Lecture 14 -Homi Bhabha and the concept of Cultural Hybridity

Lecture 14 -Homi Bhabha and the concept of Cultural Hybridity


Hello and welcome back to this lecture series
on postcolonial literature. Now, we had ended our previous lecture by
discussing Rabindranath Tagore’s and Frantz Fanon’s criticism of the idea, though we
had also discussed how nation-state had become the norm by the second half of the 20th century
in the parts of the world which was once colonised by the European powers. Which means that independence movements in
places like Africa for instance, or in the Indian subcontinent, almost automatically
led to the formation of nation-state. Now, but in the conclusion I had suggested
that the criticism of Tagore and Fanon of nation and nationalism also compels us to
look beyond the present political norm of nation-states. Now nation-state is almost a political norm
in the world. Right. But as we have seen that there are very powerful
critics of this idea of nation-state and nationalism and these critics like Tagore and Fanon compel
us to look beyond the category of nation-state. And we will make this attempt today by exploring
the works of Homi Bhabha and see if we can arrive at an alternative understanding of
postcolonial human community beyond the category of nation-state. Now our starting point in this exploration
today will be the concept of hybridity which plays a central role in Bhabha’s work. And after we discuss hybridity, we will then
move on to another very important concept in Bhabha which is mimicry. And then finally we will revisit the idea
of nation and nationalism. But before we start discussing the writings
of Bhabha, let me introduce to you Homi Bhabha in a few words. Bhabha was born in 1949 in the Parsi community
of Bombay. And he did his graduation from the University
of Bombay before moving to the University of Oxford as a postgraduate student. And there he completed his Masters as well
as his Doctorate. He started his teaching career in the United
Kingdom but then moved on to America. And he is now the Anne F. Rothenberg Chair
professor in humanities in the University of Harvard. Now Bhabha is often regarded as part of the
“Holy Trinity” in the field of postcolonial studies with the other two figure being Edward
Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. We have already discussed Edward Said in our
previous Lectures and we will take up Gayatri Spivak in the lectures that follows. But coming back to Bhabha, his most influential
work of postcolonial theory is the collection of essays titled The Location of Culture which
was originally published in 1994. And though Bhabha has subsequently authored
a number of other important works like “The Black Savant and the Dark Princess”, “On
Global Memory”, and “Beyond Photography”, he is primarily known for The Location of
Culture. And in today’s lecture we will be exclusively
focusing on this particular collection of essays to understand the theoretical position
that Bhabha takes. Now in our earlier discussion on the colonial
discourse, we have seen how colonialism is constructed by the Europeans as a civilising
mission in which a superior culture of the metropolitan West comes in contact with the
“inferior culture” of the colonised periphery. This superior/inferior binary indicates that
in spite of the colonial contact, the culture and civilisation of the Western coloniser,
and of the colonised East were perceived as two distinct and separate entities. And this perception is perhaps most clearly
stated in that famous opening line of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and
West”, I have already quoted this line in one of my earlier lectures but I am going
to quote it again now, the line is of course: “East is East and West is West, and never
the twain shall meet”. And as I said, this line is perhaps the best
expression of the notion that in spite of the colonial contact, the Western civilisation
and Western culture of the coloniser was distinct and superior to the culture and civilizational
values of the colonised East. Now this notion of distinct cultural essences
separating the coloniser and the colonised also informs the kind of middle class nationalist
discourse that we have studied earlier from within the context of India. Indeed the cyclical pattern of fall and recovery,
which should be very familiar to you by now, which underlines the nationalist discourse
is pivoted on the notion of distinctive and pure cultural identities. As we have seen earlier, the lament of someone
like M.K. Gandhi for instance, is that India under the colonial influence has lost its
distinctive culture and its native inhabitants are busy imitating the culture of the colonisers
which is completely alien to them. In the cyclical pattern underlying the Gandhian
nationalist discourse therefore, the notion of return and the recovery which is crucial
as you will know signifies a reverting back to the civilizational values of a precolonial
past which represents an era of cultural purity. Now against this idea of a pure culture which
can be distinguished and kept separated from another foreign culture and which can be reverted
back to, against this Bhabha proposes the idea of cultural hybridity. Now since Bhabha’s concept of hybridity
is complex and at the same time it is central to the field of postcolonial studies, let
us go through it carefully step by step. Now, in order to understand Bhabha’s theory
of cultural hybridity, we need to understand that for Bhabha culture is not a static entity. For him it is not an essence that can be fixed
in time and space. On the contrary, culture for Bhabha is something
which is fluid, something which is perpetually in motion. It is a melting pot of several disparate elements
which are regularly being added and which are regularly transforming our cultural identities. So for Bhabha, there is for instance no pure
Indianness or Africanness or Britishness that can be grasped, studied, or even returned
too. And to understand what I mean here, let us
consider for example the famous European anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who travelled in the
early 20th century to the islands of Papua New Guinea to study the natives in their “original”
setting. Now Malinowski’s writings on these natives
represent them as the possessor of a distinct culture which has remained uncontaminated
by any foreign influence. And if we look at this picture of Malinowski
sitting with Papuan islanders, it is easy to believe both in the pure uncontaminated
nature of their aboriginal culture and the distinction separating them from the culture
of the white man who is sitting between them. But as we know Bhabha would contend that such
a notion of pure uncontaminated culture is a myth. All culture is characterised by a mixedness
which Bhabha refers to by the word hybridity. But how can the culture of these “remote”
Papuan islanders be contaminated in any way? Well another modern day anthropologist James
Clifford, in his essay “Travelling Cultures”, takes up this case of Malinowski and he writes
that Malinowski’s portrayal of the Papuan culture as pure, static, unchanging, and uncontaminated
is an illusion. And such illusions about pure uncontaminated
cultures are carefully constructed not only by Malinowski but almost by all anthropologists
writing about their field studies on dwellers of spaces far removed from the West. And the illusion is created there for instance
by stressing on the isolation of the field which the anthropologist goes to study. This, for instance, is done by leaving away
details about how the Western anthropologist himself or herself travels to that distant
location. Because a detailed account of the travel,
will immediately destroy the notion of isolation and cultural uncontaminatedness. Why? Because it will connect the anthropological
field with the metropolitan centre. Because at the end of the day the Western
anthropologist himself or herself is travelling and by travelling is actually connecting the
metropolitan centre to that distant location which is removed from the West. Now, in other words, if the anthropologist
managed to find his or her way to the field of study then that field of study cannot but
be connected to other places. And consequently its culture cannot but be
influenced by and mixed with other cultures which is very obvious because if someone can
travel into a particular space, it means that travel is possible. And the moment travel is possible then we
conceive that space not as an isolated area but as an area which is interconnected with
other places and not only in terms of physical interconnectedness but also in terms of cultural
interconnectedness. So the notion of cultural isolation and uncontaminated
cultural purity crumbles down here if we think of how the anthropologist has physically travelled
to that distant location which is his or her feet. But the notion of cultural isolation and cultural
purity also crumbles if we remember that the anthropologist is communicating with the inhabitants
of his or her field of study in some way or the other. Which means that there is definitely some
sort of translation going on. And it is through this process of translation
that the anthropologist understands the culture of the native inhabitants about which he or
she writes and also vice versa, the natives also understand the questions of the anthropologist
for instance. So if a culture is all sealed up and isolated
then the very possibility of such a translation and communication has to be ruled out. But since such a translation is actually taking
place in that field we cannot really regard that cultural landscape as completely isolated
and sealed. So as Malinowski’s case suggests, no culture
is isolated enough to maintain any sort of purity or uncontaminated essence that remains
static over time. The alternative to this idea of a static culture
that Bhabha suggests is that of culture as an ever unfolding process rather than being
characterised by an unchangeable essence, it is characterised by change, it is characterised
by flux, and it is characterised by transformation. And most importantly it is underlined by a
sense of mixedness or interconnectedness which Bhabha terms hybridity. So how does this notion of cultural hybridity
impact our understanding of the postcolonial condition? Let us consider the British colonial subjugation
of India for instance. Now as Bhabha suggests cultures are dynamic
processes characterised by change, flux, and hybridity, then the binary of a superior culture
of the British coloniser and an inferior culture of the subjugated Indians immediately break
down. To talk about superior Britishness or inferior
Indianness would mean talking about static unchangeable cultural essences. But as we have seen in our discussion of cultural
hybridity, culture is not about such fixed essences but it is about ever changing and
ever transforming processes. However, the colonial discourse cannot admit
this because the notion of a superior and exalted Britishness is at the core of its
justification of colonialism as a civilising mission. The moment it is pointed out that there is
no inherent essence of British culture, the illusion of the civilising mission disappears
and colonialism is revealed just as it is, which is an exploitation of other people’s
land and resources through brute force. The justification, cultural justification
breaks down if we point out that there is no inherent notion of Britishness or Indianness. So, of course, there cannot be any inherent
notion of a superior culture and an inferior culture. Indeed it is interesting to note that much
of what the coloniser projected as the superiority of their cultural identity, including the
superiority that they ascribed to their white skin colour, emerged only gradually during
the first decades of the 19th century. In fact during the 18th-century, for instance,
the European colonisers had a much more fluid sense of cultural identity. And their approach to India was not marked
by a belief in the binary of superior Britishness and inferior Indianness. So, for instance, as Ashis Nandy points out
in his book The Intimate Enemy, before the 1830’s, roughly the 1830’s, we can see
most British Colonisers in India living life just like other Indian inhabitants and often
marrying Indian wives and even offering pujas to Indian gods and goddesses. So, as you can see, the British colonisers
did not bring with them any readymade idea of British superiority or exalted Britishness. Such an illusion of a static cultural essence
only developed later to provide a justification for the material exploitation that colonialism
involved. Consequently the idea of a static Indianness,
which is inferior to the Britishness of the coloniser, was also a construction of this
same colonial process. Now, here I would like to introduce you to
another important concept in Bhabha, which is the concept of mimicry. Now, according to Bhabha, the attempt to stabilise
the cultural flux and hybridity that characterise the relationship between the coloniser and
the colonised and to structure it in terms of a superior Britishness and an inferior
Indianness led to a very interesting consequence. As, I have said, the construction of this
idea of a superior Britishness or Western culture was crucial in defining colonialism
as a civilising mission. And the logic of this civilising mission was
to culturally educate the subjugated natives so that they could attain the same level of
civilisation as the colonisers. Right. So, to repeat civilising mission with justified
colonialism was underlined by the logic that because the subjugated Indians are now exposed
to the superior culture of the British colonisers they would ultimately learn from the British
colonisers and would be elevated to that same level of civilizational superiority. So, in other words, the civilising mission
was about making the colonised more and more like the coloniser. And this project is most clearly stated in
the 1835 Minutes that Macauley wrote, I have already referred to this Minutes in one of
my earlier lectures, and here Macauley states in this minutes that the colonial government
should spend more on English education in India so as to “create a class of persons,
Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Now the problem with this effort to create
a class of colonised people who are exactly like the coloniser is that if the project
is ever to succeed then it will erase the assumed cultural gap between the superior
coloniser and the inferior colonised, and thereby undermine the entire colonial process,
entire colonial rule. So if the colonised subjugated Indians were
ever to become exactly like the British then there won’t be any notion of cultural gap,
civilizational gap separating the coloniser and the colonised which in turn will destroy
the logic that colonialism is required to civilise the people of India. Right. So, according to Bhabha, though the coloniser
wants the colonised to mimic him, to imitate him, he never really expects the latter to
catch up. So the mimic men of the colonial periphery
are, therefore, from the perspective of the coloniser, people who forever remain “not
quite, not white”, and this is Bhabha’s term – “not quite, not white”. So they are almost like the British but never
really like the British. Right. And that never really like the British, that
caveat is important to maintain the assumed cultural gap between a superior coloniser
and an inferior colonised. Because if the gap completely closes down,
then of course the justification of the civilising mission ends at that very point. But Bhabha points out that this very idea
of a lesser human being, of course the coloniser considered us Indians to be lesser human beings,
but this very idea of a lesser human being mimicking the superior coloniser also turns
the act into a sort of mockery of the superior coloniser’s culture. And in order to understand this mockery, even
imagine the situation when a gesture or a clown picks up the manners of a suave gentleman
and then repeats it after him in an exaggerated and comic manner. Right. So it is imitation, it is mimicry, but it
is not something that can be desired and accepted by the person who is being imitated because
it is also a mockery of that person. Right. So this possibility of comically undermining
the coloniser and his superior civilizational position through a partial repetition, this
is what Bhabha refers to as the menace of mimicry. But now let us again return to the notion
of cultural hybridity and see how it impacts the concept of nation-state. Now I think it has already become clear to
you that a notion of culture as changeable and dynamic process, characterised by hybridity
of various elements, is fundamentally inimical to the idea of nationalism and to the socio-political
construct of nation-state. Why? Because the idea of nation is ultimately defined
by a cultural essence which is unique to the people who were resident within its political
boundaries and which has remained unchanged for ages and will continue to remain so in
the future. Right. So what makes us Indians within this nationalist
logic, is our Indianness which is a unchangeable cultural essence that we share with everyone
living within the political boundary of India and that has remained unchanged, from the
glorious days of the past, and has been forwarded to us, which we will forward unchanged to
the future generations. So this notion of Indianness as connecting
us both with all the people living at the present and with the past generations and
the future generations who are to live within this politically defined territory is at the
heart of the idea of nation. Now, but therefore with nation we are back
again to the problematic idea of static cultural essences. But, and because we have extensively dealt
with the problem that underlines and undermines this notion of static cultural essences, I
will not go into them. But you see Bhabha’s notion of culture therefore
is untenable with the idea of nation-state. But more importantly, if we are to do without
static cultural essences and think through the lens of cultural hybridity, then what
kind of social organisation other than the nation-state can we conceive? Well the answer is perhaps best given by Salman
Rushdie in his celebrated essay titled “Imaginary Homelands” where he urges us to look at
ourselves not as grounded in any particular national culture but as displaced beings who
are living the life of an exile. The world around us is seeing an ever-growing
number of humans being displaced, humans moving from one place to another because of various
reasons, because of war, because of natural calamities, because of political persecution,
because of economic aspirations and so on and so forth. And so the condition of being in exile is
gradually becoming more and more common. But, according to Rushdie, even if we are
not physically displaced, all of us are displaced in time from the glorious national past that
we might want to go back to. So, for Rushdie, every one of us, we are all
exiles, we are all displaced, if not spatially then at least temporally. And in most cases, both physically and temporally. So such a mode of thinking, the problem is
that, it robs us of our national identities that we have been taught to cherish since
childhood. But Rushdie argues that there is a rich compensation. And this compensation lies in the fact, that
we then as exiles, and as displaced human beings, become an heir to all cultures of
the world and we can fashion our own cultural identity by mixing the disparate elements
that the world as a whole offer to us. Our cultural identity then becomes a dynamic
process of transformation and gives us far more agency to shape ourselves than is offered
by the straightjacket of national identity. So with Bhabha’s notion of cultural hybridity
we gradually move from nationalism and nation-states to the idea of cosmopolitanism. And we will discuss this in more details when
we take up the poetry of Derek Walcott in our next lecture. Thank you.

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