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 K. Bhabha