This book assembles several of Homi Bhabha’s most significant essays, allowing for an examination of his contribution to contemporary literary theory. As a self-described postcolonial critic, often compared with Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak, Bhabha is perhaps most well-known for his theory of cultural hybridity, which he develops in “Signs Taken For Wonders” and several other essays included in this collection. Bhabha argues that hybridity results from various forms of colonization, which lead to cultural collisions and interchanges. In the attempt to assert colonial power in order to create anglicized subjects, “[t]he trace of what is disavowed is not repressed but repeated as something different—a mutation, a hybrid” (p. 111). This hybrid trace contradicts both the attempt to fix and control indigenous cultures and the illusion of cultural isolation or purity. His project thus adapts poststructuralist challenges to stable or fixed identities, attempting to “rename” postmodernism from a postcolonial perspective (p. 175), and allowing sustained attention to the ways in which race, gender, community, and nationality converge. One of his major contributions to theories of cultural production and identity is that he examines these various intersections closely, and avoids simply listing them or elevating one aspect of his analysis over others.
Eight of the twelve chapters in this volume have been published previously, though some contain significant revisions. Throughout, Bhabha provides a nonteleological series of readings from the Enlightenment to the present. He draws most often upon psychoanalytic approaches, with particular attention to Frantz Fanon, in his focus upon documents from British missionaries and colonial administrators in India, and upon such writers as Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Joseph Conrad, and E. M. Forster. Paraphrasing his arguments risks simplifying them, and also requires translating some of his frequent neologisms. Though Bhabha’s narrative is at times opaque, at their best these terms convey a new framework for describing cultures and their productions. Bhabha emphasizes what he describes as culture’s “in-between,” for instance, the interstitial spaces within and among individuals and cultures, which do not maintain a single position but form identities in an on-going process.
One of Bhabha’s significant stances is his defense of the ways theory may be transformative. Rather than viewing theory as only an élite Occidental production or as apolitical, in Chapter One, “The Commitment to Theory,” he suggests that politics work with and through theory and that theory and politics cannot be separated. He endeavors to establish a “committed theoretical perspective,” accounting for postcolonial positions, while evading “the politics of polarities” that deny hybrid cultures and histories (p. 21, 39). The entire collection expands upon these claims, and three essays in particular—“Sly [End Page 196] Civility,” “Signs Taken for Wonders,” and “Articulating the Archaic”—develop the most extended discussions of agency on the part of the colonized, suggesting that culture’s “in-between” can be employed in ways that reveal contradictions within narratives that would uphold a linear, progressive model of Western history and civilization.
In this way, his discussion of contact between cultures revises the narrative of progress or modernity, associated particularly with the Enlightenment. Bhabha reads the atrocities that were knowingly committed and sanctioned in the colonies as the “contramodernity” that belies traditional arguments about increasing civility and development of modernity. “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” and “By Bread Alone,” in particular, confront teleological versions of history with a recognition of the colonial involvement and complicity of modernity.
His argument can be extended to evaluate divergent movements within modernity and postmodernity and to revise the major models of both by revealing their stakes in colonial practices. Bhabha’s work suggests that the process of making modernity and the past is continual and partial, and that political action (which would include writing theory, in his argument), can be effective if not total. The pleasure of his work, as well as its difficulty, lies in his refusal to simplify cultures or endorse easy assumptions.