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  • Hybrid Bound
  • Scott Michaelsen (bio)
José David Saldívar, Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

It was not colorless, nor was it of any one uniform color—presenting to the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple, like the hues of a changeable silk... we perceived that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; and that their cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighboring veins. Upon passing the blade of the knife athwart the veins, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of the passage of the knife were instantly obliterated. If, however, the blade was passed down accurately between the two veins, a perfect separation was effected, which the power of cohesion did not immediately rectify. The phenomena of this water formed the first definite link in that vast chain of apparent miracles with which I was destined to be at length encircled.

(Poe 194)

This miracle, which takes place at the end of Chapter 18 of Edgar Allan Poe’s racial tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), is perhaps the nineteenth-century analogue for the miracle now taking place in our midst, in the realm of post-colonial criticism. It is the miracle of hybridity. Here is the potentially utopian, boundary-shattering figure of the hybrid: that which is a conjunction of the many makes its appearance as a changing flow, as a swirl of shifting color, such that it is neither “colorless” nor “uniform,” such that it embodies “every possible shade” without being any particular shade. And here is the miracle: that which is so conjoined can always be reduced to “a perfect separation.” Each element of the hybrid can be cut “athwart”; that is, the “veins” of the multiple elements can be cut open, exposed to one another, as indeed they must have been innumerable times before, and yet the singular veins always maintain their essential characters. And the individual veins can be exposed and analyzed in all of their singularity by simply passing a blade “between” them. Which is to suggest, as Poe’s extended metaphor certainly does, that the appearance or the effect of hybridity is phantasmatic—a trick of light and motion which, finally, is founded upon strands each of which is an unchanging essence. This episode in Pym, then, can be read as a polygenist response to the seemingly incontrovertible, visible fact of racial intermixture. The integrity of the individual strands puts the lie to any claim regarding hybridity.

Poe’s brief text, perhaps, should serve as a warning to certain forms of post-colonial criticism concerned with hybridization. The warning takes this complex form: hybridity cannot really be hybridity—cannot really be a mixture and confusion of categories, types, bodies—if it is still possible, in the end, to identify the individual elements that compose the hybrid. If the hybrid were truly a hybrid, it would subvert the possibility of locating its individual parts, of producing an analytic which might chart the contributions of origin. A hybrid which can be disarticulated, then, is a compound without mixture, not a hybrid. When recent post-colonial criticism both marks approvingly the existence of hybrids, as a sign of utopian powers and potentialities, and determines the individual elements which make up the hybrid, it is in danger of fully recapitulating the logic of nineteenth-century racial studies. It falls, in short, into Poe’s trap.

José David Saldívar’s recent volume, Border Matters, is entirely organized around the logic of the hybrid. He contends that “any examination of some of the key theoretical turns in cultural theory has to contend with [Néstor] García Canclini’s Culturas híbridas” (Saldívar 29).1 Hybridity, Saldívar claims, is the large fact of the modern Mexican-U.S. borderlands—a fact pregnant with possibility. “What changes,” he asks, “when culture is understood in terms of material hybridity, not purity?” (19). The answer is at least all...

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