Last Sunday I was in a local restaurant waiting for lunch. It is a relaxed place, almost hippy. The guy came over to clean my table and I lifted the salt and pepper off the table to help him sweep. He was impressed. When he brought the drink, he wanted to be nice to me as well, so he sat it down in front of me and said, "Here you go homie". I have never been called a "homie" before. Made me feel proud.
Incidentally, I was there reading a book about Homi Bhabha. When I was at CETRA this September, I had a great chat with our guest professor, Harish Trivedi. He told me that for the kind of work I am doing I cannot ignore Bhabha's writing. So I followed the advice.
As always, a few qualifiers first. I found Bhabha's work to be centered around the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. This focus tints his perceptions of the processes of cultural travel (which is a far happier metaphor than colonialism). Also, Bhabha seems to be making a heavy use of Said and Freud, taking his arguments into the realms of reality adjacent, but not quite identical to mine. As a result of the focus on colonialism, Bhabha's notion that hybridization (=the process of cross pollination between different ways of living) is a primary process while culture is a secondary process, imposed by the governments and nation states to "still the flux" (page 7 in: Huddart, David. (2006). Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge.) of hybridization - this notion is a novel proposition, but no more plausible than the traditional view that it attempts to reverse.
But only at first sight. As we look deeper, another piece emerges that has to do with Said's orientalism. The usual genre of discourse about the colonized is realism. It gives the narratives a flavor of verisimilitude, finality, and naturalness. It helps portray the condition of the colonized as legitimate and inescapable. The traditional view of culture as a static entity works for the same cause. It is no surprise, then, that Bhabha contests it with his notion of hybridization.
The traditional realist view is also unattractive for another reason. If we agree that culture can be static and predictable, we can hope to explain one day how cultures work in general. Such a universal explanation would require us to produce a totalizing explanatory discourse that would include all cultures, past, present, and future. An explanation like that would require an unhuman level of knowledge, a godlike omniscience. If achieved, it would also promise a godly omnipotence to its possessor.
Bhabha doesn't seem to like totalizing explanations. Neither do I, so I like Bhabha. Time and time again, I realize that the biggest trap for scientists is the quagmire of overconfidence, the temptation to play God. Let me end with a Bhabha quote that cautions against such a temptation:
The post-colonial perspective resists attempts at holistic forms of social explanation. I question the traditional liberal attempt to negotiate a coming together of minorities on the basis of what they have in common and what is consensual. In my writing, I've been arguing against the multiculturalist notion that you can put together harmoniously any number of cultures in a pretty mosaic. You cannot just solder together different cultural traditions to produce some brave new cultural totality. The current phase of economic and social history makes you aware of cultural difference not at the celebratory level of diversity but always at the point of conflict or crisis (page 82 in: Bhabha, Homi K. (1991). Art and National Identity: A Critics' Symposium. Art in America, 79, 80-100).
Thanks for reading - talk to you later, homes.
Originally published on the old blog on November 22. 2006