How are the terms ‘margin’ and ‘centre’ used to define cultural groups in the Postmodern age?

There is a widely held consensus that postmodernism is a reaction to modernism and hence concerns itself only with “otherness”, “difference” and “identity”. High modernism is rarely occupied with the experiences of the cultural minorities and nor does it involve critical analyses of their experiences. People in the margin regard the links between their sense of community and postmodernism as very feeble. It is impossible for the group in the margin to consciously associate its discourse with the other dominating group that does not seem keen to associate. Though postmodernism still has the potential to be an effective liberating space for the subjugated, it is seldom used for this end (McGuigan 98).

One key aspect of the visual aesthetic of the black community is that of the body. The notions surrounding black hair and its style provide us a contextual framework for analyzing its relation to modernity and postmodernity. One of the mechanisms of modernism is to find an absolute “essence” of its subject, denying all the other experiences that make up a community in the margin (Hutcheon). Within and outside their community, essentialist arguments have been used to fit the entire community in the margin into easy categories. For instance, the natural texture of African-American hair has been used as one of the key visual elements in a system of ethnic signifiers. The first essentialist construction of black hair meant that it was all of the things white hair was not. Instead of being judged for its own inherent qualities, black hair was portrayed to be not good, not beautiful, unmanageable and even uninteresting. As an ethnic signifier, its metonymic qualities were obvious – it also became the construction of what whiteness was not. This first essentialist argument was not created by the black community, but it was internalized. It is still in use today by individuals inside and outside of the margin that comprises the black community (Hutcheon).

This deficiency was addressed by the black power movement during the nineteen sixties, although the method employed was of the modernist tradition. It tried to redefine what “ideal” meant for those inside and outside the community. The myth of the superiority attached to straightened and processed hair was dismantled and a new signifiers for good black hair was projected – namely the Afros and Caribbean dreadlocks. This new essentialist construction of ideal black hair countered the former one, and thus is strongly tied to it. What resulted was a counter-logical semiotic notion that natural black hair is the only good. This still leaves black and white as opposing concepts (Hutcheon).

In the American context, the institutions controlled by the centre, tried to undermine the black empowerment movement by projecting in mass media, the lack of definite representation of the community. By applying postmodern sensibilities to the issue, essentialized representations of African-Americans had been created, which resulted in them being marginalized within the margin. The blacks responded by de-essentializing their identity. This multiple interpretation of black identity was again taken advantage by the centre-controlled media, which pointed to the absence of commonality within the communal experience. This has serious implications to the way in which the members of the community identify themselves. Although, many in the community agree that there is no “true” black community, they nevertheless believe that they belonged to the black community in general. What this implies is that people could be part of a particular community and yet have a broader definition of the same. Also during this important phase of the civil rights movement, the individuals at the margins were able to hold their own views on an array of issues. On the flip side, this led to strengthening of traditional stereotypes, as a result of the constraints of postmodernist discourse. Those who only recently gained some sort of a critical voice to control their own representations in the margins, have started to share that power with parties with whom they have little in common (McGuigan 66).

A common theme throughout the history of European colonization has been narratives about the landscape of the body. The process of colonization had been physically and emotionally repressive. To overcome such conditioning, avenues of postmodern culture offer what is known as “decolonization of mind”. This involves questioning the previous constructions of the margin, which is in sync with the postmodern theory. Adding impetus to this practice is the fact that people from all walks of life are increasingly experiencing feelings of isolation, marginalization and disenfranchisement. It seems that the politics of racism will no longer be separated from the politics of postmodernism and the politics of the body (Hutcheon).

According to postmodernism, no one interpretation is more valuable over any other, but this apparently does not take the background cultural economics that is in place. Although there is a perception that the postmodern space already exists, the truth is that much of that space is yet to be occupied. The perspective that all interpretations are equally privileged is attractive to the margin and a threat to the centre.

Postmodern discourse tends to direct its energies to a fairly specialized homogenous audience who share a common knowledge and a sense of language rooted in meta-narratives it alleges it doesn’t believe in. However, it tries to use these tools to discuss marginality and heterogeneity. There are many ideas postmodernism can offer the margin, especially its discourse on the knowledge of the self. However, these two forces will both have to work to clear a space to reach their own middle ground.” (Atkinson 80)

Postmodernism tries to confront this by asserting the plurality of the ‘different’ and refusing to accept the binary opposition of the ‘other’. Postmodern meta-fictions have looked to the historiographic as well as fictional accounts of the past in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ideological inscriptions of ‘difference’ as ‘inequality’. They show that the root cause of such inequalities lie in the emphasis given to material wealth. Postmodern fiction also connects the centre to the margin. For example, the position of black Americans has worked to make them especially aware of the possible political and social consequences of art, but these writers know that they are still part of American society. Similar sentiments about the nature of the paradox are to be found in Chinese-American, Indian and Japanese-Canadian communities as well.

The transition from the underdeveloped to the well-developed world, which is supposedly a move from the margin to the centre is not always definitive in that sense. This is generally the experience of migrant post-colonial academics, who are not firmly located in the centre but rather at its fringes. This small but significant community feel that having left the problems of post-colonialty back home at their country of origin, they are confronted by the white supremacist culture and injustices created by capitalism. Thus they adopt forgetfulness and distance their nation of origin so as to fit their new environment and its reality. In terms of transnational academic work in general and conferences in particular, the advantaged inhabitants of neo-colonial space are usually assigned a subject-position as “geo-political other” by the dominant centre. Thus, the position of the migrant post-colonial academic is already politicized (McGuigan 36).

The paradigms of centre and margin and the concept of “peripherality” exist in different varieties depending on the associated social dynamic. For example, it manifests as “border writing” in Amin Malak’s Ambivalent Affiliations, as “in-betweenness” in Homi Bhabha’s Third Space. Other works that showcase the phenomenon are “Locations of Exiguity” by Francois Pare and “Notion of Hybridity” by Homi Bhabha (Hutcheon).

Central and East European literature reveal a unique variety of depiction of the margin. Tomislav Longinovic terms the region’s culture as “borderline”. These cultures are placed in the semi-periphery and countries such as Poland, Hungary and Portugal fall under the framework of study (Atkinson 86). Within this framework, the process of cultural mediation, assimilation, filtering and creative alterations of cultural knowledge provide the necessary material for a better understanding of the centre/margin relationship and concepts such as “in-betweenness” and “border writing” (Afshar 212).

Owing to the relative sovereignty of the margin in this case, it had responded by countering and negating the centre’s impositions. This is exactly the case in Central and East European culture as they exhibit in-between peripherality. The centre’s impact on cultural self-referentiality is negated by adoption of polyvalent conventions (Afshar 220).

The concept of centre/margin is also not entirely applicable due to the unique cultural conditions such as national self-referentiality and sovereignty. The latter is especially significant, since it falls in line with the efforts of the intellectuals of the region, who vehemently oppose the idea of cultural colonialism by the former Soviet centre. This stance is due to the commonly held belief that the Soviet centre’s primary colonialism of local culture and literature would lead to a secondary colonialism and its filtered impact. It is ironic then that the influence of a Western centre such as Germany is accepted without much protest. This outright denial of any influence from the Soviet centre and its communist ideology on the culture and literature of Central and East European countries may simply be rhetorical and scholarly research on the subject may prove just that (Afshar 206).

Postcolonial paradigms of centre and margin are useful and partially applicable to the study of Central and East European cultures as the dominant culture or a base source imposes its language and texts on a subjugated community, When the indigenous culture is in content and form self-centred and self-referential, as in this particular case, the influence and power of a superseding colonialist centre (the dominant culture), is not immediately visible. This is invariably the case from the point of view of the subjugated community. Rather, the influence on various and specific aspects of culture, resulting from the colonialist centre, can be noted and interpreted as the in-between position of the peripheral subject (McGuigan 74). Thus, in the cultural setting of Central and East Europe, there are three primary centres and sources of influence: firstly, the indigenous centre, which accounts for the self-referential national culture, that in reality is never as homogeneous and uniform as claimed by the intellectuals; secondly, other kinds of influence such as the German influence in Austria and Hungary or the French in Romania; and finally the communist/socialist centre that is the Soviet union, the effects of which was filtered over decades of colonialism (McGuigan 56).

The usage of language in postmodernist discourse entails politically positioning the reader so as to suit the centre. To this extent the language is contaminated as per the dictates of the centre. And in effect, whatever we read presupposes a whole theoretical discourse about language and meaning, its relationship to the world at large and finally about people and their position in this expanse. Hutcheon further points out:

But the perspective here is ideological, rather than moral. Despite obvious similarities, the contexts differ considerably. One difference is that race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preferences have all become part of the domain of the ideological and political, as the various manifestations of centralizing and centralized authority are challenged. While some argue that the margin is the ultimate place of subversion and transgression, another branch has shown how the margin is both created by and part of the centre, that the ‘different’ can be made into the ‘other’.” (Muecke 267)

Another area of contention in postmodern studies is the concept of “inclusion” within the existing academic structures. It manifests in the form of affirmative action debates in the American academia and in much looser headings elsewhere in the world. The term inclusive is less likely to bring about the sense of foreclosure that appears inherent to inclusion (Muecke 263). In order to ‘liberate the repressed contradictions already present in such terms, it could be argued that it is being used deliberately, which implies that the centre into which we talk of including exists but only in imagination. This is in tune with the theory that there is nothing outside of power, although there are regions of centre and margin. Neither is free from processes of normalization and are moulded through subjectivation. The presence of both entities is constrained by normative prescriptions of what is normal.

In aligning and organizing the coherence of the system, the centre of the structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form. This confers privilege upon those whose characteristics orient with predicated social norms.   In  a  movement  that  speaks  of  the  eternal  return,  those same individuals in positions of power, gazing from the vantage of privilege, set the parameters and manage the markers of difference.  Thus, those at centre ride the boundaries determining centricity and marginality. However,  privilege  and  position  at centre is dependent  upon  the  subjection  and  marginalisation  of  the  other. The maintenance of positions of power through discursive dividing practices as rhetorical strategies secure domination and privilege results in the reinstatement of the politics of the powerful. This goes some way towards explaining the conjoined nature of inclusion/exclusion (Muecke 262).

Instead of postmodernism denying that there is a commonality of racism, it can be used to discuss how such factors as class mobility had affected the collective experiences of the communities in the margin and how they experience different degrees and forms of racism in their lives, and how it undermines their psychological well being (Atkinson 84). This is a key element in the decisions of people involved as to whether this is a valid discourse or not, since dealing with racism is one of the main goals of empowerment. Postmodern thinking questions what is “real” and what is “false”. Naturalized positions in society for those in the margin and those in the centre are being called into question to accommodate for their individual experiences. At a more complex level, the notions of identity and hybridity seem to be rather constant (Afshar 206).

Postmodern discourses have been hegemonic to the margins in general. The target audiences for these discussions are usually from the centre. The only exception to this trend is the academia, where there is genuine concern for the “others”. Thus, postmodernism would seem undesirable and out of reach of the very people that it concerns with – the ones in the margin (Muecke 265). The failure to recognize the presence of the margin in the culture and in scholarship and writing on postmodernism compels the affected individual to inquire his/her interest in a subject where those who discuss and write about it seem to be unaware of the very existence of the subject or even consider the possibility that those in the margin might be writing or saying something that should be listened to, or producing art which should be seen, heard, approached with intellectual seriousness. Though postmodern thought provides both opportunities as well as challenges for those in the margin, it can quite often make the members of the community wary and frustrated. To rectify this situation, the discussions of meaning-making concerning the margins should be assessed for their political currency and for the possible redefinition of the psyches at stake (Atkinson 78).

Works Cited:

Afshar, H. “Gender and ethnicity at the millennium: from margin to centre, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Taylor & Francis, 2000

Muecke, S. “Marginality, Writing and Education”, Cultural Studies. Volume 6, Number 2 / May 1992   Pages:  261 – 270. Taylor & Francis Group.

Atkinson, E. “The Responsible Anarchist: postmodernism and social change”. British Journal of Sociology of Education. Volume 23, Number 1 pages : 73 – 87 / March 1, 2002. Routledge,

Hutcheon, L. “Discourse, Power, Ideology: Humanism and Postmodernism”,<https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/4354?mode=simple.> accessed on 5th September 2006.

McGuigan, J. “Modernity and Postmodern Culture” . Open University Press. 1999.