FACE TO FACE
Towards a global cultural citizenship
Homi K. Bhabha speaks on his theoretical constructs, the place of aesthetic life in late capitalism, and his exploration of the issue of global culture and cultural citizenship.
The attempt at making new connections, articulating new meanings, always takes the risk of being not immediately comprehensible to readers.
Homi K. Bhabha is one of the leading post-colonial theorists. He is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Chair of the Program in History and Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1996), and editor of the essay collection Nation and Narration (Routledge, 1990). At the Radcliffe Institute, Bhabha will finish his book titled A Global Measure. Excerpts from a conversation.
What is the significance of the persistence of the category called Nation?
To say that there is a narrative aspect to the creation and construction of a nation is not to deny that it has a material and historical persistence as a form of political and social life. After all, territorial societies are most commonly seen as national politics. Histories of nations and narratives of nations have always been woven together and have created this compelling social form.
How are terms such as mimicry, hybridity, and interstitial categories related to semiotics and psychoanalysis?
Psychoanalysis, connected to the issue of identity, suggests that all forms of identification are partial and ambivalent. All subjects are constituted in a liminal place. Ambivalence is thus very important in my understanding of social processes and social relations. Similarly, semiotics, the theory and understanding of signs, suggests that a particular sign has a set of meanings, based on a systemic location and a discursive use of that sign. Every sign gains its meaning in a particular language system. Words have to be read in a given social context. Thus, for me, semiotics suggested that you could not ascribe universal values to literary texts. You had to understand the burden of interpretation and the burden of representation on those specific texts.
What is your reaction to the charge that you are dense and obscure in your writings and formulations?
I don't wish to defend myself. Yes, I have certainly been accused of using difficult words and complex formulations. I can only say that I use the language I need for my work. For instance, Hegel's book is difficult, but it's not that Hegel said: "How can I make my reader's life a misery?" He had certain references, allusions, and readings. In my case, such allusions also cause difficulties. I am not interested in being a descriptive and expository writer. Eventually, I make all theoretical framework my own even if I may be drawing upon Foucault, Lacan, and Mahatma Gandhi. The attempt at making new connections, articulating new meanings, always takes the risk of being not immediately comprehensible to readers.
Does this annoy you?
Well, it annoys me that people talk about easy access to a work and a notion of transparency without thinking of what is really involved. For instance, the science section of the New York Times is not immediately comprehensible. Do I therefore say that I am not interested in the whole article? The idea that sources from the humanities have no philosophical language of their own, that they must be continually speaking in the common language of the common person while the scientists can publish in a language that needs more time to get into, is problematic to me. That is not to say that if you were to point out a passage that you thought was very difficult, I wouldn't try and rewrite it. I would. Many a time I had to rewrite passages.
By choosing a location of power in the United States, are you not being implicated in the Western hegemony?
Well, the reasons for my moving to the West were largely educational ones. After taking my B.A. degree from Bombay University, I moved to Oxford. At such times, it is natural for a person to feel part of a new context. It is not that I thought by travelling to the West I'd fatally injure my relationship with India. I saw it as a way of expanding what I truly love and understand in India.
One is always located within a power structure. Now, do I think that this is the wisest and most sensible American administration? I do not think so. The power that really matters to me personally is the empowerment I feel through my own work and my ability to empower others. I don't think I am a collusive part of the American power structure.
Have you been named after Homi Bhabha, the great scientist?
No, I have been named after my grandfather. But, Homi Bhabha was a distant relative.
What is the nature of the work that you are doing at the Radcliffe Institute on cultural citizenship?
I am interested in the global context of the issue of global citizenship. Citizenship has largely been seen in its social, political and legal aspects. How does aesthetic and ethical experience form part of cultural citizenship? Sociologists and policy thinkers think of culture in the context of global governance and of culture as institutions.
I believe cultural works ignite the issue of the cultural citizen.
What Indian sources have you used in your writings and theory?
I have found a number of interesting precursors to the global discourse, for instance, among the early nationalists such as Hardayal, Lala Lajpat Ray, and Madam Cama.
What is your interest in subaltern studies?
I am very interested in the idea of collaborative work, very interested in the way subaltern histories have given presence to several voices in history, and talked about the asymmetry of nationalism. Also the way such historians continually cross disciplinary boundaries.
Does art have power to transform our lives in late capitalism?
In a world that is increasingly instrumentalist and consumerist, I think it is very important to set up against such a world the great aspirations of literature and poetry, of painting and music, because art and aesthetic experience adds ardour and passion to our principles and our beliefs. It should be seen as an essential part of our freedom and not an optional part of our lives.
Do you feel incapacitated because of a lack of access to major Indian languages?
Yes, I do. There is not much I can do about it. And I can't blame the West for it.
I went to a Jesuit school, a choice made by my parents. The teaching of Indian languages was not bad, but it was not good. It was overshadowed by other kinds of linguistic options. I would have to say that it is a great regret for me.
What is the future of literature in late capitalism?
I want to now return to our informal conversation. I would like to return to some of the lessons you have taught me. Here you are, a Professor from Hyderabad. You have made a choice that you will work hard in revealing to the world the rich archive of Oriya Literature. Now, is this story going to be on CNN? It is not going to be on CNN. In the complex society in which we live, we cannot judge our success in inappropriate measures. And I believe we need to rethink our criteria of success and failure.
Sachidananda Mohanty is a Professor of English at the University of Hyderabad. His latest publication is Early Women's Writing in Orissa, 1898-1950: A Lost Tradition, (Sage, 2005).
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