The Diasporic Condition

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


“Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.” 

- Martin Heidegger


One day

the day will come

when the day won’t come

- Paul Virilio


The diasporic condition remains under-theorized for apparently two reasons. One is its constitutive mix of contingency and instability, which afflicts it with a radical undecidability. The other is the logic of academic culture under multinational capitalism.

I do not use the word under-theorization to denote some quantitative insufficiency in the production of theory. My intention is to indicate the inadequacy of a different order. It is the inadequacy of conceptual magnitude, which can be attributed as much to the limitations of prevailing discourses as to plain intellectual evasion. While there can be hardly any disagreement with the range of current positions on what constitutes diaspora, what is perturbing is the idle assumption that this range marks the limits of thinking about the diasporic condition.

The invocation of Martin Heidegger’s thought is, hence, meant to be a reminder and a provocation for thinking. A provocation to think further, and backwards.

As the first philosopher of the diasporic condition, Heidegger looms over the discourse of diaspora as its disavowed but unexorcized other. In order to recuperate itself, the thinking about the diasporic condition must respond to his thought, for it is in his thought that an endeavour first gets underway to thoughtfully confront the gloom of modern man’s ontological homelessness in a world abandoned by the gods.[1] Mere coming to terms with the diasporic condition is not what we need today, as the vocabulary of negotiators and traders would frame the requirement. What we need is to take measure of this world-historical condition and recognize the tragic that is at its heart.[2]

Heidegger’s thought is an endeavour not only to fathom the abysses of man’s homelessness in the world but also to comprehend it historically. And it is an affirmation of the need for care of the human. In this affirmation, it attains the magnitude that co(r)responds to the diasporic human condition.

Responding to Heidegger’s thought would rearrange our normative horizons, because “seeing”, as he remarks with a philologist’s casual insight, is “theoria” (“Letter” 262).



A meditation on the diasporic condition, mediated by Heidegger’s thought, stirs quite a flight of questions.

Does the current discourse of diaspora do justice to the diasporic condition? Does it not contain, reduce and trivialize thinking about the diasporic condition? Do we not sense in the celebration of this proliferating discourse the displacement of a profounder, more menacing anxiety? Isn’t the diasporic “uprooting” a spreading malignancy of the human condition in our times (“Letter” 255)? Does not the diasporic condition portend a real-virtual nomadic monadism of planetary dimensions?[3]

Before we proceed to tentatively address these questions, we may try to locate diaspora through some of its dislocations in/of discourse.


Between History and Metaphysics: Dis/locating Diaspora

This is how Will Durant begins the narrative of the Jewish Diaspora in The Story of Philosophy:

The story of the Jews since the Dispersion is one of the epics of European history. Driven from their natural home by the Roman capture of Jerusalem (70 A.D.), and scattered by flight and trade among all the nations and to all the continents; persecuted and decimated by the adherents of the great religions—Christianity and Mohammedanism—which had been born of their scriptures and their memories; barred by the feudal system from owning land, and by guilds from taking part in industry; shut up within congested ghettoes and narrowing pursuits, mobbed by the people and robbed by the kings; building with their finance and trade the towns and cities indispensable to civilization; outcast and excommunicated, insulted and injured;—yet   without any political structure, without any legal compulsion to social unity, without even a common language, this wonderful people has maintained itself in body and soul, has preserved its racial and cultural integrity, has guarded with jealous love its oldest rituals and traditions, has patiently and resolutely awaited the day of its deliverance, and has emerged greater in number than ever before, renowned in every field for the contribution of its geniuses, and triumphantly restored, after two thousand years of wandering, to its ancient and unforgotten home. What drama could rival the grandeur of these sufferings, the variety of these scenes, and the glory and justice of this fulfillment? What fiction could match the romance of this reality? (146; italics mine)


Yet an evacuation of historical reality has been perpetrated upon the sign ‘diaspora’, sanitizing and reinventing it as a commodity for safe academic consumption in the global intellectual marketplace. An aura of metaphysics has been raised to impede the view of history that the sign had afforded till recently. I would not attribute this, despite the temptation, to conscious ideological motivation. But one can very well glimpse ideological mobilization at work, albeit non-subjective, abetted by the bad conscience of hegemonic power as it tries to lay to rest the ghosts of exiles and genocides both remembered and unremembered. The diasporic has thus, by a strange ironic logic, expanded by contraction and become a generic qualifier, leading to the erasure of history (the history embedded in its etymology and the even bloodier history that it has accreted subsequently) and difference.

A small but noteworthy fact: Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia, lists 24 “notable” diasporas and makes it a point to state that the list is “not comprehensive”.

An obvious question, then: Is it really fortuitous that at a time when heterogeneity, multiplicity and difference reign/rain in the academy, our dominant conceptual landscape of diaspora remains a uniform desert of indifference?

Does not the contradiction suggest inauthenticity?

Another question: Is it also fortuitous that the ascendancy of the reinvented sign of diaspora began in the 90s, which witnessed also the global rise of neo-liberalism, the emergence of transnational elite in need of a globally available and remotely manageable workforce, and the erosion of the traditional sovereignty of the nation-state?

What Anthony Giddens says of the term ‘globalization’ could be said equally aptly of ‘diaspora’: “It has come from nowhere to be almost everywhere” (7). The ubiquity of discourse and the oblivion of history have, as Foucault has shown, a strong affinity. Mayaphysics, the indrajaal of ideology, spins incessantly to the sub-sonic rhythms of discourse. And some of the charms do bear fruit; in transmogrifying, for instance, the real, living, historical Jews into the Unnameable Other, down the passage of allegorisation into indifferent, universalizing, and symbolically –and literally– homicidal myth.[4]

The constitutive mix of contingency and instability that marks the diasporic has two contradictory consequences. On the one hand, it threatens to ontologically de-materialise the diasporic by rendering it fundamentally undecidable and hence indefinable (it is impossible to quantify contingency and instability for want of relativizing criteria intrinsic to the condition). On the other, the condition as a prevailing circumstance threatens to dissipate into sheer absurdity if it is visualized against the backdrop of deep time or on a slide under the microscope. If all human beings are already diasporic (as the cartographers of genes are well on their way to confirming), if diasporisation is the primordial fact of human biology, if the human genetic structure stands revealed today as predominantly non-human,  what happens to the conceptions of diaspora which are predicated on a foundationalism of contingency?

There are other grey areas, narrower and more specific. How long, or how many generations, does it take for a diaspora to lose its ‘root’ sensibility and identity? Do the poor relations back home have a vested interest in sustaining the diasporic connection? Isn’t what they worship with such ardent display just an imaginary genealogical tree? In terms of the global political economy and the agency of the nation-state, do not the sudden upsurge of political visibility of diaspora and its mediarticulation (as in the case of the Indian diaspora) answer to the right investment climate back home? So that there is a certain opportunity-sighting, if not opportunism, on either side of the border?

There is something instructive about the way the Government of India has of late conferred recognition, verging on canonisation, on the Great Indian Diaspora.  In a tactical nominative operation, the website of the Government of India classifies the Indian diaspora into the NRIs and the PIOs (The Indian Diaspora webpage). The first term, remarkably, signals deterritorialisation of the nation. The second reverts to the by now discredited myth of origins. The first extends India beyond its borders. The second passes over all history and prehistory to grab at arbitrary points as the points of origination. Between them the two terms manage to conjure up a substitute virtual nationality: nationality as metaphysics in the age of global capital which is otherwise progressively undermining and overcoming the historical nation-state.

But language is undisciplinable and gives the game away. In the act of staking a claim on “its” diaspora, the nation-state, ironically, must necessarily dis-own that diaspora. And relatedly, it must assert its self-presence in the very act of self-negation.

To go back. We began with Durant’s narrative of the Diaspora as the Jewish dispersion. The historical fact, of which little notice is taken though, is that a majority of the Jews had been already voluntarily living away from their land before the Exile (Boyarin and Boyarin 109). They were already a diaspora. But a myth gradually grew and flourished around the Exile, and the overgrowth concealed the different pre-Exilic history from common view over the years.

Hence the question is not merely of choosing between history and metaphysics, for history comes always pre-cultivated with metaphysics. The seduction of roots, of palpable, dramatic origins is a great seduction. The deliberate moves to unhinge the diasporic identity from territorial and nationalistic formations are ways of buffering the seduction and preventing ressentiment and violence (Gilroy; Boyarin and Boyarin). As such these are commendable aims for a peaceful global political order. But we need to move beyond the strategies of cultural politics and relocate the problematics of exile and homelessness against the intimations of a materialising apocalypse. It is this looming apocalypse that compels rethinking the ontology and ecology of diaspora. As Hölderlin indicates, we the mortals have to “understand” that the gods have forsaken us (“Letter” 241-42). We have to confront our vast abandonment with a matching vastness of soul. And we have to vanquish the temptation to invent false little gods and small illusory worlds.

And this before we mutate irredeemably from our human being.


The Ontology of Diaspora

Scattered across, sowed across … cross-sowed, cross-scattered: that is the diaspora. Its ontology, in itself and in relation to its ecology, is of interface and dispersion, of remix, of transplantation (including that of organic communities and organisms, of organs and nano-biocybernetic systems). It is the ontology of soil and roots, of roots dreaming in seeds of the arrival elsewhere in order to reproduce. And maybe, in order to reengineer.

The issue is not so much of the location of culture as of the (techno-)culture of dislocation. At the present moment of history, the concepts of liminality and in-betweenness seem metonymic: symptomatic of displacements. Consider the disappearance of space(s), whether as a consequence of the emergence of biotechnology or of the movement of information at the speed of light. The postmodern hypertechnological “enframing” of the human from the inside, complementing the modern technological “enframing” from the outside on which Heidegger broods anxiously (“Question” 328-34), accomplished through genetic engineering, especially the DNA re-sequencing, lays to rest the cyborg as the other of the human. The cyborg disappears into the human, hardwired invisibly into the human being.

The ontology of diaspora is, thus, not only cultural and political-economic but also, deeply and all over the surface, political-technological. Techno-ontology is no longer science fiction.

How to theorize subjectivity in the case of a child who is prematurely delivered and then intricated into machines that will nurture and redeliver it at the appropriate time? What happens when the Real and the Imaginary get technologically mediated? What kind of subject emerges from the technological matrix/material womb (Smith-Windsor)? How does it resolve the oedipus complex when the mother happens to be, for a fairly long gestation period, a machine, and the father an anonymous sperm donor? If technology can be shown to make no difference, then a good deal of psychoanalytical theory cannot be taken seriously. But if it makes a difference, then it would have to be rewritten.

What does it mean to have the other technically –literally technically– inside us? Under the skin, along the nerves, in the corpuscles, on the genes? The human being, Heidegger’s privileged being-there, can no longer afford to defer the question of being: because for the first time in history does he face the danger of being displaced from there. Of being self-displaced. The lethal irony of (Winamp) skins, (web) cookies and (chat-room) avatars is already lost upon us; so ‘naturally’ has technology been growing in upon our awareness.

Habit is what we wear inside.

What wears us inside.

For cookies are no longer just eaten. They also eat: the disk space. Racism should not be a problem: skins are downloadable, changeable, upgradeable. And avatars are not incarnations of the gods descended on earth: they are babbling and foul-mouthed specters in cyberspace, carnal to the point of pornography yet non-incarnate.

And memory hangs when you fail to recall something. You don’t commit to memory or interpret, but download. You do not put ‘under erasure’ like Derrida, but overwrite. You no longer go down the memory lane but scroll up. And postmodernism, relieved of the jargon of theory, gets explained away as a copy and paste operation. No wonder the postcolonial Saraswati of theory, Spivak (SpiVāc?), takes to cyberese as a terrestrial fish to the Martian waters.[5]

Technological practices are, thus, already at it: refixing our cognitive wiring and making our imaginary comprehensively and fundamentally technological. The structures of feeling are being redesigned and upgraded. And the Memeticists seem hell-bent on proving, in an extreme download of the work of the Geneticists, that human beings are essentially information clusters, because all that is “it” derives from “bit”. We have indeed come a long way from Heidegger’s naïveté: “Man’s essence consists in his being more than merely human” (“Letter” 247).

The most frightening irony is that the posthuman tissues and fragments of disembodiment should be the metaphysical progeny of a certain kind of humanism, of the humanism of instrumental rationality that surgically and for ever cut asunder technē from poiēsis (“The Question” 318-320; 335). And techne, having attained maturity, is ready to deliver the human clone in a final non-act of ontological displacement: the clone as the other of the cyborg as the other of the human. The human twice removed from the human. And then the clone of the clone. An endless, and gruesome, play of deferral and (non-)difference, waiting to open up. Who says deconstruction is only a metaphysics? Could anything get more physical? Deconstruction with techno-human body. Real simulation.

The constitutive contingency of the diasporic, threatening to eventually cross it out.


The Ecology of Diaspora

            Ecology is what we in-habit. As habit, wearing us inside of itself.

In order to grasp our situation as it is actually taking shape, we may imagine ourselves inhabiting a constant slippage of space. A double slippage, in fact. Does that entail some kind of nirvana, a ‘terminal’ freedom from the root/route samskaras, from traces of the past selves and of the paths traversed that coalesce to form habits? In one sense, space turns mobile and slippery in the new ecology of “flows”.[6] In another, it slips outside of appearance, to form the spatial unconscious. The conjuncture of the two is the elusive myth of cyberspace, the space which is the form of appearance of the disappearance of real space.[7] Non-space as the (ideological) delusion of space. And precisely because it is delusory, non-space is not habitable –howsoever hard it may grow in upon us as habit.  Man cannot belong in it, cannot be at home in it, can just not be in it.[8] In a very material way then, the continuing expansion of cyberspace is in direct proportion to man’s increasing homelessness. And if the expansion continues, we may all be diasporans one day, perennially nomadic, absolutely contingent, and for ever slithering to sneak through interstices into the warmth of home. But home will not be even a memory then. As the founding referential axis of space, it will have lost any meaning whatsoever.

For now, though, we inhabit a double spatial ecology: of “the space of flows” and “the space of places”. The latter is what we understand as the real space: space as the location of history, mortality and martyrdom. The “space of flows” is the space of instantaneity, of ahistory, of what Bill Gates smugly calls “friction-free capitalism” (quoted in Žižek). Cyberspace is what we –the embodied mortals– can never get inside of. It is without matter and time, and for that reason, ahuman. Cyberspace, as the disappearance of distances, has no interspatialities. Absolute space. An oxymoron.

When convergence technologies move enormous amounts of data at the speed of light, the terrestrial space is not just vanquished. It effectively vanishes. And with space vanishes time.

And then the sky falls. The earth goes under. The gods keep away. For death comes no longer. Under the disappearance of time, mortality vanishes. And with mortality dead, the mortals can be no more.  The fourfold, as Heidegger calls them, withdraw when man no longer builds for dwelling (“Building”). And light, the ground of all phenomena, swallows all because the phenomena have begun to race at the speed of light.

            The docile and “sedentary” inhabitant of the “grey ecology” of this “omnipolis” (Virilio 25; 58; 83) of networks and flows must compulsively refine himself to the point where he becomes a pure “conductor” (Nirre 265). He must install “connectivity” in place of “collectivity”, a “status” in place of a “state” (Thacker 167), and reconfigure the ontologies of home and community to fit into the ecology of networks and flows. His redemption lies in enabling the flows and reducing resistance to the barest minimum that the ecology of flows structurally requires in order to be what it is. Space and time being the last posts of resistance in the way of capital must be conquered, but their total annihilation would cause capital to implode. The delicate game of violence can be played out, thus, only on the turf of the human being adrift as a node on a chaotic sea of networks and flows.

Man must overcome himself but not in the way of Zarathustra’s Übermensch (“beyond-man”), by exceeding what is human, all too human. He must reduce himself to being a facilitating node in the ecology of flows, a structurally indispensable point of critical resistance. He must become hyper-man.


Towards Real-Virtual Nomadic Monadism

Hyper-man is the monad of the new ecology. Like the Leibnizian monad, he is indistinguishable from any other monad, defined solely by his relative position vis-à-vis others (Russell 607-11). He is windowless and thus radically closed to the other. And he is ontologically a mirror reflecting the uni-verse. What renders him new is a slight historical displacement: he inhabits both non-space and space, the space of flows and the space of places, has a dis-position to be homeless, and reflects the infinitely variable homogeneity of capital under Baudrillard’s structural law of value (Butler 39). He is the diasporic monad of nomadic cyber-communities, the nodal ghost of meaningful connectivity, of osmosis and semiosis between networks, the point and passage of discourse gone hyper. A technologically induced bizarre revival of the archaic, the eternal wanderer reproduced for one last time for the eternity of dead space.

The diasporic condition, as the world-historical ontological condition of man at this juncture, paves the way for the real-virtual nomadic monadism of hyper-man. The diasporic condition is the moment of twilight, between the submergence of man and the emergence of hyper-man. And hence, there is yet hope.

The hope before we mutate irredeemably from our human being.


The Diasporic Agency: The Care of the Human

It is in this apocalyptic twilight that the creativity of diaspora is situated. Hence the ambivalence of thrill and terror, of anticipation and foreboding, of nostalgia and adventure. Can theory, as thought, bring itself to “see” this creativity and affirm the agency of diaspora to take the human under its protective care?

That is the question.



Works Cited

Boyarin, Daniel, and Jonathan Boyarin. “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Diaspora.” Theorizing Diaspora. Ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur. Malden: Blackwell, 2003. 85-118.

Butler, Rex. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999.

Calasso, Robert. Literature and the Gods. Trans. Tim Parks. London: Vintage, 2001.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

---. The Power of Identity. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Vol. 2. Oxford : Blackwell, 1997.

---. End of Millennium. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Vol. 3. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. New York: Washington Square, 1951.

Giddens, Anthony. Runaway World: How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives. London: Profile Books, 2004.

Gilroy, Paul. “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity.” Theorizing Diaspora. 49-80.

Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. London:  Routledge, 1993. 213-65.

---. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Basic Writings. 347-63.

---. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. 311-41.

Nirre, Robert. “Spatial Discursions: Flames of the Digital and Ashes of the Real.” Life in the Wires 260-68.

Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954.

Smith-Windsor, Jaimie. “The Cyborg Mother: A Breached Boundary.” Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader. Eds. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. Victoria, Canada: New World Perspectives/CTheory Books (2004) 184-91.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. Calcutta: Seagull, 2004.

Steiner, George. “Tragedy Reconsidered.” New Literary History 35.1 (2004): 1-15.

Thacker, Eugene. “Networks, Swarms and Multitudes.” Life in the Wires 165-77.

The Indian Diaspora webpage.  January 28, 2005.

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso, 1997.

Wikipedia. January 25, 2005.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism.” New Left Review 225 (1997).


Dr. Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala

E mail:



Seminar on

Contemporary Diasporic Literature: Writing History, Culture, Self

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala

February 24-25, 2005

(Paper Presented on February 25, 2005)

[1] In a recent essay titled “Tragedy Reconsidered”, George Steiner examines tragedy in the light of Heidegger’s idea of man’s ontological homelessness. Robert Calasso in his Literature and the Gods speaks of the retreat of the gods from literature, which according to him is a sign of the disintegration of Being manifesting as the disintegration of Heidegger’s “fourfold” of earth, sky, gods and mortals.

[2] Against the fashionable cosmopolitan diasporism may be set the ontological diasporism, a “malignancy” of the modern technological society that Heidegger diagnoses as “homelessness” from Being. See his “Letter on Humanism” (242-44; 254).

[3] Real virtuality, a phrase used by Manuel Castells, denotes the paradox of materialization of the virtual in the information society. Virtuality becomes so pervasive, and persuasive, that it comes to substitute the real in the subject’s experiential world. It is conspicuous in the domain of culture which becomes “a potentially interactive hypertext” as a consequence of diverse cultures mixing up in the form of themes, media, images, etc. (End of Millennium 1; 246-47).

[4] Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin discuss the deconstructive use of the “allegorical trope” of “the jews” (in lowercase) by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his Heidegger and “the jews,” trans. Peter Connor et al., ed. Connor (Minneapolis, MN 1991). See Boyarin and Boyarin 91.

[5] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak frequently employs terms such as overwriting, copy, and cut and paste while talking about comparative literature in her Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory published under the title Death of a Discipline.

[6] By “the space of flows” Manuel Castells means the logic of network society that characterizes contemporary informational capitalism. He distinguishes it from “the space of places” that prevails under industrial capitalism. The distinction is the cornerstone of his trilogy.

[7] The paradoxical concept of appearance of the disappearance of something derives from psychoanalysis and is used by Slavoj Žižek to denote the movement of ideological displacement under multinational capitalism. I employ the concept to indicate a more material displacement, which follows the impact of technology on space as a dimension of human experience.

[8] Paul Virilio sees the emergence of “the transapparent horizon” (22) and “the end of the outside world” (24) as marking the birth of the omnipolitan city, “a virtual city of which every real city will ultimately be merely a suburb” (74). See his Open Sky.