A Conversation with Homi K. Bhabha

How do you conduct a good interview with a walking institution? Someone who was part of your grad school postcolonial pantheon? Homi K Bhabha’s monumental The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994) had an immediate impact on conceptions of culture and globalization, comparable in scope only to the work of Gayatri Spivak, Francis Fukuyama, and Tiger Woods. The book introduced Bhabha’s theory of “hybridization,” arguing that whenever imperialism attempts to mold its subjects, the native heritage to be replaced doesn’t disappear so much as mutate. Bhabha’s theorizations of such hybrid traces questioned the possibility of wholesale ideological domination or purity. It also prioritized surreptitious forms of negotiation over outright confrontation,opening a host of intellectual possibilities but also raising the question of the work’s potential for use as a blanket apologia for globalization.

As I waited for him in the lobby of the London Dorchester on a sweltering July morning, I wondered whether I’d recognize him from the time I saw him speak, in the plush Grand Ballroom of the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel in 1998. Edward Said was there also, my only experience seeing him. I remember Bhabha insisting on the cultural rights of migrant populations, as Said scowled at the chandeliers, squirming and fidgeting like a schoolboy waiting for the bell. After Bhabha’s talk, Said immediately sprang up and barked into the microphone that what migrants needed were political rights, not cultural ones: “Turks in Germany already have cultural rights.” I was wondering whether this implied that, once you’ve got your grand ballroom, your Bidoun magazine, and your Bhabha anthologies, you can then move on to double nationalities and a Türkische-Deutsche Volkspartei, when I was interrupted by the arrival of Bhabha himself. Brown pants, red shirt, green vest, and a somber, businesslike demeanor.

Tirdad Zolghadr: I’d like to start with a question regarding the role of radical critique within the institution. It seems to me that postcolonialism is vulnerable to the accusation of commodification or institutional appropriation in ways that Marxism, feminism and other academic movements never were, and it has been attacked far more rabidly from what I can tell. I know you personally have been attacked left, right, and center, and I wanted to ask you whether this atmosphere has evolved in any particular way since The Location of Culture first came out.

Homi K. Bhabha: The argument is that if something is commodified, it can be appropriated by orthodoxies and special interest groups and eventually absorbed within a hegemonic perspective. This charge is supposedly made from the side of history, of radical transformation, even revolutionary transformation. But it seems to me that those who make these accusations are actually lacking in any profound understanding of history.

Because if some set of ideas is going to have a transformative influence, then it is inevitably going to be institutionalized in one way or another. The myth of constantly living on the margins, of being perpetually provocative, has its own profound narcissism. The idea that influence can in any way survive without some form of institution, or indeed that all forms of institutionalization render mute the challenging force of ideas or practices, is deeply simplistic.

Which brings us to my second point. The misunderstanding regarding the relationship between ideas and institutions emerges because of a simplistic notion of the event, be it the event of history, the event of theory, or the event of conceptualization. Because events are disjunctively layered phenomena, they have a whole range of time schemes, a whole range of issues; when, for example, you yourself used the term “postcolonial,” one has to account for the geographical, geopolitical, and historical dissemination of the term itself.

So yes, it is arguable that universities continually demand new curricula. At their best, universities are thought machines in a continuous quest for new ideas, and not necessarily ideas from outside. Both Marxism and postcolonialism have a particular intellectual tradition. You know that Marx was addressing Adam Smith, who had a considerable presence both inside and outside the university. It seems obvious that universities will try to canonize and counter-canonize a body of knowledge, and in that context, a whole set of commodification practices emerge, all these anthologies of postcolonial literature and so forth.

Actually, I was at the Tate with my family, just two days ago, because I wanted to see the unfinished Turners again, and I wanted to show them to the children. They were fooling around in the bookstore, with the postcards and the catalogues, and suddenly they came up to me with all these books. One was an introduction to cultural studies, one was an introduction to literary theory, and another was the Penguin Dictionary of Theoretical Concepts or something, and they said, “Wow, Dad, you’re in all three of these, and there’s a caricature of you here,and a photograph of you here, and you appear under postcolonial hybridization,” and under this and that and so on and so forth. And so I felt, you know, commodified at some level.

TZ: Like a keychain?

HB: Well, it’s funny you should mention keychains. My son was at Yale until last year, and he walks out of his room one day to find a number of people doing their PhDs in comp lit running around in these t-shirts saying — and I can’t get the slang right — “Our Homie Is Homi K” [My son] tried to get one but he couldn’t, they were sold out. It seems to me that to think about these things, a sense of humor — or a certain sense of irony, rather — is required. Of course institutions are going to try and do this type of thing. The real issue here is, if the ideas are powerful, if the ideas are productive, if the ideas are ambivalent, then in the hands of new students they cannot be silenced, they cannot be sanitized.

That’s one important thing. The other is how much the individuals at the most productive end of the production of knowledge actually want this commodification to happen. And how much they resist it. As you can imagine, I’ve been asked time and time again whether I’d like to produce an anthology of some kind, and it’s interesting that I’ve always felt it was not the appropriate thing to do. Because ideas of postcoloniality are at their most productive when they are leavened, when they are used as part of a whole set of political or historical situations. What would you produce if you simply produced another anthology on postcolonialism? Obviously it could be adequately used for a course. But you can also summon a body of knowledge without giving it this monumentalization. That’s where I agree with the anti-commodifiers. In the more privileged institutions, you can use an anthology, but then you also have a whole lot of additional sources. In universities or communities less privileged, you have a set of ten essays on postcolonialism that become the world for you. Now that is commodification. Commodification is radical simplification even more than it is reification.

It’s interesting that the one time I agreed to do something in this area, I did not call it postcolonialism, but agreed with a major publisher that I would try and do something to transcend the commodifying impulse. It’s a discussion that is still ongoing between my agent, the publisher, and myself. There was great enthusiasm on behalf of this publisher — I won’t mention the name but it was a major publisher — regarding the idea of my elaborating something that was not just an anthology, but that offered a whole range of new ways of entering or exiting the subject matter. It wasn’t simply a tabulation of essays that created a sense of a canon, not at all. It was a set of complex — perhaps too complex — juxtapositions between eighteenth century thought and what we might call postcolonial thinking. But no matter how keen the publishers are, the result was that, whenever they sent it out for comment, basically the response was this: “This is absolutely fascinating, but we’d like Professor Bhabha to write this himself, as a book of his own. And then it could influence our teaching. We don’t want him” — and I’m going to put this colloquially — ”we don’t want him to mess with the way we teach postcolonial studies. We’ve got it down, we already know what it is.”

TZ: In recent years, it seems it’s particularly the Deleuzeian approaches that are criticized. People have complained that they’ve been appropriated by management theories in the 1990s, and are even used by Israeli paratroopers interested in rhizomes and so on.

HB: Just before coming over here, I received an email — you seem to be intuitively tracking my movements very closely — that said, “Dear Professor Bhabha, I’m contacting you from the Journal of Business Studies.” This was about some technical issue to do with global business, obviously written by some reputed professor in the field, and they were saying, “What do you make of this piece, does the use of your texts offer an exploration of your work in the spirit that you would conduct it?” Clearly not.

But on the other hand, they were asking, “From what you could grasp, was there anything that was inappropriate or inadequate?” And I said, “No, I think it’s fine, you should send it to people in the field of business studies.” They told me they’d had good responses and wished to publish it. Now I have no idea what the ends of this work will be. But should I? Could I? Need I control that? That’s the question. You know, Israeli paratroopers may be reading Deleuze. The critic of the Daily Telegraph profoundly praises Bertolt Brecht. What do we do? The man at the Daily Telegraph says, “You must go and see Brecht’s Mother Courage, it’s a remarkable work.” Think about Brecht producing that work, and about the context in which it was produced, and the institutional context in which it is now received.

TZ: I have some good news for you. I was once allowed to sit in a business seminar called “Doing Business with the Arab World.” It was held for Swiss businessmen who were going to be stationed in Cairo or Dubai, and the instructors actually referred to your theories, briefly discussing hybridity, but then moving right on to more comfortable models. When I raised the issue after the lesson, they claimed the hybrids were too complicated, saying, “We have to stick to the Other.”

HB: You’re doing very interesting work.

TZ: I was surprised that, even on such a simple level, hybridity was too weird a concept to be introduced. But the reason I asked my question on more recent discussions of appropriation was that recently, in the art world at least, there’s a paranoia, or a diffuse sense of suffering that doesn’t even try to define the problem very precisely. If there’s any critical arts project that is funded by private sponsors, or even foundations, it’s immediately bewailed as a dangerous sign of things to come. I was wondering if you’d sensed a similar defeatism in academia.

HB: Well, my dear, it seems you might be asking exactly the wrong person the question. Let me come clean with you. Who have I been talking to over the last month? Let’s just take a look at this one last month out of my life, to make these issues concrete, intellectually and historically. Let’s take four events over the last month.

First, I was here a month ago because I have a chair at London University College, and we held a conference called “Extreme History.” Graduate students were discussing historical moments that were generally recognized to be moments of profound extremity and — at some level — of undecidability. Now, that was a very straightforward academic event, even if it was interdisciplinary and global in scope. After that, I was in Rome, at the invitation of the mayor, who organized a big public conference on philosophy. The theme was “Instability,” and we addressed the audience in that remarkable Renzo Piano stadium, where about 1500 to 2000 people came to listen. It was a fascinating event, and yet some people were saying, “Oh, he’s standing for reelection, and this is his way to rouse the masses.” But if the masses are to be roused with philosophers and journalists discussing Heidegger and so on, then that’s not a bad way to rouse them.

TZ: Better than kissing babies.

HB: Exactly, exactly. Or dogs. Then, a week or two later, I spoke at the Goethe Institute, which brought together people from the German Foreign Office, and some journalists and academics, and people who run the Goethe Institutes around the world. Now on some level, the Goethe is the official mouthpiece for German culture. So I’m trying to dismantle what it means today to represent a national culture, a territorially defined culture, when that culture is in a profoundly transformative phase. New immigrants, old immigrants, earlier histories of the Holocaust, new histories questioning the past, profound issues of memory. On the one hand, what is inside the frame is very complex, while on the other, you simply have to present something that is distinctive from what other countries are doing, principally through the Alliance Française or the British Council. There’s this strange repetition of the Scramble for Africa going on, with all these nations trying to position themselves abroad, with language courses, film screenings, theatre, cultural presentations of all kinds. So these were the complicated issues. The critics you cite would say I’m being appropriated. All these national institutions are commodifying projects, even imperializing projects of a new kind. But in fact, the Goethe event really set out to rethink a whole set of issues. It was a really productive meeting. The directors and the people from the German foreign office were very excited by my suggestions, and by my ways of making them rethink questions of the global.

And finally, two weeks ago, I was giving the keynote for the Volkswagen Foundation, on the whole question of othering. The title of the event was “Boundaries, Differences, Passages.” Here once again you could say, “What does the Volkswagen, one of the wealthiest foundations, actually do?” It gets these scholars, and it not only funds their research, it asks itself why the question of othering is still such a literary-cultural thing, and it brings people together to find out what sociologists and policy makers think about it. People will say, “Well, if Volkswagen is doing it, then the subject must be a dead horse by now, something about it is very suspect.” When my experience is in fact the opposite. The idea of a foundation appropriating anything could be true, but actually needn’t be true, and in some cases, foundations actually spearhead a certain change.

TZ: Earlier this year,you participated in the exhibition project Without Boundary at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, by writing the main essay for the catalogue. Before coming to that, I’d like to briefly refer to your contribution to the catalogue of the 1989 show Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou. If you compare the two events, would you say there was a particular transition that occurred between the Paris exhibition and the more recent one in New York?

HB: My dear, I cannot remember the essay you’re referring to, I’d have to look at the catalogue again. But what I can say is that I remember very clearly how the curators and the director of the Pompidou were walking us through the show, and one of the curatorial ideas was to try and give artists who came from different cultural provenances their own space. To allow the viewers to produce the articulations or the dialectics of difference themselves. So difference was not something you saw, but something you interpreted. Difference was a kind of judgmental connection.

In the Without Boundary show, precisely the opposite was the case. Here, it was much more about how certain themes, or aesthetic traditions, or color tones, or experiences can breed a possible range of issues within a work. Which is why, for me, one of the important things here was the whole question of slowness. Slowness not as a way of saying that something is primitive or backward or old, but as a produced effect within a constellation of techniques and concepts.

TZ: The reason I wanted to compare the two shows was that Les Magiciens de la Terre, for all its faults, sparked an exciting, heated reception. It was the first time in a mainstream arts venue that internationalism was being discussed so thoroughly. And this is a decades-long discussion that the Without Boundary show simply ignores. By raising the question of the Islamicity of the artworks, it closed off doors and ambiguities that would otherwise allow the artists to package their work differently. The question itself skews its reception in a way that doesn’t offer an aesthetics of difference so much as a very simple form of othering.

HB: I don’t agree with that. It’s not that I disagree with your interpretation, but that in my own experience, and the conversations that led to me taking the project on, I believe they came from the opposite impulse. Namely, if you were touched or tinged by any kind of Islamic provenance — I prefer the word provenance to that of genealogy or origin — that if you are touched by that, then immediately that becomes the main point of entry into the work, particularly in our current moment. Even if we are influenced by where we were born, this is not necessarily the case aesthetically speaking. But the Islamosensitivity of the moment — and the general desire to illustrate the politics of a cultural difference — is such that this becomes the first thing you identify in a work or an artist. I thought it was productive that this show took that question on — and as you know it was extended to Mike Kelley and Bill Viola — and said, “Yes, there is in each of these works something, spiritual, ideational, figurative, aesthetic — maybe just a color tone — that has a kind of Islamic resonance beyond biography and history.” Whatever it is, it should not be seen as a dominant defining character of the work. Because what the works were doing was the following: they were entering a realm of transition, and the way they dealt with that was through a process of cultural translation. They’re translational works, and as in all acts of translation, there is an acknowledgment of something. Not necessarily of anything original or authentic, but of something prior. And what is prior here doesn’t gain its authority through its priority, but through the fact that it’s able to partially occlude itself, lose itself in the production of something that is related to it. Not necessarily in the sense of mimetic likeness, nor in terms of a hierarchy of value. That’s what I thought was interesting in the way I read the motivations of the exhibition.

Which is why I could write about it in the first place. When the curators turned to me — we had a meeting where there were these very major Islamic scholars and so on, and we talked, it was very pleasant — and they said,“Would you write the framing essay?” I thought I’d only be able to write it if it were precisely not about Islamic identity being the identifying icon of the show. Because what do I know about it? I then, according to my own trajectory, drew on certain things that I thought were relevant. I only did it because it was not — not — a show about trying to line people up, saying they’re all about Islam.

TZ: On the one hand, you have younger artists who would never dream of joining a discussion on Islamosensitivity in their work, but who, then again, are unlikely to say no to MoMA. Saying no to MoMA would be a tough decision. On the other hand, you have established artists like Shirin Neshat, who recently claimed that the criticism she’s been getting is “due to the fact that Western critics do not understand Eastern art.” Which is quite hilarious coming from one of the best-selling video artists, making videos for the West, in the West. Now, no matter how subtle the curatorial approach may be, shows like Without Boundary, precisely by placing the Islamic discussion front and center, offer legitimacy for marketing strategies of this kind. These are just some of the ways in which an institution like MoMA bears a huge responsibility.

HB: But I don’t think this is a show that is marking out an Islamic trajectory. If you look at the title itself, or judging by curator Feri Daftari’s essay, clearly “Islamic or not?” is not the question. To me, the issue is that now, any religious, ethnic, or cultural background is seized upon as the first way of getting into the work. Take Caspar David Friedrich and a painting of the sublime. Would people say, “This is about being German”? No, they would say it’s about the sublime. So it seems that this show was trying precisely to get away from that way of thinking, by acknowledging that it is the dominant way of thinking, first of all because of the whole impact of Islam on the politics of the moment, secondly because of the longer history of trying to understand cultural identity. Individual artists may or may not use a particular motif to emphasize an Islamic tradition. But the show moved away from that. Now, as for particular individual statements by artists elsewhere, statements of the kind you mentioned, I think you’re right to find them problematic. In any case there are many criticisms that can be made of any show, but I’d find it difficult to categorize the exhibition along those lines as far as the curators are concerned. And there was a very good piece in the New York Times that said precisely that. The exhibition shows us that, tragically, those who have a kind of Islamic provenance get recognized for having it, and we know that from standing in line at immigration. The exhibition acknowledged that, but tried to move away. How individual artists handle this complex destiny is another question.

TZ: Another good comparison is the Documenta 11, where you held a talk at one of the Platforms. In terms of its discourse on globalization and cultural difference, the show had even greater ambitions yet, setting high theoretical standards. And it sparked not only a dramatic reception, but also a backlash. Today I’m wondering if the show, had it kept a lower profile, with less planetary ambitions — focusing more on its intelligent use of the white cube and the black box, for example — might have sparked a more productive debate, less hysterical in tone.

HB: I think that’s a very important point. Clearly if one manages to achieve that balance, one is on to a winner.

TZ: What do you think of something as unabashedly commodified and commodifying as a magazine like Bidoun. If you were about to take a six-hour flight, would you pick up a Bidoun at the airport kiosk?

HB: Sure. I haven’t had a chance to look at it very deeply, but from what I’ve seen I can certainly say it’s a very handsome commodity. It’s not mimeographed, so it doesn’t have the smudge marks of authenticity all over it. It’s out there in the world, and it’s a worldly magazine. I also think that the whole project is very important. A project that, if I understand correctly, is a kind of psychic geography. And a magazine of that kind is a response to what is particularly interesting today, namely to history being experienced as a moment of transition.

Just to take one example: in the general history of warfare — and of course my reference is to the contemporary War on Terror — we’re in a situation almost unprecedented, where nobody, from the White House on down, wants to talk about the end of the war. Susan Sontag, in the last piece she wrote, referred to the “endless war,” and I’m now writing a piece with that title, The Endless War. Jacques Derrida, before he died, said, “You know what the problem is with this sort of war? It’s that it’s always a war that is fought in the future. The terror of the war is not about the incident that happened, but the one that will happen, and you don’t know when.” It’s endless in that sense. Francis Fukuyama talks about it as being endless. Even President Bush says we don’t know when it’s going to end. When did you last hear of a president standing for reelection on one platform: that of an endless war?

If you think about this, you’ll get some sense of what I’m talking about more generally. Which is this notion that we’re in a process of transition, and we don’t know what the transformational endpoints or teleologies will be. You could say that in most historical moments, this is probably the case, that people always think they’re in the middle of a process of transformation and don’t know how it will turn out. That may be so. But what I also know is that we’re in a moment of profound self-reflexivity — perhaps not in the sense of deep, but in the sense of extensive, self-reflexivity. And I would also say it’s a motif of the age. It’s no longer a case of people saying, “Oh well, we’re in the midst of something, and we don’t know how it’s going to come out.” People are actually saying, “We’re in the midst of this transition and we don’t know how to get out of it.” And of course transition is a very hard thing to think about. You are, as it were, suspended in the middle.

But what you do have in moments of transition is a sense of repetition. Not only a mythical sense of repetition, but a very real one. Which is why people are saying the Taliban are coming back in droves in Afghanistan. This is only one example. Or take the insurgent resistance to the US by those who are probably part of the Baathist party. People are saying, “Oh my god, this is all just popping out of the soil!” But what we have to resist in these moments, I think, is the idea of the past simply returning. The past never returns without a radical transformation of both itself and the present in which it is appearing. This is a great challenge in the public narratives of our time. We have to resist this tendency to see a sort of inevitability. The challenge of thinking about transition productively, ethically, and politically is one of the great challenges of our time.