis, T. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction, Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press(1987)
Williams, R. Keywords, London, Fontana, 1976
Williams, R. Culture, London, Fontana, 1981
Wolf, J. “On the Road Again: Metaphors of Travel in Cultural Criticism” Cultural Studies, 7 (2): 1992, pp.224-239