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Friday, February 19, 2010

More Questions About Bhabha's Work

An important essay in The Location of Culture is entitled "Commitment to Theory." In it, Bhabha concerns himself with the practical political gain that can come from writing theory. He wonders if a pamphlet written about and espousing a justified strike would be more effective than theory. Not surprisingly, he argues that we need both. I am interested in the technical complexities of his argument. I have some comments. 1. He seems to make a dichotomy between, on the one hand, artistically and theoretically radical work and, on the other, political pamphleteering. But there are so many types of "discourse" in between, especially a number of different types and levels of journalism. From a practical perspective, leftist journalism might do more for the strike than the theory. Babha's argument is that the pamphleteering and the journalism will inevitably reinstate notions of the self and other that valorizes the oppressed over the oppressor. This understandable, but wrong headed, attempt to "solve" these issues is politically naîve. "Must the project of our liberationist aesthetics be forever part of a totalizing utopian vision of Being and History that seeks to transcend the contradictions and ambivalences that constitute the very structure of human subjectivity and its systems of cultural representation?" (29) Bhabha clearly articulates what theory and radical culture can do that nothing else is able to do — namely, critique deeply enough to understand oppositions rather than taking one side or the other in a simplistic fashion. He also claims that "the very structure of human subjectivity" and, we will learn, culture, is full of tension, assertion, and doubling. The choice between political alternatives might be easy, but dreaming that the victory of your side will lead to a future that transcends the contradictions inherent in the complexities of both our cultures and ourselves is foolhardy.

But Bhabha does not answer this: what good is this deep critique if so few people are aware of it?
The best answer I know for this question comes from the American Poetry scholar Alan Golding. In From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), he notes that we shouldn't think of the political value of radical culture outside of the specific, empirical places where these critiques take place. Namely, they are part and parcel of the life of college and university life, and so often around these institutions are towns and cities of a bent that is much more open to radical culture. In short, I believe that the value of theory needs to be measured empirically, not just theoretically. I find Golding's argument a convincing one. Perhaps thinking about our work in terms of the local will help. And, to a degree, this dovetails neatly with some of Bhabha's own thoughts about the importance of thinking "the Other" within our local communities and within our own selves.

2. "Radical critique .. within the political process becomes double-edged. It makes us aware that our political referents and priorities — the people,the community, class struggle, anti-racist, gender difference, the assertion of an anti-imperialist, black or third perspective — are not there in some primordial, naturalistic sense... They make sense as they come to be constructed in the discourses of feminism or Marxism or the Third Cinema or whatever" (38).

In other words, any object we want to fight for, is always already created by being represented and nurtured within an ideological framework. What this means is profound: there can never be total victory. One side can never vanquish the other because it needs the other side of the dichotomy in order for it to be constructed as a political position. Anti-racism comes not because there is objective racism, but because racism has been defined as problematic by a discourse. One of Babha's favorite words is "agonistic," which means struggle but is also the root of "agony." He would never put it this simply, but to be human means to be permanently in political struggle. It is part of our condition. "The pure avenging angel speaking the truth of a radical ... pure oppositionality" (38) will never arrive and will certainly never succeed.

This is not so much pessimism as it is an attempt to rigorously define how politics works — namely, through our own chosen representations. Having a discourse that does this helps us to know what we can hope for. And it shows us how much control we have over our political representations, which is a lot, but not total.

I have yet to look at critiques of Bhabha's position, but I imagine that these reflections must create real opposition. Someone may say that, for instance, anti-racism is not the result of a representation, but the result of painful experience. Anti-racism, in this view, results from nothing other than the treatment of real people, not from representation. Bhabha would respond, I think, that racism is bad, but it is bad because it has been represented as such. This representation can never be total, so the avenging angel of anti-racism probably can never vanquish it all. Or, if something approaching totality comes about, there will be other issues that come to be represented as problems in "the hybrid moment of political change" (41). "There is no first or final act of revolutionary social (or socialist) transformation" (45).

To make clearer the level at which his critique takes place, namely, in the difference between cultural diversity and cultural difference. "Cultural diversity is an epistemological object — culture as an object of empirical knowledge — whereas cultural difference is the process of the enunciation of culture as 'knowledgeable,' authoritative, adequate to the construction of systems of cultural identification" (49-50). Cultural diversity leads to a static view of cultures as self-contained and relativistic, that which is represented rather than that which is part of representation.

Cultural difference, on the other hand, "problematizes the binary division of past and present, tradition and modernity, at the level of cultural representation and its authoritative address" (51). Instead of relativism we get 'enunciation'. Enunciation seems to be the communicative act that cannot fully represent, that there is a slippage. Cultural objects are always already represented, but the structure of any representation, since it is artificial and not natural, is to not fully grasp what it is it's representing. In the words of Jacques Derrida, whom Bhabha quotes, différance is the name given for this slippage at the level of representation.

So, in any culture, an enunciative act is always already contentious, partial, and ambivalent. Bhabha gives the example of how a native intellectual looking for a return to a mythic tradition will be disappointed when they enunciate themselves in part by engaging in "Western forms of information technology, language, dress" (55). Bhabha argues that the past is always a representation, based partly on our desires for it, and that we cannot force it on the present.

When I was in college an anthropology professor of mine described an incident that occurred when he was studying the Kru, an African tribe. He was observing a woman cooking a dish, and he was dutifully taking everything down that she was doing. Then she picked up a can of tuna, opened it, and put it in. My professor remarked that it wasn't a "true" Kru dish. She became quite angry. "It is so an authentic Kru dish," she said.

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