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WATERtalk: “Where Are You FROM and Where ARE You? Cosmopolitan and Diasporic Modes of Thinking and Acting” with Namsoon Kang

Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

 “Where Are You FROM and Where ARE You?

Cosmopolitan and Diasporic Modes of Thinking and Acting”

 An hour-long teleconference with Namsoon Kang

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

1 to 2 p.m. ET 


WATER spoke with Professor Namsoon Kang for April 2015’s WATERtalk. Dr. Kang, professor of World Christianity and Religions at Brite University, discussed her theories of cosmopolitan theology, justice, and hospitality. Her most recent work includes Diasporic Feminist Theology, Cosmopolitan Theology, and Handbook of Theological Education in World Christianity (co-edited). WATER thanks Dr. Kang for her important work toward a more connected and accepting world, as well as for the notes she so graciously provided on her presentation. A Q&A session followed. These notes are not meant to be verbatim, but to be used along with the posted audio of the call.

Presentation notes by Dr. Namsoon Kang:

I deeply appreciate Dr. Mary Hunt and staff members of WATER for the tremendous work that they have been doing through the passionate commitment to the transformation of religion and society. So thank you for inviting me to this meaningful occasion.

I have to imagine that you are there with me. I always emphasize the significance of seeing the face of the other. The human face that I am referring here is not just a metaphor but also a sheer physical face that each and everyone of us all have. So I have to imagine the face of each and every one of you who would be listening to my “voice.” Hope you can also activate the power of imagination as much as you can so that you could feel that I am with you, right next to you in my physical presence.

There are three kinds of nature in one’s writing.

1) autobiographical; 2) occasional, and 3) political

I believe every writing is in a way “autobiographical” and at the same time “occasional.” One’s writing is autobiographical because one’s writing in fact reveals a part of layers of who one is. Writing is also “occasional” because writing is always already related to a certain context that is a writing-context.

One’s writing is also always already political in its broad sense. A writer is engaging in the world and conveying what he or she thinks about what is happening in the world, asking questions and offering one’s own responses to the questions.

Every question is always already context-specific, which would mean a question could imply a different connotation depending on the context that the question is addressed. So the two questions that I take as points of entry for my presentation is to invite you to think first, your mode of seeing yourself and others, and second, your mode of existence in the world.

 

Where are you From?: Cosmopolitan Citizenship

The first question Where are you From is the question not only about your place of birth, but also about your racial, ethnic background, about your community of belonging, about your home to return. It is mostly a question raised by the “host” to the “guest.” In this context, the question “where are you from” implies one’s claiming the ownership of the space by the host, wittingly or unwittingly. It can be a question of hospitality and welcoming or a question of hostility and interrogation:

In this regards, the question, “where are you from?” can be a threshold question: a Question of Hostipitality. Jacques Derrida coined this term hostipitality to reveal the entanglement of hostility and hospitality, which we usually think the opposite from one another.

Those who reside in countries whose race/ethnicity does not belong the mainstream are asked this question, “where are you from.” Those whose race/ethnicity belong to the mainstream, which is Caucasian in the US context for instance, are hardly asked the question unless when it is about your hometown.

Ever since I left my home in Asia, where the physical address of my personal place used to be, the most frequent question that I receive from people is “where are you from?” It did not take a long time for me to realize the harsh reality of deep-seated racism, even in people with good intention. And it becomes clearer that who is asking this question to whom has a totally different political connotation.

This question often entails the underlying presupposition that you do not belong here, and that you have a ‘hometo go back. It does not matter whether one is a student, full-time pastor, or a full-time professor. Neither does it matter whether one has lived for a month or for seven years, nor has a permanent resident card or student visa.

This where-are-you-from question is also a question of one’s identity, and tends to force one to formulate one’s identity grounded on where one belongs, binding one to the past. So how I would interpret this question, seemingly simple but politically complicated, depends on who is asking this question and what kind of discursive consequences it would bring. I often answer this where-are-you-from question as, I am from where I am, especially when those people who would eventually understand the political and discursive implication of the question ask the question.

The question “where are you from,” is about how you understand your location in the world. Andy Warhol used to say that I am from nowhere when asked where he came from. The title of one of his portraits is “I am from nowhere.”

The ancient Greek term kosmopolites, a combination of kosmos and polites, is the origin of the word cosmopolitan in English, which simply signifies citizen of the cosmos.

Diogenes of Sinope (C. 390-323 BCE), who coined the term, replied, “I am a citizen of the cosmos [kosmopolites],” when asked where he came from.

What we can envision with this metaphoric expression, I-am-a citizen-of-cosmos, is a world where we treat others as fellow-citizens, co-habitants, neighbors, friends, or relatives. We can find the ground of this ontological-family-tie simply in the sheer fact that we humans belong to the cosmos as fellow-humans. Here ethnicity, race, gender, religious affiliation, citizenship, or nationality is not the primary identifier of human worth. Moreover, we can extend the scope of justice, fair treatment, or care to both humans and non-humans, as we all belong to the cosmos.

The cosmopolitan idea of universal community or the oneness of entire humanity is reflected in Paul’s statement, ” There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I would say that theological adoption of cosmopolitanism is a theological response to the issues of the global inequality and discriminations that have been vigorously discussed in social and political discourses.

I also view that the impartiality of the scope of justice and concern in which cosmopolitanism is grounded is the very nature of Jesus’ teaching of neighbor/enemy-love, and that such impartiality does not necessarily rule out the partiality of one’s local attachments and particular commitments. The spirit of cosmopolitanism leads us to the mandate of the radical extension of the category of one’s neighbor, which requires crossing and transcending various borders and embracing every individual human persons and nature as one’s neighbors. Unless one can deconstruct the rigid borderline between self, neighbor, and enemy, it is impossible to love neighbor/enemy as oneself.

In this sense, cosmopolitanism can be a theological discourse of resistance, liberation, and solidarity in our times where various forms of social oppression and discrimination intersect in an extremely complex way. I affirm that all forms of oppression, based on gender, race, class, ethnicity, orientation, nationality, age, ability, religion, and so forth, are not just discriminations against specific groups of people but discriminations against humanity. Cosmopolitanism sees humanity not just as members of particular bounded communities but also as singular individuals.

 

Where ARE You? Diasporic Consciousness

Humankind’s first exile, a diasporic experience, begins in Genesis. God expelled the first humankind Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:23), their homeland, and condemned them to live a diasporic life, a life with the impossibility of homecoming. Abram, whose name and tradition are significant in so-called Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam— turns into Abraham through his life as a diaspora after he follows the Divine command to leave his own homeland (Gen. 12: 1).

The narrative of human exile in Genesis extremely fascinated me during my seminary period. Why does Eve’s encounter with the tree of knowledge, which supposedly gives such a great power to discern the good from the evil, become the very ground of human exile from the ideal Home, the Garden of Eden? I wondered, when I was about to leave Korea, my place of birth, for Germany in search of knowledge and self-fulfillment, whether my journey to quench the intellectual and existential thirst for knowledge of life would also become the ground of being exiled from my community and home where I used to belong and feel homely.

In retrospect, it seems true that my ongoing exposure to new knowledge of life, of good and evil, of right and wrong has become the ground of living in exile in my own homeland. I came to experience that my exile-experience, my diasporic experience, not just as a geopolitical condition but more as an epistemological and intellectual one, began with my exposure to the tree of new knowledge such as the discourses of feminism, deconstruction, postmodernism, or postcolonialism, which fundamentally challenge and shake the existing reality and the structure of knowledge with which most people feel comfortable with. Since then, it has been so difficult for me to feel at-home-ness wherever I am. I have always felt in exile, even in my own homeland. After years of intense struggles with patriarchal institutions, I decided to leave my physical homeland to find, rebuild, and reshape my intellectual, epistemological, ontological home, which is however always evolving and in the making.

What then would be the functionality of the status of leaving the familiar place that people call home/land and being a diaspora? God commanded Abraham, whose name was then Abram, a seventy-five-years-old-man, to leave his home without offering any substantial explanation for why he should leave his familiar space, the home, to receive the blessing from God: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12: 1-2).

Although Genesis does not offer the full account of Abraham’s own voice about before and after being urged by God to live a life of diaspora, of stranger, of foreigner, of outsider, being “cut off from the consolations of consensus and community, from the common sense of the sensus communis, stropped down to the madness of solitude,” it implies that the life experience of diaspora, the homeless, the life of the “nonhistory of absolute beginnings,” has made Abram Abraham. Jesus, the primary reference of Christianity, declares that he himself is homeless: “Foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Chosen One has nowhere to rest” (Lk. 9:58, Inclusive). The life without home is a life in interstitial space, liminal space that helps one to invent a new mode of seeing, of listening, of relating, of caring without claiming any kind of ownership as Jesus the homeless.

I choose diaspora as a guiding concept of my work because of its possibility as a mobilizing and effective concept that denaturalizes, disrupts, intervenes, and interrupts existing institutional structures, discursive strategies, and current configurations of the world that territorialize and naturalize to maintain the status quo. Furthermore, diasporic consciousness calls for an alternative configuration of discourses and practices to existing institutional, theo-political, and epistemological constraints and confinements in order to eventually enlarge the circle of radical inclusion in religion and the world. By using the term diaspora more metaphorically than empirically, however, I neither intend to romanticize the diasporic life nor to distract our socio-political and economic attention away from the harsh reality of historical, geopolitical diaspora. Whether forcefully exiled or voluntarily migrated from a homeland to a host country, a diaspora lives a life in between home and away, here and there and lives in “dwelling-in-displacement.

What I would like to articulate is a feminist theological discourse that sees a source of creativity in the diasporic consciousness that would create a space of transformation, reconciliation, hospitality, worldliness, and border-traversing. In diasporic discourse, a sense of homelessness is one of the key themes.

Remaining critical requires an intentional distance from the world. Those who feel always at-home in the world, would be hardly able to achieve an appropriate distance from the world, which would make them easily blind–epistemologically, geopolitically, and theologically–to the issues of power, exclusion, oppression. In this context, being on the fringes, on the margins means residing in a state of not being simply at-home, but being homeless. The homelessness is in between wordlessness and being too much at home.

We have to acknowledge that two types of marginality can exist in human reality: marginality by imposition and marginality by choice—critical marginality. It is important to note that the two types or conditions of marginality can often get intertwined in the sense that one could make a decisive shift the marginality by imposition to a critical marginality.

The diasporic consciousness and subject destabilizes and deterritorializes the conventions and traditions that people fix in a way to maintain the status quo. The term deterritorialization denotes the displacement of fixed identities, ownership of knowledge and meanings. Feminist theologians have attempted to deterritorialize the religious traditions, discourses, and practices that have justified and perpetuated patriarchy in the every sector of human reality. When feminist theologians embody diasporic subjectivity that make them reside at the margin or outside the conventional community, this diasporic location can offer them an inventive possibility “to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility.”

One of the paradoxical aspects of the diasporic consciousness is to leave home and to look for home. However, the another possible community or home they look for and refashion is a different kind of home that is revolutionary in its deterritorializing attitude and radically affirming and open to alterity and differences.

The significant meaning of the diasporic consciousness in feminist theological discourse lies in the paradoxical movement between home and away, a refusal to permanently reside in one space as final, fixed, or static. The diasporic positionality will offer feminist theology a new angle, through which it can construct theological discourse and practices with hypersensitivity to the complex issues of margin and center in various intersectional contexts of gender, languages, race, citizenship, sexuality, ability, and so on.

The diasporic feminist theological location has the potential for critical reconfiguration of religious practices, institutions, and theological discourse, although it is always possible in reality to be the sites of despairs and isolations.

Doing feminist theology with diasporic consciousness means defending, representing, articulating the need for working together in multiple and interstitial gatherings of living together for justice and peace of each and every individual human being who is on the margin and who cannot find home in the world. In this sense, doing diasporic feminist theologies means to live as the critic on the fringes, taking the responsibility for radical living together and making a constant movement between home and away, the center and the margin, roots and routes, macrodimensional reality and microdimensional one, and the world-of-already and the world-to-come.

 

Questions followed:

  1. One caller who studied in Germany asked if Dr. Kang’s experience of the question ‘Where are you from?’ asked by people in, for example, Germany, was different than that question from the U.S. and England, or whether there is similar hostility and hospitality in all countries.

Namsoon said there are similarities but also differences. She has been living in a more academic world and her experience of being asked that question is very different from those who are living outside that academic world. Usually when she asks that question outside that world, whether in the United States or in England, she sees the connotation as similar. It’s a kind of question that implies you have a home to return to and also that you do not belong here.

  1. 2.  In regards to encountering the face of another person, one participant said she sees that often when people (especially those who are marginalized) are portrayed in social media or academic circles, they are unnamed. For example, with the border children in the southwest, there are complexities around the discussion of immigration and legal categorization of citizenship and otherness. What does it mean to encounter someone’s face in a way that treats her with dignity and treats her not as an object but as a subject?

Those who do not have a nation state to which they belong are not in a category to which we apply our sense of caring and concern. Usually our justice applies to those who have national belonging. Those who are outside carry the social marker of the ‘plural’; they are not seen as individual people, becoming an object instead of a subject. We should not see people are homogeneous entities (foreign student, people of color—generic terms that miss specificity). Our discourse on cosmopolitanism should help with that. How we turn a “spoken object” into a “speaking subject” requires a growing aware of seeing others in new ways.

  1. A PhD student in Boston wondered how cosmopolitan theology is different from postmodernity and how it relates to postcolonialism.

Kang responded that any discourse is like a box of tools. Each has a different purpose; feminist is not unitary discourse, nor is cosmopolitan discourse simply one-dimensional. The question we must wrestle with in utilizing each discourse is: How do we utilize those discourses to expand the circle of inclusion and decenter the hegemonic center? Each discourse helps to highlight the “ethic of singularity” and the need to expand our “circle of inclusion”; each expands our claim to inclusivity in different ways. One thing Namsoon values from postcolonial discourse is that it has a sensitivity to power issues, about who dominates and who is subjugated.

  1. The moderator asked how we begin to introduce these ideas to people who never leave their places of origin i.e. more conservative people, especially white Americans who see all others as ‘others’ and have never left their linguistic, economic, or cultural settings to see how there can be and are many others. She also brought up major voices in feminist theology such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Kwok Pui-lan, who are living examples (as Kang is) of people whose work is done in a language other than their mother tongue and in a setting far different from their homes of origin. What are other examples?

Kang said that often in the United States, people are monolithic and self-contained. We need to adapt an intentional awakening to the complex world. One sense of calling Kang always feels that she teaches her students (whose first language is English) is they have to activate an intentional experience of being in exile or ‘critical marginality.’ You have to learn how to detach from the mainstream, a metaphoric way not to exercise ownership of space, and cultivate ‘critical marginality.’ Even if people have never been outside the U.S., they can begin to develop solidarity and maintain a distance from the center to become “a critic on the fringe.” WATER can be a channel to cultivate and facilitate people’s sense of critical marginality. People living in the U.S. have more responsibility than those who reside outside the U.S. because of the power and privilege of the USA in the world, the strongest in the world.

The next WATERtalk will be “Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders” with Xochitl Alvizo, Gina Messina-Dysert, and Rosemary Radford Ruether on Wednesday, May 6, 2015 from 1 to 2 p.m. ET. For more information, visit our website. All are welcome.

Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland       April 23, 2015