ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 22

 - Post-Colonial Criticism


In this lecture on post-colonial theory, Professor Paul Fry explores the work of Edward Said and Homi K. Bhabha. The complicated origins, definitions, and limitations of the term “post-colonial” are outlined. Elaine Showalter’s theory of the phasic development of female literary identity is applied to the expression of post-colonial identities. Crucial terms such as ambivalence, hybridity, and double consciousness are explained. The relationship between Bhabha’s concept of sly civility and Gates’s “signifyin’ ” is discussed, along with the reliance of both on semiotics.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 22 - Post-Colonial Criticism

Chapter 1. Problems With the Term “Post-Colonial” [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Well, post-colonial studies is really by far the most varied and eclectic of the identity fields that we’re passing in review in this portion of the course: eclectic really of necessity, of course, because of the immense variety of the materials covered, but also because of swirling issues and controversies within post-colonial studies or “po-co,” as it’s affectionately known, which kind of pose a number of questions from the side that keep things lively, to say the least. We are taking up only one strand, one developmental strand, in post-colonial studies today, a kind of progression from the work of Said to the work of Bhabha which is relatively easily mapped, simply in terms of the intellectual agendas of each of them, but there’s a great deal else going on.

I suppose I should just mention in passing certain topics that we won’t be discussing, at least except possibly in passing and that, however, you might really be interested in considering if you do have an interest in this field. The first issue, of course, is who says “post-colonial,” and who says that we’re necessarily out of colonialism? Just because the local viceroy packs up and goes home doesn’t necessarily mean that things change all that significantly in the so-called postcolonial setting, and it needs to be taken into account, seriously considered, whether or not one isn’t still in colonial or colonial studies and that the moniker “post-colonial” might therefore be inappropriately applied. There’s also the question that arises in the study of the so-called third world, which is obviously in itself a controversial term. It arises as that which is not comprised as either of the great sort of trajectories of the superpowers during the Cold War. There is no Cold War, at least allegedly no Cold War any longer, and so the question of the status, nature, and structure of the third world is obviously wide open.

But the issue I mean to touch on in terms of post-colonial studies is whether, in fact, crises and concerns with respect to the third world are necessarily always to be understood in terms of coloniality. Is it just that certain parts of the globe have been colonized that constitutes them as they are and shapes their identity? Said in a very interesting way takes this up in trying to figure out how it is that German Orientalism so very closely resembles French Orientalism, even though the Germans had no colonial interests in the Middle East. During the whole period–the early nineteenth century in particular, when German Orientalism is practically indistinguishable from the French, takes up the same concerns, and has the same interests–how is it that the French are undoubtedly in some sense, in Said’s view, determined by their colonial interests, and the Germans, who seem so much to reflect French attitudes, have no colonial interests, at least in the Middle East?

Said sort of quite honestly tries to come to terms with this. His answer is, “Well, German Orientalism is simply derived in scholarly terms from French Orientalism. It has the stamp of that thinking and reflects that thinking,” and so there you are. He could have said on the other hand, however, that a certain mindset toward the third world–and this is the point I have been making about this particular issue–dictates a certain way of structuring one’s thought about that world, irrespective of whether or not there are colonial interests involved. That’s what I mean by raising the question, “Is coloniality always at issue in cases of this kind?”

There’s a kind of confusion in thinking about these things, a confusion which is distilled in the history of the British East India Company–which is both nationalist and, as it were, globalizing–but a confusion which comes out in more recent history of coloniality, and that is: well, what drives coloniality? Is it always nationalism or, as seems increasingly the case in the modern world, is it transnational interests in globalization? In other words, is the relationship between the colonist and the colonized a relation of some sort of metropolitan nation with respect to a provincial empire, or is it a relation which is dictated and generated by the economic interests of globalization? This is a complex subject which generates a great deal of debate in the field that we take up today, but in a way, we can’t just say, “Well, nationalism isn’t important anymore, now it’s globalization” because actually nationalism seems to have reappeared in the Bush foreign policy, even possibly to be continued in the Obama foreign policy, and so there’s a complex relationship still between nationalism and globalization that needs to be considered and thought about if these social relations are to be clearly understood.

Finally, there is within post-colonial studies–especially among those who represent the various colonized interests of the world–there is the question, to borrow an expression from Gayatri Spivak, “How should the subaltern speak?” It has to do most vividly with the very question, “Which language should the subaltern speak in?” Spivak’s own question is, “Can the subaltern speak at all?” and Said raises that question, as you notice, during the course of his analysis; but the related issue is, okay, suppose that the subaltern can speak–suppose Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for example, can write a novel. What language should it be written in? Ngugi campaigned in his more recent career not to write in English and also to urge other African writers to write in native languages and not in the language of the colonizer. This is a frequently heard opinion from within post-colonial studies, but debate swirls around it because, of course, the means of circulation of literary influence is languages that draw upon international publishing possibilities and not languages that can only be grasped and published and disseminated locally. So there, too, you have a complicated issue or controversy on both sides, of which there is much to say; but as I say, for us today it’s simply a question– or more simply a question, because when you’ve got Homi Bhabha on the syllabus there’s no such thing as simplicity–so I should say it’s a question of following the trajectory or development specifically between Said and Bhabha.

Chapter 2. A Room of One’s Own Revisited [00:08:56]

In beginning to think about Said, I thought we wouldn’t think about him. We’d think instead, for a moment at least, once again about Virginia Woolf. In the second chapter of A Room of One’s Own, this young woman, Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael–whoever she is, is sitting in the British Library. She’s thought that she’d spend the morning trying to figure out what scholars think about women. After all, the subject is women and fiction. I’m supposed to be addressing these undergraduates on this subject: “what do I know about women? I’d better go to the library and find out.” So she expects just to find a couple of books and she’ll be all set.

Instead she is simply overwhelmed, and there’s this avalanche of material. She submits maybe a dozen or two call slips and then sits back waiting for the material to appear. Of course, the point of it is that everything in the British Library on what turns out to be the voluminous subject of women is written by men, right? Everything. She begins to take note of the way these things are described in the sort of pre-computer database. That is to say, how do you classify the various things that men have to say about women? This is the way it goes: “condition of Middle Ages of; habits in the Fiji Islands of; worshipped as goddesses by; weaker in moral sense than; idealism of; greater conscientious of; South Sea islanders age of puberty among; attractiveness of; offered as sacrifice to; small size of brain of; profounder sub-consciousness of; less hair on the body of; mental, moral and physical inferiority of; love of children of; greater length of life of; weaker muscles of; strength of affections of; vanity of; higher education of; Shakespeare’s opinion of; Lord Birkenhead’s opinion of; Dean Inge’s opinion of; La Bruyere’s opinion of; Dr. Johnson’s opinion of; Mr. Oscar Browning’s opinion of; and dot, dot, dot–the list can continue. In other words, she sits there. She’s simply overwhelmed, and what she of course is telling us is that there’s lots and lots and lots and lots of opinions on record about women, all of them expressed by men.

So now thinking about Edward Said, if Edward Said had taken up Virginia Woolf’s project, if Edward Said had undertaken to write A Room of One’s Own, the title of it would have been Female-ism, right? That’s precisely what he means by “Orientalism,” the vast body of information–some of it scholarly, some of it just sort of sheerly doxological–the vast body of information about peoples called “Oriental” by and large, especially in the nineteenth-century tradition. Said’s main concern is the peoples of the Middle East, and he shows how it is that there’s a certain reason why this is an appropriate term to use for that tradition of scholarship and philology in the nineteenth century.

In any case, the vast body of material published about these people–and it’s perfectly true that there are the infinitely long shelves of the library devoted to multivolume treatises on this topic, all of them written by us in the West–us–about this other who is perpetually in our imagination and constructed by us in the variety of ways that Said discusses on page 1811, the right-hand column. He says toward the bottom of the column:

Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West.

Just as in Woolf, men’s opinions about women getting themselves expressed in books make the subject of woman clear to an audience of men.

Chapter 3. Orientalism and Showalter’s Phases [00:14:00]

All right. So before moving in with some more depth and precision into Said’s text, let me quickly explain what I mean by saying that Said and Bhabha constitute a kind of sequence. I’m thinking in particular of Elaine Showalter’s distinction between feminist and gynocritical criticism. You remember the distinction which is echoed, by the way, in Gates’s essay. The distinction is: first you get criticism in which the treatment of women in literature by men is the focus of attention, and then subsequently you get criticism in which the women’s tradition, the voice of women themselves, is the focus and, as Showalter believes, the more fruitful terrain for criticism. You can see that in that context, by way of making that distinction, you can see that Said is decidedly phase one because, of course, Orientalism is about the treatment of the Middle Eastern other by the West. It can be slotted into that same moment.

Then Homi Bhabha obviously in a variety of ways takes up the subject position of the colonized, of the subaltern. He doesn’t leave out the subject position of the colonizer because he sees them as being radically interrelated, but he plainly is as interested in a variety of ways of talking about the traditions of the colonized as he is of talking about the way in which colonization takes place and expresses itself. So in that sense, we can see Said and Bhabha as belonging to these two phases as mapped by Showalter. As I say also in passing by Gates–and I’m sorry for the confusion of this heading [gestures to board]–actually there’s another way in which Said and Bhabha can be understood as phase one and phase two. That has much more to do with the tradition of literary theory, which in their ways both Showalter and Gates have rejected, insisting that one needs to commandeer white male literary theory for one’s own purposes.

I suppose it’s a question of how this issue doesn’t come up in Said and Bhabha. It could perhaps be answered by saying that precisely in the situation of colonialism, the intellectuals–third world, colonized intellectuals–nevertheless are educated in high-octane male metropolitan institutions, by which of course one means primarily Oxford and Cambridge. In a certain sense, they come to identify–and this is not actually a thing apart from Bhabha’s argument about hybridity–they come to identify in some measure with the educational agenda of the colonizer and participate in it.

Now that’s speculative. It may simply be that we have missed out on those moments when Said and Bhabha, too, may be talking about the way in which the white male tradition of literary theory needs to be appropriated; but for the moment what I want to point out is this: Said’s Orientalism works very much in the historical moment of what we call structuralism. That is to say, it’s primary concern is with the binary opposition, a mutual and interdependent binary opposition of central self and decentralized other including, as we’ll see in a minute, the way in which the construction of the otherness of the other is actually covertly also at the same time a means of constructing, defining, and delimiting the nature of selfhood, or in this case of being Western. There is a fundamental binarism in Said’s point of view, which by the way has often been criticized, and it’s been criticized most often from the standpoint of Bhabha–if only because he’s constantly referring to Derrida’s famous essay, “The Double Session,” which is about Mallarmé, and also because he appropriates a great deal of the language and style of Derrida.

You can see that Bhabha takes, with respect to the binarism of structuralism, a deconstructive attitude. In other words, his sense of these relations breaks down into, at the very least, a redoubling sense of what he calls “double consciousness” so that one can’t clearly identify colonizer and colonized as a binary opposition. It’s more complicated than that, and it’s a series of issues that turns on a highly Derridian sense of what one might mean by difference. All I want to say is that the relation, Said-Bhabha, is phase one-phase two in that regard as well.

By the way, this is a tendency that one can find in other forms of theory having to do with identity. The relationship between the classical feminism that we have been discussing so far and the gender theory that we will be discussing on Tuesday, especially in the case of Judith Butler, is once again a relation that could be understood as between structuralism and deconstruction. There, too, you have a not completely overlapping but, from the standpoint of our concerns in literary theory, nevertheless rather interesting way in which this succession, Said-Bhabha, is phase one-phase two in two different ways that can be identified, I think, usefully.

Chapter 4. The Relationship Between Said and Bhabha [00:20:51]

All right. So that then about their relationship. So what about Said? How do we get at the issues that Said wants to talk about and understand the way in which he thinks they have integrity? I think I’d like actually to begin with a word or two about truth, because Said makes it clear that in a way, the demonization of Orientalism that his project undertakes isn’t really undertaken because Orientalism is necessarily a pack of lies. Maybe he waffles a little bit about this, but it’s not really ultimately the point for him whether Orientalism lies or tells the truth. This is the way he puts it on page 1802 in the right-hand column:

… [A] third qualification. One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away. I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient… Nevertheless, what we must respect and try to grasp is the sheer knitted-together strength of Orientalist discourse…

In other words, one of Napoleon’s adjutants during Napoleon’s campaign through Egypt wrote a ten-volume Eastward de l’Egypt. Many of the texts which Said mentions in passing in his introduction to Orientalism are just as long. You’ve got fifty-volume, sort of gigantic scholarly undertakings, and you’ve got to admit, well, if they are saying that much, there’s got to be something in it that’s true. There is, after all, a great deal of knowledge of a certain kind, at least, that has gone into thinking of this kind, and so one can’t just say, “My point is that none of it’s true.” Said is at pains to make a distinction, therefore, between truth and value. It’s not that Orientalist discourse is necessarily true or false. It is the case though that it is insidiously devaluate of its object of attention–that there is an implicit euro-centrism which Said does go so far as to consider a form of racism in Orientalism, quite irrespective of any measure or degree of truth that what are, after all, the meticulous researches of a lot of these characters turn up. For example, on page 1812, the left-hand column, he says:

My analysis of the Orientalist text therefore places emphasis [this is about a third of the way down] on the evidence, which is by no means invisible, for such representations as representations, not as “natural” descriptions of the Orient.

Now we might pause for a minute over that as a possible object of critique because at the end of his essay, or at the end of the introduction as you have it, you notice Said saying, “Look, I don’t take up here the question of how one might actually write correctly [laughs] about these people.” He doesn’t take up, for example, the question of what it might be like to be sort of a representative of these minorities or colonized figures and to write about oneself. He doesn’t really take up the question of whether the bias of somebody else writing about me, a man writing about a woman, is worse than the bias of my own preconceptions and prejudices about myself. He admits that he doesn’t really have an advanced theory that secures one kind of representation as true or authentic and secures another kind of representation as bias and inauthentic. He says, “Another scholar will perhaps take this up. I leave it alone in my book,” and it is left alone, the problem being that the claim remains that he does–anticipating many other people who have written on this subject–he does impugn Orientalism as mere representation: that is to say, as the opposite because it is a representation, the opposite of a natural evocation of an ethos or world.

So we just do want to put a little question mark in the margin and then say, “Well, fine. Granted this is all representation, where is the text? Where could the text be that would be natural?” Is there, for example, any such thing, as we’ve asked ourselves over the course of the semester, as a natural sign? The sign being arbitrary, it does place us already pretty securely in the realm of representation. So all of these questions are then posed by Said’s sense of the relationship between truth and value in the history of Orientalist scholarship.

Chapter 5. The Master-Slave Dialectic [00:26:54]

Now where is he coming from? He’s quite open about it, and it’s perhaps worth pausing over an idea common to the two scholar-theorists who matter most to him, Michel Foucault and the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. First of all, just to pass in review the way in which he’s indebted to Gramsci on page 1803, the left-hand column, Said says:

Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent.

In other words, it’s not just a question of having forced down your throat certain ideas of concepts or laws, for that matter, but a circulation of knowledge, so called, of feeling about things, of ideology, which through consent establishes certain attitudes of bias. This is the distinction that Gramsci makes between the way in which one is imposed on by actual power and authority and the way in which one is imposed on by the circulations of what we’ve been exposed to in the past as being called “ideologemes.”

So to continue:

In any society not totalitarian [says Said], then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified ashegemony.

This is a term that you will frequently encounter, particularly in Marxist criticism, but it is also a term very closely related to what for most Western readers is more famous in the work of Michel Foucault, the term “power” or sometimes “power/knowledge.”

As you will learn in the excerpt from Foucault that you’ll be reading on Tuesday, Foucault like Gramsci makes a distinction between power merely as that which is exercised by the police, by the legal arm of society, by the dictator, by the government, and by power as the ways, the frequently insidious ways, in which knowledge is circulated and made hegemonic–that is to say, made authoritative. Foucault is fascinated by the structure of this circulation of knowledge. That is, in fact the essential subject matter of all of his late work, the way in which we are thinking that we are sort of free contemplative agents in the world, in fact browbeaten by structures of opinion circulating around us that lull us into feeling that we are in the presence of the truth, whereas of course, we’re only in the presence of one form or another of motivated bias. Both Gramsci and Foucault make the distinction between absolute power and, as Gramsci calls it, hegemony and, as Foucault calls it, power/knowledge.

Said is talking here about power/knowledge. He’s not talking about the imposition of law through force or any other means on a colonized world. He’s talking about the way in which opinions construct that world and simultaneously reinforce the authority of those who generate the opinions. I think it’s important to point this relatively subtle distinction out: he does, however, disagree from Foucault in one respect. On page 1813 he goes back to what we already know about Foucault, which is Foucault’s interest in the author function as opposed to the author. Authors, generally speaking, Foucault wants to say, are not authorities but simply vessels of forms of opinion. Certain authors who come very close to being authority we call founders of discursivity, but even in their cases it’s the nature of the discourse and not their existence as authors which is important. Said wants to say, “I take authors a little bit more seriously than that,” and he does on page 1813 in the right-hand column where he says:

Foucault believes that in general the individual text or author counts for very little; empirically [that is to say, “through my experience”], in the case of Orientalism, and perhaps nowhere else I find this not to be so.

In other words, the author is the central philologist, and social historians, explorers, and demographers who have written so extensively on this part of the world are authorities. They are the oracles from which generalized and ultimately commonplace opinions disseminate as power/knowledge. It’s not a question, therefore, of a kind of silent drumbeat of opinion expressing itself over and over again, which is more what interests Foucault. So Said, as I say, distinguishes himself subtly from Foucault in that regard while nevertheless confessing openly the influence both of Foucault and of Gramsci on his way of approaching his material.

So as a circulation of power, the effect of Orientalism is something that ultimately concerns Said.Well, he says this somewhat rhetorically because it obviously does concern him that it has an effect on the peoples in question, but what ultimately concerns Said is the effect of Orientalism on the Euro-centric mind, indeed the degree to which it even can be said to construct the Euro-centric mind, page 1806, the right-hand column:

… [M]y real argument is that Orientalism is–and does not simply represent–a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world.

Now here you can see the degree to which Said is saying something very similar to what Toni Morrison said in her essay. The existence of black as absence needs to be understood–for example, if we are studying the history of American literature–as the means of constructing whiteness, of that which liberates whiteness from the forms of constraint under which it’s been chafing at the bit. Morrison, of course, develops this argument beautifully, and she quite clearly takes it from the fourth chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind as a way of understanding the master-slave dialectic. In other words, in Hegel it’s clear as Hegel develops the idea that master and slave are absolutely necessary to each other in a structure of mutuality. The master isn’t the master, can’t define himself as free or superior without the existence of the slave. The trickiness that the slave learns being in the position of subordination involving the development of all sorts of complicated skills means ultimately that the slave becomes, as it were, that which drives the master technologically and ultimately controls the master in a kind of fable of class reversal, which continues to reverse itself again and again and again on various grounds. This is the fable, which at the same time is a philosophy of class relations that structures Morrison’s argument and which, I think, also structures Said’s.

Chapter 6. Bhabha: Ambivalence and Hybridity [00:36:12]

I want to make the transition to Bhabha because obviously this is a form of binarism. The two signifiers in relation to each other need each other in the way that we described when we were discussing Saussure and structuralism. I can’t simply say that a red light has positive value. You remember the whole argument: I have to see the red light in the context of the semiotic system to which it belongs. I have to see it as being different from, or opposed to, something else in order to grasp it. I cannot know it positively, in other words; I can only know it negatively.

This basic concept of structuralism in the Saussurian tradition is what creates, is what shapes binary arguments of the kind that one finds in Said. That we know ourselves negatively as the not-other is the basic principle, the theoretical principle which underlies obviously aspects of the argument which are also, as Said says, empirical. Yes, I can say it’s a structuralist idea, but I really believe it because I’ve seen it in operation. It’s not just structuralism in other words. It shares, however, with structuralism a theoretical predisposition.

Bhabha, if you look at page 1879, openly criticizes the premise of binarism of this kind–not just any binarism, but he actually does go directly back to Hegel. In other words, he identifies the source of thinking of this kind, bottom of 1879, right-hand column, when he says:

It is this ambivalence that makes the boundaries of colonial “positionality”–the division of self/other–and the question of colonial power–the differentiation of colonizer/colonized–different from both the Hegelian master/slave dialectic or the phenomenological projection of Otherness.

He goes on to mention other things, but I just want to focus on this as a moment in which Bhabha is distinguishing himself as clearly as he can from the project of Said.

Now the passage I just read begins with the word “ambivalence.” What does Bhabha mean by ambivalence? Let’s try to start there and see if we can work our way into Bhabha’s complex thinking on these matters, first by way of the notion of ambivalence. I’m going to put this in terms of an historical example because I hope that will make it a little clearer. There is the ambivalence of the colonizer toward the colonized. In other words, it’s not just one mindset that drives colonization. In the historical experience of England in the East India Company, there are two distinct phases, phases which actually repeat themselves recurrently even throughout the twentieth century. The first in the eighteenth century is the period of the government of the East India Company by Warren Hastings who in a certain sense was interested in what we call “going native” and also encouraged all of his provincial administrators to do likewise. Hastings, in other words, in Saidian terms knew a great deal about the Orientalized other. He knew all the local languages and dialects. He knew all the customs. He really knew everything there was to know and in a certain sense was a person who did go native while at the same time wielding with an iron grip of authority power over the colonized other. He himself then embodies a certain ambivalence in not giving an inch as to the actual control of authority, while at the same time seeming to become one with the other.

Then there is the historical ambivalence which expresses itself in a completely different attitude, an attitude which surfaced in the East India Company early in the nineteenth century under the supervisorship of Charles Grant. There had been a tremendous revival of fundamentalist religion, mainly Methodism, in England, and this evangelical enthusiasm spread itself into the interests of the empire. Charles Grant and others like him no longer had any interest at all in going native but, on the contrary, insisted that a standard of Englishness and, in particular, the standard of the English Bible–the coming of the English book that Bhabha talks about at the beginning of his essay–be firmly implanted, and that the imposition of Englishness on the colonized other be the agenda of colonization. The famous historian Thomas Babington Macaulay codified this attitude in a famous, and soon to be infamous, document he wrote called “The Minute on Education,” which insisted that the education of the Indian people under the regime of the East India Company be conducted strictly according to English models: that missionaries no longer try to adapt their ideas to local customs and folk ways but that everything be strictly anglicized. This is a completely different attitude toward colonization, and it can be understood as a sort of historical ambivalence.

I’d actually like to pause over an example of what you might call the Warren Hastings moment, a vicious example although an absolutely fascinating one in the disturbing masterpiece by John Ford called The Searchers. I hope some of you at least know that film. The John Wayne character is sort of a lone stranger–which is of course not infrequent in the western–who shows up at the house of some relatives and hears that a daughter has been abducted by native Americans, by Indians. Now the thing about John Wayne is that in this film is that he’s a vicious racist, that he absolutely hates the Indians, but he is not a vicious racist from the standpoint of ignorance. He is in fact a person who has himself, in a certain sense, gone native. He knows all the Indian languages and dialects. He knows all their customs. He has throughout a lifetime made a careful study of the people he hates, and this is a volatile mixture to be exposed to in a film because we are much more comfortable with the idea that hatred arises out of ignorance, right? What is so deeply disturbing about John Ford’s The Searchers is that it is a portrait of absolutely vicious racism: again Said says, “Hey, it’s not necessarily truth, but we do have to acknowledge a certain local, thick description. We have to acknowledge that there’s quite a bit of information [laughs] at this person’s disposal, and all of that is borne out in the characterization of John Wayne in this film.

Warren Hastings was a lot like that. Warren Hastings knew everything about people whom he ultimately didn’t really respect and whom he insisted on ruling with the iron fist of authority. That’s the kind of thing that Bhabha is thinking about when he thinks about the ambivalence of the colonizer, the relationship between knowledge and value as it’s already been enunciated in Said but also the fact that there is more than one mindset for the colonizer. There is the local knowledge mindset, and there is the sort of raising the absolute unequivocal standard of the colonizer that these are two different attitudes, each of which dictate different strategies, particularly strategies of education.

So that’s the ambivalence of the colonizer. Then there is the ambivalence of the colonized, and that, too, has to be understood as a complex relation to co-optation. The anecdote with which Bhabha begins, I think, is fascinating and well worth attending to. You have not a colonizer but someone thoroughly co-opted, an evangelical converted Christian of Indian descent who represents, in a way, that the people he finds sitting under the trees reading the Bible consider to be completely authentic because he believes and is perfectly happy to believe that the Bible, and for that matter Christianity itself, is an English gift. But he’s met with the response of people who resist that, who say, “This is very interesting stuff. We wish we could have some local authority for it. Our understanding is we got this book directly from God, right? That’s our understanding and we have our own attitude toward it. Sure, maybe we’ll get baptized one of these days, but in the meantime we got to go home and take care of the harvest, so we’ll get around to that. Don’t worry about it. By the way, if we get baptized we certainly can’t take the Eucharist because that’s eating meat. We don’t eat meat. We are who we are.”

You can see that these cunningly insinuated provisos to the attitude that the missionary wants to inculcate in them in a very real way completely undermines his purpose. They don’t think of it as the English Bible. They won’t accept it as the English Bible. They will only accept it as an authority that’s mediated by their own values, which transforms the document. You can see it again–this is1813, as Bhabha points out. This is precisely at the moment when we’re moving, when the regime of authority is moving from the Warren Hastings paradigm to the Charles Grant paradigm. It’s no longer possible to think in terms of adapting the Bible to local beliefs and circumstances.

This is a moment in which the complexity of the attitude of the colonized is brought up. There’s the attitude of the suborned missionary, and there’s the more complicated and interesting attitude of the people he encounters sitting under these trees. Turn to page 1881, the left-hand column. This is a very difficult passage. Everything in Bhabha is difficult. I think I want to gloss it by suggesting to you that what he’s talking about is that the ambivalence which–and we might as well say right out that he has a term for this ambivalence, and it’s “hybridity”–is the double consciousness of the colonized hovering between submission–that is to say, submission to authority but with a difference, submission to authority on one’s own terms, and on the other hand, acquiescence in authority as given, which of course is basically the position of the missionary. With that said, I’ll read the passage in which Bhabha describes this hybridity in the double consciousness of the colonized:

The place of difference and otherness, or the space of the adversarial, within such a system of “disposal” as I have proposed, is never entirely on the outside or implacably oppositional. [Not just, in other words, again as a question of us versus them.] It is a pressure, and a presence, that acts constantly, if unevenly, along the entire boundary of authorization [which is also authority], that is, on the surface between what I’ve called disposal-as-bestowal [I take that meaning submission–simply “okay, fine, I give in”] and disposition-as-inclination [which is “hey, I kind of like that, I go along with it, I give in spontaneously”].

Chapter 7. “Sly Civility” as Signifyin’ [00:50:40]

Now to give in simply as a form of recognizing that one’s beaten, as a form of submission, puts one in the position of what Bhabha calls “sly civility.” This is the position that I’d like to go back to for a moment as being very closely related to what Gates calls signifyin’. Bhabha gives a number of examples of this sly civility in his text, but of course it’s all present in the clever and wonderfully rich ironies of these figures sitting under the trees in his opening anecdote. Let me just give you an example of how sly civility works as a form of signifyin’ and as a stance of colonized resistance, a recuperation of the will, perhaps in a post-modern sense, which is nevertheless not rebellious, not in any way envisioning an overthrow of authority, but is a means of living in the framework of authority.

Just a quick example and then I’ll let you go. Two African-American people are having a conversation in the presence of a white person, and they cheerfully and with broad smiles on their face refer to this person in his presence as Bill. Now “Bill” is a derisive and derogatory term for white people, and the white person standing there has two choices in response to hearing himself referred to as “Bill”: he can either take umbrage and say, “Why are you saying that about me? I’m a nice guy. You don’t want to say that,” in which case the needling effect of the term has taken hold; or he can play the fool and pretend that he doesn’t know that he’s being signified on and pretend that, well, it’s perfectly okay to be called “Bill.” Either way you see it’s a win/win situation. This guy, Bill, is the slave owner, right? He likes to get along with people, so he’s sitting around having this conversation and he hears them calling him “Bill,” right? Because there is an element of good nature in his slave-owning personality, he’s stuck. He can either complain that people are treating him unfairly–which of course is neither here nor there in terms of the structure of power involved–or he can play the fool and pretend that he doesn’t even notice that he’s being made fun of. Either way, this is an example of that sly civility which signifies on the man and which makes it clear that while the structure of power can’t be overthrown anytime soon, there nevertheless is a way of living–at least of keeping one’s sense of humor within the existing structure of power–while giving the man a hard time.

That is the set of attitudes that Bhabha is articulating in his notion of the hybridity of the colonized, which takes the form in performance–we’re going to have a lot more to say about performance on Tuesday–in performance of this sly civility. I think it’s on page 1889 that he gives us that expression, which I think you should keep hold of–which I would compare very closely with what Henry Louis Gates calls “signifyin’.” Okay. See you on Tuesday.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]