On Hybridity and Cultures of Travel (II)

anzaldua.jpgAs 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

4 thoughts on “On Hybridity and Cultures of Travel (II)

  1. You state:

    “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.”

    Though you subsequently provide an excellent critique of both the centred (fixed) vs de-centred (fluid, nomadic) identities, I would like to hear your views about the symbolic nature of such fluidities. That is, do they generate any kinds of symbolisms? One could argue that fixed, centre-focused social formations (religion, village, town, nation) provide symbolic orders where the subject places herself/himself. What kind of symbolic order is generated by the nomadic identity. You have rightly cautioned against locating this nomadism in the materialist post-modern cultural consumer. Here the nomadism generates nothing more than signs (which can be exchanged, but are inherently empty). Going back to the symbolic it situates the subjects with an order with material, social, psychological, spiritual benefits. Coming back to the post-modern material nomadism, it does not generate any such value. The post-modern consumer picks up a sign from an array, uses it and discards it.

  2. In terms of theory and also as a research tool it is perhaps Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the ‘rhizomatic’ in ‘A Thausand Plateaus’ which offers the possibility of generating some form of nomadic symbolic (dis)order against the centralised power strucure of the state apparatuses ; (-which are still very much alive and kicking well in spite of many voluntaristic postnational approaches to the question, including mine). This is perhaps why Michael Hardt and Tony Negri seem to embrace this notion of the rhizome in ‘Empire’ (Harvard University Press, 2000) whereby the ‘multitude’ itself grows out of and like potato roots do in the back garden of my house in a multiplicity of underground non-hierarchical, non-structured and anarchic-libertarian ways. It is not wonder then that as the rhizome works through horizontal and hybrid connections, the terms of a very classic debate within the Left are re-enacted nowadays under the guise of people like Zizek, say, having to take the opposite provocative stance in favour of a more ‘Leninist’ form, as it were, of framing political practice: discipline, orthodoxy, verticality…
    Also I am glad you have picked on the western nomadic exaltations of mobility and process. In qualifying the nomadic-postmodern as ‘western’ I also mean that forms of traditional nomadic travelling are rather subjected to fixed and repetitive itineraries. In other words, unless external factors enter into the equation the few remaining ‘authentic’ nomads are people moving from one place to another on a very routine and custom-led basis. This can be seen, for instance, in Smadar Lavie’s ethnographic monograph “The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity under Israely and Egyptian Rule” (Berkeley : University of California Press 1990). Here it is clearly shown that the ‘traditional’ nomadic experience of the Bedouin people in the ‘South’ hardly fits the postmodernist metaphoric meaning extension of the original concept.

  3. What about the truly voiceless, millions of subaltern migrant workers who traverse the globe in search of economic survival. We cannot collapse specific migrant experiences into an universal utterance about the nomad, the migrant. The interstitial space may be occasionally disruptive of hegemonic articulations, but it can also represent the economic and cultural powerlessness of the unwilling migrant. Such migrations are more like the tribal nomads who are forced to undertake travels or migrations for survival.

  4. O yes, absolutely…and there is much more to it! A couple of years ago while I was basically minding my third newborn baby boy I also wrote a fairly long piece in between changing nappies, feeding him nice powder milk and watching teletubies on a plasma screen tv etc. It is a text where I explore “the interstices of political identity” (particularly in the Basquelands) and a whole chapter is made up of a ‘fake’ (and rather presumptuous, I suppose) interview with Zizek. Here is the bit which is relevant to our discussion and which I will now retranslate back into English:
    Question: In order to rescue (redeem) myself I must say that the once fashionable attitudes towards placing emphasis on identity pluralisation (voluntaristic and innocent as you often mention) were meant as an antidote to disestabilise fixed and rooted notions of nationhood rather than denouncing ‘class essentialism’ per se, hence my insistence on ‘nomadologies’ and ‘travelling cultures’. But by then I already smelled the fish, as it were, in regards of many ‘hybrid’ exaltations of travel by a western cosmopolitan intelligentsia/gaze often seeking to occupy a metacultural position from which to look at the many manifestations of the many multicultural ‘others’. This is why I was then glad to read in the “Ticklish Subject” (Verso, 1999, p220-1) what you had already said on the topic: “Does this mean that the solution lies in acknowledging the ‘hybrid’ character of each identity? It is easy to praise the hybridity of the postmodern migrant subject, no longer attached to specific ethnic roots, floating freely between different cultural circles. Unfortunately, two totally different socio-political levels are condensed here: on the one hand the cosmopolitan upper- and upper-middle-class academic, always with the proper visas enabling him to cross borders without any problem in order to carry out his (financial, academic…) business, and thus able to ‘enjoy the difference’; on the other hand the poor (im)migrant worker driven from his home by poverty or (ethnic, religious) violence, for whom the celebrated ‘hybridity’ designates a very tangible traumatic experience of never being able to settle down properly and legalize his status, the subject for whom such simple tasks as crossing a border or reuniting with his family can be an experience full of anxiety, and demanding great effort”. Perhaps because you come from an Eastern European ‘dead’ ex-communist country it is well known that you have no much patience with, in your own words, many a “repellent” Western left intellectual…
    Answer: …Yes, well, but the question is that with this second subject, being uprooted from his traditional way of life is a traumatic shock which desestabilizes his entire existence – to tell him that he should enjoy the hybridity and the lack of fixed identity of his daily life, the fact that his existence is migrant, never identical-to-itself, and so on, involves a [huge cynicism]: what is for the concerned subject, an experience of the utmost suffering and despair, the stigma of exclusion, of being unable to participate in the affairs of his community, is –from the point of view of the external and well, ‘normal’, and fully adapted postmodern theoretician – celebrated as the ultimate assertion of the subversive desiring machine…


Leave a Reply