35. Diasporic Reasoning and Aesthetic Experience

Our bodies are constituted by culture, and cultural contexts impart meaning to difference. Hall (2012) dubs the diaspora itself an interpretive frame in his description of the practice of "diasporic reasoning," where "the diasporic" itself is an interpretive frame, "a specific structure of transformations, displacements, and condensations, which gain a historical specificity in the moment of post-war global migration," ripe for "analysing the economic, political and cultural modalities of historically specific forms and sites of migrancy" (p. 29). Diaspora is preoccupied with difference, as it naturally reaches for the hybrid and multicultural, always originating elsewhere, troubling notions of cultural origin, authenticity, and purity. The diasporic perspective produces a problematic of the subject, a doubled inscription, a way of speaking, complex and uneven, unsettled and displaced, a hidden figure who is yet apparent before you (Hall, 2012, p. 31; Perera, 2016, p. 18). It helps reimagine communal and individual identity as "constantly producing themselves anew, through transformation and difference" (Hall, 1990, p. 402) across a multiplicity of relations, entanglements, and concerns. In contrast to the oversimplified binary of home and diaspora, competing understandings can coexist — for instance, Tamil separatist nationalism and criticism of the LTTE; experiences of dispossession and second-generation privilege; identifications with America, Sri Lanka, Ilankai, and Tamil Eelam; a pervasive sense of trauma and fragile, delicate hope.

I am catastrophe personified, but you learn not to complain, to appreciate the ways in which your bodymind is still sound, when you know the cost of existing back home.

Diasporic reasoning articulates the ellipses that mark so much of social engagement and the frames of thinking in diasporic life, particularly of a stateless people, many of whom were forced into social or political exile, many entering new territories as abject asylum seekers. Hall's (2012) diasporic double inscription is incomplete and spectral, qualities that pair well with the decolonial ghostbody, what I've been calling the fibromyalgic pisasu pey, whose perspective of illness possesses a similar "double consciousness and multiple belongingness" (p. 100). Critical attention to the cultural specificities of the Eelam Tamil diaspora in the U.S., with our vexed histories of linguistic discrimination, ethnic conflict, and territorial dispute, opens up a more nuanced biocultural approach to illness identity more generally and pain more specifically.

Desjarlais (1992) uses "aesthetics of experience" to refer to "the tacit cultural forms, values, and sensibilities — local ways of being and doing — that lend specific styles, configurations, and felt qualities to local experiences" (p. 65). Cultural practices and forms are inscribed on our bodies, as is how we affectively receive, transmit, and interpret them. These pattern how people make sense of the forms of everyday life, especially the sensory contours of pain and suffering and the emotional responses that pain occasions. If the boundaries of selfhood and embodiment are culturally construed, then so are embodied forces that Euro-Western thinking perceives as the annihilator of selfhood, like pain. Pain as an intersubjective process is underpinned by the aesthetics of everyday experience. Desjarlais (1992) observes that "pain, if it is to bear meaning, must be situated within a system of aesthetic value, a system that shapes the moral and emotional dimensions of the experience" (p. 68). Through this aesthetic lens, body, expression, and interaction shift from texts with meanings to be interpreted to artistic compositions crafted and constrained by a cultural schema of value. This value crystallizes with poetic force in folklore, descriptions of pain, and religious imagery, and it is embodied in expression, posture, gesture.

"We encounter pain not as a timeless or universal phenomenon but rather as something anchored in a specific time and place: in combat or leisure, in soldier or civilian, in butcher, suburbanite, or slave (Morris, 1991, p. 43). I subconsciously make sense of and transform my chronic pain through an aesthetic orientation involving sensory holism, loss and fragmentation, imbalance and pollution, and morality and stoicism. But diasporic imaginings of "homeland" often conjure up places and events that are just that: imaginary, crafted from longing, rupture, and bereftness and not from a real, existing referent (Hall, 2012). These imaginings, particularly of second-generation folks, can be flattening, homogenizing, essentializing. I've had more practice instinctively imagining "homeland" as a collage of my parents' stories and rituals and pop culture caricatures of North Indian "brownness" that erased Tamilness, class and caste struggles, colorism, ethnocentric and religious strife than picturing it as it really is. Most of my life, I imagined myself as two discrete and competing identities, one rooted in (Tamil) home culture and the other in (American) "outside" culture, when this was never the case.

In postcolonial discourse, Bhabha (1994) characterizes hybridity as the process by which a colonial power attempts to translate and subsume the identity of the colonized subject but fails, instead producing a familiar but new difference. This new subject position is a "mutual and mutable" representation of cultural difference, a liminal, ambivalent third space between established subject positions like colonizer and colonized, where culture and identity have no primordial fixity. "This interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy" (p. 4). It generates the possibility for a rearticulation of meaning; however, it's worth noting, it isn't free from historical or material conditions and doesn't liberate the subject from the ongoing influence of colonization.

For 20 years, my parents were narrators, arbiters of Tamil culture, and I was the narratee, skeptically weighing their experiences against my own. Pain makes clearer the nature of my hybridity. The non-apparent chronic illness identity is the blending of two states of capacity, as the hybrid identity is the blending of two cultural identities; merely existing asks me to apprehend value in both.

(– 101. The GoSL Engages Appendicitis)