- Ambivalence and Security in the Anglo-American Empire:A Critical Dialogue with Professor Homi K. Bhabha
We began this dialogue with Homi K. Bhabha accepting our invitation for an interview at the Mahindra Center for the Humanities at Harvard University on Friday, May 9, 2015. Bhabha is a theoretical pacesetter and rigorous scholar of Anglophone literature who requires little introduction. As the Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and the recipient of the 2016 Humboldt Research Award and the 2012 Padma Bushan Award for Literature and Education Studies from the Government of India, Bhabha has helped to create and subsequently shape critical theory for decades. His core concepts, like "mimicry" and "ambivalence" from The Location of Culture, have come to define post-colonial studies, particularly studies in the formation of the subject in imperialist discourse and its afterlife beneath the gaze of the "Janus-faced discourse of the nation" (3).
That phrase, which comes from Bhabha's introduction to the edited collection Nation and Narration (1990), describes power relations and cultural orientation in the so-called twilight of imperialism, wherein ambivalence of the nation-state erupts in the present moment. The nation, always gazing backwards even while looking forwards, justifies the future in the [End Page 143] present moment by citing a stable past. Such slippery historical footwork places the onus on us to bring the apparatus of our thinking to bear on many types of social justice-oriented movements in the present: Black Lives Matter and other grassroots movements against institutionalized bigotry; global health and representation rights for queer and non-cisgender persons; transnational and Third World women's rights; ethical environmental consciousness; addressing the current crisis of migration in the European Union and beyond; and anti-Islamaphobic resistance to xenophobia as exposed by the recent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Brexit).
We herein call for an urgent re-engagement with Bhabha's works and their applications to a rapidly transforming, neo-imperialist globalized present, in which home/land, (be)longing, gender/sexuality, and in/exclusion are constantly and violently shifting. The 2016 election of Donald Trump, a friend of Wall Street and a force that has energized the so-called "Alt-Right" in the United States, will determine the new shape of the Anglo-American empire, which in turn will put pressure on the theoretical tools and languages necessary to reach from the hallowed hallways of the academy to unite and empower those far from it. The increasing interconnectedness of forces that reproduce colonial and neo-colonial oppression in the contemporary world compels us to seek new theoretical strategies. Like the Janus-faced nation, we learn from histories of resistance, as well as from the mentors who shepherd us through those histories in and beyond the classroom.
With this urgency in mind, we trekked from New York City to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to speak with a celebrated academic whom many affectionately call "Holy Homi." Our intention was to survey the location of postcolonial studies and transnational feminism critically, and to consider the future of the shifting fields of postcolonial and South Asian studies in light of decades of reprehensible militarism waged by the Anglo-American empire, continued violence surrounding race and migrancy, and the ongoing neoliberalization of academia.
We posed simple yet probing questions to a larger-than-life figure often cast as impossibly complex but whom we discovered to be astonishingly lucid as well as gentle and gracious. What ultimately transpired was a dialogue that overflowed from the initial meeting at Harvard into email and phone communications across two continents. Our hope is to illuminate [End Page 144] the enigmatic scholar behind the frequently cited hermeneutic lenses and concepts amassed through decades of thinking and working as a socio-cultural theorist in a rapidly changing, but still largely neoliberal capitalist, world whose colonialist roots are often veiled by (in)vested interests.
In this timely historical frame, Bhabha speaks with us about the comparative quality of curiosity, new cosmopolitanisms, the privilege of ignorance, possible new meanings of "third space," "home," and "ambivalence...