The Limits of Eloquence: Homi K. Bhabha's "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: The Question of Agency"
Much like passports, which serve the ambivalent function of both allowing us into alien territory and of reminding us of the socially conditioned boundaries of our freedom, terminological passwords function both to sanction our entry into the academic polis and to impose conditions on our freedom to engage in the potentially disruptive activity of intellectual anomie. It is ironically because of the disruptive operation, within the last thirty years, of a (politically anchored) rebellion against the rules that govern entry and habitation in the academic polis that a new set of rules and conditions has been instituted. This new set of rules poses a challenge not only to what has been seen as the complacency and conservatism of the intellectuals of the old guard, but also to the innocuous liberalism and individualistic anti-conformism of the new. The imperative to attend to historical specificity, the need to be aware of the ideological implications of one's own positions, and the responsibility to effectively navigate the space separating the academic "ivory tower" from the noisy sphere of the social, constitute a (contested) framework of regulation and legitimation of academic work that has effectively superseded older academic orthodoxies, placing even the most "safely" established academic passwords under renewed, and often suspicious, scrutiny.
As a result, the emergence, within the western academy, of "post-colonial" studies--a discipline whose strong debt to the work of anti-colonial intellectuals like Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, C.L.R James, and Amilcar Cabral is often overshadowed by the trendiness of the avant-guard temporality of the "post"--has been accompanied by an often fierce debate concerning issues of critical theory, textual practice, geopolitical location, cultural representation, and discursive power. It is within this context of contestation that I would like to situate Bhabha's article, interrogating its ideological and methodological presuppositions, while also pointing to the gaps and silences that accompany the emergence, within academic texts, of legitimating passwords/passports such as "post-colonial studies."
First published in Redrawing the Boundaries, a 1992 MLA anthology on "The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies," Homi Bhabha's article on "Postcolonial Criticism" was republished in his own 1994 collection of essays, The Location of Culture, under a different title: "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: The Question of Agency." I make this rather trivial reference to point to something that is fairly important: Bhabha's article stands out from most of the articles in Redrawing The Boundaries, not only because it does not provide the customary overview of current developments in the field, but also because it seems to bear a rather oblique relation to its very object of reference, namely "postcolonial" criticism. The 1994 title seems to provide a much more adequate context for the prominent position that Western intellectuals (Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault) hold in this article--both because their contributions are examined in the light of the postmodern problematic and because they are appropriated by Bhabha as tools for the theoretical exploration of the question of agency.
It is curious that an article that in 1992 ostensibly referred to "postcolonial criticism" became in 1994 an article on "the postcolonial and the postmodern" without undergoing any change in content--curious, but not accidental. Bhabha rather explicitly shows that he sees the colonial moment as little more than a privileged space of access to the problematics of the "postmodern condition": "[my] growing conviction has been that the encounters and negotiations of differential meanings and values within 'colonial' textuality ... have enacted ... many of the problematics of signification and judgement that have become current in contemporary theory--aporia, ambivalence, indeterminacy, the question of discursive closure, the threat to agency ...." To make things even clearer, he will later add: "I have tried ... to rename the postmodern from the position of the postcolonial."
The objection could of course be raised that examining the interrelationship between postmodernism and postcolonialism does not necessarily privilege the former over to the latter; yet there is, in this article, ample evidence to the contrary. Bhabha's writing abounds in such comfortable abstractions as "the postcolonial perspective," "the postcolonial intellectual," and "the postcolonial prerogative," which function more like magical incantations of absent totalities than as indications of the attention to "social specificity" which, ironically enough, Bhabha tirelessly evokes. The careful, analytic reading of the writings of Western intellectuals is coupled by an off-handed appropriation of the work of the Subaltern Studies group, used here to illustrate the importance of "contingency" and "ambivalence" within the colonial context, while central issues such as the social, economic and ideological relationships that have bound the Indian peasantry to both the colonial regime and the native elite are silently elided. The indifference shown to both theoretical and literary work performed within the context of anti-colonial nationalism contrasts ironically with the heavy privileging of the (characteristically postmodern) issues that Bhabha sees as pertaining to the diasporic and migrant populations residing in the Western metropolis. And finally, questions of language, signification, enunciation, and discursive indeterminacy occupy center stage in Bhabha's narrative of post-colonial (read post-modern) agency, overshadowing the (not so "post") conditions of persistent relations of neo-colonial dependency, Western (overt or covert) military intervention, third-world labor and resource expropriation, uneven development, racial persecution and ethnic cleansing, the increasing gap between third world masses and comprador elites, or the repression of women's rights by a number of "third-world" states.
I cannot of course supplement Bhabha's notions of textuality with my socio-historical symptomatology of post-colonial life under multinational capital without begging the question of the relationship between the social and the discursive. Since the status of these terms and their relation to each other seems hardly settled in contemporary theory, and because of limitations imposed by space, it might be more helpful to phrase the issue at hand in the form of a simpler question: is Bhabha denying the existence of a split between the discursive and the social, assuming that the social does not exist outside his (heavily textual) concept of the discursive, or is he attempting to relegate to unimportance an often stubbornly "archaic" post-colonial social reality in favor of the attractions of a complex and unstable discursivity?
In the same year that Bhabha's essay appeared, Nicholas Dirks published an article on colonial discourse in India, critiquing the theoretical stance that Bhabha's writing perfectly exemplifies. Says Dirks: "it is all too often the case that the historical experience of colonialism--along with the contemporary politics of postcolonialism--gets lost in the elegant new textualism of colonial discourse studies." I suspect that Bhabha's answer to both Dirks and me can be found in the following quote from his article: "The postcolonial perspective ... departs from the traditions of the sociology of underdevelopment of 'dependency' theory. As a mode of analysis, it attempts to revise those nationalist or 'nativist' pedagogies that set up the relation of Third World and First World in a binary structure of opposition."
Such an answer proves to be rather ambivalent. On the one hand, it points to our first supposition by marking Bhabha's refusal to separate the social from the discursive--thence the implicit critique of the positivism of "underdevelopment" sociology. In this respect, Bhabha's understanding of the post-colonial may be defended on the premise that it is not that of a purely aesthetic category that is opposed to history; rather, his "elegant textualism" attempts to reinforce the view that a sophisticated approach to the social text illuminates it precisely as such--a text, bound to the same discursive phenomena of splitting, ambivalence, and indeterminacy that the postmodern text exemplifies. A conscientious poststructuralist, Bhabha rejects the notion of history as the transcendental incarnation of the totality of human relations, and refuses to endorse the idea that we can approach the "post-colonial" problematic through a transparent narrative of cause and effect, unity and totality, as various sociologies have attempted to.
On the other hand, Bhabha's critique of "nationalist and 'nativist' pedagogies" seems to give credence to our second supposition. There seems to be a rejection of the "social" to the extent that it has been contaminated by the simplistic and archaic inflections of nationalist narratives which insist on structuring the post-colonial reality along a series of crude, binary oppositions. The narrative of the post-colonial nation is overlooked precisely to the extent that it is a nationalist narrative, plagued by the antiquarian and unsophisticated notions of continuity, authenticity, progress and unanimousness. It is for this reason that the post-colonial is willy-nilly reduced to the transnational, to the conditions of migration and diaspora which provide Bhabha with the occasion for a celebration of the insight provided by cultural homelessness: "it is from those who have suffered the sentence of history--subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement--that we learn our most enduring lessons ... the affective condition of social marginality ... transforms our critical strategies."
Paradoxically, what gets effaced here is the very violence of the process of subjugation to which Bhabha's language refers. Conflating conditions such as dispossession, systematic genocide, acculturation, slavery, forced dislocation and willful immigration (all present within different historical moments of colonialist policy) and quickly substituting the political nature of historical trauma with the cultural "fringe benefit" of critical insight, Bhabha does more than simply resist colonialist and nationalist appropriations of history; he erases history altogether. However one might answer the question of Bhabha's theoretical orientation, it remains ironic that in the process of ostensibly deconstructing binarisms he unwittingly gives rise to a new one. The social may already be discursive, but the social that is worth any attention is that which conforms to Bhabha's post-structuralist, albeit normative, conception of discourse. I find such an approach rather disturbing, especially because it tends to be more insidiously reductive than the positivism it critiques.
The condescending equation of national cultures with "imaginary museums" is blatantly contradicted by the extremely complicated and constantly shifting nexus of alliances, antagonisms, contradictions, and discontinuities that cultural and political struggles in third world nations bring to focus. A characteristic example derived from recent events comes from Giacaman and Johnson's description of the "unstable mix of gender and politics in Palestine today." Describing a political march in modern Palestine, Giacaman and Johnson write: "In a prominent position at the head of the march, female students from the Popular Front, clad in bluejeans, brandished red-splattered rocks, while young men held banners against self-government. At the end of the march, 'sisters' from Hamas [Palestine's Islamic fundamentalist party] walked as a segregated bloc. To the surprise of some observers, several young women were not wearing the obligatory head scarf .... In the middle, young women partisans of the Democratic Front in casual Western attire mixed uneasily with Hamas men." The mobilization and contestation of national, religious and gender identities which emerges in our short anecdote from a day in the life of a nationalist struggle is characteristic of the complexity and dynamism of what Bhabha has chosen to relegate to the status of an "imaginary museum." Complexity, it seems, is the exclusive privilege of those who have--by force or choice--placed themselves outside the repetitive murmur of nationalist "mythologies."
In the final section of his article, Bhabha addresses a critique of prominent French intellectual Michel Foucault on the basis of the latter's disavowal of "the colonial moment as an enunciative present in the historical and epistemological condition of Western modernity." Ironically, it is Bhabha's very critique of Eurocentrism that most fully accentuates the limitations of his own position. The project of the article--the exploration, through post-structuralist theory, of the notion of post-colonial agency and the articulation of the implications that such an agency has for the conceptualization of social space, human community and political action--reaches its theoretical limits in the conclusive assertion that "modernity and postmodernity are constituted from the marginal perspective of cultural difference." Despite Bhabha's best intentions, the debate largely remains couched within the space of western discourse. If "the postcolonial condition" acquires any meaning, it is only in its relation to the west; the postcolonial can be either "postmodern" (when experienced through the affective displacement of a stateless diaspora) or "antimodern" (when bounded by the archaic inheritance of the nation-state), but it cannot be conceived outside the western narrative of modernity. In the end, the third world remains with its eyes fixed towards the first, articulating, in the "elegant textuality" of Bhabha's discourse, an otherness which is always already domesticated by the persistent vocabulary of the self-same.