In a descriptive sense, the sprawling idea of hybridity can be taken to refer to the perpetual mixing and morphing, borrowing and mimicking, synthesizing and syncretizing, boundary-breaching and identity-stretching that goes on whenever particular social forces, cultural forms, and contentious discourses engage and then re-settle in compromised and creative fashion. Put that way, hybridity is a kind of constant of human interaction and group formation, a meta-datum of what happens through countless crossover processes occurring at many different levels and across the ages. And as the way the world is, so to speak, it is hard to see how we could be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ hybridity.
However, Israeli gerontologist, anthropologist and sociologist Haim Hazan seeks to jolt us into greater concern, by adding two further layers of attention. Hybridity, under conditions of capitalist globalization, is not just human business as usual, but interactions, identities and proclivities that become relentlessly mediatized and commodified, as an effect of which our human sensibilities are blurred and numbed. Nodding thus in the direction of the Frankfurt School, and drawing on Marwan Kraidy’s Hybridity (2005), the subtitle of which casts it as the cultural logic of globalization, Hazan plays up the burgeoning number of fads, services, and imaginings that fuel both the unfettered market drive and a slightly bizarre collective desire for anything apparently blended, fused and glocal. Like Kraidy too, but more emphatically, Hazan views today’s cultural analysts and critics as themselves constituting, culpably, a central part of the malaise. In a series of broad associations binding together the state of consumerist, touristic popular culture and what he takes to be a recently achieved, but thoroughgoing, consensus in how we theorize postmodern networking, multicultural, cosmopolitan society, Hazan indicts social and cultural studies for establishing hybridity as the contemporary ‘master trope’ of understanding and normativity. Hybridity, he believes, has become the obligatory, yet complacent, structure of feeling, to the point where we cannot easily tell whether the social trends apprehended within its omnivorous terms are the source or the output of the organizing mind-set. Either way, we should know better.
Pitched like that, Against Hybridity echoes polemics from the 1990s charging that cultural studies had become entranced by the consumer populism it was supposed to be skewering. There are also some reiterations of warnings issued by philosophical realists regarding the promiscuous relativism and unseriousness of postmodernist thinking. Hybridity, after all, is very close to the metaphorical ‘de-differentiation’ that in those earlier rounds played the role of unravelling the sharp modernist demarcations of distinct spheres of society, thought and affect, thereby turning a series of vertically nested institutions, tastes and analytical procedures into flattened, amorphous planes of apperception.
The primary thrust of Hazan’s enterprise lies not in his return to those well-worn sceptical tracks, nor in his re-telling of the ‘genealogical’ storyline in terms of which, in the early and middle phases of Western modernity, any dealings with hybridity (migrants, gypsies, slaves, mestizos, subalterns) were pursued by Western elites through the toxic contrapositions characteristic of their racist essentialism—fear and desire, hatred and envy, paternalism and punishment. Of course, social hybridization persisted just as a matter of fact, but the moral markers around it were unmistakable and forbidding. The extent to which this has all changed in late modernity is a matter of controversy—as illustrated by the ongoing advances and impasses in postcolonial studies—though the current global migrant crisis bolsters a definite sense of continuity.
In a series of bold assertions, Hazan sets out his own stall. Today, he announces, ‘no leeway is left for the emergence of uncultivated fiends’. The ‘previously feared, hence marginalized hybrid, the perpetrator of moral panic and disorder, has moved to the legitimate core of social interaction’. Hybridity ‘started with racial theory, and then turned against colonialism, finally becoming a pillar of global popular culture’—‘hybridity-as-taboo’ has become ‘hybridity-as-celebrity’. Moreover, social anthropology and cultural studies are party to this reversal, because under the all-but-unchallengeable ‘interpretive paradigm’ of our times, they centre on ‘the anthropomorphizing and humanizing of everything through hybridization and assimilation’. The relentless trumpeting of the vital power of the in-between has dramatically changed our ‘conceptions of who we are, what we know, and how we live in the world’. For Hazan, the principal defect of this reigning imperative, alongside its complicity with commercial globalization, is its failure to recognize the existence, and take seriously the opaque interiors, of non-hybrid spaces and subjectivities. Indeed these instances of ‘cultural sturdiness’, he claims, are in large part the product of a new exclusionary binary propagated by fashionable cultural critique itself, such that ‘the infinite new tolerance for hybridization’ is ‘accompanied by zero tolerance for non-hybridity’.
Hazan then offers his own selection of non-hybrid spheres and experiences, veritable islands of ‘indestructible quiddity’ in the postmodern flux, each underlining how (at best) merely ostensible and (at worst) actively harmful are ‘politically correct’ gestures towards uniform inclusiveness. In fact, non-hybrid conditions and groups are stubborn buffers against easy-going politics and research. They resist full assimilation into mainstream solutions and standard categorization. They block the impulse to constantly, seamlessly translate everyone’s values and lives into the same right-on currency. The examples he works with in order to demonstrate this are the ‘unadulterated evil’ of the Holocaust and the utter particularity of its victims’ feelings and situations; the experience of sheer physical pain; autism; and extreme old age, not least when Alzheimer’s is part of that condition. This last exemplar dominates the discussion, ethnographic work on citizens of the (not so long-ago) ‘Third Age’ being the author’s long-standing scholarly concentration. Indeed, bringing old age and elderly infirmity from the margins to the centre of cultural theory is the very striking secondary ambition of Against Hybridity, perhaps parallel in its way—the speculation is mine—to Robin Blackburn’s Banking on Death (2002), which has altered the coordinates of our understanding of the twenty-first-century economy.
That order of comparison fails, however, because Hazan’s argumentation lacks cumulative detail and coherence. Certainly, both the negative-critical and positive parts of his campaign are salutary. Hybridity is an intrinsically loose notion, covering a vast number of phenomena and relationships, and neither its homogeneous application nor its progressive character can be taken for granted. And there is something politically and morally stifling about the ways in which the thematics and practices of affirmative diversity, in the liberal academy and in metropolitan circles alike, are wielded to reconfigure the lists of who in society is to be favouritized, who shunned or scorned. In that context, Hazan deserves credit for going against the grain. However, he tends to set up equations and draw conclusions that are insecure. Zeal in the pursuit of diversity does not in itself necessarily amount to hybridity-fixation. Nor does overdone ‘correctness’ automatically invalidate the general drift of the deconstructions it might accompany. And even if the politics of hybridity is prominent in the register of specialist thought, this does not mean that it has a stranglehold on power and ideas in the world at large. But Hazan assumes that it does, making this large claim stick, ironically, only through a ‘monstrous’ depiction of the agent of egregious mixedness—globalization, capitalism, consumerism, cultural theory, postmodernism, carnivalesque tourism, the mass media, information society, multiculturalism, political correctness, the ‘anthropological machine’ all in one.