Homi K. Bhabha: the Liminal Negotiation of Cultural Difference

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Postcolonial debates over "nationalism"--from Frantz Fanon's moving portrayal of colonial antagonism to Edward W. Said's "secular" criticism of the Palestinian movement for self-determination--often share a concern for the term's limitations in conceptualizing the overlapping, migratory movements of cultural formations across a global division of labor. How, for instance, can we neatly categorize the exilic predicaments of Salman Rushdie or Wole Soyinka in terms of "national" identity? In an effort to deal with these "in-between" categories of competing cultural differences, Homi K. Bhabha attempts in his introduction to The Location of Culture to shed light upon the "liminal" negotiation of cultural identity across differences of race, class, gender, and cultural traditions:

It is in the emergence of the interstices--the overlap and displacement of domains of difference--that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed 'in-between', or in excess of, the sum of the 'parts' of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender,etc.)? How do strategies of representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable? (2)

In other words, Bhabha argues that cultural identities cannot be ascribed to pre-given, irreducible, scripted, ahistorical cultural traits that define the conventions of ethnicity. Nor can "colonizer" and "colonized" be viewed as separate entities that define themselves independently. Instead, Bhabha suggests that the negotiation of cultural identity involves the continual interface and exchange of cultural performances that in turn produce a mutual and mutable recognition (or representation) of cultural difference. As Bhabha argues in the passages below, this "liminal" space is a "hybrid" site that witnesses the production--rather than just the reflection--of cultural meaning:

Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation. (2)
It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: 'Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banks....The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses.' (5)

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, then, Bhabha's liminality model engages culture productively in that it enables a way of rethinking "the realm of the beyond" (1) that until now has been understood only in terms of the ambiguous prefix "post: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism." Liminality not only pertains to the space between cultural collectives but between historical periods, between politics and aesthetics, between theory and application. In a discussion of a museum installment by African-American artist Renee Green, for instance, Bhabha describes the exhibit's postmodern stairwell (which, apparently, connected the exhibit's upper and lower halves) as a "liminal space, in-between the designations of identity [that] becomes the process of symbolic interaction, the connective tissue that constructs the difference between upper and lower, black and white" (4).

And yet Bhabha's model also introduces a number of potentially serious problems in its translation to the complicated process of collective social transformation. That is, Bhabha's formulation of an exilic, liminal space between (rather than supportive of) national constituencies is problematic in that it fails to engage the material conditions of the colonized Third World. Does Bhabha's liminal space itself become a privileged, textual, discursive space accessible only to academic intellectuals? What about the exiled working class? Doesn't the privileging of, say, Edward W. Said as a "liminal intellectual" somewhat discount the very real exile of diaspora Palestinians as a result of Israeli occupation? Try to find examples of "liminality" (borders, thresholds, in-betweenness) in literature in order to assess the limitations and expediences of Bhabha's conceptual model. For example, look at the ways in which "metaphor" and "translation" function--"meta" and "trans" both meaning "across" or "through." In other words, how can an author's use of metaphor or translation serve as an index of the "crossing" of a discursive liminal space?

Homi K. Bhabha