In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Signs Taken for Wonders: An Anecdote Taken from History
  • Bill Bell (bio)

Since its first appearance as an article in Critical Inquiry in 1985, Homi Bhabha’s “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817” has become a locus classicus for postcolonial studies.1 A central document in today’s postcolonial archive, it was republished as a chapter in The Location of Culture in 1994, in numerous subsequent editions, and is a text that has been recycled and repeated in several languages and in countless anthologies and secondary works. It constitutes a discourse whose key coinages—“hybridity,” “sly civility,” “mimicry”—have passed into such common usage in the past twenty-five years that they have come to colonize the postcolonial imagination with an imaginative power rare within the rarefied world of cultural theory.

It is not my aim to rehearse here the impressive and energetic performance of a European critique that informs Bhabha’s argument as it moves—deft and dutiful—through the luminary ecumene of Freud, Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, nor the subtle way in which it comes to concepts that now pass for truisms. Instead I want to show that this essay, and in particular its use of anecdotal history, is more fraught than Bhabha’s swallow flights allow.

Since the appearance of Bhabha’s essay, the relationship between critique and history—and in particular the deployment of historical anecdote for the sake of polemic—has remained a troubling and unresolved presence within critical practice. Carolyn Porter detects in the use of the isolated anecdote a tendency “towards ‘colonial formalism,’ appropriating the ‘strange things’ to be found outside the literary, while effacing the social and historical realm that produced them.” Such a practice, argues Porter, is at once a “plundering and erasing” of the “discursive practices to which the argument appeals.”2 In addressing these same tendencies as they are played out in Bhabha’s influential essay, it is not my intention here to conjure a return to the grand recit of history, but to offer three counterhistories, to open up a set of questions erased in a paradigmatic discourse that moves seamlessly and confidently between theoretical statement and historic assertion. [End Page 309]

“And what is the significance of the Bible?”

Bhabha’s argument takes as its point of departure the following episode as it appeared in the Missionary Register in 1817 describing a conversation between a native catechist and five hundred mysterious converts in a sacred grove near Delhi. It is an anecdote to which the argument returns at strategic moments, and provides the basis for the essay’s more general historical and theoretical assertions.

“In the first week of May 1817,” writes Bhabha, “Anund Messeh,3 one of the earliest Indian catechists, made a hurried and excited journey from his mission in Meerut to a grove of trees just outside Delhi”:

He found about 500 people, men, women, and children, seated under the shade of the trees, and employed, as had been related to him, in reading and conversation. He went up to an elderly looking man, and accosted him, and the following conversation passed.

“Pray who are all these people? and whence come they?” “We are poor and lowly, and we read and love this book.”—“What is that book?”—“The book of God!”—“Let me look at it, if you please.” Anund, on opening the book, perceived it to be the Gospel of our Lord, translated into the Hindoostanee Tongue, many copies of which seemed to be in the possession of the party: some were printed, others written by themselves from the printed ones. Anund pointed to the name of Jesus, and asked, “Who is that?” “That is God!” He gave us this book.”—“Where did you obtain it?” “An Angel from heaven gave it us, at Hurdwar fair.”4—“An Angel?” “Yes, to us he was God’s Angel: but he was a man, a learned Pundit.” (Doubtless these translated Gospels must have been the books distributed, five or six years ago, at Hurdwar by the Missionary.) “The written copies we write ourselves, having no other means of obtaining more of this blessed...