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On minorities


On minorities:

cultural rights

Homi K. Bhabha

After the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we still need to ask: what is the human ʻthing itselfʼ? Who is ʻone of usʼ in the midst of the jurisdictional unsettlements of migration, minoriti-zation, the clamour of multiculturalism? To whom do we turn in neighbourly embrace or alien embarrassment?

In The Politics of Recognition, Charles Taylor proposes a global mode of cultural judgement that has become a landmark of liberal multiculturalism. ʻMerely on the human level,ʼ he writes, ʻ one could argue that – whole societies – cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings of diverse characters and temperaments over a long period of time … are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect.ʼ At this point Taylor introduces an evaluative caveat, a qualified disavowal: ʻI have … excluded partial cultural milieux within a society as well as short phases of a major culture. There is no reason to believe that, for instance, the different art forms of a given culture should all be of equal, or even of considerable, value; and every culture can go through phases of decadence.ʼ What is the significance of this exclusion of the ʻpartial milieuxʼ in making a case for cultural value on the grounds of ʻwhole societiesʼ?

Could it be that in the influential, humane language of communitarian liberalism, ʻwhole societiesʼ, however universal their aspirations, are fundamentally imagined to be nationalist cultures? Is there an inability to conceive of societal or ʻcultural optionsʼ outside the national, even nationalist frame? As the Mexican social and legal historian Rodolfo Stavenhagen has aptly reflected in the recent UNESCO publication Cultural Rights and Wrongs: ʻthe conveniently ambiguous term of “national culture”, leaves open the question of whose nation and what kind of nation is to be developed … the development of modern states have been more a process of ʻnation-destroyingʼ than one of nation building, in view of the fact that in the name of the modern nation-state peoples have in fact been destroyed or eliminated.ʼ

an excess of ‘identity’?

The restrictive and prescriptive ʻnationalistʼ impulse disguised in the ʻglobalʼ horizon of the ʻmerely humanʼ and its cultural measure, the ʻwhole societyʼ, is further borne by Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 27 is one of the two main implementing conventions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: it protects ʻthe right of minorities, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own languageʼ. As such Article 27 is the most significant international instrument for the protection and implementation of ʻcultural rightsʼ. Over the years, various member states have proposed amendments in order to prevent migrants and diasporic peoples from being considered minorities. These states have held that ʻThe very existence of unassimilated minorities would be a threat to national unity; and hence, the provisions relating to the rights of minorities should not be so applied to encourage the emergence of new minority groups, or to thwart the process of assimilation and so threaten the unity of the State.ʼ Spain, Peru, India, Brazil and other representatives have suggested that the ʻrightsʼ of minorities should only be conceded to those who over ʻlong periods of timesʼ have enhanced the historical stability and the integrity of the ʻwholeʼ society of the state, all of which adds up to the fact – I quote from the Commissionʼs working papers – that ʻloyalty [is] an element in the [very] definition of minorityʼ.

A study of these working papers submitted by member-states suggests that the underlying fear here, once again, is the ʻcreation of new minoritiesʼ. What I have identified as the extrusion of the ʻpartial cultural minorityʼ and the bias towards ʻa large number of persons … over a long period of timeʼ should be read in the resonant context of what it means in Article 27 for minorities to ʻenjoy their cultureʼ. The insistence in Article 27 that minorities should ʻpreserveʼ their cultural identity rather than emerge as new formations of minoritization, or ʻpartial cultural milieuxʼ, emphasizes the fact that minorities, amongst others, are regulated and administered into a position of having an excess of ʻidentityʼ, which can then be assimilated and regulated into the stateʼs conception of ʻthe common goodʼ. As Seyla Benhabib has pointed out, ʻhistorically the strong pursuit of collective goals or “goods,” commonly referred to as nationalism, has usually been at the cost of minorities – sexual, cultural or ethnic.ʼ Minorities – both national and ʻmigrant or diasporicʼ – are too frequently imaged as the abject ʻsubjectsʼ of their cultures of origin huddled in the gazebo of group rights, preserving the orthodoxy of their distinctive cultures in the midst of the great storm of Western progress.

Such proscriptions on the creation of new minoritarian subjects ignore the fact that, in our times, ʻpartial cultural milieuxʼ and ʻnon-stateʼ social actors are increasingly relevant, nationally and internationally, in the fight for cultural rights and social justice.

ʻThe frontlines in the battle for racial justice for African Americansʼ, Manning Marable recently argued, ʻare increasingly located in prisons, in community-based coalitions struggling against political brutality and in efforts to organize the unemployed and welfare recipients forced into workfare programmes.ʼ The partial decentralization of the state in the global context opens up the theatre of international law to what Saskia Sassen has described as ʻa space where women … can come out of the invisibility of aggregate membership in a nation-state … by partly working through non-state groups and networks [where] the needs and agendas of women are not necessarily defined by state-bordersʼ.

Just history

The creation of new minorities reveals a liminal, interstitial public sphere that emerges in-between the state and the non-state, in-between individual rights and group needs; not in the simpler dialectic between global and local. Subjects of cultural rights occupy an analytic and ethical borderland of ʻhybridizationʼ in a partial and double identification across minority milieux. In fact, the prevailing school of legal opinion specifically describes minority cultural rights as assigned to ʻhybridʼ subjects who stand somewhere in-between individual needs and obligations, and collective claims and choices, in partial cultural milieux. While the law moves uneasily and uncomfortably on these new terrains, the proleptic grace of poetry has the power to align the anxiety of speaking from within the ʻpartial cultural milieuxʼ of minority rights, with the aspirational vision of the formation of ʻnew minorities.ʼ

Listen to Adrienne Rich:Old backswitching road bent toward the oceanʼs lightTalking of angles of vision movements a black or a red tulip openingTimes of walking across a street thinkingnot I have joined the movement but I am stepping in this deep currentPart of my life washing behind me terror I couldnʼt swim withpart of my life waiting for me a part I had no words forI need to live each day through have them and know them allthough I can see from here where Iʼll be standing at the end.. .

When does a life bend toward freedom? grasp its direction?

How do you know youʼre not circling in pale dreams, nostalgia, stagnationbut entering that deep current malachite, coloradorequiring all your strength wherever foundyour patience and your labourdesire pitted against desireʼs inversionall your mindʼs fortitude?

Maybe through a teacher: someone with facts with numbers with poetrywho wrote on the board: IN EVERY GENERATION ACTION FREES OUR DREAMS Maybe a student: one mind unfurling like a redblack peony. .

And now she turns her face brightly on the new morning in the new classroomnew in her beauty her skin her lashes her lively body:

Race, class … all that … but isnʼt all that just history?

Arenʼt people bored with it all? She could be myself at nineteen but free of reverence for past ideasignorant of hopes piled on her sheʼs a mermaidmomentarily precipitated from a solutionwhich could stop her heart She could swim or sinklike a beautiful crystal.(ʻInscriptionsʼ, Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991–95) ʻRace, class … all that … but isnʼt all that just history?ʼ This preoccupation with what is ʻjustʼ history – both historical justice and historical justification – gives the poem a particular relevance for the pedagogy of our times. The ʻsubjectʼ of the poem is, literally, the sphere of the proximity of differences – race, class, gender, generation – as they emerge in a range of intersecting public spheres – the street, the academy, the political party, the private diary – to claim a right to representation. As the nineteen-year-old mermaid turns her back on ʻall that historyʼ – the poem itself, ʻredblack peonyʼ, moves restlessly back and forth in a double-movement that relives and revises:

the sixties in the nineties, mothers-and-daughters; race-within-the-claims of gender and class. Article 27 and its potentially hybrid subject of inter-cultural rights is caught in the colorado of the ʻpartial cultural milieuxʼ of minority identifications and their metonymic representations: ʻPart of my life washing behind me. ./ part of my life waiting for me…ʼ The repetition of ʻpart of me … part of me …ʼ threads the ambivalent, anxious subject of poetic-psychic affiliation with the hybrid legal subject of cultural rights, often agonistically poised between individual and group: ʻnot I have joined the movement but I am stepping in this deep current/ … malachite, colorado.ʼ Can poetry think the problem that legal discourse can only describe?

In embodying the spirit of the hybrid subject of Article 27, Rich suggests that individual and group, singularity and solidarity, need not be opposed or aligned against each other. They are part of the movement of transition or translation that emerges within and between minority milieux. For an international community of rights cannot be based on an abstract inherent ʻvalueʼ of humanness; it requires a process of cultural translation that, each time, historically and poetically inquires into the conflictual namings of ʻhumanityʼ. What is being defended in the name of the individual ʻrightʼ?

What freedom is denied in the designation of the collective culture of the group?

ʻWhile rights are always attributed to individuals, in the last instance, they are achieved and won collectivelyʼ, Étienne Balibar has argued. The ʻhumanʼ is identified not with a given essence, be it natural or supranatural, but with a practice, a task. The property of the human being is the collective or the transindividual construction of her or his individual autonomy; and the value of human agency arises from the fact that no one can be liberated by others, although no one can liberate herself or himself without others.

Richʼs insistence on the partial identification of the minoritarian subject – no whole persons or whole societies – makes her aware that individual and group are not the two faces of human rights, but its chiasmatic doubles. As in the disjunctive yet proximate temporality of the poem itself, individual and group stand at the hybrid intersectionality of rights; just as the minority stands doubly within and across the national boundary; and the psyche has an agonizing rendezvous with history.

Kant, romanticism,

Andthe origins of modernity

3-5 July 2000Keynote speakers:

Paul Davies, Eckart Förster, Mary ShelOther speakers include: Lilian Alweiss, Christine Bat ersby, Geof rey Bennington,

Andrew Bowie, Jonathan Dronsfield, Joanna Hodge,

Stephen Houlgate, Kimberly Hutchings, John Llewelyn,

Diane Morgan, Michael Newman, Stel a SandfordFor registration details contact: Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL Telephone: 024 765 22582 E-mail:

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