"The Committment to Theory"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Whereas Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak uses deconstruction as a critical tool to rethink the oversimplified binary opposition of "colonizer" and "colonized" and to question the methodological assumptions of postcolonial theorists (herself included), Homi K. Bhabha uses deconstruction to dismantle the false opposition of "theory" and "political practice"--a distinction reminiscent in many ways of Marx's distinction between superstructure and base. Bhabha advocates a model of liminality that perhaps dramatizes the interstitial space between theory and practice--a liminal space that does not separate but rather mediates their mutual exchange and relative meanings. Bhabha argues (perhaps in defense of himself) that European theoretical frameworks are not necessarily intellectual constructs that ignore the political situation of the dispossessed Third World. A critic cannot choose between "politics" and "theory" because the two are mutually reciprocal; "theory," an instrument of ideology, narrates and in so doing creates the "political" circumstance of Third World oppression. In other words, much as he treats the the "liminal" space between national constituencies, Bhabha is interested in juxtaposing "politics" and "theory" in order to find where they overlap and how the tension between them in turn produces their hybridity:

The pact of interpretation is never simply an act of communication between the I and the You designated in the statement. The production of meaning requires that these two places be mobilized in the passage through a Third Space, which represents both the general conditions of language and the specific implication of the utterance in a performative and institutional strategy of which it canot 'in itself' be conscious. (The Location of Culture36)

According to Bhabha, the "third space"--another way of framing the liminal--is an ambivalent, hybrid space that is written into existence. In other words, what mediates between theory and politics is writing--not merely theoretical discourse but cultural exercises such as novels, cinema, music. As Jacques Derrida suggests in Writing and Differance, writing does not passively record social "realities" but in fact precedes them and gives them meaning through a recognition of the differences between signs within textual systems. Bhabha, then, re-appropriates Derrida's notion of differance to suggest cultural difference and its representation and negotiation in the form of writing. Having already posed the question of "what is to be done" about the precarious pedagogical legitimacy of postcolonial debates, in the following passage Bhabha conceptualizes writing as a productive way of conceptualizing the differences between cultures:

"What is to be done?" must acknowledge the force of writing, its metaphoricity and its rhetorical discourse, as a productive matrix which defines the 'social' and makes it available as an objective of and for, action. (23)
How might Bhabha's understanding of writing differ from other theorists' descriptions of writing as a mode of either colonial domination or a resistance to colonial rule?

Homi K. Bhabha

Last Modified: 18 March, 2002