- Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement
How far does a metaphor travel? Is it a ticket that gets you anywhere, any place, any time? Travel itself, as Caren Kaplan argues in Questions of Travel, is a metonymic extension of both population movements and theoretical homes in which all points of departure and all points of arrival have become uncertain. Her focus has shifted from her earlier provocative questions of acts of territorialization in Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. These discursive modes structure a discourse that links modernist cultural movements to, rather than divides these movements from, postmodern ones.
This rhetorically powerful book, appearing in a series edited by Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson called “Post-Contemporary Interventions,” is an informative detour around recent theory as well as a useful alternative guide for scholars of modernism and its outposts, including postcolonial studies, feminist studies, and cultural-materialist analyses. Kaplan’s attention to the material and historical underpinnings [End Page 1059] of theories and practices of travel is a valuable extension of the often unsituated discussions of exile, displacement, and diaspora we find in contemporary discussions. Questions of Travel maps both a “post-postmodernist” and feminist semiotics of “movement” that locates the off-site markers and the significations of power emerging from class, race, and gender struggles. Kaplan’s decisive critique of Jean Baudrillard’s colonial recuperation of the aestheticist distance in traveling is as powerful as her elaborate critique of traveling theorists such as Edward Said, James Clifford, and Gilles Deleuze, who, in Kaplan’s view, each shift their terms of critical practice beyond modernist travels, but who still reproduce “modernist exile formations in the midst of a postmodern articulation.” She takes, in particular, Clifford’s theories of cosmopolitan hybridity to task on the grounds of repressed class, gender, and geographical differences.
Often sounding like a rather prim theoretical critique of both modernist and postmodernist ideas about location and territory, Kaplan’s rich narrative covers areas of inquiry that we now subsume under the loose heading of transnational “cultural studies.” What is most interesting about this book is that Kaplan drags out the destructive and imperialist heritage of colonial travel in contemporary theories that are supposedly emancipatory. Kaplan discovers a dangerous “mythologized narrativization of displacement” that does not “question the cultural, political, and economic grounds of [. . .] privileges, means and limitations.” Following a basically deconstructive approach, Kaplan shows the displacements inherent in each of the philosophical and cultural systems of modernism and postmodernism. Thus, she interrogates the popular opposition between modernism and postmodernism, and historicizes how postmodernism metaphorizes travel within “pre-postmodernist” fields of power. Although Kaplan is careful to avoid collapsing the very different experiences of displacement, homelessness, tourism, exile, and immigration as forms of travel, there is no clear distinction in her analysis of the “political implications” inherent in these different modes of travel. However, her distinctions between expatriate, exile, immigrant, and tourist make sense and supply definitional clarity absent in other recent postcolonial discussions about the dissemination of identities.
In her earlier edited collection, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices, Kaplan, together with Inderpal [End Page 1060] Grewal, discusses the feminist problematics of postmodern deterritorialization in theory, literature, and culture, but in Questions of Travel the feminist focus is more muted, only surfacing fully in the last chapter, “Postmodern Geographies: Feminist Politics of Location.” Critiquing the essentialism underlying the politics of location advocated by standpoint feminists, in this new book she also calls for new ways of imagining feminist geographies. Throughout her work, Kaplan struggles to come to terms with the ethics and the resulting transformations that emplacement and displacement cause in a feminist politics based on location. Whereas modernist feminists see the traveler as univocally male or as the prototype for modern man in general, Kaplan uncovers the way gendered colonial ideologies are perpetuated in feminist presumptions of pleasure and freedom of movement, and argues that women can no longer be regarded as the off-site markers of masculinist emplacement.
The larger question that Kaplan asks herself and the many theorists she covers is how...