Re-placing Cultures

Digital Nationalism
Re-placing place in the Indian diaspora

Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of English


Vol. 7 No. 5
April/May 2005

Special Issue

Re-placing Cultures
A dialogue among disciplines
Guest Editor, Bruce M. Knauft, Executive Director, Institute for Comparative and International Studies, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology

On transculture
Mikhail Epstein

I think the boogieman of AIDS has more resonance in the United States than it might have in a community in Africa, where people are accommodating to it.
Deborah McFarland, Associate Professor of International Health

Increasingly, our law is so tied up with the religiosity of this society that it’s not just repositioning law, it’s
repositioning the role of religion in American culture.

Martha L.A. Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law

Re-placing National Culture
Globalization and collective identity in the Netherlands
Frank Lechner, Associate Professor of Sociology

Digital Nationalism
Re-placing place in the Indian diaspora
Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of English
Further reading

God’s Chosen Tongues
Hebrew and Arabic in the Qur’an
Devin J. Stewart, Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies
Further reading


Return to Contents

The internet and other new technologies of representation create fresh challenges to understanding the relationship between culture and the forms that shape and disseminate it. The role of the internet in forming and fostering “long distance nationalism” (Benedict Anderson’s phrase) among the Indian digital diaspora challenges the commonplace notion that cultural and geo-national space necessarily overlap.

We tend to assume that place, identity, and culture are axiomatically linked. Culture grows in place and over time, defined by place, continuity, and connectivity. Culture is homely, as the critic Homi Bhabha reminds us, because it is familiar through its apparent continuity. What happens to culture in the volatile crucible of globalization? Before we answer that question, it is worth reminding ourselves that culture at home changes continuously and resists definitive description. If culture must be translated—borne from its original context intolanguage, symbols, and patterns—in order to be identified, then it has already been unmoored and cast into the unstable realm of interpretation.

Rather than the common-sense notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same, I would argue that plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change—the more culture has endured, the more it has changed. Adaptation, flexibility, and evolution allow cultures to endure, creating the impression of having lasted through the centuries as identifiable or the same. Culture is as unhomely as it is homely. Because it is changeable and fugitive to begin with, culture in the diaspora is in place yet simultaneously out of place. Like any other meaning-making system, culture too depends upon interpretation, presentation, and dissemination. If these are its mobile, shifting, changeable vectors, place is supposedly its invariable one. If this is so, perhaps it is not culture so much as place itself as a concept that is being replaced in the digital nationalism of the Indian diaspora. Culture in the diaspora is turning the geo-territorial notion of place into space, or “practiced place,” as Michel de Certeau describes it. The task of tending, transmitting, and archiving culture has devolved upon the growing Indian digital diaspora in the last fifteen years or so. Digital technologies are re-placing place in its usual sense and literalizing (while digitalizing) place into virtual spaces of diverse practice.

Particular historical factors have contributed to the rise of this digital diaspora with strong links to its national culture: the first is the steady increase of Indian professionals in Anglo-America with the relaxation of immigration restrictions. The relative isolation of expatriate South Asians in their discrete locations in Northern countries has been offset effectively by a large, instant virtual community. This community may be geographically scattered but is electronically—and often epistemologically and ideologically—connected and contiguous. The geographic disconnection from the homeland, the historic rupture with the homeland’s national time, and the cultural confusion that migration produces can be counteracted as the digital diaspora reconnects virtually with the originary national place. Bit by bit, cultural connections reassemble in virtual space.

During the same period that this diasporic community has been growing, a series of microelectronic revolutions have facilitated its digital connectivity: the growing availability of PCs since the 1980s, the growth in internet technologies (Time magazine named the computer its “Man of the Year” in 1982), the commercialization of ethernet, the cheap supply of chips in the competitive global market, and the decision to expand internet access to the entire U.S. research community and thereafter internationally. (The internet went international in 1988, with India connected by 1990.) By 1992, we were experiencing the high noon of the electronic revolution with the promise of more to come.

Today, Indian use of the internet in Anglo-America includes services and software that attempt to link the originary and the diasporic worlds through sites on culture, customs, religion, history, news, jobs, dating, and matrimony. Place still matters, but it matters differently. Quite apart from helping the expatriate cope with the loss of the nation (its place, time, and culture), the internet has now become a privileged space for producing and reproducing the supposedly lost national culture through the capabilities of digital logic. A significant component of this logic is the advantage of speed in selecting, assembling, replicating, and disseminating the elements of an alternative history that compensates for the absence of a real one in the diaspora. The rapidly growing internet archives can then provide a virtual history for a group that has little history or presence on the books in these parts of the world. With computer technologies, information is generated and archived almost immediately, offsetting the usual requirements of years, even decades, for accumulating a significant archival database—or “history.”

Moreover, on the net it is possible to generate quickly a system of cross-referencing and citation that produces the illusion of longevity and numbers, promoting consensus that otherwise would have taken far more time and effort. Quick replication can convey the impression of consensus simply through repetition and dissemination, adding up to spurious consensus about national culture, its heirs, and its enemies. Instead of erasing it, the time-space compression digital technologies afford can renew the importance of homeland geography, which can be reconceived as sacred ground for the nostalgic expatriate.

In recent years, some work has been done on the role of expatriate Hindus in the rise and support of fundamentalism in the homeland. This technologically enabled and educated group has been implicated in the use of the internet for quick dissemination of politically motivated disinformation with occasionally disastrous consequences in the homeland. (The destruction of the Babri Mosque structure in Ayodhya in December 1992 is one such example that critics cite as the influence of overseas digital fundamentalism). Digital fundamentalism requires us to recognize another crucial feature of digital logic: supermediation. If the internet connects, it also distances us from the experiential world. Its virtuality can make it difficult to understand the consequences of “actions” on the internet. With the remote-control strategies of digital fundamentalism, propaganda mongers are exempt from the direct implications of their “virtual” actions. The logic of mediation underpins the success of overseas fundamentalism, which need not deal with its consequences in the homeland despite the causal role of digital propaganda and fundraising.

At the same time, the internet bears the potential for fostering a progressive and responsible globality. Just as its speed usually impairs our ability to reflect and permits the rapid accumulation of hegemonic discourses; just as its post-geographical nature supports the alliance of superexploitative forces globally, the net, using the very elements of digital logic described above, can also become a medium for rapid mobilization against maldevelopment projects and exclusive nationalisms. The creation of counter-archives of information can counteract the pervasive ideological glow disinformation produces. The cheapness of the medium allows such an alternative; the costs of production and dissemination in terrestrial space would be prohibitive. Where the net can disenfranchise and distance us from the lived experience of subaltern peoples, supermediation can help us learn without direct experience so that we garner perspective from distance instead of being alienated or apathetic. If digital media facilitates exploitative globalization and tribalist nationalisms, transnational literacy and responsible globality can also emerge as its unforeseen by-products.