Bhabha, Homi

Assigned: Bhabha, Homi K. “The Commitment to Theory” (2152-71). Also read the editors’ introduction (2150-52).

“The Commitment to Theory” (1989)

Section I

1. On 2152-53 (“There is a damaging and…”), Homi Bhabha suggests that it is a mistake to believe “theory is necessarily the elite language of the socially and culturally privileged” (2152). How does he describe the false dichotomy that structures many observers’ and analysts’ view of theory? (2153) Why, in Bhabha’s view, is it a mistake for film professors to proclaim loudly that they are not academics or artists but instead “political activists” (2153)? At the same time, why does he reject grand claims of “internationalism” (2153) in political or any other kind of analysis?

2. On 2153-54 (“I am equally convinced that…”), Bhabha raises the issue of whether “theory” produced in the West is “necessarily collusive with the hegemonic role of the West as a power bloc” (2153). In other words, is literary and cultural theory the ideological handmaid of Western power and interests? What point does Bhabha make in referring to the representation of non-Western people and concerns at major film festivals in places such as Edinburgh, Scotland, which happens to be the setting for his conference paper? When he says, “I want to take my stand on the shifting margins of cultural displacement…” (2154), in what sense is he rejecting the supposedly firm starting point or ground that comes with national and cultural essentialism?

3. On 2154-56 (“Committed to what? At this…”), how does Bhabha illustrate his point about “political maturity” (2155 top) by referring to the difference between a political leaflet and a “speculative article” (2155) in terms of their relation to theory? In what sense do these two kinds of discourse exist and work “side by side” rather than in total opposition? How does Bhabha go on to explore the complexity of theory’s place in relation to political action? (2155) In what way does he convey a sense of how theoretical critiques can proceed without assuming that a pure, attainable truth exists in a realm beyond material power, place, time, and ideology?

4. On 2156-57 (“‘What is to be done?’ must acknowledge…”), how does Bhabha use a chapter from John Stuart Mill’s classic work On Liberty to promote the significance of “textuality” (post-structural notions about language and texts) and the need for “dissensus, alterity, and otherness” (2156) in social and political discussion? How does he draw out Mill’s prescient argument about the need to achieve “the realization of the political idea at the ambivalent point of textual address…” (2157)? How would this achievement be different, in Bhabha’s view, from what he calls “the ethic of tolerance in liberal ideology which has to imagine opposition in order to contain it…” (2157)?

5. On 2157-58 (“I have chosen to demonstrate…”), Bhabha emphasizes, following his citation of J. S. Mill, “the importance of the space of writing” (2157). How does he go on to describe “the language of critique” (2158) in terms of its political impact? How, in his view, does critique potentially open up “a place of hybridity” (2158) from which something genuinely new may come within the context of political discourse, recognition, and struggle over time?

6. On 2158-60 (“When I talk of negotiation…”), what does the term “negotiation” apparently mean to Bhabha? What does it have to do with temporality; i.e., with the unfolding of time, and how does it differ from negation and from a straightforwardly Marxist view of how political and social change happen? (2158-59) What “two main advantages” (2159), according to Bhabha, does “negotiation” have over such a model as Marxism? Ultimately, how is Bhabha’s emphasis on negotiation rather than negation evidently intended to preserve a sense of community among those struggling for positive political and social change? (2160)

7. On 2160-61 (“In Britain, in the 1980s…”), how does the 1984-85 miners’ strike in Great Britain concretely illustrate what Bhabha calls “the hybrid moment” (2161) where “negotiation” takes place? How did the participation of women transform this traditional struggle between labor and capital into something that was no longer solely about men’s wages, working hours, and the balance of power between two great competing forces (important as those things are)? How does the advice given to the British Labour Party with regard to the need to “produce a socialist alliance among progressive forces that are widely distributed across a range of class, culture and occupational forces” (2161) encapsulate the power of what Bhabha calls “hybridity”?

8. On 2161-62 (“This seems to be the theoretical…”), how does Bhabha enlist cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall and Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to advance his own claims about the importance of “negotiation” in the quest for political progress? (2161) What does Homi Bhabha praise about Hall’s ideas regarding how the British Labour Party might achieve a solid victory? What does Hall recognize about “material interests” that more traditional Marxists probably would not? (2161 bottom-62 top) How does Bhabha adapt Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” to suggest that political and social transformation cannot be reduced to progress in the name of a simplistically unified group of people, and that it cannot be total or final, as some might claim?

9. On 2162-63 (“For the moment, the act of…”), Bhabha engages in more detail with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, and asks if Hall’s term “the collective will” can in fact be applied productively to the kind of “differentiated social movements” (2162) and disparate voices that Bhabha himself wants to accommodate. How does he respond to this question and the other issues he raises on these pages, mainly having to do with how to encourage a “dialogic”(2163) process that would better serve the interests of progress than a static vision of a unified, “collective will” (2162)? Why does Bhabha take issue with theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre regarding the best way to cast the role of the “committed intellectual” (2163) in the struggle for progress?

Section II

10. On 2164-65 (“What is at stake in the naming…”), Bhabha examines both the limitations of critical theory and its potential for re-examining seemingly intractable problems in new ways. What problems beset Western “theory” when it attempts to engage with cultures beyond the West? Why is it the case that when it does so, “The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its historic desire, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse” (2164)? At the same time, according to Bhabha, what “conceptual potential for change and innovation” (2164) can we discover in authors such as Louis Althusser (Leitch 1282-1311)? How did Althusser reread Hegel and Marx to produce a more promising variety of materialist history? How do Lacan (Leitch 1105-47) and Foucault (Leitch 1388-1450), respectively, provide us with newly useful ways to view fundamental categories like subjectivity and key discourses such as the sciences?

11. On 2165-66 (“Such a reorientation may be found…”), Bhabha quotes Alexander Duff’s 1839 early Victorian colonial text, India and India Missions. (2166) What lesson does he draw from this book concerning the difficulties that colonialists had in transforming the people they colonized—how did the introduction of Western religious discourse into India challenge Western notions as deeply as it challenged Indian beliefs, thereby “opening up […] another contentious political and cultural site at the heart of colonial representation” (2166)?

12. On 2166-68 (“This revision of the history of…”), on what grounds does Bhabha emphasize the term “cultural difference” and reject the term “cultural diversity” (2166)? In what sense does the latter concept treat culture itself as something more or less already settled or “given,” and by contrast, how does the concept of “cultural difference” recognize culture as more dynamic and contestable? According to Bhabha, why do contemporary debates about culture so seldom move beyond “polemics against prejudice and stereotype or the blanket assertion of individual or institutional racism…” (2167)?

13. On 2168-69 (“The reason a cultural text…”), Bhabha adopts a post-structuralist, Derridean conception of language in explaining that “The reason a cultural text or system of meaning cannot be sufficient unto itself is that the act of cultural enunciation—the place of utterance—is crossed by the différance of writing” (2168). Research the implications of this Derrida coinage différance  (différence is the ordinary French term), which, in part, combines the sense of the temporal deferral of meaning as an utterance unfolds with the fact that a written word differs from the spoken word, and try to explain what Bhabha is implying about cultural texts and how they “mean.” In connection with this Derridean term, what is the “Third Space” (2168 bottom) to which Bhabha refers, and why is it important to his argument about the political potential of cultural difference?

14. On 2169-71 (“The implication of this enunciative…”), Bhabha reiterates his challenge to the manner in which traditional theorists in the materialist and idealist vein construe “the value of culture” (2169). What vision of culture and the study of culture does he suggest is the most promising one to pursue now and in future? What view of meaningful political and social change does he apparently believe his theoretical standpoint supports, and how optimistic does he seem at the end of his essay that the postcolonial objectives he promotes can be achieved?

15. General question: Homi K. Bhabha ends “The Commitment to Theory” by offering the hope that “we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves” (2171). How do his political vision and his defense of theory as politically significant compare with the perspectives of post-colonial author Frantz Fanon (see Fanon’s selection from The Wretched of the Earth, Leitch 1361-67) or cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall (Leitch 1702-17)? Which of the two authors whom you compare do you find most compelling, and why?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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