Hybridity and Mimicry

Part 5.3 of Drama in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Chitra Sankaran, PhD, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Homi Bhabha has argued that post-colonial discourses do not allow themselves to be understood in terms of an implacable binary or polar opposition between the colonising subject, stably positioned at the Centre, and the colonised Other equally stably positioned at the Periphery (Bhabha 1994). Instead, he invites us to see a set of inescapable continuities and interactions across the divide. These ensure an 'ongoing colonial present' (p. 128), characterised on both sides not by an essentialist cultural 'unisonance' (p.94), but by 'ambivalence' and forms of 'multiple and contradictory belief' (p.95). As he puts it, 'The place of difference and otherness... is never entirely on the outside or implacably oppositional' (p.109). The 'strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power' (p.112) take place in 'the disturbing distance in between' 'the colonialist Self' and 'the colonised Other' (p.45). This space he calls 'the hybrid gap' (p. 58), within which the subject is represented 'in the differentiating order of otherness' (p.45).

What takes place here is 'mimicry'. This is the colonising strategy whereby, as part of its 'civilising mission' (p.106), the Self at the centre requires the Other to 'normalise' itself by 'repeating' the Self's norms, values and behaviour. However, the authority of the Self requires the distinction between itself and the Other to be maintained, such that whatever gets repeated is 'repeated as something differen' (p.111). The repetition, therefore, issues as a 'peculiar strategy of doubling' (p.49), which 're-articulates presence' (of the Self) in terms of its 'otherness' (p. 91). Consequently, mimicry becomes 'a mode of contradictory utterance that ambivalently re-inscribes, across differential power relations, both coloniser and colonised' (p.96), unsettling both, and denying the possibility of a 'plenitudinous presence' to either (pp.107, 53). This, of course, 'disturbs the visibility of the colonial presence and makes the recognition of its authority problematic' (p. 111), especially since 'other ''denied'' knowledge (has) enter[ed] upon the dominant discourse and estrange[d] the basis of its authority - its rules of recognition' (p.114).

Fernando's play seems to illustrate a lot of this. A ditty learned from the coloniser is used to subvert what the British national anthem represents. Santinathan's words above, drawing heavily on the coloniser's literature, idiom and slang, show mimicry in action, destabilisingly turning the coloniser's gaze of power against itself. At the same time, we see the subjugated Other too as unsettled, rendered incapable of moving into plenitude or the fullness of self-realisation, which remains eternally deferred, never to be attained.

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