Feb. 16, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 12

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    Rethinking experience of countries with colonial past

    At the recent annual meeting of the Modern Language Association -- the premier academic association in the humanities -- a special session was devoted to the work of Homi Bhabha, Professor in English Language & Literature, who joined the University faculty this fall.

    The session, "Homi Bhabha: The Location of Culture," took its name from the title of Bhabha's recent book, The Location of Culture (1994), a collection of essays on the conceptual and political ramifications of colonialism and "post-colonialism" -- the rethinking of the experience of countries with a colonial past, such as Bhabha's native India. The book has been praised by scholars and writers as diverse as Edward Said and Toni Morrison.

    Perhaps that explains the standing-room-only crowd at the session.

    "As I approached the auditorium, I saw a friend of mine walking away in the opposite direction," Bhabha recalls. "I was a bit crestfallen, and thought this might signal a low turnout. But when he saw me he said, 'There isn't even standing space -- it's crazy in there!' "

    A Chicago colleague who was on the MLA panel, W.J.T. Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature, praised what he calls the current "intense, widespread interest" in Bhabha's work.

    "He is a mediating figure between activists and academics," Mitchell said. "His work is so powerful because he can negotiate and interpret both positions to both sides -- this is why his work speaks to people from all kinds of situations and backgrounds."

    Bhabha found the MLA experience "very exciting, very gratifying at a personal level," he said. "I was pleased to see the success of a session devoted to exploring transformations in the definitions of literature and culture. That people were coming to listen and argue in a careful, scholarly way about such interdisciplinary problems was, for me, the most moving and illuminating experience."

    Bhabha is also pleased to be pursuing his work at Chicago. "I was brought up on Wayne Booth [the George C. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature]," he said. "My first serious encounter with rigorous thinking about narrative came through Wayne Booth and his books, such as The Rhetoric of Fiction. When I want to give students a sense of how to think about narrative, I get them to read Booth." Critical Inquiry was another milestone in his thinking, he said, and in 1985, the journal published one of his earliest essays.


    From his early days in Bombay, Bhabha has focused his research on the colonial experience. After receiving his B.A. from the University of Bombay, Bhabha left his native city to study at Oxford, where he received his M.A., his M.Phil. and his D.Phil. He taught English at Sussex University from 1978 until he joined the faculty at Chicago, where he teaches literature and literary theory.

    For Bhabha, the controversial term "post-colonial studies" focuses on the role of language and culture as "important social and historical forces of governance in the lives of colonial societies. The earlier phase of 'development studies' emphasized cultural dependency in largely economic, political and sociological terms." Bhabha feels it is for this reason that his work -- and other groundbreaking work in the field by such scholars as Said -- is gaining such interest and prominence.

    Bhabha argues that in order to understand the "modern" era, or "modernity," scholars must see what he calls "the complexity of the modern moment" -- the often contradictory situations set up in the colonial world in the name of civilization. "Many issues related to the idea of 'citizenship' are affected by what it means to be a colonial subject -- to be denied certain rights by an outside authority whose claim to power is based on a claim to a higher, or more universal, right," Bhabha said.

    "Any group or society that has been oppressed wants an acknowledgment of its own history, a history which has been hidden or denied. I'm not pretending it's an easy matter. But to the extent to which it can have a positive transforming influence, I'm attempting with my work to shift notions of what it means to belong to a culture, to have an identity -- to show how limited it is to cling onto rigidly defined imperialist or nationalist ideas," Bhabha said.

    "For me, 'post-colonial studies' implies a two-way exchange -- it's not just an outside culture being imposed upon a colonial culture, but also the way colonies, despite their disempowerment and disadvantage, respond to that outside culture, and in many cases translate its imposition into acts of social insurgency and forms of cultural innovation. Literature is the most sensitive record of these small, but enormously significant, acts of cultural survival."

    Locating culture

    Bhabha's ideas are explored most fully in the essays in The Location of Culture, which covers a range of literary and historical subject matter, from the early 19th century to the present.

    One of Bhabha's goals in writing the book was to show that "both the imperialist and the nationalist views of colonialism often missed the importance and complexity of the sociopolitical struggles being fought out on the cultural front," he said. "They missed the daily struggles that were conducted over things like rice and bread -- the more subtle and everyday struggles for equality, survival and cultural autonomy. Colonial peoples were not always thinking of dynamite and guns."

    Another goal was to examine the question of cultural translations. "From what sorts of positions do cultures relate to each other in different contexts? I felt there was a serious need to look at how various cultures coexist -- what modes of accommodation they use so that they can articulate their differences yet be engaged in communal negotiations and have common pursuits," he said.

    "My position is that you don't have to first homogenize cultures, and then as a gesture allow different cultural groupings their right to expression. You've got to look at it the other way around. We have to respect difference before we can truly think about the ways cultures can speak to each other."

    Regional cosmopolitanism

    Bhabha is currently exploring and expanding his ideas on the impact of colonialism on world culture in a new book he is writing on "cosmopolitanism," as well as in a new column he will begin writing for the national magazine Artforum.

    Bhabha argues that at the same time that people more and more identify themselves as being part of a world community, the actual "local" experience of those people is a mix of different racial, ethnic and sexual norms and values. Thus, the idea of a "national culture" is being redefined -- and here, Bhabha feels, the colonial experience again offers a model.

    "People often get their sense of sharing a common language from the post-Enlightenment ideal of cosmopolitan culture -- the idea that there is a classical culture to be shared that must be learned. My argument is that we need a sort of regional, or vernacular, cosmopolitanism, to question the division between central, canonical cultures and everyday cultures. And we can do this by understanding the unique way colonial cultures were themselves cosmopolitan.

    "People living under colonial oppression had to deal with a number of values, mores and symbols as an act of survival in a culture over which they did not have power -- this was the same for migrants in England and slaves in the South," he said. "They had to learn the new social languages of their oppressors, and then had to live their lives through those social languages. In spite of this, colonial subjects were able to create and produce in those new languages. Colonial societies were able to learn to negotiate the languages of cultural domination."

    In this way, Bhabha argues, contemporary society has much to learn from the colonial experience. "Today we live in a multicultural society, and there is no escaping that fact. Current debates on 'culture wars' or 'identity politics' are really about the issues of recognizing and dealing with new questions about what it truly means to be cosmopolitan. My point is that colonial societies have always had to deal with these kinds of questions."

    Indeed, Bhabha said, to think about colonial culture is to think about world culture. "The whole modern world is dealing with issues that colonial cultures had to deal with years ago. This complex mixture of cultures is a worldwide phenomenon that is setting new rules of cultural understanding."

    -- Jeff Makos