Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Location of Culture, by Homi Bhabha

First of all, something of an explanation:Ever since earning my PhD in 1994, it's been something of a dream of mine to turn the dissertation into a book.  Well, that has been a dream deferred . . . and deferred some more.  But I ain't getting any younger, and the topic (readings of various fictional and historical narratives of miscegenation (racial intermixing) from throughout the Americas that lead me to argue that miscegenation can be read as a trope of New World culture), amazingly, still seems viable after all this time.  So: yesterday I was watching I Capture the Castle (Larry had thought that since the father of the family was a novelist, I might be able to relate to him), and I'm confronted by a man who was once considered to be a literary genius but hadn't written a word in the previous 12 years, and I thought, Gee, THANKS, Larry, for thinking I could relate to this fellow.  Sorry, but I don't wanna.  So then, I cracked open good ol'Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture today; and (lucky y'all), I've decided that in order to stay on task AND keep the Sunday Book thing going, I'll write about the things I'm reading as I catch up with the novels and criticism and theory I'll need to flesh out a decent manuscript.
Coincidentally, Bhabha's book was published the very year I was defending my diss.; a couple of years after I finished, I read its introduction and wailed, "Why couldn't I have KNOWN about this before?"  The intro. would have been so nice to have around to argue against in MY intro.
Somewhat as raminagrobis does in his maiden entry on boredom, in the intro of my diss. I confess to be awfully disdainful of postcolonial theory without, um, having read a good deal of it.  My justification was pretty simple: at least as applied to the Americas, what little I had read seemed barely, if at all, to adequately describe that experience.  I suspect that much of that is because that theory arises out of a specifically British experience of colonization and empire, one in which the British and their subjects did not meld and merge into a new culture.  Such was, of course, not the case in the Americas, specifically in Latin America, though one can (and I would and will) argue that in the U.S., specifically in the South and Southwest, that melding and merging, though not racial, certainly has occurred culturally.  Miscegenation just doesn't get confronted in Spivak or Bhabha--nor, very interestingly, among postcolonialists in this hemisphere, some of whom are mestizos themselves.  If it IS discussed, it is done so either disdainfully as a thinly-disguised white man's assimilationist fantasy or as a still-painful legacy of the plantation and the Conquista.  I do not deny that history nor in any way see my project as mitigating it.  But it remains true that, running parallel to that history of rape runs another one, a matter of historical as well as literary record, in which people of different races meet and fall in love and, despite extraordinary pressure from within as well as without, attempt to have genuine, meaningful relationships with each other.  This sort of thing happened often enough in slave-holding states in my country that not only were laws passed forbidding, for example, white women to take black husbands, legislatures kept increasing the punishments for violations of those laws.  Of course, in Catholic colonies, men were encouraged to intermarry as a way of bringing new souls to the Church.  There's a bad joke in here about disseminating the gospels . . .
So, then, here's the central argument that I make (and I haven't forgotten the teaser about Bhabha's intro): that to those outside it, the space of consensual miscegenation is akin to what Foucault, in the introduction to The Order of Things, calls a heterotopia: a space that exists beyond our ability even to describe it.  It is unknowable because it exists outside (our) language: language can't account for the unimaginable, for things that aren't "supposed" to happen.  I make the further argument that the imagined space known by the oxymoronic term "New World" (as opposed to the historical space of the Americas) is also a heterotopia: neither was the emergence of a new culture distinct from European, African and indigenous cultures "supposed" to occur.
Bhabha, as nearly as I can tell, talks about the contacts between cultures as though they were oil and water.  The "other" (read: indigenous/colonized/enslaved) culture produces various linguistic defenses so as to protect itself against destruction or assimilation (which would amount to the same thing), but each remains unaffected by the other.  Weird, to these New World ears.  The other difficulty is this, at least from my perspective: the culture of the New World needs an etiology, a myth of origins.  But it's at a distinct disadvantage in that New World culture's origins occurred in historical time--Friday, October 12, 1492, to be exact.  And no matter, in any event, to the postcolonial theorist, according to Bhabha:
What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need  to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.  These 'in-between' spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood--singular or communal--that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining society itself. (1-2)
This is so very close to what I want to do in my project, but it ain't it.  To my mind, it's precisely in "those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference" that we find the New World's "narratives of original and initial subjectivities."  So far, so good--except that Bhabha argues that we "need to think beyond" just such narratives.  No wonder, then, that at least in this version of the postcolonial theorist's task, the New World is Other.
I need to wrap this up for now, but I will say that I'm presently in the midst of reading Bhabha's chapter entitled "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern"; he's just talked at some length about a passage from Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text that seems to be yet another way of describing heterotopic language--something that I examine at length in my discussions of the novels and stories I've read.  But "miscegenation" appears nowhere in The Location of Culture; though it's always nice to mix it up with preeminent scholars, it nevertheless seems a huge flaw in classic postcolonial theory to propose a model that cannot accomodate the collective experience of almost a billion people.
More later this week.

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