Homi K. Bhabha THE COMMITMENT TO THEORY

Selected Interviews:
















Scope II presented Homi K. Bhabha in a press conference where he talked in detail to Austrian Journalists about the international conference “Sites & Subjects. Narrating Heritage”

Homi K. Bhabha has infused thinking about nationality, ethnicity, and politics with poststructuralist theories of identity and indeterminacy. Drawing on Derrida, Bhabha’s essay The Commitment to Theory revises conventional notions of nationality and the colonial subject, showing how both are shifting, hybrid cultural constructions. It provides powerful arguments for the importance of theory, for the link between theory and politics, and for the use of poststructuralist theory in the anti-imperialist cause of postcolonial studies. Born two years after India’s independence from British colonial rule, his life exemplifies the hybrid subject positions of the postcolonial world. Raised in the Parsi community of Bombay, his father an important constitutional lawyer. B.A. from Bombay University, he studied at Oxford University. Postcolonial criticism arose in the wake of the struggles for national independence of many African, Asian, and Latin American countries under the rule of European colonial empires through the middle of the 20th. Autonomous, nationalistic literary traditions were promoted to counteract the cultural and material domination of imperialism by anticolonialist critics. Later, postcolonial theorists turned to analyze the ideological bases for colonial domination. The two most influential figures in the development of contemporary postcolonial theory were Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
In Orientalism, Said diagnosed the paths of cultural domination that projected non-Western people as the Other. In Can the Subaltern Speak?, Spivak argued that postcolonial subjects have no voice under the dominant regime of colonial discourse. Extending the work of Said and Spivak, Bhabha starts with a deconstructive critique of the dichotomies of the West and the Orient, the centre and the periphery, the empire and the colonized, the oppressor and the oppressed, and the self and the other. He adapts Derrida’s analysis of how binary oppositions structure Western thought, arguing that such dichotomies are too reductive because they imply that any national culture is unitary, homogeneous, and defined by fixity or an essential core. Instead, Bhabha proposes that nationalities, ethnicities, and identities are dialogic, indeterminate, and characterized by hybridity, one of his key terms.
In The Commitment to Theory, he defined hybridity as what is new, neither the one not the other, which emerges from a Third Space. To reinforce this fluid sense of nationality and identity, he employs a vocabulary of process-oriented terms, including dialogic, translation, negotiation, in-between, cross-reference and ambivalence. Although Derrida is fundamental to his work, Bhabha draws on a wide array of 20th theorists throughout The Commitment to Theory. Building on the influential concept of nations set forth by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, Bhabha stresses how nationality is narratively produced, rather than arising from an intrinsic essence. From Mikhail Bakhtin, he takes the concept of dialogue to stress that colonialism is not a one-way street but entails an interaction between colonizer and colonized. Regarding identity, he draws on Franz Fanon’s psychoanalytic model of colonialism and Jacques Lacan’s concepts of mimicry and the split subject is forced to produce. This mimicry in turn both revises colonial discourse and creates a new, hybrid identity for the colonial subject. The goal of his theorizing of hybridity is not simply to modify the terms of debate in postcolonial studies but to make a political intervention. He contends that theory is not separate from or opposed to political activism, but works hand in hand with it. Employing a deconstructive reversal of the opposition between textuality and the world, he claims that political events are in fact textual and discursive, often generated and spurred by oppositional cultural practices. The concept of hybridity militates against restrictive notions of cultural identity that result in political separatism, as seen in nationalistic movements or in identity politics. Hybridity fosters the larger goal of socialist community while acknowledging cultural differences. Such socialist community arises from the solidarity of different groups and movements working in coalition to create a new, progressive hegemony, as Stuart Hall similarly urges.
Besides Postcolonialism, The Commitment to Theory also addresses another field of critical debate. In its advocacy of poststructuralist theory, Bhabha tacitly responds to many critics of the 1980s and 1990s. Their attacks came both from within the academy and from outside, in claims that theory was too obscure, detracted[[#_ftn1|[1]]] from literature, and represented a solipsistic[[#_ftn2|[2]]] academic pursuit. Like Paul de Man’s Resistance to Theory, which asserts theory’s philosophical inevitability, The Commitment to Theory offers a staunch defence; but unlike the Man, Bhabha argues for theory’s political relevance. While rooted in contemporary debates, The Commitment to Theory also takes part in a larger tradition of defences of literary practices, which starts with Aristotle’s defence of poetry in the Poetics and extends to 19th and 20th defences of criticism, such as Oscar Wilde’s claims for the artistic value of criticism, The Critic as Artist. Such works shield literature and criticism against accusations that they lack utility, social relevance, and moral good. Bhabha updates the tradition by declaring the political efficacy of literary theory.
This debate and Bhabha has frequently been criticized for his embrace of theory at the expense of practice, his dense jargon, and his copiously allusive writing style. His sharpest critics have come from the Left, criticising his views of politics as textual. In particular, the Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad has criticized him for detaching politics from specific locations and political situations. Ahmad also criticises him for ignoring class and caste, charging that Bhabha’s concept of hybridity applies more aptly to privileged postcolonial intellectuals who have gained success in the Western world, like Bhabha himself, than to those in colonial situations. Other commentators have noted that the notion of a hybrid identity is too broad and amorphous, applying ultimately to all identities. But within the context of debates in postcolonial studies, the concept of hybridity has decisively altered static thinking about nations and identities.
Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak are theorists who have managed to intertwine the postcolonial experience with current critical trends such as feminism, postmodernism, structuralism and post-structuralism. Influenced by Derrida or Foucault, they have managed to reorient their postulates towards the postcolonial context. In The Location of Culture, Homi K. Bhabha states that cultural identities are not the result of predetermined, stereotypical and narrow assumptions that confine coloniser and colonised in very limited contexts. In the chapter: “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of colonial Discourse” he focuses on the concept of “mimicry”, a key issue in his critical and philosophical thought. Bhabha suggests that the objective of imperialism is to turn the colonised into a replica of the coloniser, maintaining the gap that racial differences always imply. Colonialist discourse does not intend to situate coloniser and colonised at the same ontological level because this would betray the stagnant power relations existing between them. He adds: it is not the same to be Anglicised as it is to be English; the first is a process in which Britain necessarily has to intervene in order to mould a submissive acolyte, whereas the second is an innate gift that only those born in Britain can enjoy.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak‘s contribution has been decisive to understand feminism and the role of women in colonial and postcolonial times. She was the founder and precursor of the so-called “Subaltern Studies”, in which she explores the conditions of those who are dispossessed due to economic, racial or gender questions, determining whether these “subalterns” can speak on their own or if they depend on Western intellectuals to channel their discourse. Among these dispossessed, Spivak is referring to women and to the secondary position they are forced to occupy. Her main argument is that postcolonial women, especially black, have to undergo a twofold marginalisation:
Racial: Due to their skin colour, women are discriminated and humiliated. Access to the labour market and to secondary and university education has also been conditioned by their race.
Gender: Their woman condition also turns them into oppressed subjects in the hands of a patriarchal society. Her feminist-deconstructionism standpoints have led her to be particularly interested in re-interpreting canonical texts from postcolonial and feminist perspectives, necessary to widen the limited scope that has pervaded literary and cultural studies.
The Commitment to Theory (1994)
Is the language of theory just merely another power device of the culturally privileged Western elite to produce a discourse of the Other that reinforces its own power-knowledge equation? He stands on the shifting margins of cultural displacement and asks what the function of a committed theoretical perspective might be, once the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world is taken as the paradigmatic place of departure. There is no knowledge, political or otherwise, outside representation. The dynamics of writing and textuality require us to rethink the logics of causality and determinacy through which we recognize the political as a form of calculation and strategic action dedicated to social transformation. A knowledge can only become political through an antagonistic process: dissensus, alterity and otherness are the discursive conditions for the circulation of and recognition of a politicized subject and a public truth. Bhabha argues that life is text: the historical moment of political action must be thought of as part of the history of the form of its writing and the political subject…is a discursive event. When he speaks of ‘address’ he means ‘textual address’ or enunciation. Theory (as a written practice) is relevant to and can affect political realities. He is very concerned with critiquing colonial and post-colonial notions of identity, nation, nationalisms, territorial and cultural affiliations; their production and revision, as well as formation. (Western) poststructuralist theory, according to Bhabha, is not necessarily another form of colonialism, that is, a discursive imagining and appropriation of subaltern peoples and individuals. Can such a dense and frequently opaque discourse as his provide material solutions, say, to the plight of over-exploited, under protected, illegal migrant workers in rich industrialized nations? If an educated, hard-working, affluent Western reader has difficulty in understanding Bhabha, then what does this say about the ability of his writings to reach, and ease the problems of, less sophisticated readers? Doesn’t the very difficulty of his writings defeat their professed objectives?
Bhabha: a quick glance at the vocabulary of The Commitment to Theory: against the grain, iteration, trace, aporia, différance, etc., reveals Bhabha’s debt to postructuralist, especially deconstructive practice, from which it is impossible to dissociate him. The terms hybridity and Third Space are as closely associated with Bhabha as différance is with Derrida. Third Space means a space like the intersection between two overlapping circles where that in-between space partakes of both overlapping circles to create another or third space. It is this third space from which hybridity emerges. One could argue that this is Bhabha’s way of challenging binary oppositions, which most decidedly exclude any overlapping or third space; or of dismantling violent hierarchies, not by inverting the hierarchy, but by situating the two terms/categories in the same space, thus reproducing the dynamic between colonizer and colonized. Hybridity and Third Space are both closely linked, if not interdependent, the one invoking both a state and a process, the other relying on a spatial metaphor. Third Space is the site from which the production of cultural difference emerges. Each political object is determined in relation to the other, and displaced in that critical act. Hybridity (of meaning, of subjectivity, of cultural difference) emerges from a space where a negotiation between certain formations such as gender and class takes place and where each formation encounters the displaced, differentiated boundaries of its group representation and enunciative sites in which the limits and limitations of social power are encountered in an agonistic relation.
The revision of the history of critical theory rests on the notion of cultural difference, not cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is an epistemological object, culture as an object of empirical knowledge, whereas cultural difference is the process of the enunciation of culture as knowledgeable, authoritative, adequate to the construction of systems of cultural identification. It is the inner, the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space, that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves.


[[#_ftnref1|[1]]] To detract from sth: Restar merito a algo. / Take away a part from; diminish.
[[#_ftnref2|[2]]] Solipsism: (philosophy) The philosophical theory that the self is all that you know to exist. / Extreme form of skepticism, saying that nothing exists beyond oneself and one's immediate experiences.

Bibliography:
LEITCH, VINCENT B., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 2001.
BALDICK, CHRIS. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
CASHMORE, ELLIS. Ed. Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations. London: Routledge, 1996.