Meiotic Fictions: Hybridity and the Reproduction of the New

Nicole Matos

[1] In Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race, Robert Young draws acute attention to hybridity's status as a term on the brink of a dangerous catachresis. That is, Young argues we must understand and interrogate "hybridity" first and foremost as a metaphor, and one drawn into social and cultural application specifically from the realm of 19th century biological science. The broadening of the biological meaning of the term today — to a meaning that Brian Stross identifies as generally "the offspring of a mating of any two unlike animals or plants" - obscures but does not erase the earlier restriction of the term to the offspring produced by the mating of individuals of two distinct species - of a horse with a donkey to create a mule, for example, or of a tangerine tree with a grapefruit tree to produce the tangelo. [4] The extension of hybridity into the realm of race and ethnicity as quickly occurred in the colonial period, was thus, as Young reminds us, an implicit expression of a belief that race was a determinate factor of species — that non-white humans belonged to a different order of life than their white counterparts. Distortion of the already misunderstood phenomenon of hybrid sterility provided support for related ideologies of degeneration through racial mixing — both what Young calls "the decomposition thesis: an admission that some 'amalgamation' between people may take place, but that any mixed breeds either die out quickly or revert to one or another of the permanent parent 'types'" (18) or the "negative version of the amalgamation thesis, namely the idea that miscegenation produces . . . a corruption of the originals, degenerate and degraded, threatening to subvert the vigor and virtue of the pure races with which they come in contact" (18). [5] The extent to which hybridity inevitably retains these historical resonances, Young concludes, is the extent to which "we still operate within its legacy of violence and corruption" (4).

[2] This legacy ultimately contributes to what is perhaps the distinguishing conundrum of hybridity when used as a term for mixtures that tend towards fusion or amalgamation, and particularly those which result in the production of a discrete "offspring," something distinctively "itself": that hybridity enacts a kind of feign towards mixture and newness, while actually maintaining "an obsession with difference" (Young 5) and with the past. [6] Homi Bhabha, along with Young, attests to this sense that hybridity presumes offspring manifestly heterogeneous and antecedent-bound in his exploration of two alternative hybrid tropes — the first, Jameson's "incommensurability- vision;" and the second, Guillermo Gomez-Pena's "menudo chowder." The first posits hybridity as akin to the oscillation of vision between two planes of focus — a vision that "jumps back and forth across a game-board that we conceptualize in terms of distance" (Jameson, qtd. Bhabha 218). In the second, hybridity is distinguished from the discredited "melting-pot" by its heterogeneity, its "chunkiness": "The bankrupt notion of the melting pot has been replaced by a model that is more germane to the times, that of the menudo chowder. According to this model, most of the ingredients do melt, but some stubborn chunks are merely condemned to float" (Gomez-Pena, qtd. 218-219).

[3] What is most lacking in these visions of hybridity, as I've begun to suggest, is the opportunity for the irruption of the new — for the emergence of a progeny that incorporates but is somehow not wholly of its parent components. Where in Jameson's oscillation of visual focus, for example, is the new image that coagulates through the lingering viscosity of the past — as in the weirdly three-dimensional specters (a dolphin; a clown) that emerge through the incommensurability-vision trick of stereogram "Magic Eye" artworks? [7] What would be the figure for a menudo chowder that doesn't revert to melting-pot, but that even the fussiest eater couldn't "pick around" — one that preserves the largely "positive associations of mixture" (47) writers like Charles Stewart identify, but that resists the ease with which other "putatively completed syntheses may be disassembled" (54). [8] Or, in Bhabha's words, "How are subjects formed 'in-between,' or in excess of, the sum of the 'parts' of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender, etc.)" [2]? Despite Young's accurate denunciation of the racist underbelly of 19th century biology — and certainly without arguing that biology never exposes a racist, or essentialist, or otherwise deterministic underbelly today — I think one possibility emerges from a deeper delving back into biology, in a manner that perhaps recognizes and affirms its perennial attraction as a methodology for understanding human essence, but that also more fully frees and denaturalizes its finest resources — its repertoire of intriguingly fundamental interactions, its revealing of so many unfamiliar, but deeply interior, shapes.

[4] It is worth noting that "hybrid" is also frequently (although not entirely accurately) used in botany to designate two unlike plant species joined by grafting. This conflation is particularly significant to Rushdie's theorizing of hybridity in The Satanic Verses and Imaginary Homelands.

[5] It is true that some hybrid offspring — the mule is perhaps the best known example — are infertile or have reduced fertility. In some nineteenth-century constructions, as Young notes, infertility was even treated as the defining criterion of a true hybrid. But not all hybrid offspring are infertile; paradoxically, some hybrid forms actually exhibit increased fertility, a phenomenon known as hybrid vigor. For a particularly useful discussion of how hybrid vigor may contribute to a corrective revisioning of hybridity, see Brian Stross's "The Hybrid Metaphor: From Biology to Culture."

[6] In "New Hybridities, Old Concepts: The Limits of Culture," Floya Anthias also calls for a recognition of "hybridity" as less about amalgamation and more about incommensurability. Her ends, however, are much different than mine. While she wishes to critique uses of hybridity that stress syncretism (right paradigm, wrong emphasis), I'm suggesting that hybridity isn't syncretic enough a concept to describe certain visions of mixture-that-is-newness (right emphasis, wrong paradigm!).

[7] Stereogram, «»

[8] The quote Stewart works with here, from Cuban activist Fernando Ortiz, is strikingly similar to that of Bhabha's Gomez-Pena, although the "menudo chowder" is replaced by an "aliaco" (stew).