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  • Signs and Wonders:Fetishism and Hybridity in Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture
  • Shai Ginsburg (bio)

Two key locations of pleasure and desire lie at the center of Homi Bhabha's discussion of colonial discourse: the fetish and hybridity.1 Bhabha sets hybridity as a site of interruption of the fetishistic logic and fixation that structure European colonial discourse. Yet the two terms frame not only his manifest engagement with the colonial encounter, but also his endeavor to recontextualize the colonial book in general and reading in particular in contemporary (post)colonial studies. Still, relatively little attention has been paid to the way he positions the fetish and hybridity in relation to book and reading. The following is an attempt to chart the deployment of these four terms—fetish, hybridity, book, and reading—in Bhabha's essays. I shall suggest that as he celebrates colonial desire and pleasure through hybridity, he quite explicitly dismisses reading, and as he shies away from reading the colonial book, he fetishizes that book. His essays thus reproduce the same logic he decries. [End Page 229]

In a sympathetic exposition of Bhabha's work, Robert Young points at Bhabha's continuous changes of his theoretical conceptualizations of colonial discourse. Mindful of a potential paradox, Young tries to save Bhabha from its consequences. He suggests that it serves as

a considered strategy whereby Bhabha rejects consistent metalanguage, refusing to let his terms reify into static concepts, thus eluding the problem . . . that the analysis ends up by repeating the same structures of power and knowledge in relation to its material as the colonial representation itself. If Bhabha exploits the structures of disavowal that he finds, it is first and foremost to undermine this possibility and to prevent the reification of mastery.

(1990, 146)

In what follows I shall argue the exact opposite. Notwithstanding Bhabha's manifest reluctance to privilege any one theoretical model in his analysis of colonial discourse, his own discourse ends up reiterating structures of power/knowledge of colonial representations. His failure is not the failure of avoiding "false" structures of power/knowledge—I do not believe this is possible—but the failure to examine the way a theoretical discourse is perforce implicated in its object. Bhabha's discourse is reified precisely around the terms through which he exposes the reification and fixation of colonial discourse, namely, fetish and hybridity. Ultimately, the reduplication of reification and fixation in Bhabha's discourse produces a new fetish, that of theory.2

The Fetish

Bhabha discusses the fetish in the context of his criticism of Edward Said's Orientalism.3 Following Foucault, Said points at the modes in which discourses of knowledge, aesthetic discourses in particular, serve political formations of power in general and, more specifically, the colonial-imperial project in Europe and the United States. Bhabha similarly underscores the ways colonialist logic binds together the knowledge of non-European territories and the colonization of these territories. He nevertheless identifies [End Page 230] an ambivalence between two discursive modes that haunts Said's analysis—between Orientalism as "a topic of learning, discovery, practice," and Orientalism as a "site of dreams, images, fantasies, myths, obsessions and requirements" (Bhabha 1994, 71). Bhabha maintains that the introduction of binaries into Said's argument is meant to resolve that ambivalence. The setting of these two modes in opposition to each other allows Said to correlate them within a "congruent system of representation" (71) formed by a single, unidirectional intention (72).

Yet such a coherent system, Bhabha continues, fails on two counts: first, Said evaluates Orientalism in terms of commensuration between representation and "real conditions." Although he does not simplistically consider the occidental representation of the Orient to be a misrepresentation of an Oriental essence, he still dismisses it as a deformation; this blinds him to the political effects of Orientalism as an instrument of colonial authority—effects produced, Bhabha astutely notes, by the articulation of the historical alongside fantasy. Second, more significant for our purposes, the closure and coherence of Said's system of representation neutralize the disturbing effects that the unconscious and its fantasies have on the colonial system, undermining "the return of the oppressed" as Bhabha names it...


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