“The colonial presence is always ambivalent, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference. It is a disjunction produced within the act of enunciation as a specifically colonial articulation of those two disproportionate sites of colonial discourse and power: the colonial scene as the invention of historicity, mastery, mimesis or as the ‘other scene’ of Entstellung, displacement, fantasy, psychic defence, and an ‘open’ textuality. Such a display of difference produces a mode of authority that is agonistic (rather than antagonistic). Its discriminatory effects … ambivalently fix identity as the fantasy of difference. To recognize the différance of the colonial presence is to realize that the colonial text occupies that space of double inscription.”
Professor Homi K. Bhabha is a rare brand of fiery academic, with the Latinate buzzwords, theoretical panache and perfect Oxfordian dialect to prove it. Impeccably dressed and effortlessly emotive, the Harvard Humanities Department Director certainly captivates a literati-packed auditorium. One gets the impression that his discussion of the rhetoricity of the Rwandan genocide — awash with theories of cultural hybridity, postcolonial deconstruction, and the “third-space” that made him famous — is lost on many. He is as comfortable with the banality of evil as “the enunciatory modality” (a phrase that won him second prize in Philosophy and Literature’s “Bad Writing Competition.”) Internationally heralded as the world’s foremost postcolonial theorist, the discipline and nationality jumping Parsi Indian is not without his detractors: Bhabha passionately straddles the line between genius and utter incomprehensibility. scene sat down with Bhabha, a warm conversationalist, after the annual Baldwin-Dahl lecture —“The Humanities and the Anxiety of Violence”— on Tuesday to talk theory, violence, humanism, and radicalism.
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Q. So, from a deconstructionist standpoint, who triumphs: Harvard or Yale?
A. [laughs] I have an answer… In a deconstructive situation, nobody triumphs, because the one deconstructs the other and back again. Harvard deconstructs Yale, and then, in the typical deconstructive turn, as they put it — or the deconstructive iteration or repetition — Yale deconstructs Harvard. So we live happily together.
Q. We’re at a time now when crumbling university endowments are calling the humanities into question. People are asking: “when we’re trying to explain a genocide situation, should we be thinking about the liminality of the neighbor [a subject of Bhabha’s talk] or international macroeconomic models for development?”
A. The whole point of the great liberal research universities is that we don’t have “either-or” as solutions to major global issues. We need both. And I feel that if you think the humanities are in some way being… clobbered or being attacked, that’s because the humanities raise very important and awkward questions … The humanities are a major crossroads from the professional schools to the liberal arts colleges. From the sciences to the social sciences, the humanities are a great crossroads. The humanities are interdisciplinary because they are very open to asking questions that are as much about the values of economic development as they are about the interpretational values of literature or about ethical choices and judgments.
Q. So there’s a double utility there, you would say?
A. Absolutely… If the humanities have particular moments of difficulty the best way to deal with them is not to look inward, but to show what the great uses of the humanities are.
Q. So you see the humanities engaged in a dialectic with other disciplines?
A. In a dialogue and a dialectic with other disciplines. I think what we don’t realize is how the humanities are deeply embedded … Humanistic issues can range from linguistic interpretation to human rights activism … I want to say two things: one — to extrapolate from my talk today — the humanities have a real world application in understanding the rhetoric of violence or genocide. On the other hand the humanities provide us with the ability to step back, reflect, interpret, imagine, and create.
Q. I know at Yale we confront these questions, and there’s often this bipolarity that emerges: on one hand, the pragmatists, on the other hand, the idealists.
A. If you go into a war-torn situation, or you go to Haiti, which is a disaster-hit situation, and you build field hospitals there: is this a pragmatic act? Or is this a highly nuanced ethical and aspirational act? Does this not require deep imaginative empathy as well as very tough skills?
Q. Moving away from the academy to your work in particular… In “The Location of Culture” you argue that, historically, cultural hybridity confused and destabilized the world’s colonial masters, creating an ambivalence that rendered the colonial system unsustainable. Is cultural hybridity today — the ambiguity of our globalized cosmopolitan identity, honor killings outside of McDonald’s, etc. — rocking the modern ship?
A. No, I don’t think so. I agree very much with the first part of what you said but what I say about the ambivalence and ambiguity between the colonial masters and the colonized is also reflected in Hegel’s Lordship and Bondage; the master-slave dialectic there. So yes I’ve developed something but it also has a long history … The example you give — honor killings in front of McDonald’s — is a very important issue. This is not hybridization. Honor killing is a criminal act.
Q. So then what is an example of modern hybridization?
A. An example would be Obama, saying to people: it doesn’t matter what your ethnic origins are and it doesn’t matter if you have a continuous national history. What matters is whether you can use these various different cultural influences that play on your life to create a kind of cosmopolitan international authority. Hybridization says that the politics of identity overdoes identity. It encourages people who have always been denied their identity to suddenly have an excess of identity and play the politics of identity. But having more of an identity is not the issue! The issue is — in the complex world in which we live — how can we bring together the various choices that you make and the choices that are made for you, which have different cultural traditions and provenances. How can you bring those together to create — for yourself, community, world, region — a form of authority.
Q. When you mention Obama, it makes me think of a phenomenon that became very common during the campaign season: attempts to “otherize” Obama. Are our mimetic models of “the Other” today as damaging and essentialist? The colonialist authors spoke with, in your words, “a tongue that was forked.” Are we still speaking with a tongue that is forked?
A. In certain circumstances absolutely, but in other circumstances we seem to be speaking not with a forked tongue but with, well, a multilingual tongue, if you like. [laughs] But there again, you see, hybridization is not another word for cultural pluralism or multiculturalism … To insist on one’s ethnic authenticity or purity is a self-defeating game, and it is self-defeating because often governments would like to protect and support, in a rather patronizing way, people who want to preserve their authentic ethnic flame. Because then they can contain their power, manipulate it and amplify it.
Q. In recent years — and perhaps past administrations — you’ve been called a radical for some of your thinking on international essentialism and hybridization. How do you wear that designation?
A. I think, with radicalism, it all depends on what the content of it is. To be a radical is to try and get to the root of things. To be a radical is to try and be an agent of change and transformation. And I’m very happy with both those issues.
Q. Again, addressing some of your critics, who are floating around in the academy and whom I see in some of my classes: a popular line of argument among some Western triumphalists is that colonialism led to, for all its flaws, a long-term improvement for the colonized… a net-positive gain. How do you respond to those arguments?
A. Well, first of all, I have personally never been a bipolar thinker. I am perfectly comfortable saying that I profoundly object to colonial domination, and yet, I’m profoundly appreciative of what the British did in relation to the railway system in India or in relation to certain kinds of laws, or a certain legal apparatus, or the way in which they were significant in preserving the Indian historical archives. I have no problem with supporting that. But to actually even want to make a net-value sort of judgment on the basis of a system that dominated other countries that did not give its own citizens freedom — why would you want to do that? You would only want to do that if you yourself wanted to be in a position of supremacy over other people. There’s a perfectly possible way of assisting in economic and human development without domination. Who says that domination helps?
Q. Well, that could be the neoconservative line, in a way.
A. You hear that in your classes?
Q. Quite often, yeah.
Q. So, a theme I’ve picked up after perusing some of your work: binarization and bipolarity hampers our understanding while a hybrid approach deepens it.
A. Yes, a deeply articulated cultural approach, with many things intersecting, becoming part of constellations rather than confrontations.
Q. The tension between retribution and reconciliation ran through your talk. Retribution as binary, reconciliation as existing in a more ambiguous, neighborly space, like the Rwandan “gaccaca” courts. In recovering from colonialism, where have the dice traditionally fallen? In retribution or reconciliation?
A. I think that there was an earlier period where anti-colonial struggles were much more retributive. Then there’s a later period — you see a flowering of that with Nelson Mandela. Many of the areas of deprivation — public health, global justice and literacy — that were problematic areas fifty years ago are, despite globalization, still problematic. Why? Why —with the great boom in many third world economies — why have literacy levels not improved? Why are these same areas, again and again, still areas of darkness?
Q. And to close, are these questions ones that a humanistic literary theorist, like yourself, is poised to addressed, or are they outsourced?
A. No, it’s not outsourced. We need to address them. Humanists need to address many of these questions — development, structural development, global justice — but we need to address them with humility. We should be aware that the answers that we are competent to give only address a part of the problem. It’s when literary critics see themselves as major world revolutionaries, as some may be, but many are not…
Q. …that we run into problems.