"Signs Taken For Wonders" -- Hybridity and Resistance

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

In "Signs Taken For Wonders," Homi K. Bhabha examines several moments in postcolonial literature that depict the "sudden, fortuitous discovery of the English book" (102). For instance, Bhabha deftly juxtaposes a scene from Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness--in which the narrator Marlow discovers and reads Towson's (or Towser's) Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship--with a scene from V.S. Naipaul's The Return of Eva Peron in which a young Trinidadian discovers and reads that very same passage from Conrad's novel! Bhabha suggests that these passages portray the "English book" (the bible, namely) as an emblem of colonial rule, desire, and discipline. The European book, in other words, is a "sign taken for wonders" that "figures those ideological correlatives of the Western sign--empiricism, idealism, mimeticism, monoculturalism (to use Edward Said's term) that sustain a tradition of English 'cultural rule" (105). It would seem, Bhabha argues, that the English book points toward the fixity of Colonial power, along with its discursive capacity to "narrate" and subsequently disseminate a European cultural heritage.

And yet Bhabha's central argument is that the English book -- a fetishized sign that glorifies the epistemological centrality and permanence of European dominance -- paradoxically is an emblem of "colonial ambivalence" that suggests the weakness of colonial discourse and its susceptability to "mimetic" subversion. As Bhabha argues in the passage below, the English book, instead of describing the fixity or irreducability of European rule, in fact betrays these foundations of authority and moreover empowers the colonized subject with a mode of resistance against imperial oppression:

The discovery of the English book establishes both a measure of mimesis and a mode of civil authority and order. If these scenes, as I have narrated them, suggest the triumph of the write of colonialist power, then it must be conceded that the wily letter of the law inscribes a much more ambivalent text of authority. for it is in between the edict of Englishness and the assault of the dark unruly spaces of the earth, through an act of repetition, that the colonial text emerges uncertainly...consequently, the colonial presence is always ambivalent, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference. (107)

What's compelling is that Bhabha's argument here--indebted as it is to Lacan and Derrida's similar notions of "repetition with a difference"--is itself a "mimetic" rereading of European poststructuralism. In other words, Bhabha's argument is a hybrid mimicry or repetition of already existing "English [or in this case, French] Books." The main thrust of Bhabha's argument, in any case, is that the colonized subject's repetition of the English book invariably involves a changing of its nuances--a subversion, in other words, that translates eventually into political insurgance:

If the effect of colonial power is seen to be the production of hybridization rather than the noisy command of colonialist authority or the silent repression of native traditions, then an important change of perspective occurs. The ambivalence at the source of traditional discourses on authority enables a form of subversion, founded on the undecidability that turns the discursive conditions of dominance into the grounds of intervention. (112)

How might Bhabha's notion of the mimicry of the "English book" serve as a foil for Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?"? (Hint: whereas Spivak seems to foreground the impossibility of linguistic subversion, Bhabha gives more credit to the colonized subject's linguistic agency.) Is Bhabha's argument limited somewhat by the fact that the colonized subject's mode of resistance is itself indebted (and therefore limited) to the language of the dominant?

Homi K. Bhabha