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Discovering Gut-Wrenching Possibilities of Being and Acting in the World

July 26, 2018

For anyone who wants to live a fairly undisturbed life, not too concerned by the power and responsibility one possesses in the world—or lack thereof—I strongly recommend not taking any courses in Cultural Studies. Generally, academic work for me—from my undergraduate degree in Rhetoric, Writing and Communications to the Masters in Cultural Studies: Curatorial Practices—has been a visceral as well as an intellectual experience. Yet lately, my graduate work in Cultural Studies has been especially gut-wrenching. I am aware that this sort of response may not be the norm but, if self-reflexivity provides a credible starting point for most inquiry in Cultural Studies, I will now elaborate my particular positionality.

November of 2017 marked the eleventh year since I immigrated with my family to Canada from Sri Lanka. Little did I realize that a move of such magnitude would not only culturally disrupt me but would also unhinge me from the sense of self and identity I had developed up to that point. In my culture of adoption—though geographically removed from my culture of birth—I found myself between and betwixt cultural spaces: a liminality of experience. There are some interesting, albeit broad, parallels I can draw between my experience of immigration and integration in Canada and the three-stage ritual process which Victor Turner developed following his and Arnold van Gennep's anthropological work. The first stage involves a separation from the normative social structure; the second stage of anti-structure involves a time of upheaval where previously held ideas and beliefs are deconstructed; and the third stage involves the transformed subject returning to the normative, a period of “aggregation [which] marks the subject's settling back into the social structure."[1] The second stage, which is also called the liminal stage, constitutes an important moment in the transformation of my identity and has broader sociopolitical implications for my future engagement in Cultural Studies.  

Deborah Chambers and her collaborators discuss the topic of accountability and responsibility in The Practice of Cultural Studies,writing "[o]ur first responsibility as researchers is therefore to our own agenda and process of research as a fully self-reflexive practice."[2] Throughout the book, the authors reiterate that this self-reflexivity must engender a dialogue with oneself and others. Self-reflexivity ensures that subjectivities and knowledge are not only examined but acknowledged for their partiality and embeddedness in power and culture.  

And here is where it gets gut-wrenching for me.  

How to engender self-reflexivity in a coherent and explicit manner when one's sense of self, especially in relation to place and belonging is unmoored from all that was once familiar and taken for granted? How to clarify and position oneself socially and politically when the liminality of immigration, the experience of diaspora, continues to make—despite one's best efforts—settling in one locality or another forever suspect and, at the same time, refuses one the privilege of white neoliberal self-assurance, which does not make "'being for some worlds and not for others'" straightforward and unproblematic?[3] How to sift through congealing layers of self-doubt, bitterness, anger, frustration, resignation, negotiation, compromise, assimilation, alienation, etc. . . . and reconstruct an identity which will quite possibly remain constantly in flux? How to shake off the self-consciousness of alterity, not just to the world of white-settler colonialism, but also to that of Indigenous sovereignty and land rights? How to bear the weight of dominance—lived daily as everyday practice and not exceptional circumstance—embodying difference on one's very skin and body? And through all that, how to walk the thin line—if indeed such a thing does exist—between assimilation and appropriation?   

Liminality is gut-wrenching. Marginality is messy. Being jolted awake into the reality of one's own contradictions, limitations, and dispossession, is frankly, depressing. The painful awareness of one's own alterity ruptures common sense assumptions and representations of the reality of oneself and others. The everyday traumas of neoliberal hegemony, among other betrayals, simultaneously deploys the antinomies of immigrant-as-economic-utility and "not-quite Canadian,"[4] bleeding into one's physical and mental health. Sitting in the discomfort of such alienation is deeply unsettling.    

Engaging with Cultural Studies did not trigger these violences inscribed in me by my historical situatedness. On the contrary, Cultural Studies has provided me with a new "language to speak about where [I am] and what other possible futures are available for [me]."[5] Following Stuart Hall’s thoughts, I take articulation as an intentional intervention in which we unearth “subjective possibilities and new political subjectivities for [ourselves] [as these possibilities] are not simply given in the dominant system.”[6] The ability to articulate the current conjunctural moments one finds oneself entangled in cannot be taken for granted; to be able to speak about the deconstruction of one’s identity as a result of being a liminal subject trapped between cultures is an act of intentional intervention with the sociopolitical intersections that make up a particular situation. Such an intervention not only takes thought and time, but also energy. It is in the process of intervening, of engaging with the intersecting power relations within my situation that I can articulate or clarify different possibilities of being and acting as a subject. For example, as an immigrant within the framework of neoliberal hegemony, I am constructed as an economically viable subject who is also a beneficiary of the settler-colonial state. Yet, as a non-white subject belonging to the South Asian diaspora, I can articulate myself as a subject that is not only complicit but also victimized by the settler-colonial state, a subject that is always at the cusp of receiving benefits but is forever marginal, not fully acknowledged or accepted. However, it is important to remember that the movement of articulation also engenders dis-articulation. Here, I understand dis-articulation as an intentional intervention whereby I seek clarification by attempting to differentiate my subject positions as they stand in contrast to others. I can thus say that Cultural Studies, in relation to the politics of decolonization, has lent me the language to articulate my complicity as a settler, while at the same time, dis-articulate the complex nature of my positionality as a non-white settler.

These nuanced subjectivities are not a given and require my painstaking engagement with the intersections of neoliberal hegemony, diaspora identity and decolonization politics. Such practices of articulation make possible "the starting-point of critical elaboration"—the knowing of oneself as a product of historical processes with an infinity of traces[7]; they constitute the first steps towards redefining an expanded sense of self through creative considerations of new subjectivities which have become available to me in the gendered social space of rupture.

Now to the nature of articulation itself. Though I cannot shake off my suspicion of stable, enduring and narrow interpretations of geographic locatedness which lend to the articulation of the self in relation to spatial placing, I agree with Donna Haraway who argues for “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.”[8] A partiality of vision is concretized and rises out of the body that is “always [. . .] complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured [. . .] versus the view from above, from nowhere.”[9] Partiality then, is a given in the practices of articulation, and is ubiquitous in every representation and discursive event. In addition to partiality, it must be kept in mind that the rational and nonrational knowledge produced by articulation is always mediated through (the vagaries of) translation providing multi-accentuated possibilities during moments of encoding and decoding. The fact that articulation engenders disarticulation, that, at best, is partial, and is susceptible to multi-accentuated possibilities of interpretations render articulation itself more emergent than evident. It is done in fits and starts as it were, rather than in the apotheotic and emancipatory language of Western liberalism. 

Emergent and partial articulations also provide movements away from insulated, “self-contained, or fully formalizable knowledge;”[10] an invitation to “dialogue-in-spite-of-difference”[11] is already written into such articulations. For instance, though the diasporic experience is specific and, my lived experience has been that even if I do not garner understanding from others, the potentiality of encountering acknowledgment and even a solidarity of sorts from others, who (may or may not) experience the same alienation, exists. The very unpredictability of foreclosure or openness in dialogue is, frankly, not fully within my grasp. Self and Other cannot exist in self-contained insularity; their very being is premised on the possibility of proximity and of relationality. Dialogue-in-spite-of-difference is the enactment of this possibility: it is this dialogue that secures self-reflexivity in Cultural Studies.[12]

However, Ien Ang offers a valuable caution to Cultural Studies whose legitimacy as “an increasingly institutionalized, internationalized, transdisciplinary intellectual practice—depends par excellence on an ethic (and a politics) of the encounter.”[13] She argues that the trans or in-between “borderland” experience of Cultural Studies which imbues its dialogic praxis with the postmodern ideals of “transgression, heteroglossia and radical openness”[14] becomes non-generative when moments of disconnect are not adequately recognized, acknowledged and problematized. Though it is necessary to steer away from “exaggerated notions of uniqueness and incommensurability”[15] when thinking about a praxis of dialogue-in-spite-of-difference, Ang’s caution helps us realize that the act of dialogue itself is in fact partial, and lapses in communication cannot always be overcome. Therefore, to have an ethical encounter with alterity, where otherness is not synthesized or subsumed, we must make provisions for those times when we are “exposed to irreducible communication gaps, to breakdowns, failures and lapses.”[16]

In the socio-political conjunctural moment we inhabit, where dialogue-in-spite-of-difference is distorted and waylaid by something other than alterity—the intangible, naturalized feelings of fear and paranoia, Cultural Studies provides me with a generative critical space to imagine and explore other creative approaches to alterity that assume an attitude or a posture of attunement, vulnerability, and a willingness to witness—in other words—a listening posture. My lived, yet partial, experience of otherness, and the unsettling journey I continue to make towards an articulating self that is awake to new political possibilities, is foundational in exploring future engagements in theory and praxis that embody a listening self in the practice of dialogue with difference.



[1] Guobin Yang, “The Liminal Effects of Social Movements: Red Guards and the Transformation of Identity,” Sociological Forum 15, no. 3 (2000): 383.

[2] Chambers et al., The Practice of Cultural Studies (London: Sage Publications, 2004), 59.

[3] Chambers et al., The Practice of Cultural Studies, 59.

[4] David J. Roberts and Minelle Mahtani,“Neoliberalizing Race, Racing Neoliberalism: Placing ‘Race’ in Neoliberal Discourses,” Antipode 42, no. 2 (2010): 252.

[5] Stuart Hall, “Culture, Resistance, and Struggle,” in Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, ed. Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016): 205.

[6] Hall, “Culture, Resistance, and Struggle,” 206.

[7] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (New York: International Publishers, 1978), 628.

[8] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 589.

[9] Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 589.

[10] Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 590.

[11] Chambers et al., The Practice of Cultural Studies, 57.

[12] Chambers et al., The Practice of Cultural Studies, 57.

[13] Ien Ang, “Doing Cultural Studies at the Crossroads,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 1, no. 1 (1998): 14.

[14] Ang, “Doing Cultural Studies,” 13.

[15] Ang, “Doing Cultural Studies,” 27.

[16] Amit Pinchevski, “The Ethics of Interruption: Toward a Levinasian Philosophy of Communication,” Social Semiotics 15, no. 2 (2005): 227.