Diasporic Deaths of Objects and Buying Diasporic Identity

Posted: February 14, 2012 by gardenofdawn in Feb 15

Summing up Parkin’s “Mementoes as Transnational Objects in Human Displacement”

From the opinion that the body and the mind are bound, Parkin explores the types of objects chosen by refugees at the critical point of traumatic geographic  human displacement. The dual criteria for the selection of objects is both practical value such as food and clothing and but also objects that facilitate the re-establishment of the pre-displacement identity and notions of home such as funerary objects and cassettes. For the latter category of object, what Parkin calls “ transitory possessions” (Parkin, 303), memory acts upon such objects to facilitate a bridging between the pre-displacement past in the home country and the post-arrival present in the host country.

Parkin and diasporic “social death”

I am particularly convinced by the specific idea of “social death” that Parkin describes. (Parkin, 314) He speaks about this idea in relation to personhood, how the inability to bring about potential positive memory of one’s pre-displacement-self (often as he argues, via objects) is equivalent to a “social death” which can be likely linked often to a biological death.  I am convinced by Parkin’s insight that objects can be sites of storage for personhood that can be retrieved when appropriate circumstances are provided. Parkin’s notion of “social death” can be spoken about in relation to the foundation of this class entitled “Diasporic LIVES of objects”. I will elaborate with the questions below.

Teasing out “social death” with questions:

What constitutes  the diasporic deaths of an object?

Might the diasporic death of an object be an object that is left behind in the home land by its owner?

Does the object die if it is no longer possessed and interpreted by its original owner?

What if the object was selected to be brought in diaspora with its owner  but the owner of the object is unable to harness via memory the pre-diasporic value of the object?

Is this thus the diasporic death for the object?

Diasporic objects in my mother’s life

I am further instructed by Parkin’s analysis by real diasporic objects in my life. My mother possesses a both practical diasporic object (A Red Cross shoulder bag) but also a journal that she had wrote in as a young adult that contains quotes from favourite Chinese novels. As an avid reader from a young age, this object brings her back to her pre-displacement self. Because her family owned a book store in her home country where she bought he journal, the object also is a representation and invocation of a physical home.

“Summing up Rains’ “Celtic Kitsch: Irish-America and Irish Material Culture”

Rains scrutinizes the idea of object authenticity within the context of the diasporic tourism industry in Ireland. Objects that the Irish diaspora and others purchase has been dubbed as “kitsch” (Pains, 52), which is often characterized of objects that are stylistically uniform, inauthentic — in a word: tacky. Rains condemns the negative inference of kitsch, given that the very definition of a diasporic object is that it has been taken out of its original context. Rains’ scrutinizes the marketing on behalf of tourist industry and capitalist endeavor of participation (Rains, 56) in a lost culture via consumption of “diasporic” commodities on the part of the consumer.

Rains and purchasing diasporic identity

I think that the highly profitable tourist industry – both in Ireland and globally – does in fact “overtly kitsch” (Rains, 57) diasporic objects and identities. The very strategic business and marketing plans used to make a profit off diasporic tourists is highly problematic given it provides a very shallow definition of identity and belonging. I don’t believe that such objects constitute an “overperformance” (Rains, 57) necessarily, but more so an ahistorical or historically-warped/historically-misread, empty, and highly diluted understandings and interactions with cultures of origins. Instead of engaging deeper with the traumatic journeys of migration experienced by their ancestors or living with and or meeting people who live in Ireland currently, tourists simply swipe their credit cards.

Elaborating on “buying identity” with more questions:

Can diasporic identity be so easily purchased on demand, as witnessed in the Irish tourism industry, Irish shops in North America and heritage shopping on the Internet?

Can a diasporic identity only be gained via direct life experience of displacement? Or can it be gained through purchase and the capitalist system?

Can a diasporic identity be achieved throughout generations even if future generations have not experienced or do not remember the displacement?

Do objects facilitate the acquiring of diasporic identity for those who lack the lived experience of dispersal but are born in a family defined by diasporic identity?

Parkin + Rains = Insight on the value of objects and their ability to  shape  diasporic identity

Parkin’s work focuses more so on the identity vested in objects chosen by refugees at the point of their involuntary displacement, while Rains centres on the purchase of identity-based objects at the point of voluntary privileged travel. As Parkin states, the objects chosen by refugees often have no market value. (Parkins, 313) The objects from the Irish tourist industry are the product of expensive and rigorous marketing schemes. (Rains, 54) Both diasporic groups are characterized (in quite varying degrees) by traumatic diasporic experience. Often,  groups are of different generations. These realities shape different understandings and attitudes towards the role of objects in shaping diasporic identities.

Objects constitute part and parcel of the migratory experience of their owners. Despite the idea that purchased objects can evoke notions of belonging to a diaspora, my verdict remains:

Diasporic identity is not bought. Diasporic identity is lived.

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