How To Read Homi Bhabha

Homi Bhabha is a famously incomprehensible writer in the field of postcolonial studies. He is regarded as the second most unreadable academic in the world, after Judith Butler. In this article I’ll tell you how to interpret his work and make yourself look really smart in your postcolonial grad papers.

The 1980s-era theoretical writings of Homi Bhabha should not be read like a typical academic paper. There is no criticism, thesis, or conclusion. He is not attempting to make any political point or support any belief system. Instead, they are written as works of poetry. They are intended to make readers pay close attention to how he is playing with his subjects, and develop some insight from that which can be applied to their own works. Also, and importantly, he is completely unconcerned with agency. Many of his block-quoted examples seem confusing from a postcolonial perspective–they do not describe the colonized in “empowering” or flattering ways, and one might wonder whether he has any sympathy for them at all. In fact, Bhabha is unattached to any desire to assign blame or credit to anyone. He does not want to pat the natives on the back, but only to describe what is going on.

Bhabha, of course, operates in the tradition of Jacques Derrida, and many of his artistic gimmicks, like repeating the same statements over and over in different contexts, come from Derrida. Operating fully within the tradition of deconstruction, he views the individuals he’s quoting as fellow observers, who had equal rational capacity, rather than objects of criticism. He is not trying to discover some fault in their analysis, but to discover the processes that gave rise to their mode of thinking. In short, Bhabha does not assume the preexistence of a colonizer and colonized. His primary interest is in understanding the complex ways of speaking, writing, and thinking that arose out of the mere act of establishing a colony. Questions like “What is Indian?” or “What is English?” can only be answered by a discourse that separates them. Here we can see why a colonial discourse is different from discussions about the internal problems of a country. Everyone in England is English, but the natives of colonial India cannot be fully British, even though they are subjects of the Queen!

This colonial discourse, in Bhabha’s writing, has several important characteristics. First, colonialism is anti-Enlightenment, because it denies egalitarianism. The colonized as a constructed group are asked to achieve a certain standard of civilization, but they cannot actually achieve it, or else they would cease to be a colony of a mother nation. This gives rise to hybridity, a process where the discourse of the colonists becomes a discourse of the colonized via their responses of acceptance, rejection, or misunderstanding (the last of these three categories is particularly important to Bhabha, since he considers it influential and unacknowledged). Whether they intend it to or not, the natives’ hybridity undermines the colonial discourse and confuses or angers the colonists. Thus, the colonists’ message must be proclaimed again and again, as long as they care about their civilizing project.

Bhabha acknowledges that some natives inevitably feel comfortable being in a colony, an imagined world with a secure leadership. But as above, hybridity is a force that upsets, whether people want it to or not. In the form of mimicry, the futile if well-meaning attempt to achieve full citizenship or humanity within the discursive borders of the colony, the native response becomes “civil disobedience within the discipline of civility”. Their actions upset colonial power, since a colony ruled by its native inhabitants without interference is not really a colony at all, nor are the natives really colonized. Mimicry is therefore “the sign of the inappropriate”, meaning that it is undesirable to the colonist rulers as well as demonstrating the impossibility of fully appropriating the colonists’ power. (This is an obnoxious Derridean pun.)

It appears to me that hybridity includes any disavowal of colonial domination, including resistance, misunderstanding, and an acceptance of rule that denies the negative effects of that rule. Mimicry is more specifically a misreading of the meanings given to institutions by the colonists, and an embrace of those misreadings. It appears in Bhabha’s block-quoted examples as an accident which neither illiterates nor intelligentsia really understand the origin of. But this does not mean that conscious resistance is better for the world than mimicry, because that assumes that the colonist reading is in fact the correct reading. Mimicry, too, is a legitimate, creative act which disrupts the colonists’ intentions. Perhaps the name “mimicry” marginalizes that important process.

This is as far as I’ve got so far. I think that if you take this cheat sheet with you, then you may be able to make some sense out of Homi Bhabha’s gobbledy-gook. Whether his theory has useful application to real-world disputes is a subject for another day entirely.

Posted: April 7th, 2010 | Postcolonialism 1 Comment »

One Comment on “How To Read Homi Bhabha”

  1. 1 Munetsi Ruzivo said at 2:53 pm on October 21st, 2011:

    An in depth understanding of Bhabha. It has helped me to understand him. Thank you much