Homi K. Bhabha: an Overview
Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University
In "The Commitment to Theory," an essay collected in The Location of Culture (1994), Homi K. Bhabha foregrounds the unfortunate and perhaps false opposition of theory and politics that some critics have framed in order to question the elitism and Eurocentrism of prevailing postcolonial debates:
There is a damaging and self-defeating assumption that theory is necessarily the elite language of the socially and culturally privileged. It is said that the place of the academic critic is inevitably within the Eurocentric archives of an imperialist or neo-colonial West.(19)
What's ironic is that Bhabha himself--perhaps more than any other leading postcolonial theorist--has throughout his career been susceptible to charges of elitism, Eurocentrism, bourgeois academic privilege, and an indebtedness to the principles of European poststructuralism that many of his harshest critics portray as his unknowing replication of "neo-imperial" or "neo-colonial" modes of discursive dominance over the colonized Third World. By means of a complicated repertoire of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Postmodern notions of mimicry and performance, and Derridian deconstruction, Bhabha has encouraged a rigorous rethinking of nationalism, representation, and resistance that above all stresses the "ambivalence" or "hybridity" that characterizes the site of colonial contestation--a "liminal" space in which cultural differences articulate and, as Bhabha argues, actually produce imagined "constructions" of cultural and national identity.
Bhabha's Nation and Narration (1990) is primarily an intervention into "essentialist" readings of nationality that attempt to define and naturalize Third World "nations" by means of the supposedly homogenous, innate, and historically continuous traditions that falsely define and ensure their subordinate status. Nations, in other words, are "narrative" constructions that arise from the "hybrid" interaction of contending cultural constituencies. In The Location of Culture, Bhabha extends his explanation of the "liminal" or "interstitial" category that occupies a space "between" competing cultural traditions, historical periods, and critical methodologies. Again utilizing a complex criteria of semiotics and psychoanalysis, Bhabha examines the "ambivalence of colonial rule" and suggests that it enables a capacity for resistance in the performative "mimicry" of the "English book." Discussing artists such as Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer, Bhabha seeks to find the "location of culture" in the marginal, "haunting," "unhomely" spaces between dominant social formations.
Homi Bhabha: The Process of Creating Culture from the Interstitial, Hybrid Perspective
But the true province of the man of letters is nothing less (as it is nothing more) than culture itself. The state is the mere operation of society, but culture is the way society lives, the material medium through which men receive the one lost truth which must be perpetually recovered: the truth of what Jacques Maritain calls the “supratemporal destiny” of man.
Allen Tate (“The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” 22)
Researching for a Postcolonial Literature paper four years ago, I first discovered Homi Bhabha, a literary theorist who did not sound literary but political. It is a definite bias of mine to be wary of anything political in the world of literature, especially literary criticism, and Homi Bhabha’s literary theory seems very far away from literature itself such that he seldom cites literary texts within his own essays. But on reflecting upon Allen Tate’s statement that it is not literature, which is a product of man’s culture, but “culture itself” which is the “true province of the man of letters,” I realize that Bhabha is a literary theorist in this broad sense, theorizing and explicating culture itself. In a sense, the man of letters must be, as scholar Marjorie Perloff calls Bhabha, “the cultural critic” (Perloff, “Cultural Liminality,” 7). But, since the culture of the postmodern, postcolonial, post-whatever world is intricately linked with the historical fact that certain cohesive groups express and have expressed their dominance over other groups – First World over Third World, the Colonizer over the Colonized, White over Black, Men over Women, for example – the man of letters of the postmodern world cannot ignore the political when he speaks of culture.
Usually, the postmodern, postcolonial critic concentrates on describing the identities of these groups on either side of the warring, binary relationship and how they got there. In contrast, Bhabha sees the binary relationship as slippery and illusory such that the fixed identities of the parts in the binary division cannot hold during the process of colonial discourse. Says Bhabha in his introduction to The Location of Culture,
The move away from the singularities of “class” or “gender” as primary conceptual and organizational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions – of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation – that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These “in-between” spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.
(Bhabha, Location of Culture, 1-2.)
Bhabha concentrates on describing and explaining the process of cultural discourse when two seemingly simple, opposing groups clash and articulate their differences from each other. The boundary where the two groups clash, the “in-between spaces” mentioned above, is where and when “new signs of identity,” i.e., culture in the Tate-ian sense as medium for societal meaning, is created, a culture which is a hybrid of the two opposing cultures. Thus Bhabha’s body of work speaks of the process of creating culture from the perspective of the in-between spaces, a liminal or “interstitial perspective,” as Perloff calls it, especially as seen in postcolonial discourse because, perhaps, Bhabha himself is the hybrid product from the in-between, the India of postcolonial, post-imperial Britain.
“[He] was born into the Parsi community of Bombay and grew up in the shade of the Fire Temple. He received his B.A. from Bombay University and his [graduate degrees] from Christ Church, Oxford University” (http://www.smpcollege.com/litlinks/critical/ bhabha.htm). Bhabha himself is a living example of the process of creating culture of which he describes and explains, as seen in postcolonial discourse.
II. The Process of Creating Culture
Bhabha begins to describe the process of creating culture by debunking the idea of a nation or people as being holistic and pure. Says Bhabha,
Cultures are never unitary in themselves, nor simply dualistic in the relation of Self to Other. […] The reason a cultural text or system of meaning cannot be sufficient unto itself is that the act of cultural enunciation – the place of utterance – is crossed by the difference of writing. ….It is this difference in the process of language that is crucial to the production of meaning and ensures, at the same time, that meaning is never simply mimetic and transparent. (LC 36)
In other words, a national culture can never be holistic and pure because its meaning, like other products of language, is open to ambivalence, open to interpretations by the audience which is different from the originator’s intent. So, in the postcolonial discourse, the Colonizer’s culture, far from being the simple, oppressive force upon the Colonized culture, is open to ambivalence. In explaining Edward Said’s description of Orientalism, scholar Robert Young states that “Bhabha argues that even for the colonizer the construction of a representation of the Other is by no means straight-forward” (Young, “Ambivalence,” 143). The Colonizer, in trying to objectify the Colonized, creates a stereotype of the Colonized in order to reject it as inferior: “Colonial power produces the colonized as a fixed reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible” (“Other Question,” 93). The Colonizer creates an image of the Colonized and thinks that this image is holistic and pure, i.e., not open to ambivalence. But confrontation with the Colonized causes the Colonizer to see that this stereotype, which Bhabha says “dramatizes the impossible desire for a pure, undifferentiated origin” is “an impossible object” (“Other Question,” 103). The Colonized culture’s difference displaces the Colonizer’s own sense of unity and makes the Colonizer aware of its split self, which desires the Colonized to validate the created stereotype in order that it may see the Colonized as a fixed object.
But the difference of the Colonized will not allow itself to be objectified and, in fact, the Colonized mimics the Colonizer, forcing the Colonizer to see itself as Object. Mimicry, perceived at first as “the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge” (LC 85) seems appealing to the Colonizer. It seems to be good policy to have the natives mimic their colonial masters who “desire[s] for a reformed, recognizable Other” (LC 86). But, as Bhabha points out,
The effect of mimicry on the authority of colonial discourse is profound and disturbing. For in ‘normalizing’ the colonial state or subject, the dream of post-Enlightenment civility alienates its own language of liberty and produces another knowledge of its norms…. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.
(LC 86, 88).
The colonizer master, in seeing the native mimic him, sees himself but also not-himself, which is “double vision,” such that the master is no longer the Subject but is also the Object, where authority is not supposed to exist. “Mimicry does not merely destroy narcissistic authority through the repetitious slippage of difference and desire. …[but] raises the question of the authorization of colonial representations” (LC 90). Mimicry concretizes the ambivalence of both Colonizer and Colonized such that one cannot say who is Subject and who is Object, who is Self and who is Other. The simple binary is breaking down, creating something that is neither Colonizer nor Colonized, because “the colonial presence is always ambivalent, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference” (LC 107), as seen in the Colonized’s performance of mimicry before the stunned, “authoritative” Colonizer, whose pedagogy – i.e., his own cultural education -- cannot explain why he is stunned and cannot account for the Colonizer’s difference within the mimicry.
So the two sides, in order to gain the meaning of this cultural clash, meet in between, in a liminal “Third Space” that is neither Colonizer nor Colonized. Says Bhabha, “The production of meaning requires that these two places be mobilized in the passage through a Third Space” (LC 36) such that
[cultural] “difference” is not so much a reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the tablets of a “fixed” tradition as it is a complex ongoing negotiation – against authorities, amongst minorities: the “right” to signify concerns, not so much the teleologies of tradition as much as its powers of iteration, its forms of displacement and relocation, its ability to signify symbolic and social relations outside of the mimetic transmission of cultural contents. (“Frontlines/Borderposts,” 270)
Within this Third Space of the interstice, Colonizer and Colonized negotiate their cultural difference and create a culture that is a hybrid, which “is the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity” of both Colonizer and Colonized (LC 112). So, in a sense, their negotiation is dialectic, but a dialectic that still remains ambivalent. Bhabha stresses that
To grasp the ambivalence of hybridity, it must be distinguished from an inversion that would suggest that the originary is, really, only an effect. Hybridity has no such perspective of depth or truth the provide: it is not a third term that resolves the tension between two cultures… in a dialectical play of “recognition.” […] What is irremediably estranging in the presence of the hybrid – in the revaluation of the symbol of national authority as the sign of colonial difference – is that the difference of cultures can no longer be identified or evaluated as objects of epistemological or moral contemplation: cultural differences are not simply there to be seen or appropriated. (LC 113-14)
The process of creating the hybrid culture does not destroy the Colonized nor the Colonizer for a “better” culture; the process is not Hegelian, which resolves the two in some grand cultural synthesis. What the hybrid does is to make both Colonizer and Colonizer aware that culture cannot be, to use T.S. Eliot’s word, “mummified.” Culture is alive, as seen in the hybrid, which Bhabha also calls “the contaminated yet connective tissue between cultures – at once the impossibility of culture’s containedness and the boundary between. It is indeed something like culture’s ‘in-between,’ bafflingly both alike and different” (“Culture’s in Between,” 167). Bhabha continues,
I have developed the concept of hybridity to describe the construction of cultural authority within conditions of political antagonism or inequity. Strategies of hybridization reveal an estranging movement in the ‘authoritative,’ even authoritarian inscription of the cultural sign. At the point at which the precept attempts to objectify itself as a generalized knowledge or a normalizing, hegemonic practice, the hybrid strategy or discourse opens up a space of negotiation where power is unequal but its articulation may be equivocal. Such negotiation is neither assimilation nor collaboration. It makes possible the emergence of an “interstitial” agency that refuses the binary representation of social antagonism. Hybrid agencies find their voice in a dialectic that does not seek cultural supremacy or sovereignty. They deploy the partial culture from which they emerge to construct visions of community, and versions of historic memory, that give narrative form to the minority positions they occupy: the outside of the inside; the part in the whole. (“Culture’s in Between,” 212)
It is within the Third Space of the hybrid that culture-as-art, culture-as-narrative, emerges as “visions of community” and “versions of historic memory.” The art and narrative does not resolve the historical fact of inequity nor antagonism. Such a resolution would be an injustice to the real difference amongst cultures as horizons of meaning. But such art and narrative emerging from the Third Space of the hybrid will emerge with a different perspective on the postmodern world, an interstitial perspective of what community and history really mean which “opposes both cultural pluralism with its spurious egalitarianism – different cultures in the same time… or cultural relativism – different cultural temporalities in the same ‘universal’ space” (LC 245) A notable example of the interstitial perspective is Conrad’s Marlowe seeing England not as a British imperialist sees it but as simultaneously the barbarian Briton and the stunned Roman: “It is when the western nations comes to be seen, in Conrad’s famous phrase, as one of the dark corners of the earth, that we can begin to explore new places from which to write histories of peoples and construct theories of narration” (http://prelectur.stanford.edu/bhabha/
nation.html). By this phrase one sees that Third Space does not only connote a spatial displacement but also temporal as well.
III. The Third Space in Interpreting Art
As one sees in the above explanation of the interstitial perspective and the process of creating culture, Bhabha primarily writes about this process as played out in postcolonial discourse, the discourse of the nation as narrative. But, to paraphrase Allen Tate, the state is only the operation of society, while culture is much larger, and Bhabha does apply his theory of the interstitial perspective to the work of art. Some critics, however, limit Bhabha’s theory to only postcolonial discourse and finds fault when he expands his theory to the fine arts. The scholar Marjorie Perloff, for example, criticizes Bhabha for diminishing art as mere illustrations for his cultural theory of the interstitial perspective. Says Perloff,
Whereas Bhabha’s cultural model is characterized by its hybridities and liminalities – the nation, we are told again and again, is an arena of contestation and rival performativities – the artwork has, evidently, no more than instrumental value, illustrating and exemplifying the political and ideological thesis of the critic who happens to find it of use. (Perloff, 7)
What Perloff does not realize is that in the rhetorical scope of applying the interstitial perspective to the nation as narrative in his “postcolonial” essays, Bhabha draws with a large brush such that he does not explicate the particular meanings of specific artwork. But in his “aesthetic” essays, such as in the essay, “Aura and Agora: On Negotiating Rapture and Speaking Between,” Bhabha draws with a fine brush and applies his theory not to the large field of the nation but to the small scope of artwork itself, like Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
In place of Colonizer, Third Space-Hybrid, and Colonized Bhabha speaks of the Artist of the Aura (or Sublime), the Artwork as “mediatory in-betweenness (“Aura and Agora,” 10), and the Spectator/Critic of the Agora (or Everyday, Temporal). Says Bhabha, “art may be the bridge between aura and agora, especially if we refuse each term its discrete space and insist that both states of being and meaning should confront the alterity or limits of their discursive fields” (“Aura,” 10). In other words, the meaning of the artwork does not lie within the discourse of the artist nor the discourse of the reader but somewhere in between, on the edges of the artwork as the joint boundary, i.e., interstice, of artist and spectator. States Bhabha, “Overlooking and mediating the entire interaction between the rapture of suffering and the busy banality of negotiation are the poet’s narrative voice and the artist’s vision, which reside neither inside nor outside the poem or painting but hover on the edges of inscription and spectation” (“Aura,” 11). As outlined in large figures on the level of the nation, the in-between state makes problematic the authority of the intention of the artwork, makes problematic the question, “So, what does it really mean?” The meaning of the artwork becomes ambivalent, equivocal in the interstitial perspective of the artwork itself. Says Bhabha,
Without epiphany or ‘authority’ there emerges, in the place of origin or singular presence, the double-bind of the subject: the birth of the creator or the spectator who cannot transcend the process of artwork but is placed in the in-between, in the midst of his or her own production as an agent, in the very interstices of intention and interpretation. (“Aura,” 15)
The interstitial perspective of the artwork forces the artist as interpreter and the reader as interpreter to be very careful in enunciating the meaning of the artwork lest they “mummify” the artwork and kill the aura, or sublimity, that shines through in between.
Thus Homi Bhabha has introduced a dialectic model of ambivalence which describes the process of creating culture along the clash of two cultures, two discursive fields. By stressing the importance of the Third Space in cultural and artistic discourse, by arguing against essentializing nations into homogeneous identities, and by explicating the interstitial perspective in both postcolonial studies and poetics while discouraging relativistic notions of cultural and poetic interpretation, Bhabha has depoliticized postmodern theory such that disparate sides of the argument can meet on neutral ground. In such concepts as ambivalence, mimicry, interstice, and hybridity, Bhabha has shown that one can discuss problematic and even painful issues while being constructive and even hopeful. Bhabha (and Toni Morrison) should have the last word:
To live in the unhomely world, to find its ambivalencies and ambiguities enacted in the house of fiction, or its sundering and splitting performed in the work of art, is also to affirm a profound desire for social solidarity: “I am looking for the join… I want to join… I want to join.” (LC 18)
Bhabha, Homi K. “Aura and Agora: On Negotiating Rapture and Speaking Between.” In Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives. Ed. Richard Francis. Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996. 8-17.
----------. “Culture’s in Between.” Artforum 32.1 (1993): 167-68, 211-12.
----------. “Frontlines/Borderposts.” In Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question. Ed. Angelika Bammer. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana Univ Press, 1994. 269-72.
----------. “Introduction: Narrating the nation.” In Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. London; New York: Routledge, 1990. Excerpt rpt. http://prelectur.
----------. The Location of Culture. London; New York: Routledge, 1994.
----------. “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism.” In Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Houston Baker, et al. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1996. 87-106.
Perloff, Marjorie. “Cultural Liminality/ Aesthetic Closure?: The ‘Interstitial Perspective’ of Homi Bhabha.” 1998. http://www.wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/
Young, Robert. “The Ambivalence of Bhabha.” In White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London; New York: Routledge, 1990. 145-156.
©20 November 2000 Rufel F. Ramos