Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires

Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Perverse modernities. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

For Globalization Studies, Gopinath’s work is significant, as it offers a queer diasporic perspective that enables a simultaneous critique of nationalism and of hegemonic forces of globalization. Gopinath provides straightforward examples of similar homogenizing regimes that effect both the nation state and Indian diasporas. In chapter four, for example, Gopinath locates the erasure of queer female diasporic subjects in the translation of films from Bollywood to the diaspora, as queerness becomes uncontainable in the slippages of female homosociality to exotic homosociality to homoeroticism. What emerges through the dialectical form of these chapters and her feminist queer critique is a different model for understanding the schisms of past and present within the diaspora. Rather than seeing the homeland and the new home as the traditional and the modern, Gopinath emphasizes both as sites of heteronormativity, and poses the embracing of marginality and displacement as a way of imagining diaspora differently:

The cartography of a queer diaspora tells a different story about how global capitalism impacts local sites by articulating other forms of subjectivity, culture, affect, kinship, and community that may not be visible or audible within standard mappings of nation diaspora or globalization (108).

Female queerness becomes an alternative hermeneutic that is able to offer up a critique of global capital without falling into transcendental notions of the transnational and diasporic. Gopinath instead deploys the “scavenger methodology” elaborated upon by Judith and Jack Halberstam, to emphasize queerness in a diverse array of texts and “queer reading practices” that expose heteronormative structures in logics of the nation, domesticity and diaspora.

To Gopinath, diaspora is not a unidirectional flow that insists on a romantic look at the past and the homeland, but rather, both the Diaspora and the nation become the other’s Other; the diaspora insists on its transcendence from “given culture” through a new hybridity, and the nation points to the lack of morality, belief and tradition in the diaspora. Yet, as Gopinath shows through her comparative reading of Bollywood and diasporic film, elements of queerness and homoeroticism in national forms, like Bollywood dance numbers, are in fact excluded and erased when translated to cultural production within the diaspora. For Gopinath, the distinctions between the Diaspora and the Nation as modern and traditional may be an instance of bad faith, as both discourses produce heteronormative ways of thinking by putting the queer female subject under a constant erasure, requiring the presence of the queer female subject so that she can be made absent. Gopinath points out this erasure as a patriarichal norm that diaspora does not transcend, but rather, is caught up in an entanglement with, as diasporic women are recast as the carriers of tradition and cultural purity.

The desire to see the Diaspora as modern and the local culture as traditional supplements a narrative of development within global capitalism, which insists on the diasporic subject as a worker easily adjustable to metropolitan means of production. A queer feminist theory disrupts this narrative, insisting on the blurring of public and private realms, where the private “space of the home,” according to Gopinath, “is not recognized as a critical component of South Asian diasporic public culture” (45). The home, for diasporic communities, is both the homeland and the domestic private space where tradition is cultivated. A queer critique, however, displaces both notions of home, and rethinks it as an excluded space where the inability to belong within the rules of domestic and national normativity renders the subject as queer. Thus home becomes rethought of as a location where queerness is currently being experienced, where homosociality slips into homoeroticism; home is a place of new possibilities.

This critique thus discovers fissures of public and private space as it comes into conflict with globalization: “The space of the home” Gopinath tells us “is hardly private but rather a key site of labor within the global restructuring of the home.” To focus on the home then is also to recenter the spaces of global capitalism from the skilled labor forces of the metropole to the surplus labor force in the depressed ethnic enclaves who inhabit the ethnic sweatshop, the migrant factory and, most importantly, the home itself. It is due to the developing male subject of diaspora discourse that domestic labor in depressed inner cities is placed within a ‘hidden economy,’ while the public visibility of the diasporic subject, in parades and skilled workplaces, encourages a developmental narrative. Gopinath performs a feminist queer critique in an effort to disrupt such narratives of liberation and development, disrupting the ideologies that mask the racialized gendered labor awaiting female immigrants in the global city, which utilize “hierarchical gendered arrangements of the familial space” in factories and ethnic sweatshops (52). Gopinath calls for a queering of globalization as a new form of transnational politics that will fundamentally shift the way we see the home, not as a sphere of tradition and culture, but one where the real everyday struggle of the worker is reproduced.

Critiques:

In her review published in the Journal of History of Sexuality, Amy Brandzel criticizes Gopinath for a “lack of specificity:” first, for how to “read” a particular form (whether it be film, literature or music), or formulating what a queer reading entails besides looking for elements of queerness. Second, for the meaning of diaspora itself, which Brandzel claims as being used by Gopinath to provide greater privilege to diasporas located in the economic North, in first world, English-speaking countries, equating them with diasporas in Pakistan, while diasporas in Sri Lanka are seen in terms of “Indian hegemony”. This lack of specificity of Diaspora leads Brandzel to claim that “To equate diasporas of the economic North with those resulting from Partition seems to erase the different ways in which migration occurs, nations consolidate themselves and their borders, and epistemes form in relation to these processes” (147). The ethnologist Naisargi Dave finds that Gopinath “overemphasizes the active role of the reader,” alluding to a lack of specificity about a queer methodology. This lack of methodological specificity perhaps runs the gamut for Virinder Kalra in her review published in the Feminist Review, where she opines that “under the guise of ‘public culture,’ it seems that geography and history can be collapsed to allow for a kind of literary tourism” (182). Kalra’s main concern is the absence of a rationale for the parameters and basis for the types of comparisons that are made between Bhangra music, Chutney dance and films like Hollywood/Bollywood, which do not seem inter-related. Though all of these cultural productions come from an Indian diaspora, for Kalra, to flatten all cultural form as “Indian diasporic cultural form” ignores how diversive South Asian diasporas are, not just religiously between Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, but also along national subjectivities from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, as well as cultural barriers between say Bengalis, Punjabs, Maharashtans and Gujuratis, which also does not account for language barriers, barriers of class, and the transculturations of South Asian diasporas with their variegated “host” nations. As Kalra claims, “this ‘view from America’…[of] south Asian diasporic cultural outputs always renders them as somehow authentic and exotic, reminiscent of much maligned anthropological treatises” (182). Kalra finally finds that the greatest difficulty of the text is a refusal to engage with the critiques of identity politics that seem to demand her project be more than a recovery—“in what senses,” she asks, “does the queer female identity provide any kind of solace from the problematics of class, geography and migrant status”? How does queerness get co-opted with projects of terrorism and Islamaphobia?

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