Cargo Culture: Literature in an Age of Mass Displacement

By Dawson, Ashley | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Cargo Culture: Literature in an Age of Mass Displacement


Dawson, Ashley, Women's Studies Quarterly


The full implication of the identification of the rights of man with the rights of peoples in the European nation-state system came to light only when a growing number of people and peoples suddenly appeared whose elementary rights were not safeguarded by the ordinary functioning of the nation- state.

- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Much of what is classified today as the literature of migration does not reflect the conditions of extreme duress of those who are trafficked from one part of the world to another. In many instances, postcolonial theories of hybridity and the literary forms in which such theories are instantiated were the product of elite forms of migration that have little connection to the experience of working-class migrants (Ahmad 2008). Even literary works that are more grounded in mass experience nonetheless reflect the tribulations of first- or second-generation diasporic populations who migrated to the developed nations of Western Europe and the United States legally. Such migration was largely a product of what were the now clearly anomalous conditions of labor shortage that obtained for the thirty or so years following World War II and the creation of the postwar social compact between capital, government, and the organized working class within developed nations. In the United States, for example, Congress established the bracero contract-labor program, which lasted from the early 1940s through the mid-1960s, in response to such labor shortages; similar guest worker programs were set up in Western European nations such as Germany, France, and Britain after the war (Bacon 2008). While residence was often initially tied to work, the communities who settled in developed nations, tied to such nations by colonial history, generally ultimately established formal citizenship. Literature produced by writers within this context, from, to take the British context, Sam Selvon's Lonely Londoners to Zadie Smith's White Teeth, thus deals largely with the efforts of these migrant communities to establish a sense of self and community within nations that recognize their right to residence in formal terms but frequently do not do so in cultural or racial terms. The struggle reflected in such literary works consequently tends to pivot on assertions of belonging that mongrelize the national community (Dawson 2007).

The novel has not been particularly responsive to the growth of displacement on a global scale during the post-Fordist era that began in the 1970s. In his discussion of the dearth of literary representations of migrant workers in the oil industry, for example, Amitav Ghosh suggests that this aporia results not simply because it is in the interest of dominant elites to mute awareness of the political machinations and human rights violations that attend resource extraction. In addition, Ghosh suggests, the novel is constitutionally averse to representing the polyglot communities of labor migrants whose toil in the oil fields of the Middle East keeps crude oil flowing (1992, 30). The novel is tethered to traditions of naturalistic dialogue within monolingual speech communities; within, that is, the nation-state. As Benedict Anderson argued, it is the primary vector for the imagining of stable, bounded communities within the empty time of modernity (2006). The novel also thrives through creating a rich sense of place. The experience of the modern-day helots who populate the shadow economy, however, is lived out in a world that is displaced, heterogeneous, and international. This is a world, Ghosh asserts, that offers "a radical challenge not just to writing but to much of modern culture, to the idea of distinguishable and distinct communities or civilizations" (1992, 30). Ghosh, writing during the first decade of full-blown neoliberal globalization, argues that we do not yet possess literary forms to give true expression to the experiences of global migrants.

In recent years precisely such a literature of displacement has begun to emerge. …

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