Unsettled Settlers: Postcolonialism, Travelling Theory and the New Migrant Aesthetics

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In this article, I want to explore the apparent discrepancy between historical experiences of migration and aestheticised theories of `migrancy' that have emerged from contemporary cultural studies. I shall posit a link between the metaphorisation of migration and the -- often utopian -- spatial poetics/politics of postcolonial theory. I shall examine this link by looking at two recent works by cultural theorists that attempt, in different ways, to bridge the gap between postmodern `travelling theory' and postcolonial cultural politics. These works -- Paul Carter`s Living in a New Country (1992) and Iain Chambers' Migrancy, Culture, Identity (1994) -- can be seen as examples of a new `migrant aesthetic' which uses poststructuralist theories of displacement to account conceptually for migrating people, goods and ideas within the so-called New World Order.(1) I shall assess both the benefits and the limitations of such an approach; finally, I shall consider the extent to which the current cultural studies debates surrounding migration shed light on Australia's contested status as a postcolonial settler society.

I want to begin, though, with four -- no doubt unfairly -- decontextualised quotations on the subject of migration, the first from a political scientist (Aristide R Zolberg), the second from a sociologist (Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny), the third from an economist (Robert E B Lucas), and the fourth from a cultural theorist (lain Chambers). Here are the quotations, which I shall juxtapose without further comment:

   If we conceive of a world which consists, on the one hand, of individuals
   seeking to maximise their welfare by exercising a variety of choices ...
   and, on the other, of mutually exclusive societies, acting as organized
   states to maximise collective goals by controlling the exit or entry of
   individuals ... the deviant character of individual migration is thus seen
   to be related to a fundamental tension between the interests of individuals
   and the interests of societies.(2)

   Migration results from structural and anomic tensions ... and is a process
   by which such tensions are transformed and transferred ... [Two cases may
   be cited. In the first, an] individual may have a more or less balanced
   status configuration within a societal system, but may experience anomic
   tension because he or she is a member of a power deficient system ... In
   such a case, the member may give up system membership status and migrate to
   another system with a lower power deficit or a power surplus ... [In the
   second, an] individual experiences an anomic tension which can be traced
   back not to the external position of the system but to the internal status
   quo. If the individual unit perceives the chance of achieving a reduction
   of the anomic tension internally as low, the individual can try to achieve
   an improvement of status configuration by emigrating.(3)

   It is ... perhaps natural to consider weighing the pros and cons [of
   migration] within a cost-benefit framework ... [T]his type of study would
   divide the population into various categories: children, semi-skilled men,
   professional women, and so on. The emigration or immigration of each is
   then viewed as a project to be subjected to cost-benefit criteria ... I
   shall assume the objective is one of efficiency, though in principle it is
   quite possible to introduce distributional weights recognising perhaps a
   greater concern for the incidence of costs and benefits on lower income
   groups.(4)

   In the oblique gaze of the migrant that cuts across the territory of the
   Western metropolis there exists the hint of a metaphor. In the extensive
   and multiple worlds of the modern city we, too, become nomads, migrating
   across a system that is too vast to be our own, but in which we are fully
   involved -- translating and transforming what we find and absorb into local
   instances of sense . …