Transnationalism, Diaspora and Digital Mediation | SOPHIE HOYLE


In this article I will address concepts of identity politics and representation, the social construction of categories such as ethnicity, nationality and how these are mediated by digital technologies. I will look at the contemporary construction of Diaspora identity in the bglobalizedb era, where all subjects are increasingly embedded in global bmediascapesb (Appadurai, 1996), with the formation of btransnationalb subjectivities. I will look at how the means and content of Diaspora identity construction may be changing with digital network cultures, where the online realm has been conceptualised as a site of potentially different forms of community construction. I will look at the visual representations that are circulated and inform collective narratives in Diaspora identity construction, from individual self-expression situating oneself within a community via social media networks from Facebook to YouTube, to images of conflict in the bhomelandb in both official and Citizen Journalist news media, and how these compound or compete with one another. I narrow down to look specifically at Middle Eastern Diaspora(s) in the West, to draw from biographical experience as third-generation Lebanese living in the UK to question the supposed bprivileged knowledgeb and binherentb connection to the bhomelandb associated with Diaspora identity, and how such assumptions become naturalized and internalized. B This article is in part an attempt to find a position at the intersection of multiple narratives and discourses, and to attempt to negotiate and reconcile with subjects that often have emotive, ambivalent and loaded associations. I look at Diaspora as a constructed group and imagined community (Anderson, 1983), how certain narratives can enable or oppress individual and community identity construction, and the possibilities of choice and self-determination, as well as dis-identification forming a counter-identity based on different values b both in the social realm, and in and through art. I refer to artworks that attempt to express Diaspora experience as well as looking at how the Middle East is represented in the West by art professionals, and how these representations contribute to knowledge production about the region.


Transnationalism is a broad term describing a wide range of interconnected phenomena, from a bmode of cultural reproduction, as an avenue of capital, as a site of political engagement, and as a reconstruction of bplaceb or localityb (after Vertovec, 1999).B The term encompasses the multiple ties and flows across national borders, including flows of capital, inter-governmental organisations, migratory flows and social networks, though I will look specifically at itbs impact on identity and individual and collective cultures, where Diasporas have been described by (Tololyan, 1991) as bthe exemplary communities of the transnational momentb (1991: 5). The existence of Diaspora communities is both empirical and experiential, where theorists conceive of it as a bconditionb and a bconsciousness...amp;marked by dual or multiple identificationsb (Vertovec, 1999).B Diaspora continues to be a problematic term using ideas of a bpeopleb as a fixed stable community defined and delimited by some kind of link to an essentialized bhomelandb. It could be debated whether a collective consciousness delimited by social groups can exist at all given that we are highly positioned, situated subjects, who may interpret common experiences and symbols radically differently (after Hall , 1991). Ideas of de-centredness, in-betweenness and simultaneity are said to be held by the Diasporic subject. The Diaspora is often used as a metaphor for the transitory, nomadic (Kaplan, 1996) or btransgressiveb with its cross-border movements and ongoing (re)constructions and (re)categorizations of itbs position in the host country, despite often being very different from the lived material reality of migration. This somehow confers onto Diaspora populations a greater ability for self-reflexivity and self-awareness, where the hybridization of cultures is posited as a radical and conscious choice seemingly celebrated by theorists, rather than everyday and banal as it may appear to the individual experiencing it.B In opposition to the above theoristsb conceptualization of Diaspora as being inherently a transgressive and destabilising presence in identity construction, many Diaspora narratives employ a brestorativeb nostalgia (as opposed to bcriticalb nostalgia) (Boym, 2001) to preserve, replace or re-build a connection that has perceivably been blostb in their displacement. From informal family archives to official institutional archives, they rely on certain imagery to bembodyb and btransmitb memories inter-generationally (Hirsch, 2012). Rather than a liberating Transnationalism bfrom belowb (Smith and Guarnizo, 1998) through individual movements and informal processes, it is often transnationalism bfrom aboveb through Transnational Corporations and international political institutions that dictate transnational movements, where capital is the bthe primary agentb behind rapid rates of globalization (Westaway, 2012). Cultural theorists often overlook the material realities of the majority of people involved in transnational networks, from corporate exploitation and human rights violations, to their entanglement with illegal and violent networks of people, organ and drug trafficking and organized crime (Castells, 2000).


Diaspora communities form a minority group in their bhostb society, which are often excluded and under-represented, so alternative representations are formed to counter dominant historical narratives. The politics of representation is both cultural and material, where a disproportionate number of Diasporan ethnic minorities in London for example live in poorer areas with higher unemployment and poorer education (N.Buck et al, 2002). Deconstruction of categories of identity as an emancipatory act may be at odds with being presented as a collectivity in order to gain real material needs, such as the population threshold and perceived demand for a Mosque to be built in a local London borough, or safety in face of violent Islamophobic organisations such as the English Defence League. Yet the Diaspora community may become represented on behalf of a few given spokespeople, producing a bbplural monoculturalismb with power in the hands of self-identified community leadersb (Kunzru, 2006). Is there the possibility for the individual to re- or dis-identify from these categories? bNew ethnicitiesb (Hall, 1991, Back, 1996) was a term produced to reflect a different kind of identity formation, predominantly in youth with transnational connections who understood identity to be flexible and relative: bself- consciously selected, syncretized and elaborated from more than one heritageb (Hall 1991); here identity was considered hybrid, contingent and constantly in-process. Yet self-identification is more difficult in practice, where individual choice is relative and limited to the power dynamics in the social situation they are embedded in.B Whilst potentially emancipatory these newer terms can in turn be equally oppressive and divisive but just use different signifiers, where instead of racial essentialism we now have cultural essentialism (Kunzru, 2006).


I am interested in how digital cultural networks affect this sense of individual group and identity, a consciousness of transnational or Diaspora bconnectivityb, and itbs translation into material culture.B The ongoing processes of construction of the self is apparently changing with online digital media, with greater availability of material for imagining bpossible livesb and bimagined selvesb (Appadurai, 2003); this can be exemplified by the more active bpro-sumerb of social media networks, and the changing nature of news media with the rise of unofficial Citizen Journalism. The relations of moving-image production and distribution is changing, with increased means for the consumer to make and distribute their own films, with sites such as Youtube and Vimeo increasing viewer bparticipationb and apparent redistribution of authorial control. Yet how active or passive is this consumption? Is transnational consumption really indicative of a meaningful transnational connection or consciousness? There is potential for political organization, as exemplified by the bArab Springb uprisings of 2011, and post-uprising political support and bnew sense of belongingb from youth in Arab Diaspora communities (Premazzi et al, 2013:71), both facilitated by digital communication. Digital networks can potentially re-form social relations, but they also compound existing ones (fig.1), and can be fleeting and superficial in their nature.



Figure 1.B Screenshots of Youtube video comments section, demonstrating ideas of cultural exclusivity and authenticity.B Accessed online 20.02.2013


Laura U. Marks (2002) contends that digitization is bfar from an agent of dematerializationb and that Web 2.0 bfar from being virtual, indexes several levels of material, interconnected lifeb (2002). They are not de-materialized, but re-orientated towards a new kind of materiality. Transnationalism is not just a bset of abstracted...amp;cultural flowsb (Mitchell 1997), but has a grounded reality, with expression in material culture in the local-to-local links or btranslocalitiesb (Appadurai 1996), as visibly manifested in domestic Satellite dishes and internet cafes in the Turkish Diaspora community living in Hackney, London for example.B Digital networks do not transcend the physical and can also be cut off, as seen in the Syrian government shut down of nationwide internet access amid recent conflict (Chulov, 2012). The efficacy of communication technology depends on the infrastructures available, where my Skype calls to Beirut or Dubai experience constant glitches. There still exist multiple cultural and physical boundaries in the supposedly metaterritorial realm of cyberspace, as seen in Taryn Simonbs and Aaron Swartzbs bImage Atlasb (2012) (fig.2) which indexes the most popular image results per search term via local search engines. The project visualizes the differences and similarities of results by country, as well as displaying (mis)translations and interpretations of the search term by each search engine. It displays the most popular and well-distributed images, which Simon (2012) contends are those that enter the public consciousness and contribute to bmass tasteb, and displays how these differ geographically. The Internet is often looked at with bhyperboleb and as bsomehow bringing light to the worldb (Graham, 2010:283) where the idea of the digital commons as a space for free production and circulation is a simplistic concept, where any common resource is not democratically and equally available and in itself embodies a number of inequalities (Steyerl, 2009).


Figure 2. Image Atlas (2012) Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz.

Screenshot of Image Atlas demonstrating the geographical differentiation of search results by country (featuring France, Germany, India, Iran and Israel) for the search term bSOPAb (Stop Online Piracy Act).B Source:



Whilst the West and Non-West binary (as Self-Other) is in part becoming increasingly destabilized, it is also in part being reified with a resurgence of Orientalist representations in the West post- 9/11. bIslamb (often reductively conflated to Arabs and/or the Middle East region, despite Islamic communities existing internationally) has become the new scapegoat for Western powers, the historically changing botherb which becomes the bfigure of identification for the object of fearb (Rancière,1995:3) arbitrarily constructed to suit certain needs; such representations are entangled with recent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq amongst others, which it serves to justify. Instead of improving over time, there seems to be even more bhighly exaggerated stereotyping and belligerent hostilityb towards Islam in the Western media than the First Gulf War 1990-91 (Said, 1997:xi). Yet simultaneously there has been increasing cynicism and distrust of news media by popular audiences, and also of the bobjectiveb image with an awareness of its constructed nature, where widespread availability of images via the Internet at great speed has changed audience interactions with them in a variety of ways. Ganguly (2013) claims that such hyperconnectivity has had an adverse effect on human sensibility, further contributing to the bimage fatigueb of certain photojournalistic imagery. The traditional intention of presenting images of conflict to provoke humanitarian sympathy may now invoke different affects, from indifference (or divorce from affect (Kraus, 2006)) to entertainment. This can be indirect, where in much official news media war is presented as a bTV show, reality TV, in which people fight and die, broadcast liveb (Munch, Koydl and Flottau, 2003), or direct, where videos of beheadings are uploaded alongside clips of amateur porn (Malik, 2006). Despite an increasing awareness of the constructed nature of the image certain ideas about moving image technology persist, where images of conflict in news media reports continue to be discussed in terms of bevidenceb and bbearing witnessb (Schuppli, 2013). The blive feedb for example, as a relatively new form of representation is often held to be an unedited, unframed form of representation. Certain representations of reality in turn become the epitome of reality, where new signifiers of reality and authenticity become the most brealb representation possible. This was specifically important to the Western media perception of the 2011 bArab Springb uprisings, where the Citizen Journalist footage was seen as more accurate and trustworthy in its proximity to the event and immediacy of transmission.



A range of artistsb experimental moving image works explore displacement and Diaspora identity politics, from Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98) to Otolith Group (2002-ongoing), with more personal introspections from Mona Hatoum's bMeasures of Distanceb (1988) to John Akomfrahbs bThe Call of Mist [Redux]b (1998 [2012]). They often use what Laura U. Marks (2000) calls the Haptic Image, with blurred, close-up shots as ba close-up and tactile way of lookingb used to affectively evoke sensory experience and memory (2000:4).B Marks identifies these works as being different from preceding movements of experimental cinema due to the Diaspora artists specific experiences, where she argues that the Haptic Image has become the predominant bemerging expression of a group of people who share the political issues of displacement and hybridityb (2000:2), as their bsensoria are not completely at home in either placeb (2000:230). She claims that the bphysical effects of exile, immigration and displacement... cause a disjunction in notions of truth.b (Marks, 2000:1); yet experiences of displacement, or critically questioning btruthsb may not be limited to Diaspora or minority communities. Marksb attribution of the Diasporan individual having a greater capacity for sensory experience and exploration of memory over other individuals may be yet another romanticization.

4_SophieHoyle_Interartive 5_SophieHoyle_Interartive

Figure 3. Examples of the Haptic Image: Stills from bMeasures of Distanceb (1988) by Mona Hatoum (video, 15 mins) and The Call of Mist (1998) by John Akomfrah (video, 11 mins).




Various "artworld(s)" or international networks of artist professionals also contribute to the knowledge production of the Middle East and its Diaspora, authoring and curating certain representations. Important questions of representation remain in terms of what is represented, by whom, and for what purpose. Yet these are often reduced to unhelpfully simplistic distinctions of binsiderb and boutsiderb knowledges, and the supposed bprivileged knowledgeb of certain people by virtue of their nationality or ethnic lineage. Many artists and curators self-reflexively acknowledge their positionality, and that whilst national and regional contexts may inform the works they do not determine them; they continue to use such categories but strategically and as a practical means for organization and distribution of the work. Yet certain forms of art production and distribution utilise a certain interpretation of bcross-culturalb dialogue as if culture were a relatively fixed entity that can be explained and btranslatedb by selected representatives on either bsideb, where the artwork is often framed as a cultural product for bexportb.B bCultureb does not remain in tact, and the interpretation of cultural products will be contingent on context and may be infinitely re-contextualised. Broadly speaking, in the last 20 years that has been a simultaneous integration of wider geographical regions into certain art scenes, but also a continuation of national and regional differentiation. The Biennale is an example of a format that perpetuates such geographical differentiation, being a platform for international artists and curators to come together albeit one that originated from the competitive nationalist bWorld Fairb format. Despite its history, geographical determinism and questionable political dynamics, there are events that take place within it that re-invent the form of the Biennale itself, including different spatial scales of pavilion in the 2013 Venice Biennale in the bPeckham Pavilionb based on a functioning artistic community in London rather than seemingly arbitrary official national borders. Outside the traditional Biennale there are web-based Biennales such as bBiennale Onlineb and bWeb Biennaleb[1], though these still originated from physically grounded institutions (Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum) and still tend to define artists and curators by geographical origin. B Such international structures, albeit flawed, can be an appropriate platform to speak critically about international issues to an international audience (or at least an international audience of mainly collectors, curators and artists), as did the 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 2012 in its discussion of global bcrisisb and global resistance (Hogan, 2012), as well as the bCollapse and Recoveryb theme of Documenta 13 (2012). It is both through and in reference to nationally-based structures of organisation and distribution that artists can question ideas of the nation-state to an international audience, as seen in Libia Castro and Clafur ClafssonbsB installation Il Tuo Paese Non Esiste (Your Country Doesn't Exist, 2011) for the 54th Venice Biennale, as noted by Kathleen Macqueen (2013). Despite much use of the bglobalizationb rhetoric as a marketing tool, there is also much critical artwork exploring these processes, as Demos (2009) has explored in looking at moving image works that acknowledge the bambivalent realityb of globalised migratory movements, and its interlinkages with conflict, poverty, and ecology.

The curating of exhibitions related to the bMiddle Eastb in the West has had a resurgence in recent years, where it can be seen as topical both in its persistent media coverage in the West, as well as its perceived opening up as a bmarketb for the international art scene.B In London, UK alone there were a number of major exhibitions in 2013, from bLight in the Middle Eastb at the V&A Museum to Saloon Raouda Choucairbs solo show at the Tate Modern amongst others, as well as associated exhibitions and events as part of the Shubbak bfestival of Arab cultureb. Much of it claimed to give the region greater visibility, even though it may be a selective form of visibility for a specific audience.B This process of authorship, as well as expansion of Western commercial arts organizations into the Middle East, is reflexively explored in Walid Rabad's Scratching on Things I Could Disavow[2]; which included a performance giving a pseudo-fictional account of bArab art historyb at Documenta 13, demonstrating the perpetual (re)writing of (art)history(-ies).



This article has looked at a selection of the broad range of factors that contribute to constructing Diaspora identity politics on different scales (individual to nation), via different means (direct experience, social media, news media) and how these operate in the contemporary transnational era. In contrast to utopian ideas of transnationalism as a bfreeflowb of information, people and goods across borders, definite empirical realities still exist. B There is an on-going social construction of spatial boundaries, but also their physical manifestation, through internet regulation, border control and transport channels, which in turn inform and re-form the social sphere. Digital networks, whilst having the potential to re-form social structures, also in part confirm previously established social groups along lines of nation or ethnicity.B Online social connections occur through the consumption and production of visual media, where the nature of visual media and our relationship to it is changing. B I have looked briefly at artistic representations of Diaspora experience through experimental moving image artworks, the renewed interest in the Middle East in the Western art world, and the problems and politics of (mis)representation when using older geographic categories of nation or region in curating and distributing art works. Whilst exploring the problems that arise in attempting to represent Diaspora experience, a few questions remain: given the inability of the image to represent certain experiences, from individual memory to the realities of conflict, how does one represent that which canbt be represented; is self-reflexivity enough to counter-balance the burden(s) of representation, or can alternative constructive action be taken? In a discussion on bthe trouble with image politicsb between Iain Boal, Dr. Juliet Steyn and Astra Taylor (2012), it was suggested that a possible solution is stopping the production of new images altogether.B Whereas Kember and Zylinksa (2012) assert that it is the attitude or consciousness towards the image and new media that needs to be addressed; this can be negotiated through a different kind of engagement and performativity, to begin to reconfigure current technology-knowledge-power relations in image production (2012).    


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Akomfrah, J. (1998 [2012]) Call of Mist [Redux]. Video, 11 mins. Video still courtesy of Caroll Fletcher Gallery

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Sophie Hoyle (b.1986) is an artist and writer that lives and works in London. She is currently undertaking an MFA at Goldsmiths University, London.