Sudesh Mishra (2006) Diaspora Criticism.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-7486-2106-7.

Claire Burrows

Sudesh Mishra’s Diaspora Criticism offers a metacritical immersion into the burgeoning field of diaspora criticism. Mishra does not actually introduce an original theory, but rather gathers existing theories to create a critical survey of the field. To determine which theories out of the many make the study, Mishra has ‘given preference to, in short, those works that form recurrent features or are mentioned with some regularity by those participating in the critical debate’ (vii). Diaspora Criticism is metacriticism at its richest, most interdisciplinary, and at times pretentious. Despite the metacritical traps Mishra falls into, this study offers a critical introduction to a breadth of diasporists, an invaluable contribution to students of diasporas.

Mishra opens with a prologue guided by an epistemological methodology, with the ultimate aim of determining the relationship between event, witness, and statement, leading to the definition of the ‘generic event’. Mishra’s use of (extensive) quotations and opportunistic nods to major theorists is established here. Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida, Nietzsche, Foucault, Barthes, and Wittgenstein (among others) squeeze into twenty dense pages, most dominated by quotations. The theoretical support for Mishra’s work is sometimes reduced to name dropping and self-congratulatory knowledge. And to Mishra’s credit, he seems to have a read on every modern thinker. The book invites the reader to an academic all-star dinner party, where individual voices are often drowned out by the deafening brilliance. Mishra perhaps should have, and could have, invited fewer geniuses.

Mishra’s strength emerges in his identification of the ‘three scenes of exemplification, separated by epistemic “turns” within the larger scene of the genre’ (173). Divided by chapter, the first scene is ‘dual territoriality’, the most archaic and easily debunked framework. Dual territoriality relies on dichotomies and stable entities (a gross fallacy albeit oft fantasized), such as homelands and hostlands. Diasporic moves are also divided into two distinct movements: ‘voluntary (attracted to the hostland) and involuntary (expelled from the homeland’ (27). These binaries cannot hold up under Mishra’s scrutiny. He searches, and finds, complexities that cannot be explained by dual territoriality. In this chapter, Mishra specifically uses Walker Conner, William Safran, and Robin Cohen as exemplars of dual territoriality. Mishra deftly illuminates the generalizations and exclusions that dual territoriality relies on, and how ‘modes of subjectivity and cross-subject alliances determined by class, gender, education, religion, sexual preferences, accent and language are tactfully left out’ (36). In the end, dual territoriality has ‘played itself out’ (49).

Mishra then introduces the second scene of exemplification: ‘situational laterality’. In this chapter, the preeminent theorists are Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer, and Stuart Hall. This scene incorporates more complexity and factors (i.e. gender and class) that Mishra deems imperative. Mishra explains that ‘it has been my contention in the previous chapter that exponents of the dual territorial approach guardedly repeat an ideological ploy in representing diasporas as self-marking ethnic minorities sundered from a homeland entity and residing in a host territory belonging self-evidently to a dominant ethno-national entity’ (55). In contrast, Hall ‘comes up with a perspective on cultural identity that makes room for “compositional unities” based on the meaningful “cut” across the restive current of discontinuity, hybridity and difference’ (62). Mishra depicts dual territoriality theorists as rigid and curmudgeonly, and situational laterality theorists as more flexible and inclusive. In the spirit of plasticity of thought, Mishra moves to a possible new space created by diasporas.

Inspired by Homi Bhabha’s ‘third space’, Mishra suggests that ‘the trick, it seems, is to occupy the hyphen between a rock and a hard place’ (83), leading to the sub-heading ‘The Third Space: Enter the Border Accompanied by the Hyphen’. Mishra defines the function of the hyphen as such:

In marking the joint/rupture between one space and another (or several others), the border is clearly devoid of its own space and yet indispensable to spatial categories. It is the function of the border/hyphen to break up structured unities and pre-given stabilities while positing them on every side. Inhabiting the hyphen, one is neither absolutely one thing nor another but constituted multiply in the line of fracture which, as logic would have it, is also the line of suture. From the vantage point of the hyphen/border, one is never solely one thing or another, but altogether something else — a veritable third. (83)

Despite the dexterity employed by considering the ‘hyphen’, as well as situational laterality, Mishra demonstrates how the necessary solidarity of diasporic subjects cannot be assumed.

Mishra’s third scene is ‘archival specificity’, a more quantitative approach in which he seems more comfortable. Here Mishra focuses on diasporists Vijay Mishra, Donna R. Gabacciati, Brent Hayes Edwards, Khalid Koser, Martin Baumann, Kanishka Goone Warden, and Martin F. Manalansan IV. In this chapter, a fresh breath of optimism suggests hope for the field of diaspora theories. Specifically, as Manalansan’s work on queer Filipinos in New York City shows, archival specificity offers the opportunity to avoid generalizations, western and Eurocentric assumptions, and imposed continuity. Conversely, the archival specificity scene presents diasporas as the complexly unique events that they are, although frameworks may not be universal enough. Within the connection of ‘seemingly negligible moments’, Mishra finds that ‘transnationalism, modernity, and globalization form the holy trinity of diaspora criticism. Used routinely by all manner of diasporists, they bear witness to the social, political, and cultural repercussions, felt more or less across the planet, of purportedly a new economic regime’ (128).

In the penultimate chapter, ‘The Three Pillars of Diaspora Criticism’, Mishra ‘investigates how these concepts, which form powerful discourses in their own right, contribute to the pursuit of the elusive law of diaspora criticism’ (131). He begins with an epistemological breakdown of the word ‘transnationalism’, then proposes that diasporas mark the transnational moment because they violate the imagined nation-state. Transnationalism violates the rigid language, boundaries, and factions that Mishra rejects by upsetting the established frames. Likewise, modernity possesses a ‘horizontal as well as a vertical dimension’, the horizontal ‘suggestive of a chronological break between the past and the present instituted by the Industrial Revolution’, and the vertical suggesting spatial breaks (136). It is in these breaks that globalization, the third pillar, emerges.

Under globalization, Mishra explicates the economic implications and basis of globalization, and how globalisation ‘may be largely responsible for creating an immobilized army of reserve labour characteristics of the so-called fourth world’ (151). He continues that ‘global economy practices, and this is the critical point, are capable of producing a bundle of contrary and anomalous effects — a paradox noted by far too few diasporists’ (151). Mishra argues that ‘the overall point is that by treating the global economy as an established category rather than as an arena beset by controversies and contradictions, the implied links between the social, the aesthetic and the economic remain highly fraught and conjectural’ (155). The overall point of Diaspora Criticism seems to be that there are too many complexities for an overarching theoretical framework, categorical distinction, or even definitions to emerge.

Arjun Appadurai (deservedly) earns the last spotlight with his ‘disjuncture theory’. As the title suggests a lack of coherence, Mishra applauds the imaginative attempt to approach diasporas without definitive factors. Appadurai designates ‘five segments of analysis that comprise this system of disjunctures: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, and ideoscapes’ (156). Mishra describes the interaction of the five segments as a ‘series of minimally intersecting eccentric circles’, and each circle ‘has its own constraints and motivations but, on occasions, exerts a delimiting and constraining influence on the other circles’ (157). This theory is discontinuous, does not have a cause-effect basis, and yet is fluid in dynamic. In short, Appadurai’s disjuncture theory is a constellation, the formation chaotic and yet linked. While Mishra still criticizes Appadurai for limiting his own theory in practice, he considers Appadurai to be ‘one of the few analysts to have engaged with the socio-economic aspects of globalisation in a profoundly complex and original fashion’ (162). Throughout the book this is what Mishra searches for, a theory that is complex, imaginative, and original, despite the fact that once a theory becomes too esoteric it may no longer be applicable. In Diaspora Criticism the focus remains on the ‘criticism’, rather than on the ‘diaspora’.

Mishra offers few case studies, and those included are dispersed sporadically. Specific diasporas are used to show the inadequacy of existing diaspora theories. Mishra successfully demonstrates that each individual diaspora contains a cacophony of complexities that must be taken into account. He considers diaspora criticism at its strongest when ‘taking stock of the varieties of historical continuity and rupture’, and at its weakest when it functions only ‘as a conceptual field in its disinclination to address the hard economic issues of the day’ (175). Mishra emphasizes the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to diasporas, making the diaspora genre simultaneously more all-encompassing and yet exclusive.

Diaspora Criticism is a study written by and for academia. The plethora of theoretical references demands at least a cursory knowledge of theory, and the attention to distinguish between the succession of theorists. Most of the text is dominated by long and dense quotations, creating a lack of continuity in the voice. The value of this metacritical work is the survey of diasporists, not only scrutinized by Mishra, but also juxtaposed against each other. While the language may be wordy and dense, Mishra also avoids gratuitous praise and offers frank judgment. He concludes by saying that ‘criticism is obliged to lay bare the ruse’, which Mishra himself most certainly does (175). The reader will leave the book satisfied if they anticipate a strong metacritical review of diasporists, supported by major theorists, and will also walk away with a solid diaspora bibliography.

Claire Burrows is a doctoral student in the department of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, US. She most recently published for the Humanities Institute at Stony Brook University regarding Saidya Hartman’s work on African-American literature and history. She is investigating the complexities of identity formation through immigration and border crossings.