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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Homi Bhabha - The Location of Culture

Those of you who have been following this blog for a time know that I posted regularly on Nathaniel Mackey's poetry series "Song of the Andoumboulou" until about four months ago. I am going to begin discussing this series again soon, but I seem to be taking a bit of a detour. I find that Homi Bhabha in his theorizing about culture hits upon many of the thoughts, themes, and insights that Mackey has been exploring for the last 30 years. Bringing them together seems like a fascinating idea. I will read Bhabha through Mackey, and vice versa. Where one stops and the other begins may sometimes be obscured, but that is the way both men conceive of culture: its fluidity prevents any solidified or calcified identity formation.

Bhabha begins his book in a curious fashion: he discusses his autobiography. He was born and raised in Bombay as a middle class Parsi — "a member of a small Zoroastrian-Persian minority in a predominantly Hindu ad Muslim context. Years later, I ask myself what it would be like to live without the unresolved tensions between cultures and countries that have become the narrative of my life, and the defining characteristic of my work" (x).

Later in the Preface he distinguishes between two types of discourses of globalization. One is multiculturalism and it believes, implicitly or explicitly, in the essential differences of cultures and nations, and works to represent each in as fair and equal a manner as possible. Bhabha adds, sarcastically, "so long as they produce healthy profit margins."

The second one Bhabha terms a "vernacular cosmopolitanism which measures global progress from the minoritarian perspective." It "takes the view that the commitment to a 'right to difference in equality' as a process of constituting emergent groups and affiliations has less to do with the affirmation or authentication of origins and 'identities' and more to do with political practices and ethical choices...It represents a political process that works towards the goals of democratic rule, rather than simply acknowledging already constituted 'marginal' political entities or identities" (xviii).

The essentialist believes that differences are the result of separate origins and essences that need to be respected and retained. This ends, according to Bhabha, in social inequality. If people are conceived of as different, then there are easy excuses for explaining why they do not share in a country's wealth. Vernacular cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, assumes that all cultural formations and identities are always already morphing and changing. There are no 'origins' to return to because the contemporary minoritarian cultures are responding to current political situations, even if they consider themselves to be retaining a past purity. Better to work toward a shared goal of "difference in equality" than the politically unpalatable multiculturalism and its belief in stagnant cultural identities.

In the introduction, Bhabha elaborates on his dynamic view of cultures by emphasizing that they are performative, always in the making. He also emphasizes that these performances take place in liminal places, in gaps and boundaries between ethnocentric, often colonial powers, and minoritarian ones. They can also take place among and between various minoritarian cultures. For Bhabha, the center is precisely where the least important and exciting cultural performances are taking place: he prefers "intervention emerging in the cultural interstices that introduces creative invention into existence" (12).

The moment of performance is an "unhomely" one, haunted and uneasy. That is because it is moving out into the previously never articulated or experienced, and attempting an articulation. In doing so the work of art moves the culture ever so slightly. What was previously unsayable becomes sayable, and it provides links and bridges to what had previously seemed other. Unhomeliness is not the feeling of being bereft outside your culture with nothing else to hold onto, it is the feeling of being outside your culture with the possibility of forging something between cultures while being in dialogue with the past.

It is important to note that artists are not in complete control of this whole event. They may initiate the action, but they cannot control the outcome. How cultures respond to the new artistic performance is, perhaps (and here I am speculating), part of the unhomeliness of the working artist; it is part of the estrangement.

As an aside, what most impressed me about Bhabha in these early portions of the book, is the evident respect he has for writers and visual artists. Bhabha is not a critic who puts himself above artists, who feels he can translate what they were really doing. He mentions how reading Naipul taught him some things that he used to develop theory. He did this by reading against the grain of Naipul's conservativism, but reading his novels got him thinking in valuable ways. He also displays tremendous respect for Toni Morrison and, surprisingly perhaps, Henry James.

This is in keeping with the way I view Mackey's "Song of the Andoumboulou": it is also culturally heterogeneous, also full of fluidity and skeptical of returning to a pure past, and it is highly respectful of musicians, in addition to writers. What's interesting is that Mackey was, I think, broaching these topics 20 years before Bhabha. I would not be surprised if Bhabha himself agrees that theory often comes late, that the unhomeliness felt by artists is part and parcel of their opening cultural locations that can later be theorized.

More later.

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