The loss and the link: a short history of the long-term word diaspora

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1 The loss and the link: a short history of the long-term word diaspora By Stéphane Dufoix When is a word born? It might seem that such a question is easy to answer. Etymology and first use should be able to tell us the truth (etumos means true in ancient Greek) about the birth and therefore the essence of a word. Unfortunately, such a perspective not only hinders the various evolutions in the uses of the term, it also presumes that a word is only born once. The instance of diaspora demonstrates the many lives a word can live: as a religious term, as an academic notion, as a category of practice, as a scientific concept and as part of the international bureaucratic lexicon. The first occurrence of diaspora can be found in the Septuagint, i.e. the translation into Greek of the Hebraic Bible, in the third century BCE. Diaspora, then, does not indicate a historical dispersal such as the Babylonian exile of Jews in the sixth century, but describes the divine punishment the dispersal throughout the world that would befall the Jews if they did not respect the commandments of God. The dispersal as well as the return of the dispersed is a matter of divine, and not human, will. Diaspora seems to be almost exclusively confined to Jewish biblical literature until the first century CE when the New Testament refers to diaspora as the members of the Christian Church as exiled from the City of God and dispersed across the Earth. The condition of dispersion is understood as the very proof of their, and not the Jews, being the chosen people. Christian writers eventually abandon diaspora in the second century CE, limiting its use to the Jewish dispersion as an exemplary curse for their sins. With the replacement of Greek by Latin within the Western Roman

2 Empire in the first centuries of the Christian era, diaspora is confined to the Eastern Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire. Uses of it perpetuate until the mid-fifteenth century. Apart from Jewish and Christian meanings, a new religious meaning emerges in the eighteenth century with the rise in Germany and diffusion abroad of the Protestant Moravian Church that officially calls diaspora the nomadic church that helps maintain the link between the various Moravian communities dispersed into Catholic lands. From the first decades of the twentieth century onwards, two distinct processes characterise the evolution of diaspora : secularisation, i.e. the extension to nonreligious meanings; and trivialisation, i.e. the widening of the spectrum of relevant cases. Diaspora starts a new life as an academic notion, without any formal definition, that may encompass more than one relevant case. Some scholars played a pivotal role in this importation from the religious realm into the vocabulary of the social sciences. Among them is the Jewish Russian historian Simon Dubnow. In the Diaspora entry of the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (1931), he provides a vision of the phenomenon that goes beyond the Jewish case to include Greeks and Armenians. A few years later, American sociologist Robert E. Park relied on Dubnow s writing to reframe and even enlarge the scope in order to apply it to Asians. In the 1950s, British anthropologist Maurice Freedman made a similar attempt to demonstrate that Chinese and Indians constituted other diasporas. In parallel to this evolution, the word became progressively used by social actors from various racial, religious or ethnic groups and associations to describe their connection to a land or state different from the one they lived in. The most eloquent example is that of African Americans. From the late 1960s within the African American community, academic and non-academic publications started to multiply that used diaspora to refer to black people residing outside Africa. Diaspora provided black people with a name for themselves. This name was at the same time a reminder of their historical tragedy and a positive way to recover a sense of unity by emphasising the connection and the return spiritual and intellectual if not physical to Africa. This emphasis established the existence of continuities or survivals between the African origin and the black people living

3 outside Africa. From this time on, the value of the word was changed and it was more and more widely used to express the continuing existence of communities characterised by a common origin. Building on the aforementioned academic notion, scholars only started conceptualising diaspora from the late 1970s. Two different streams can roughly be distinguished, forming two separate versions of diaspora. The first one, mostly relying on the paradigmatic Jewish case, sees diasporas as characterised by either migration or exile, nostalgia, perpetuation of original traditions, customs and languages, and a dream of return to the homeland. In this respect, this is a centered, essentially political, version of diaspora. The second version relies not on the Jewish, but on the black/african case. Its origins lie in the evolution of British cultural studies, from the mid-1970s, towards a greater attention to identity issues. British sociologists Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy epitomised this version. In this respect, not referring to any kind of real and direct connection to Africa, diaspora became the positive symbol of life as opposed to survival and of heterogeneity as opposed to homogeneity. These two versions of diaspora are opposed to one another: a modern, centered, territorial and political vision versus a postmodern, emancipatory, deterritorialised and cultural one. Such an opposition could have sterilised the concept and made it impossible to continue using. However this opposition only enlarged the semantic horizon of diaspora, making it available to various categories of people (journalists, scholars, militants, spokespersons, politicians) who had the opportunity to choose between the several meanings associated with the word: a minority, a migrant community, a transnational community, a statistical group of expatriates, or even any kind of group whose members happened to be dispersed across many territories. Among the fields that appropriated diaspora is the international bureaucratic field. From the early 2000s, some international organisations, in particular the World Bank and the International Organization for Migration, attempted to import diaspora into their own specific lexicon. Relying mostly on previous conceptual works by Robin Cohen or Steven Vertovec, especially Cohen (2008), experts from these international organisations seized the word and made diaspora policies a specific dimension of the best practices

4 that newly independent or emerging states were more and more supposed to implement. As Alan Gamlen (2014) and Stéphane Dufoix (2012) showed in their respective work, a new definition of diaspora emerged within this expertise. The term now described expatriate populations, who possessed citizenship of the homeland or were of national origin, and whom states now had to take into consideration, and for whom they are strongly incited to implement specific policies aiming at embracing them more efficiently into the space of the nation. Through the work of those international organisations, the word came to be globalised. Within the last century, the old religious sense of diaspora was successively supplemented by new layers of meaning. But the latter did not replace the former. Each new layer represented a new opportunity, adding up to the previous ones. This complex stratification turned a very ancient word into a most appropriate descriptor of the new global world.

5 References Cohen, R. (2008) Global Diasporas: an introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Dufoix, S. (2012) La Dispersion. Une histoire des usages du mot diaspora. Paris: Editions Amsterdam. [English translation to be published by Brill in 2015.] Gamlen, A. (2014) Diaspora Institutions and Diaspora Governance, International Migration Review 48(1), Fall, pp

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