The post-colonial criticism of Homi Bhabha has been extremely influential in the movement to redefine post-colonial and minority cultures. In the Introduction to his The Location of Culture Bhabha demands that we, as members of society and as literary critics, should try to understand cultural differences as being based on hybridities created in moments of historical transformation. We should no longer classify groups of people based on "organic", pre-existing traits attributed to ethnic groups. (1334) Instead, we should locate the differences created "in-between" time and space spanning different cultures. People's characteristics are not limited to their ethnic heritage, but rather are subject to change and modification through experience. Bhabha discusses the interstitial relationships formed between cultures as well as those formed in the public and private spheres.
Written in 1994, The Location of Culture is a fairly recent work in the field of post-colonial criticism. He is preceded most notably by Edward Said, author of Orientalism, written in 1978. Said bases much of his theory on Michel Foucault's theories concerning knowledge and power. Foucault was interested in history and postulates that every era has an order which dictates its discursive practices. He says that these orders serve as oppressive instruments. Said focuses on the domination of the East by the West and how Western literary critics have helped to maintain this domination through discourse about Oriental literature. He studies Orientalism as a means of resistance to the hegemonic Western ideas. Unlike Said, who divides the world into opposing binaries, Bhabha takes a kind of deconstructionist approach to post-colonialism. He challenges the binary opposition of West/Non-West. Instead, he sees post-colonial cultures as "hybrids" identified by their own people as well as the colonial power.
The Introduction to The Location of Culture is divided into three sections. The first is given the heading, "Border Lives: The Art of the Present." Bhabha introduces the idea that we need to end the monolithic classifications based on ethnic traits. He describes existence today as "living on the borderlines of the 'present'" (1331). Today's society is made up of hybrids of different ethnic backgrounds and present social experiences. He asserts that we must move to the "beyond" to understand this difference. This is the place where the crossing over of time and cultural differences occurs and where new signs of identity are formed:
Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project - at once a vision and a construction - that takes you 'beyond' yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present. (1333)
Thus, we must turn to the present to realize the nature of the "beyond". The present is not simply a sequential element between past and future. The "beyond" is realized in the jargon of our current schools of criticism. They are commonly given the prefix, "post", (ie. post-modernism, post-colonialism) which does not indicate sequentiality, but rather the need to press the limits of our ethnocentric discourse.
Bhabha discusses post-modern artwork and how certain artists create metaphors for the interstitial spaces in society. These artists displace the binary oppositions of Black/ White and Self/Other. One work of art he cites is Sites of Genealogy, by Renee Green. She uses the museum building as the metaphor. The stairwell is the "in-between" space that connects the upper and lower levels. The passage that it allows prevents the ends from being fixed into organic polar entities. It represents society's free flow of cultural differences. Ethnic groups are not isolated from other groups, so they cannot settle into originary classifications.
The second section is titled, "Unhomely Lives: The Literature of Recognition." Here, Bhabha describes how the borders between the home and the outside world become confused: "Private and public, past and present, the psyche and the social develop an interstitial intimacy. It is an intimacy that questions binary divisions through which such spheres of social experience are often spatially opposed" (1340). He refers to the invasion of the domestic sphere by the public world as the "unhomely" moment.
Bhabha uses contemporary literature, mainly Toni Morrison's Beloved and My Son's Story by Nadine Gordimer, to discuss the unhomely post-colonial condition. Both of these texts center around houses which have been somehow invaded by the outside world. Bhabha writes that one can look to the fiction of Morrison and Gordimer to find houses where this unhomeliness has taken hold. In Beloved, the house is haunted by the ghost of the daughter who had been killed as an infant by her own mother. However, the reasons behind the infanticide are what bring this life back to the house. It is the history of the slave experience and the injustices brought upon the mother, Sethe, which come back to haunt the house at 124 Bluestone Road. Once one realizes the historical reasons behind Sethe's actions, one realizes that she "is herself the victim of social death" (1339). The return of the daughter, Beloved signifies the return of Sethe's life and the freedom from the past that haunts her. By creating this house, Morrison calls for the political responsibility of the critic. "For the critic must attempt to fully realize, and take responsibility for, the unspoken, unrepresented pasts that haunt the historical present" (1340).
Gordimer's novel My Son's Story, set during apartheid in South Africa, has a number of houses which each have an unhomely secret. Each house embodies an historical displacement which comes from being "coloured" in South Africa (1340). There is a lying house of adultery, a silent house as a revolutionary cover, and so on. The inhabitants never feel as though their identity is clearly defined. The colored South African is again defined by the hybridity of present and past experience and the colonizers who have taken their freedom. Domestic life is unavoidably invaded by the political and social world. Gordimer also illustrates this unhomeliness in the character, Aila, whose silence is a symbol for the voiceless victims of apartheid. "In her silence she becomes the unspoken 'totem' of the taboo of the coloured south African. She displays the unhomely world, 'the halfway between ... not defined' world of the coloured as the 'distorted place and time in which they... lived'"(1341).
The final section is called, "Looking for the Join". This is really a summary of the essay which ties the first two sections together. Not only do the novels of Morrison and Gordimer describe the unhomely experience of post-colonial lives, but like much of contemporary literature, they also reach for the "beyond". They put the present into the realm of the "post". He says that by enacting the unhomely world into the "house of fiction", one affirms the "profound desire for social solidarity" (1344).
Bhabha cites numerous artists and authors in this essay. In addition to the ones already mentioned, he quotes the philosopher, Walter Benjamin in reference to the need for a new conception of the present. He mentions Salman Rushdie as an author who writes about the post-Independence India. Bhabha cites Goethe's insights into world literature as being the result of cultural confusion brought about by traumatic historical moments. One other philosopher Bhabha refers to is Emmanuel Levinas. His writings concern the magic of fiction as a way of "'seeing inwardness from the outside'" (1342).
Bhabha's style is very deliberate. The essay is very neatly organized into its sections and is summarized concisely at the end. He creates new concepts for terms we are familiar with, such as the "beyond" and "in-between" and repeats these terms often to make sure that the reader understands how these terms operate according to his thesis. He uses long, drawn out sentences with lots of descriptive words to drive home his point. He repeats common binary opposites such as past/ present and private/ public to illustrate their unavoidable commingling. Bhabha's choice of words is also very deliberate. He uses devices such as alliteration as well as emotionally loaded words.
Homi Bhabha's insight into the post-colonial experience demands attention. He asks us to redefine the way we approach identity in multicultural societies. Members of post-colonial societies and minority populations are defined by much more than their originary ethnic traits. The fact is that everyone is shaped by their social experiences and their own heritage, as well as the experiences and histories of everyone they come into contact with. There are no more distinct, monolithic categories of ethnicity. We must look to our present society to see how the interstitial relationships create who we are.
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.