Routes vs. Roots

I had to write a [very] brief paper in response to James Clifford’s Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century and Yasemin Nuholu Soysal’s article “Citizenship and Identity: living in diasporas in post-war Europe?”, for my course in Diasporic Aesthetics (you should be jealous). It’s rough, it’s not so pretty, it’s just some ideas and responses.

Clifford frames his discussion of diasporic identity by posing two binary oppositions: traveling vs. dwelling, and (allegorically) routes vs. roots. As we learn from Lévi-Strauss, however, for every binary opposition there is a middle ground, a gray area. For Clifford’s oppositions, we find ‘diaspora’ located in that middle area. At once, it is both a state of traveling and dwelling. An individual (or community) in diaspora is traveling in the sense that they are not physically located ‘there,’ but they continue to dwell ‘there’ in a spiritual sense. They are traveling in the sense that, although they physically dwell ‘here’, they do not develop strong ties to ‘here’, and often feel that they may never be fully incorporated into the spirit of ‘here’.

Clifford’s initial arguments raised questions for me of how minority communities within Nation-States (for he defines diasporas as being tied to, but necessarily removed from, Nation-States) may or may not be ‘in diaspora’ within their ‘own’ country. He resolves this by drawing on indigenous movements’ claims of strong association with the land and the geographic place of the Nation-State, while not necessarily the political place. Clifford contrasts this with communities in diaspora, citing ties to the [physical, geographical] land as the central identifying component that diasporas lack. He concludes the issue by suggesting that minority communities within Nation-States may have diasporic elements to their identities, although they are not in diaspora.

Soysal’s article, in a sense, ties into my above question. Soysal asserts that the concept of ‘diaspora’ is inadequate to describe modern ‘transnational’ communities. Citing examples from Muslim communities in Europe, who make claims on universal human rights in order to leverage certain educational claims, Soysal suggests that communities such as these exhibit more universalizing tendencies, while exerting claims on the particular (local). The simultaneous ties to universality and particularity make such communities appear diasporic, while in fact contradicting actual diasporic characteristics.

I wonder, is it not possible to live both ‘in diaspora’, dedicated to a ‘locality’ (though perhaps not your physical location), while also drawing on claims of universality? I don’t believe diaspora is necessarily inadequate as a descriptor generally, but merely incorrect for communities such as these. ‘Diaspora’ is one of many qualifiers of community identity, among which are also indigenist, immigrant, exile/ ex-pat, universalist, etc, all overlapping and shifting. Just as individual identity cannot be nailed down to fit in a single box, neither can community identity.


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