Sometime in the spring of 1984 a remarkable essay arrived at the offices of Critical Inquiry In Chicago: "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree outside Delhi, May 1817," submitted for a special Issue edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I can still recall the wonder I felt in reading those slightly overlong sheets of filmy onionskin paper, typed with a manual typewriter. The author, Homi Bhabha, was unknown to me, end the topic -- the arrival of the "English book" (scripture, literature, technology) at a scene of colonial reception -- suddenly made my whole previous sense of "English literature" seem insular and provincial, even as it seemed to speak precisely from the provincial and colonial margins of English culture. Who was this strangely cosmopolitan writer, whose prose moved so effortlessly from Trinidad to the Congo to Delhi, across the disciplines of philosophy, literary history, and political theory? And what could be the meaning of his title, coupling those dissonant abstractions, "ambivalence" and "authority," with that exceedingly specific spatiotemporal location, "under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817"?
Ten years of friendship have worn away most of the strangeness but none of the wonder of this Initial encounter. Bhabha is now my colleague in the English Department at the University of Chicago, and conversations of the sort that follow, although rarely this long, have become a frequent pleasure. It's hard for me to remember now what life was like without them. But it's equally hard, I suspect, for many intellectuals to remember what life was like before terms like "multiculturalism" end "the postcolonial" became the lingua franca, not only of the academy, but of an international realm of public discourse. Foundation heads, corporate CEOs, university presidents, and political leaders now bandy these phases about; they have become the buzzwords of the new, transnational world order, as well as of new academic regimes like "cultural studies."
Bhabha's writing has been so important, I suspect, because he has made it difficult to use those words thoughtlessly or complacently. His concepts of ambivalence and hybridity have made It clear that cultures must be understood as complex Intersections of multiple places, historical temporalities, and subject positions. When It appeared that liberal notions of "diversity" and post-Structuralist homilies about "difference" might provide final vocabularies for adjudicating cultural conflict, Bhabha raised profound questions about the adequacy of pluralist models of tolerance and "civility" to narrate histories of ferocious intolerance and incivility. At the same time, he identified the ethnocentric blind spots and voluntarist rhetoric in what (at the time) were regarded as the most radical critiques of liberal models of culture. At the present moment, when one hears on every side that "theory is dead," and when a new pragmatism and a fetishizing of the "local" and "particular" seem to paralyze the very possibility of general, theoretical reflection, Bhabha continues to defend the practice of theory, the possibility of "translation," and new ways of thinking the dialectic between the general and the particular.
In short, Bhabha's relation to the emergent movements of cultural studies, identity politics, and multiculturalism has been anything but reassuring. He has told people exactly what they didn't want to hear, at the moments they didn't want to hear it, in a way that has been impossible to Ignore. His message to the art world is likely to be just as disconcerting. This is a time when "otherness" and various forms of ethnic authenticity are being commodifed for visual consumption at an unprecedented rate; when the global circulation of cultural stereotypes is becoming a major industry; when the relation of art to the state, to possible publics, to the market, and to political or ethical positioning seems more volatile end unpredictable than ever before. Bhabha is unlikely to give us a new form of cultural chaos theory to lift as above the confusion of our moment. What he does offer are wondrous oases of theoretical illumination, moments of calm at the centers of the storm, very like that scene of reflective conversation "under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817." Call this Interview, then, "Questions of Theory, Culture, and Dialectic, over a Table in Chicago, October 1994."
W. J. T. MITCHELL: Homi, you and I have been friends for a number of years, but let me play the stranger -- who are you? What do you do? What crucial facts in your background would you mention if you were introducing yourself to a stranger on an airplane to Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, New York?
HOMI BHABHA: Well, if I were talking to people from Calcutta, they would immediately know certain things about me that a planeful of New Yorkers might not. So much for the global village -- it has its natives too.
I think I would want to say that I lived in Bombay for my school years and my early university years. I would also have to say that I come from a small, relatively little-known minority in India, the Parsis - Persian migrants to India in the seventh century. Parsis were the middle persons between various Indian communities and the British. Around the mid 19th century they participated in the emergence of India's urbanization and helped in developing commercial, mercantile, and professional infrastructures in the metropolitan areas. They were captains of industry, medical moguls, and honest clerks.
WJTM: Are Parsis characteristically Hindu? Muslim?
HB: Neither. I like to joke that Parsis are Nietzscheans because they follow the prophet Zoroaster. They have also been a hybridized community: often their rituals pay formal respect to Hindu customs and rituals while articulating their own religious and ethnic identity. Then what is interesting about Parsis is their sense of a negotiated cultural identity. There are around 100,000 Parsis in the world today, divided among the continents. So their identity does not come from a multitudinous community, but from aligning with specific religious ideas -- and that only for a small minority. Parsis are not very doctrinaire. Among orthodox, conservative Parsis there is an attempt now to introduce a fundamentalism, a return to pure Parsi roots, but this movement hasn't been very successful. There is no immediately accessible set of Parsi religious texts to permeate into the wider Parsi culture. Nor is it a culture supported by authenticating cultural canons -- the Parsi novel, or Parsi music, or Parsi art.
So the question returns: if Parsi culture does not extend over a large number of people knit together around certain cultural icons, if it's not dominated by a religious orthodoxy that commands loyalty, then what does it mean to be a Parsi? I don't think that question can be easily answered. And what is important in my background for some of the theoretical issues I'm involved in is that the question repeats its own terms: for Parsis as for any minority, the question of identity has been negotiated and performed in the context of cultural transition. The embourgeoisement of large sectors of the Parsi community should not be seen as minimizing this complex and difficult process of identification. To be relatively affluent as a minority is not to be free of cultural anxiety.
WJTM: If someone said, Enough deferral how might a Parsi quickly characterize that identity?
HB: I don't think it's a deferral to think that the question of what it means to be Parsi is an open question; but supposing somebody said that, I would say that Parsis come together most communally over the dining table. Our cuisine is important to us -- as you know from the hours I spend in my kitchen. Certain kinds of secular, liberal ideas of honor, civility, professional expertise, professional integrity -- these too are important community ideals. And then many Parsis affirm their sense of solidarity on high days and holidays by attending splendid theatricals, which are often riffs on certain kinds of Broadway plays or British theater infused with Parsi jokes and customs. It always used to amuse me that on high days, Hindus would go to temples and then, maybe, to these edifying religious dramas, while we would visit the fire temple and then celebrate ironic or satiric representations of ourselves in these Broadway-type farces.
WJTM: Haven't you left out a crucial element? To be a Parsi, don't you have to be the child of a Parsi? I know it's atavistic to bring up things like blood, but I couldn't be a Parsi, could I?
HB: No, there is no conversion amongst Parsis. In fact orthodox Parsis are referring increasingly to ancient scriptures which say that anybody who marries out of the Parsi faith cannot bring up his or her children as Parsis in the fullest sense of the word. (This, by the way, is now being claimed by those same conservatives as the secret of our happy existence over centuries in India -- that we never sought converts.) So it's being set up as a sort of orthodox principle of minority life that you maintain your separateness by returning to ancient customs and codes.
WJTM: Let me turn to your work, especially your recent book The Location of Culture. I think it's fair to say that in some quarters the book has been controversial; I've heard it characterized as too difficult, as too political, as not political enough, and, my favorite characterization of all, as a danger to scientific thinking. What has been the harshest indictment of your writing, and how would you answer it? What criticism do you take to heart?
HB: I take the question of accessibility very seriously. That a book should be impaired by a lack of clarity, so that people cannot respond to it and meditate on it and use it, must be a major indictment of anybody who wants to do serious work. But I also feel that the more difficult bits of my work are in many cases the places where I am trying to think hardest, and in a futuristic kind of way -- not always, I'm afraid, there may be many examples of simple stylistic failure, but generally I find that the passages pointed out to me as difficult are places where I am trying to fight a battle with myself. That moment of obscurity contains, in some enigmatic way, the limit of what I have thought, the horizon that has not as yet been reached, yet it brings with it an emergent move in the development of a concept that must be marked, even if it can't be elegantly or adequately realized.
WJTM: Does any specific passage come to mind?
HB: [laughs] I tried to clean up The Location of Culture before I sent it to press, but perhaps there were moments in the "Articulating the Archaic" essay.... There, I was attempting to describe the way in which the articulation of cultural differences has to deal with what can't be translated; what may be incommensurable in the moment of cultural difference emerges in language as an evacuation of the very signifying and symbolic register that is required, in another moment, for its representation. It is a kind of enunciative disturbance that throws the process of interpretation or identification into flux -- which for that very reason makes the need to identify, to interpret, to historicize, all the more intense. As I was working out that concept, there were moments when I felt there was something I had to say, something I could mouth without the words, something my hands could sketch in the air, yet something I couldn't get hold of. But I did try.
WJTM: Are there moments there where you would feel the need to wave your hands as you read the text?
HB: I would hope I'd have to do very little handwaving now, but let's look at page 132:
Splitting constitutes an intricate strategy of defense and differentiation in the colonial discourse. Two contradictory and independent attitudes inhabit the same place, one takes account of reality, the other is under the influence of instincts which detach the ego from reality. This results in the production of multiple and contradictory belief. The enunciatory moment of multiple belief is both a defense against the anxiety of difference, and itself productive of differentiations. Splitting is then a form of enunciatory, intellectual uncertainty and anxiety that stems from the fact that disavowal is not merely a principle of negation or elision; it is a strategy for articulating contradictory and coeval statements of belief. It is from such an enunciatory space, where the work of signification voids the act of meaning...
So you know that something has been signified, but the act of communicative or dialogic meaning has been voided, and in that voiding is an avoiding, a disavowal that is a knowledge base; it is not merely repression or avoidance. You have to look for the meaning in that disavowal -- you have to discover its cultural gesture.
WJTM: My immediate association here is with what George Orwell described as "doublethink" in 1984, where he represents the party member as one who has to master something like your "splitting" in order to function in a society of total oppression.
HB: In both Orwell's doublethink and my "splitting," the effort has to be made to live on the cusp, to deal with two contradictory things at the same time without either transcending or repressing that contradiction. Orwellian doublethink, though, is a kind of bad faith. I'm not talking about that. I'm saying that there are certain regimes of sense, discourse, governmentality, and polity that function in and through the ambivalent social relations created in the social and discursive act of splitting, and that the subjects of those regimes live and function across this problematic process of identification. That is one of the determining conditions of their social imaginaries.
WJTM: So while Orwell's doublethink is a consciously articulated political disciplinary strategy that's drummed into the heads of subjects, you're talking about something more like a coping strategy, perhaps even a strategy of resistance, or of managing the everyday.
HB: Absolutely. My point here, about a particular kind of subject that is constructed at the point of splitting, is part of a wider point about the construction of authority. In situations where cultural difference -race, sexuality, class location, generational or geopolitical specification -- is the linchpin of a particular political edict or strategy, even the oppressor is being constituted through splitting. The split doesn't fall at the same point in colonized and colonizer, it doesn't bear the same political weight or constitute the same effect, but both are dealing with that process. Actually, this allows the native or the subaltern or the colonized the strategy of attempting to disarticulate the voice of authority at that point of splitting. So I'm not using the "doublethink" idea with Orwell's sense of moral indictment. For me, it's much more the idea of survival/surviving in a strong sense -- dealing with or living with and through contradiction and then using that process for social agency.
WJTM: This, I presume, is where your phrase "sly civility" comes in, and where one senses a connection with remarks Henry Louis Gates, for instance, has made about black "signifying" as a kind of splitting of the language of authority, and returning that language in a just-slightly- altered state.
HB: Yes, in an altered state -- which, however, often destroys the calculations of the empowered, and allows the disempowered to calculate the strategies by which they are oppressed and to use that knowledge in structuring resistance. I have always believed that "small differences" and slight alterations and displacements are often the most significant elements in a process of subversion or transformation.
WJTM: Ideas like this are why I think your writing speaks not only to or for the subaltern or the colonized, but also to and about those who are at least labeled as identifying with the voice of authority, or as belonging to that side, which as you have often pointed out is not homogeneous either.
HB: Absolutely. I have always felt that while I was trying to work out a theory of the resistance to authority, and the subversion of hegemony, on certain colonial and postcolonial grounds, I was in fact also addressing problems relating to other moments and locations of authority.
WJTM: This explains why someone like me, who thinks of himself as a kind of displaced working-class or petit-bourgeois white male intellectual, feels that your work is in some way talking to and about me - not its about something somewhere else.
HB: I'm delighted by that response. It has been my stance for some time now that the histories of colonialism, slavery, indentured labor, gender, oppression, and class stratification -- phew . . . to name only a few! -- speak not only of the specific classes or peoples or regions to which they are most obviously tied, but more generally of the social differentiations that constitute modernity -- of the everyday of modernity. Colonial or postcolonial or minority discourses, describe them as you like, help us to think through the ways in which hierarchies have been articulated and negotiated within modernity. I have argued against the citation of colonial-discourse analysis as a form of "post-Modernism"; I am more interested in rethinking the genealogies of modernity "against the grain." As I asked in The Location of Culture, What was modernity for those who were part of its instrumentality or governmentality but, for reasons of race or gender or economic status, were excluded from its norms of rationality, or its prescriptions of progress? What contending and competing discourses of emancipation or equality, what forms of identity and agency, emerge from the "discontents" of modernity?
WJTM: I want to take up this idea of conceptual generality, the sense in which your work isn't merely an inventory of local situations but an attempt to make clear a picture of the dynamics of authority and subjection -- a picture that could travel, that could move from one situation to another. In other words, you're trying to do the work we call "theory" -- maybe in a weak sense, maybe in a strong sense; this is what I want to find out. What do you think a theory is? Do you want your theories to be "strong," that is, to generate methods, to lead deductively to certain conclusions, to provide a program for research? Or do you think of theory in some "weaker" sense, as a kind of moment of speculation within practice, a moment of reflection? Are you content to have it generate a few intuitions, a few ideas, a few glimpses, or do you expect more than that?
HB: My desire is absolutely not for the dogmatic or deductive effect. That kind of theorization is too mechanistic, too hermetic, and can only ever produce epigones or intradisciplinists. I like disobedience and transdisciplinarity. From that point of view, what is important with theoretical work is that it should in the fullest sense be open to translation. I use the word "translation" here because clearly if we are talking about some kind of attribution, and some kind of descent between a theory and its elaboration, then there is no point in pretending that a particular body of thought doesn't have a priority; there must be a text for it to be translated. It may be a priority that is internally liminal or displaced, but there is something there that endows a particular kind of authorization and authentication. That said, however, what I have been trying to elaborate each time are forms of theorization that in some way embroider on the notion of ambivalence, and ambivalence is a category that cannot be fixed in a kind of hermetic structural relation or functional immanence. Yet it still has to produce a set of concepts, procedures, and strategies that somebody will be able to take up and take elsewhere.
That brings us back to what the ambition of theory may be -- what theory desires. That's difficult to answer, but I think a theory should go beyond illuminating the deep structure of an event, object, or text, should do more than establish or embellish the framing discourse within which this object of analysis is placed. What the theory does first of all is respond to a problem. You look at what you can't use -- you look at the explanations you have for something and you feel that they aren't translatable, that they don't adequately illuminate something about another form of thought, or the event of a thought. So you are moved to begin to rethink.
WJTM: So theory is something that arises in the face of a problem, and it must be translatable. Let me give you back a picture of this theory. It looks like a narrative structure. Theory, in short, would be an act of relocation or dislocation responsive to a moment of wonder, or of anxiety, or of danger. You must shift yourself into some position to narrativize.
HB: You must put yourself elsewhere, or be pushed into another space or time from which to revise or review the problem. This idea that theorists sit and think of first principles in a state of equanimity, and then sort of build their models I simply disagree with that. I think you're first brought up short, in shock. The act of theorizing comes out of a struggle with a certain description of certain conditions, a description that you inherit, and out of the feeling that you have to propose another construction of those conditions in order to be able to envisage "emergent" moments of social identification or cultural enunciation.
The desire for theory, and maybe the desire of theory, is a drive to engage with these "conditions of emergence," in Foucault's phrase -- a phrase I might translate as the "terms of generalization." I mean by that the point at which an event, object, or ideology seeks to authorize itself - to become a representative discourse, a general discourse. It achieves this empowering or over-powering status not merely through the cogency of its own paradigm replicated or mediated into other sites and situations. The work of regulation, appropriation, or authorization requires another kind of risky, indeterminate mimetic process whereby the discourse of authority has to "project" its paradigm onto adjacent and antagonistic fields of meaning and events.
This act of projection -- which is at once an intervention and an attempt to initiate and institutionalize something "extraterritorial" - demands that the boundaries of the authorizing paradigm are themselves breached or displaced as they negotiate the status of generality. There is the breach caused by the resistances of the local, or of the specific, as they are articulated into a generalizing discourse; and there is the breached paradigm of the discourse of authority itself, for that discourse gains its ascendance only through a number of local skirmishes that take place at its discursive boundary and threaten its closure. Theory must therefore intervene in the agonism between the local and the general, the empirical and the conceptual, the instance and the institution, in a strategy of realignment or rearticulation that can negotiate polarizations without acceding to their foundational claims, or being caught within their binary representations. It must work at the very point at which there is an infraction of discursive boundaries, or of the boundedness of an event. The theoretical intervenes in the very movement of displacement that both demarcates and interrogates what it means to be inside and outside a discursive field. By questioning the terms of generality as they attempt, through a process of dissemination, to embed themselves, one can say with some force that theory has no priority over experience and that experience has no authority over theory. Their relationship is translated.
WJTM: In place of some absolute generality, the term "translation" comes back again. You're saying something like, The condition of the theorist is to know at minimum two languages.
HB: Or to know double languages, to double one's sense of generality. There's one more step to discuss, though. Our notions of the uses or abuses of generality or universality are often based on some kind of binary thinking: theory/specificity, generality/particularity, universality/historicity, conditionality/context. Often that's the tennis match. In The Location of Culture I've tried to get away from that model, to suggest that there may be ways of thinking about the general as a form of contingent conditionality, or as an "interstitial" articulation that both holds together and "comes between" -- not only in the sense of being a space or mode of passage but in the colloquial sense of "coming between," that is, meddling, interfering, interrupting, and interpolating: making possible and making trouble, both at once. There may be a way of thinking generality not in that binary and mimetic way but through the iterative. Perhaps the conditions of generality can be established through repetition and displacement, as Judith Butler too suggests in her fine work on the performative as social agency.
WJTM: You and I have talked about an appropriation of your work that discovers a general presence of ambivalence. We have ambivalence in Mexico City; yes, there's ambivalence in Puerto Rico; there's ambivalence in Hong Kong. . . . I take it that's a version of theory you're worrying about.
HB: Exactly. That didactic version seems to me to be concerned with transmitting a notion of generality without translating it. What is interesting about iteration is that it introduces that uncanny moment where something may look the same, but in its enunciation, in the moment of its instantiation, in the thing that makes it specific, it reveals that difference of the same. You are not, as in the general discourse of generalization, presented with the first principle each time; the first principle is always in the space of secondariness. That may be a different way of thinking through the notion of precedents and precepts.
WJTM: A characteristic gesture in your writing is to declare the nondialectical character of your thinking. You seem wary of Hegelian forms of thought. How do you reconcile this insistence with a mobilizing of conceptual binaries like subject and object, the self and the other, and with notions of doubling, contradiction, splitting, and of course ambivalence? Are binary oppositions and conceptual pairings things you can live neither with nor without? Are you looking for a non-Hegelian dialectic without transcendence? If so, don't you find precedents for this within the dialectical tradition itself, say in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin?
HB: This will be a simple answer: Yes. I'm looking for a form of the dialectic without transcendence, as you put it. But you are also right when you say that there are certain dialectical structures, certain conceptual pairings, that you can live neither within nor without. To write contra Hegel requires that you "work through" Hegel toward other "supplemental" concepts of dialectical thinking. You do not surpass or bypass Hegel just because you contest the process of sublation. The lesson lies, I think, in learning how to conceptualize "contradiction" or the dialectic as that state of being or thinking that is "neither the one nor the other, but something else besides, Abseits," as I've described it in The Location Of Culture.
This is where the influence of Walter Benjamin has been formative for me. His meditations on the disjunctive temporalities of the historical "event" are quite indispensable to thinking the cultural problems of late modernity. His vision of the Angel of History haunts my work as I attempt to grasp, for the purposes of cultural analysis, what he describes as the condition of translation: the "continua of transformation, not abstract ideas of identity and similarity." His work has led me to speculate on differential temporal movements within the process of dialectical thinking and the supplementary or interstitial "conditionality" that opens up alongside the transcendent tendency of dialectical contradiction -- I have called this a "third space," or a "time lag." To think of these temporalities in the context of historical events has led me to explore notions of causality that are not expressive of the contradiction "itself," but are contingently effected by it and allow for other translational moves of resistance, and for the establishment of other terms of generality.
WJTM: Can you give me an example?
HB: I'll give you two.
WJTM: Since we're talking about binaries!
HB: [laughs] For the chapter of The Location of Culture originally published in Critical Inquiry, "Signs Taken for Wonders," I did some archival research on early-19th-century Hindu peasants in northern India who were approached by early "native" catechists who sought their conversion to Christianity. It would be easy to interpret the dialogue that ensued as an exchange between a muscular colonial Christianity that was keen to convert and an indigenous religious tradition that resisted conversion. That said, what was most fascinating in this process of dialogic contradiction was that the way the peasants dealt with this colonial antagonism was continually to produce supplementary discourses as sites of resistance and negotiation. They would say, for instance: We would be happy to convert so long as you convinced us that these words of the Christian god do not come from the mouths of meat eaters. These words are very beautiful, but your priests are a nonvegetarian class. We cannot believe that anybody who eats meat can transmit the word of God.
Now there is nothing in the logic of the Hindu/Christian theological dialectic or in the master/peasant dialogue that requires the construction of this incommensurable site and sign of negotiation: the vegetarian Bible. Give us the vegetarian Bible and we will convert. Do you see what I'm saying? Something opens up as an effect of this dialectic, something that will not be contained within it, that cannot be returned to the two oppositional principles. And once it opens up, we're in a different space, we're making different presumptions and mobilizing emergent, unanticipated forms of historical agency. What we see is the translation of the demand for conversion into the resistant subaltern riposte of the vegetarian Bible.
WJTM: It would seem to demand a new reading of that famous scriptural text, "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." Suddenly this phrase, which had been doctrinally secure, takes on new meaning.
HB: Absolutely. That which was given is reinscribed and transvalued. So that the Christian missionary has to relocate his doctrinal position. A phrase that was, as you said, doctrinally secure becomes retranslated in its colonial enunciation, and opens up another site for the negotiation of authority, both symbolic and social.
My second example is the supplementary space that was opened up in England by feminist groups like Women Against Fundamentalism and Southall Black Sisters during the Salman Rushdie event. There was a certain kind of binary locking of the horns between the guilds of liberal writers and the Islamic theologians. Two very different notions of textuality were in play: if you try to read the Koran through the strategies and the narrative and ethical values of the post-Modern novel, or try to read the post-Modern novel in terms of Koranic textual interpretation and address, you find irresolvable differences. And these aren't differences that one could be persuaded or "educated" out of.
What was interesting to me, however, was the response of Women Against Fundamentalism. Again, they occupied a supplementary space, raising a whole range of issues -- to do with women's education, the politics of the household, the politics of prostitution. They also linked the politics of religion in Northern Ireland with the way religious difference, in the Rushdie event, was being turned into a marker of ethnic and cultural difference, disavowing the other causes of political conflict, such as class. These issues were not causally linked to the Rushdie affair, yet were supplementary to it -- were in a side-by-side, adjacent relationship to it. Instead of taking the contradictions of the Rushdie affair head on and making it their project in some way to resolve or transcend them, they opened up this productive political site beside them, reconjugating, recontextualizing, translating the event into the politics of communities and public institutions.
WJTM: This reminds me of Frantz Fanon, who in that marvelous essay "Algeria Unveiled" tries to construct a crisis as something like a four- way dialectic. You imagine a quadrilateral in which European men and Algerian men stand over against each other in one relation, and European women and Algerian women stand over against each other in another; and then all kinds of axes and parallel relations, all the permutations of these positions, come into play. So the negotiation of any particular tension in those relationships is never binary and never total I see now what you're getting at in the idea of a third space that is in some sense logically generated but not directly caused by what has preceded it.
HB: This is very much in the spirit of my thinking. I'm currently working on the organization of a program of talks, seminars, exhibitions, films, and other events on Fanon to take place at the ICA in London this spring and summer, and to be called "Working with Fanon: Contemporary Politics and Cultural Reflection." Fanon's concern with the relations among politics, the psyche, and issues of representation continues to resonate through today's identity debates. He also anticipated contemporary thinking in his view of culture as a performative field, and in his focus on the body, which is at the center of his ideas of political agency and cultural practice. Fanon is an extremely important figure for me.
WJTM: Other writers crucial to you would include Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, a trinity of authorities in The Location of Culture -- I think they are probably the three most cited authors. What do you think each of them contributes to you, and what particular points of pressure do you find in each of them where you want not to mobilize them on behalf of your project but to disrupt theirs, call it into question?
HB: Those writers are certainly relevant, though I would also want to mention a number of others as well, not all of them theoreticians: Derek Walcott, for example, and preeminently Toni Morrison and Rushdie. The sculptor Anish Kapoor, too, has helped me enormously to think about the folding of time into space and vice versa. Artists and writers anticipate and prefigure conceptual problems for me. And Edward Said's work was of course crucial in suggesting a whole transdisciplinary terrain -- as I say in my book, Said's perspective caused the flash of recognition in which I first apprehended my own project.
For the purposes of this interview, though, let's take this question straight, if in cryptic shorthand. Foucault was attractive to me because I was contesting polarized and binary notions of constructing subjects within the play of power. I was persuaded by my reading of Foucault to rethink the very nature of power outside the polar or binary model. I was also struck by Foucault's struggle in The Archaeology of Knowledge to define a place of meaning-making and enunciation that was somehow between meaning's need for a systemic code, on the one hand, and on the other the need of any act of meaning to iteratively displace and renew that code. Foucault built that into a social theory, and I found this powerful. It's not fully worked out in The Archaeology of Knowledge, it's in many ways philosophically weak, yet it is most stimulating there -- a nondeterministic yet calculable and strategic account of agency and enunciation. I tried to develop that issue in The Location of Culture.
I think where I felt most concern to put pressure on Foucault was on his inability to look outside certain paradigms of Western modernity. He was always illustrating the liminal, or exclusionary, or normalizing, or individuating forces of Western modernity, but he never dealt adequately with the disjunction between modernity and what I consider its other space, its double session or inventory -- the colonial space.
WJTM: Would this be less of a problem if Foucault hadn't identified his subject as "the West"? If he hadn't seen his book as an attempt somehow to give an archaeology of Western knowledge, with a nonspecified, empty space standing over against it?
HB: I don't know whether that strategy would get him off the hook. Whether he names it the West or not, he requires certain homogenizing spatial metaphors that do not allow for the differential, disjunctive temporalities of other cultural articulations. There is something about the spatialism there that is troubling.
As far as Lacan goes, I was struck by his ability to provide a linguistic register for affective desire and identification. From my reading of Lacan, I discovered that the tropic tryst of metaphor and metonymy was charged with intersubjective and unconscious meanings - meanings that could be recuperable for a reading of the symbol realm of the social text. I suppose what I was trying to do with Lacan was to take his circuit of the petit objet "a" and to thread it through a number of social circulations and cultural locutions. The "objectives" of desire became my theme. I was trying to see how that trajectory of desire would be able to invest social value in particular objects. I was also interested in taking the notions of repetition and iteration in Lacan's work and using them for questions of cultural translation.
I think there is a link in my thinking around Lacan and Derrida, despite their famous differences of view. I was very impressed with Derrida's ability to demonstrate the textual, inscriptive, and institutional practices of deferral and displacement. I think the pressure that I put on Derrida was to say that if we accept the process of deferral, both spatially and temporally, yet accept that at certain points there are contingent closures, then how do we rethink that contingency, not as some kind of teleological causality, but as an iterative causality beyond the erasure of structural or functional determination? I was interested in fleshing out and developing Derrida's statement, "For some of us the principle of indeterminism is what makes the conscious freedom of man fathomable."
WJTM: So you wanted to speed up Foucault and flesh out Derrida.
HB: [laughs] Yes, and to divert Lacan.
WJTM: I'd like to develop the question of the political coordinates of your thinking. With agility and with considerable respect, you seem to move between two intellectual traditions that I can loosely characterize as liberal and radical, exemplified by pairings like John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, Bernard Williams and Stuart Hall, and others I could think of I'm struck by the evenhandedness with which you address these authors. You could have a lot of fun at the expense of poor old Mill, but you resist, you take him seriously as a complex thinker and a man of good will caught in a complex circumstance. Are you trying to define some negotiating position between radicalism and liberalism? How would you describe the politics of your ideas?
HB: In this historical moment, I think, we are continually negotiating between certain liberal ideas and ideologies and a radical critique of them that emerges from the histories of so-called "materialist" thought. We are in a state of translation between these two. We know, for instance, of the limitations of the notions of rights, particularly in the areas around race, sexuality, migrants, refugees. We know that the whole nature of rights will not adequately conform to the conditions of discrimination that we encounter. Still, if we want to be effective and alleviate certain critical situations of oppression, we have to activate the notion of rights. We cannot ignore it. I think there was a time when people were dismissive of liberalism in a way that did not respect its real, operative opportunities. There was a kind of naive arrogance that suggested that once you philosophically deconstruct a practice you cannot recognize its practical, functional powers. So it seemed to me that a radicalism, a materialism, a Marxism, that was elaborated on a weak and polemical reading of the complex and rich history of liberalism was not a radicalism worth having much truck with. It was OK for polemics, it was OK for labels, but it was really inadequate to think with or to act with.
I have also been struck again and again by the intrusion or articulation of liberal thought within more radical thought, particularly in the conceiving of the notion of agency. To talk about political or historical agency, materialist accounts of structural causes always seem to draw upon liberal, intentionalist accounts of action and identity. Despite all the talk about fragmented subjects, floating signifiers, structural totalities, and post-Modern "spaces," there is an interesting, paradoxical return to traditional articulations of consciousness - intention -- action when discussing, say, the radical ethics of commitment. That notion of intentionality seems to me very much emerging out of the discourses of liberalism. A lot of materialist theories still draw on the language of liberalism, but are too proud or too blind to recognize it.
WJTM: Yes, there's a certain kind of disdain, a certain way of pronouncing the word "liberal," on the left as well as the right. In the U.S. in the '80s, we watched the L word get bludgeoned by the right, and it always struck me as curiouser and curiouser that on that issue at least, the far left and the far right could agree -- Liberalism is dead.
HB: I think there has been a lack of discussion around what I call late liberalism. In the work of Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor, one a more communitarian liberal, the other a more Hegelian liberal, for instance, we are now seeing a continual need to think the unthought moments of liberalism, which is why late liberalism is so obsessed with multiculturalism. Ask not what liberalism can do for multiculturalism, ask what multiculturalism is doing for the attenuated life of late liberalism! We must recognize this feature of our current historical moment, but we mustn't celebrate the liberal "unthought." Our discussion has pointed to other paths, taken and untaken, that we should explore. Those of us who critique the individualizing assumptions of liberalism must provide a more convincing account of communal agency and of the ethical-political subject, particularly in the context of rethinking questions of social causality, contingency, and the issue of referentiality in the area of cultural representation.
WJTM: Now we've taken care of the easy questions, let's move on to the wondrously complex notion of culture. First, I wonder how you would characterize the work that the concept of culture is doing in contemporary critical discussions. It seems to have taken on an amazingly inflationary value -- it's everywhere. In the academy, there's a new field emerging, cultural studies. Is the term "culture" becoming such a universal solvent that it's losing its usefulness?
HB: This is a large question, but also a specific one, to do with certain institutions of learning at this moment. The word "culture" is notorious for its fuzzy boundaries -- from the "culture of complaint" to "culture and civilization" or whatever. I think people are using the word to mark the fact that in the humanities nowadays we often find ourselves in a space of unclarified interdisciplinarity. The humanities live in an intertextual, transdisciplinary space. The academy is often organizationally unable to deal with this. Between the idea of inter- or transdisciplinarity and its institutionalization falls the shadow.
I have the sense that over the past thirty or forty years, liberal institutions have been quite comfortable with one version of interdisciplinarity -- let's call it "Interdisciplinarity 1." This is an interdisciplinarity we are all familiar with: joint degrees, joint teaching. It assumes that different disciplines have foundational truths, but that if you put two foundations in proximity, you have a wider base, right? So Interdisciplinarity 1 is a way of flaming or garlanding a particular discipline with another discipline's insights or expertise in order to celebrate the capacious humanism of the humanities. Illustrating your historical theses with references to literature, and then aligning them with a sociological or psychological perspective, casts an auratic glow around your work.
I think institutions are quite comfortable with Interdisciplinarity 1. But there is a different interdisciplinary mode -- "Interdisciplinarity 2," let's say -- in which our invocation of another discipline happens at the edge or limit of our own discipline. It is not an attempt to strengthen one foundation by drawing from another; it is a reaction to the fact that we are living at the real border of our own disciplines, where some of the fundamental ideas of our discipline are being profoundly shaken. So our interdisciplinary moment is a move of survival -- the formulation of knowledges that require our disciplinary scholarship and technique but demand that we abandon disciplinary mastery and surveillance.
In a range of humanistic areas, questions to do with the indeterminate, with contingency, with intertextuality, have become central - the issue of ambivalence too. It's because lnterdisciplinarity 2 is fired with a desire to understand more fully, and more problematically, that it's posed at the point of our disciplines' liminality, and that it requires us to articulate a new and collaborative definition of the humanities.
WJTM: I find a resonance here to my own form of interdisciplinarity, which as you know resides somewhere in the conjunction of literary study, art history, and studies of visual media. Interdisciplinarity 1 has tended to work in what I would call the comparative mode, coordinating knowledge in adjacent fields to try to create a comprehensive array of findings. So you often get a recycling of things that are already known: the narratives are filled out with more detail but the story basically stays the same. In Interdisciplinarity 1 there is also the sense of a kind of opulence, or luxury. Whereas the kind of interdisciplinarity I'm looking for feels imposed as a necessity: my questions about literature couldn't be answered for me unless I was ready to pursue the visual wherever it took me.
HB: This brings back that sense of theory as the facing of a problem. It comes out of the struggle, the anxiety, with the avenging angel within you. It's not an art of equanimity.
WJTM: And it comes about, I think, when you sense that there is something like a black hole in your discipline that none of the categories that have been stabilized as foundational to it can address. In fact they have all been devised precisely to rule it out -- to say, That belongs over there, it stands on a different foundation, it's another part of the metropolis of knowledge. I think of these skyscrapers in parallel rows, the great departments -history, English literature, art history, philosophy -- each a giant office building with its floors of subspecialties. But the picture I'm looking for goes down to the plumbing, and connects all these buildings somewhere below ground.
HB: [laughs] A foundational metaphor! I just want to say one thing before we wrap this topic up, which is that I see the ethics of the interdisciplinarity I am involved in, and that I think you're involved in too, as about the survival and translation of disciplines in a space that is not simply the space of one discipline or another, but, in keeping with our earlier discussion, a third or supplementary space.
WJTM: Some of those who see themselves as working toward a patient mastery of a discipline resent interdisciplinarity of either kind, and particularly of the second kind. Interdisciplinarity 2 is so obsessed with the margins, the point of indeterminacy, the unsolved problem or anomaly, that it can look very much like nondiscipline, indiscipline, insubordination. If Interdisciplinarity 2 is situated at a place where the discipline seems to be in crisis, do you see it as a way of preserving the traditional academic departments insofar as they're concerned with disciplines? Or are they going to dissolve into some enormous new structure called "cultural studies"?
HB: For a whole range of reasons, departments will probably continue as departments, partly because intellectual arguments don't dismantle institutions, partly because scholarly craftsmanship and archival expertise are most valuable. What we've got to see is how we can negotiate and work with these spaces to create new forms of intellectual engagement. I wouldn't be at all in favor of a new imperium of cultural studies. I find that thought quite disturbing, because it would make it so easy to inaugurate a new homogeneity -- a homogeneity, moreover; that might appear pluralistic, with the added frisson of being by definition radical and marginal, but might in fact be merely celebratory. The essential transdisciplinary tension would be lost.
WJTM: One of the ways that the term "culture" has been used contrastively is in relation to mass culture, popular culture. Art-as- culture stands over against these other forms of culture as an institution of values, high-priced objects, refined reception and appreciation, scholarly histories. Does art in that traditional sense play a strong role for you? Or do you see it as dissolving into interdisciplinarity and culture in general? What are you and I -- "text-based" scholars, as it were - doing in Artforum?
HB: I certainly see art confronting the problems of interdisciplinarity as we have been sketching them out. You ask what we're doing in Artforum. Well, one drive in Interdisciplinarity 2 has been the fact that those of us who have been involved in the scriptural, text-based arts have begun to see the sign in a much more affective context. We have begun to see the whole place of visuality, morality, and affectivity in writing -- writing's bodily, corporeal attributes, writing or language as part of the unconscious, writing as part of temporal deferral, writing as part of social identification, writing, rhetoric, and narrative as the bases of ethical judgment. The nature of the sign has been opened up for us. Equally, those involved in visual culture have begun to see the place of the inscriptive, of the systems and codes of meaning, in the visual. The spontaneous reality of the visual has been alienated. The immediacy of visual pleasure, the notion of taste as either a teleology of historical perfectibility or a form of aristocratic connoisseurship -- these issues have been put in crisis, significantly by feminist, film, and media theorists. Your own formulation of a "visual culture" in your book Picture Theory speaks eloquently to this issue.
WJTM: You're almost describing the new literary scholars as spectators, connoisseurs, employing all the senses now except, perhaps, the one they started with -- learning to read, to decipher, to decode. Now they're feeling, seeing, smelling something palpable in the text, while visual-arts students are learning to read.
HB: Well, there you have it, an example of what I've been describing as the translational thrust of lnterdisciplinarity 2! The understanding of "text" and "inscription" as descriptive of social processes rather than merely language-based systems and the attention to the politics and pleasures of the body -- these interests have been shared by people working across the humanities over the last couple of decades, and it is the discourse they have constituted that enables the transfer of reading skills.
WJTM: But let me take you back to the initial point, which was the notion of art as something distinct from culture in general -- of art as an elite practice and pleasure. No matter how many revolutions in the relation of art and culture have taken place in the name of post- Modernism, the fact remains that the advertisements in the pages surrounding this interview will not be for cigarettes or television shows but, mainly, for galleries and other places where very special sorts of cultural objects are gathered. This may sound terribly retrograde, but the idea that art objects are valuable, and that this has something to do with a community consensus about their value, doesn't particularly bother me. Maybe it's just my sense that we need special objects that people can repair to, and I mean "repair" in the full sense of the word. There are plenty of places where I see capitalism running amok, if I were given a free hand to uproot the art market and replace it with something else, I don't know that I'd want it to do anything much different. What's wrong with the market from your point of view?
HB: I'm worried, Tom, by the dominance of Western-oriented art markets, by the way they set standards of acceptability. I'm worried by the way in which the voracious appetite for transnational and global exhibitions creates international criteria of judgment, acceptability, and exceptionality that erase the locations in which the work is made. Art markets in other countries and continents, certainly including the third world, are so influenced by the metropolitan market, its particular needs, its values, its fetishism, its forms of consumption.
WJTM: Yes, I immediately think of the fortunes of Australian aboriginal painting, both in its consumption in New York or Paris, where it is often perceived and consumed as wonderful formalistic abstraction, and in its production, which involves complicated negotiations between, on the one hand, what the tribal elders think is proper and interior to art practices in Australian communities, and on the other, what is proper for export.
HB: That's a good example of a case in which the conditions of the work's production are in some ways very different from the conditions of its entry into the art market. I'm also worried by the way a particular kind of fit, or indeed a fix, is required for shows. What gets funneled through is precisely what the Western-oriented market requires, and then a whole range of other locations become transfixed by what is happening in the Euro-American market. Very particular kinds of artists are invited into this space. It's not a simple matter: an artist who made exactly what the museum required wouldn't fit in. He's got to be disobedient in some way. But that disobedience can be regulated, that distinctiveness can be pre-determined, or overdetermined.
WJTM: Do you think a similar process goes on with what's sometimes called third world literature?
HB: Oh yes. A number of third world authors have had such difficult times as writers in their own cultures and communities that there's this romantic-agony side of me that says, Long may they all be celebrated, long may it last, long may they be fetishized. But in the way publishers pursue us for certain sorts of texts, they clearly want us to be the archaeologists or ethnographers of our cultures for an already defined "world" market, and I think that's very problematic. In areas and forms of writing that are fresh and new and innovative, there is immediately a pressure to collect a whole lot of stories together and make anthologies, so that these writers can immediately be labeled, marketed, and packaged for hyped "international" consumption.
Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University