Lost in Space:
Siting/citing the in-between of Homi Bhabha's
The Location of Culture [1]


Lawrence Phillips

University of Sussex

Copyright (c) 1998 by Lawrence Phillips, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

The dialectic is back on the agenda. But it is no longer Marx's dialectic, just as Marx's was no longer Hegel's. . . . The dialectic today no longer clings to historicity and historical time, or to a temporal mechanism such as 'thesis-antithesis-synthesis' or 'affirmation-negation-negation of the negation' . . . . To recognise space, to recognise what 'takes place' there and what it is used for, is to resume the dialectic: analysis will reveal the contradictions of space.

Henri Lefebvre

Space has its own values, just as sounds and perfumes have colours, and feelings weight.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

  1. As my epigraph from Henri Lefebvre signals, my intention here is to present a materialist critique of Homi Bhabha's controversial collection of essays The Location of Culture. Such a project must follow very much in the wake of Benita Parry's trenchant materialist analysis of the same work. However, as the second of my epigraphs indicates, my approach will recognise that Marxist analysis must develop beyond what Bhabha characterises as the reabsorption of "historical difference" into "the base-superstructure division" (Bhabha 1994: 221) to also recognise subjective experience. Yet the 'location' from which Bhabha frames this criticism (and dismissal) reflects his disingenuous stance towards materialist analysis. This stance refuses to recognise that Marx himself appreciated that developments in ideology and art--Bhabha's own chosen field of analysis, culture--were far from simplistically determined by the socio-economic base. Rather, the development of art (culture) can be "out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation" (Marx 1973: 110). This disjunctive, ambivalent relation between 'culture' and the socio-economic base has produced a rich seam of work broadly termed cultural materialist, which Bhabha wilfully ignores by supplanting materialism entirely with the discursive abstraction that Parry terms "the linguistic turn in cultural studies" (Parry 1994: 5).
  2. Given this penchant in Bhabha's work "for in between states and moments of hybridity" (Bhabha 1994: 208) that he locates in cultural articulation, the elision of Marx's recognition that culture can be "out of all proportion" is all the more troubling. Indeed, disingenuous. This brings into question the political 'location' of Bhabha's work. However, the very nature of Bhabha's discursive technique presents a vista of ever shifting theoretical terminology, punning and neologisms, that tend to deflect a consistent line of rigorous questioning traceable across the entirety of the collection. As Robert Young observes by reversing Bhabha's criticism of Fanon on its originator: he is driven "from one conceptual scheme to another" (Young 1990: 146). Young is rather too eager to praise this tactic as the subversion of universalist Western theory, recognising some congruence with his own brand of anti-Marxist deconstruction. Yet Bhabha's critics (including both Parry and Young) seem to ignore the one consistent terminological lexicon to which Bhabha invariably resorts: space.
  3. This is an especially unfortunate oversight by Bhabha's materialist critics since this identifies a site where the expression of what is "out of proportion" in cultural production can be interrogated through materialist analysis. Indeed, as Lefebvre demands: "To recognise space, to recognise what 'takes place' there and what it is used for, is to resume the dialectic; analysis will reveal the contradictions of space" (Lefebvre 1976: 17). It is only within the last decade that the importance of Lefebvre's work in this respect has been recognised, reasserting the importance of space to critical studies. An importance that was always present in Marx's work if only there were eyes to see it. Indeed, it betrays "an astonishing spatial sensibility" which, as Foucault notes "has been left practically fallow for the sake of endless commentaries on surplus value" (Foucault 1980: 77). This is not to denigrate the importance of surplus value to Marxist analysis, but simply to recognise that capital accumulation takes place in a space; a space that has been produced and is acutely sensitive to social relationships.
  4. "Space" writes Lefebvre "and the political organisation of space express social relationships but also react back on them" (Lefebvre 1970: 25). Such a spatial analysis extends Marx's original observation of what might be called the dialectical relationship between culture and the material base, to encompass the entire realm of the social. Lefebvre's subtle reformulation is of the utmost relevance to contemporary cultural criticism: here he is positing that the production and reproduction of social space exists in dialectical relationship with the material base. Not only is the 'social' responsive to changes in economic relations, but the material base is responsive to changes in social praxis which must shape the material and imaginary social landscape. This is very much the focus of Fredric Jameson's work on postmodernism/late capitalism (Jameson 1991). Yet it is this link to material effects in lived space that is invariably lost in Bhabha's disturbing slippage between actual and abstract spaces, especially in relation to colonialism: very much a lived social landscape in terms of violence and repression, Bhabha's own ostensible subject . One can plot the movement away from Jameson's attempt to maintain the ambivalent connection between material and abstract space in the following passage:

    The radical discontinuity that exists between bourgeois private life and the 'unimaginable' decentring of global capital does not find its scheme of representation in the spatial position or the representational visibility of the free-standing, disjoined sentences, to which Jameson insistently draws our attention. What must be mapped as a new international space of discontinuous historical realities is, in fact, the problem of signifying the interstitial passages and processes of cultural difference that are inscribed in the "in-between," in the temporal break-up that weaves the "global text." (Bhabha 1994: 216-217)

  5. Bhabha responds here to Jameson's attempt to connect the radical discontinuities, juxtapositions and gaps of the post-modern social spaces of lived experience and cultural expression (what Lefebvre would call lived "representational spaces" and abstracted, cultural, "representations of space" Lefebvre 1991: 41), with structural, material, reformulation. Thence "bourgeois private life"; the "decentring of global capital"; the "so-called death of the self"; the "enormous tactical difficulties of co-ordinating local . . . political actions with national or international ones." Above all, for Jameson, "Such spatial peculiarities [are] symptoms and expressions of a new and historically original dilemma" (Jameson 1991: 413). This is an attempt to trace the contradictions of this shifting, developing, space through a dialectic that avoids temporal reductionism. This ambivalent, disjunctive moment hesitates as dilemma. It is historical change taking place in, and affecting, space. Process, in a word. Of course, the specific co-ordinates of Jameson's analysis remain open to question. What I want to emphasise here is the method of analysis itself; one that recognises that historical change takes place in both material and abstract space, indissolubly tied together in social space and the praxis that gives it form. To perhaps belabour the point, Harvey observes that capital builds up a physical landscape--to which I would add a mutually responsive abstract landscape, i.e. social space--"in perpetual struggle . . . appropriate to its own condition at a particular moment in time, only to have to destroy it, usually in the course of crisis, at a subsequent moment in time" (Harvey 1974: 124).
  6. What, then, does Bhabha seek to posit in place of this model? First of all, he rejects Jameson's proposition that the disjunctive characteristics of this social space can be found in the "spatial position" or "representational visibility" of the fragmented social 'text' (Bhabha 1994: 217). Neither expression is actually used by Jameson, who refers to "spatial peculiarities" and ideological frames and practices, e.g. "bourgeois private life." In fact, Jameson is speaking of positions and representations and Bhabha's reductionism here is important. For it is such plurality that he wishes to claim for his own argument, thereby recasting Jameson's Marxism as both monolithic and totalising. This is where he characteristically resorts to a series of spatially derived metaphors conjoined with a poststructualist "linguistic turn" (Parry 1994: 5). For Jameson's "discontinuous historical realities" are supplanted by 'mapping' "the problem of signifying the interstitial passages and processes of cultural difference that are inscribed in the 'in-between,' in the temporal break-up that weaves the global 'text' (Bhabha 1994: 217). Yet the 'difference' he wishes to plot here is reduced to a purely textual effect. In this contextualisation, 'interstitial' and 'in-between' seem to be merely gaps and discontinuities in the 'text.' How does one measure "temporal break-up" when material space and the history inscribed on and in it, has been shunted into a textual abstraction?
  7. Elsewhere in the collection, it is clear that Bhabha relies heavily on a particular reading of Derrida--especially supplementarity and différance--and Lacan to achieve discursive manoeuvres of this sort. These are both areas I wish to examine, but for the moment we need to consider further this 'primary scene' by which material space is 'translated' (to appropriate one of Bhabha's own terms) into an entirely abstracted linguistic metaphor. Lefebvre forcibly describes the dangers of this sort of strategy:

    To some degree, perhaps, these ideas are deformed or distorted in the process, but the net result is that a particular 'theoretical space' produces a mental space which is apparently, but only apparently, extra-ideological. In an inevitably circular manner, this mental space then becomes the locus of a 'theoretical practice' which is separated from social practice and which sets itself up as the axis, pivot or central reference point of knowledge. (Lefebvre 1991: 6)

    This observation is astonishingly prescient (Lefebvre was writing in 1974) in relation to the concluding remarks Bhabha prepared for the collection. Here Bhabha claims to have unearthed the "spatial boundaries" of a "spatial time" of modernity. And what does this amount to? but a "postcolonial archaeology" (Bhabha 1994: 254). Clearly, what Bhabha is suggesting a field of knowledge and a 'theoretical practice' predicated on an 'in-between,' 'interstitial space' that is always 'beyond' the boundaries of whatever discursive, ideological and material practices he wishes to escape. In effect, it is boundless, unrestrainable; a field of endless play. Yet he also claims a certain solidity for this 'space'; an actual political practice, an experiential history, a utopian ontology perhaps, enabled by an epistemology of continual escape routes or, at least, escape from 'roots' to reformulate Paul Carter's pun (Carter1987).

  8. The problem here is the very indeterminacy of 'location', which generates what appears to be an unintentional irony in relation to the title of the collection. Unintended because of the seriousness with which the following claim can be made: "I have attempted to constitute a postcolonial, critical discourse that contests modernity through the establishment of other historical sites, other forms of enunciation" (Bhabha 1994: 254). Of course, the question is where this history manifests itself, where is this site of enunciation? The answer is the inevitably circular logic foreseen by Lefebvre, which Bhabha attempts to enable at one point by conflating Lacan and Toni Morrison: "Lacan calls this kind of inside/out/outside/in space a moment of extremité: a traumatic moment of the 'not there' or the indeterminate or the unknowable" (Bhabha 1994: 206). A place/space that is 'not there,' 'indeterminate' and 'unknowable' has no existence, a utopia, a 'no-where.' Yet on closer examination, even the theoretical practices drawn on here seem to circle back on his assertion. As Lacan notes:

    [Desire] is an effect in the subject of that condition which is imposed upon him by the existence of the discourse to cause his need to pass through the defiles of the signifier. (Lacan 1977:264)

  9. "Even the most traditional historical narrative" Bhabha observes, "accedes to the language of fantasy and desire" (Bhabha 1994: 97). Yet in Bhabha's textual practice it is not the desire of the coloniser's narrative that betrays, but his own. One is led inexorably to question whether the Western located and theoretically informed postcolonial theorist is displacing his own desire and fantasy in relation to the object of his own narrative. An object that he shares with the colonial texts that he criticises: the generalised, stereotyped, colonial/postcolonial subject. As Spivak observes, "exploitation is abstract" (Spivak 1994: 296) and Bhabha's theoretical gymnastics create an unlocateable, abstract discursive space into which his own exploitative epistemological voyeurism can be displaced. Despite Bhabha's own claims to subvert and displace "the ontology of [the] white world [and] its assumed hierarchical forms of rationality and universality" (Bhabha 1994: 237), there is no doubt that he dominates the discursive space that he creates. It is not a space of a powerful egalitarian postcolonial critique, but a personal 'play'/ground.[2] A practice that expropriates and incorporates the other, reproducing "at a conceptual level the geographical and economic absorption of the non-European world by the West" (Young 1990: 3). Here, Young's criticism of Marxism can be located in the work of a theorist of whom he approves. The estrangement of this discursive space from any experiential connection to lived-in space, reduces whatever is sited, or cited from, there to a textual abstraction. Subjectivity and agency remain as handicapped and 'subjected' to surveillance in this 'space' as in the most repressive colonial discourse. It is not the spatial metaphor itself that achieves this, but Bhabha's choice to sever all connection to materiality. A spatial critique can be enabling through the interconnection of the abstract and material, as Kathleen Kirby observes:

    . . . Ideas about space form a kind of philosophical palimpsest for descriptions of politics, epistemology, and subjectivity; they are theory's substrate or foundation, upon which the whole critical edifice stands; but they also provide a kind of 'guarantee,' a solid referent outside language to which the intended line of argument can refer for stability, credibility, substantiality. (Kirby 1996: 1)

  10. Yet one must also consider this question: does the deployment of this spatial metaphor work discursively and coherently as an abstract analytical tool? This would provide a counter argument for theoretical abstraction: whenever have such tools been material, yet their efficacy is in no way diminished? This brings us back to the work of Jacques Derrida, one of Bhabha's principal theoretical touchstones and perhaps the source of some of his spatial abstractions, although Bhabha does not share Derrida's awareness of the "limits of spatial logic as it relates to intelligibility." Yet attempts to interrogate such limits present their own difficulty. As Barbara Johnson notes: "some measure of the difficulties involved may be derived from the fact that 'to break out of' is still a spatial metaphor" (Johnson 1979: 481). Derrida's anxiety about spatial metaphors may be traced in Lefebvre's observation that "an abstract form . . . can easily be perceived as atemporal and therefore non-produced--that is, metaphysical" (Lefebvre 1991: 68). An obvious anathema to Derrida, but is this the case with Bhabha?
  11. Bhabha adopts/adapts two key concepts from Derrida: différance and the 'supplement.' He on occasion uses others, although they are generally subordinated to these two which are crucial in the formulation of his discursive spaces. Accordingly, it is worth exploring in some detail Bhabha's own explanation for their deployment in his work. First différance[3]:

    It unsettles any simplistic polarities or binarisms in identifying the exercise of power--Self/Other--and erases the analogical dimension in the articulation of sexual difference. It is empty of that depth of verticality that creates a totemic resemblance of form and content (Abgrund) ceaselessly renewed and replenished by the groundspring of history . . . [It] is nothing in itself; and it is this structure of difference that produces the the hybridity of race and sexuality in the postcolonial discourse. (Bhabha 1994: 53)

    Bhabha seems to suggest here that history is not made or lived as a temporal process in material space, but as the fluctuation of meaning that characterises the signifier's displacement along the chain of signification. This can be recognised as a temporal process yet history, in this formulation, must be analogous to the deferral of absolute signification. Since the deferral is limitless, or at best circular, history itself can never signify absolutely; have any absolute meaning. Nor can it exist in any other form than flux. This is where such abstractions betray their ambivalent political consequences. For despite the rhetoric of movement and growth, nothing can happen within such a conceptual frame other than endless difference and deferral. When applied to lived, material experience, the model becomes moribund and potentially fascistic in its structural rigidity. Analogous to what Lefebvre describes as fascism's fascination with the façade and its apparent solidity (Lefebvre 1991: 275). Indeed, Bhabha drifts perilously close to what Walter Benjamin warned is fascism's aestheticisation of politics (Benjamin 1970). What he seems to propose is that his "structure of difference" is immutable and, by implication, the experiential space to which he applies it equally unchangeable. All that is possible is a politics of positionality and, hence, struggle for power over the mechanisms of domination. As Adorno and Horkheimer--again with astonishing prescience--noted long ago, "There is no longer any available form of linguistic expression which has not tended toward accommodation to dominant currents of thought; and what a devalued language does not do automatically is proficiently executed by societal mechanisms" (Horkheimer and Adorno 1989: xii).

  12. One can see the reason for his reluctance to countenance any form of historical materialism, since it would expose the paucity and, no doubt unintended, political consequences behind his conceptual frame. "When we evoke 'time'" writes Henri Lefebvre, "we must immediately say what it is that moves or changes therein. Space considered in isolation is an empty abstraction; likewise energy and time" (Lefebvre 1991: 12). To talk of a "groundspring of history" within such a frame is mere gesturism, since history has been hollowed to leave only a metaphorical shell that deploys the language of "renewal" and "replenishment." Yet this discursive space reduces its transformative energy to a hermeneutic difference and sterile deferral of change/meaning. The only energy that can fuel activity in this space is that brought by the theorist by whom it is dominated. As I have already noted, it is impossible to discern any real difference between this discursive strategy and that of colonial discourse.
  13. The problem with this model is not restricted to temporality, but also sexual and racial difference. There is of course a superficial seductiveness to Bhabha's use of this linguistic metaphor for those who experience the yoke of domination most acutely. If the structure is immutable, but its apex occupied by the Western, male, white colonial subject, oppression would be overcome simply by a discursively disabling/displanting it. However, whilst Bhabha castigates Western theoretical dabbling with difference for its own institutional purposes, within a "certain cultural space . . . a form of theoretical knowledge that deconstructs the epistemological 'edge' of the West" (Bhabha 1994: 31). What does Bhabha's own strategy achieve? The epistemological structure remains, merely suffering a change of overseer. The structure that produces and inscribes difference would simply produce another abjected other, whereas the challenge of a progressive criticism should be to tackle the process of abjection itself. There is within this model no place for flexible subjectivities, no place for the hybridity that Bhabha claims. Only permanent differences and deferral as each new dominating alignment is displaced in turn, which is the only movement guaranteed by such a conceptual structure imposed over experiential space. This is to miss a lesson expounded by Michel Foucault: that the overthrow of a power apparatus leaving its disciplinary mechanisms intact, fails in its revolutionary intent (Foucault 1980).
  14. This brings us to the 'supplement':

    What takes (the) place, in Derrida's supplementary sense, is the disembodied evil eye the subaltern instance, that wreaks its revenge by circulating, without being seen. It across the boundaries of master and slave; it opens up a space in-between . . . the Southern Hemisphere of slavery and the Northern Hemisphere of diaspora and migration, which then become uncannily doubled in the fantasmic scenario of the political unconscious. (Bhabha 1994: 55)

  15. Again we can see here the insistence on deferred meaning represented by another expression that implies movement--circulation--without temporal progress. An absent, emptied history. Bhabha writes elsewhere that his deployment of such temporalised metaphors implies a "passage" that disrupts the linear history of Western hegemony in a form of "postcolonial time-lag" (Bhabha 1994: 253). He quite rightly attacks the Enlightenment notion of progess, recognising its complicity with colonialism. Thence the 'time-lag' reminds 'Western history' of its own discontinuous anterior of colonial aggression. This is all very well, but 'progress' and 'history' are not synonymous terms. That is what Western ideologies present as 'truth'. In a surprising way Bhabha seems to accept this ideological formulation--that progress is Western history--and bases his own critique on an oppositional anti-history. The concept of history itself must be undone rather than "the myth of progress" that colonialism conjoined with it. What this leaves for the postcolonial subject, is an enunciatory position which volunteers the self-effacement of historical specificity--"circulating without being seen." As with the "structure of difference" this leaves the Western discursive field--progress/history--intact. All that seems to be achieved is the evacuation/abandonment of the postcolonial subject/theorist from that structure into an indeterminate space 'in-between.' What Bhabha might call after Fanon a "zone of occult instability" (Fanon 1967: 182-3). Yet this is not a place of dwelling, it seems, but rather one of self-exile.
  16. To return to the 'supplement', this certainly provides Bhabha's escape route. He quotes Gasché to emphasise the positive reading he desires: "supplements . . . are pluses that compensate for a minus in the origin" (Bhabha 1994: 155 / Gasché 1986: 211). Clearly, he envisions the postcolonial subject/theorist positively abandoning the 'minus' of the colonial ship, thence disrupting its balance by eliding the validation given by the binary self/other that the 'colonised subject' completes. However, Derrida's use of 'supplementarity' is as a critical tool to describe a condition of language and the Western philosophical tradition, not a positive path of self-empowerment.[4] The function of the 'supplement' for Derrida does not lead to an enabling "third space" (Bhabha 1994: 37ff), but is symptomatic of that action of language which perpetuates Western metaphysics. "One cannot determine the centre" observes Derrida, "and exhaust totalisation because the sign which replaces the centre, which supplements it, taking the centre's place in its absence--this sign is added, occurs as a surplus or as a supplement" (Derrida 1992: 119). Thence the supplement stands in for the centre that closes off play, stands in for the metaphysical centre that exists simultaneously both within and without the text. What Bhabha relies on in his adoption of this concept is Derrida's insistence that it must ultimately fail to do so under the weight of the contradiction it supports: a centre both inside and outside the text. Yet the point that he misses is that the invisibility of the contradiction is ensured by extra-textual, material, mechanisms of power.
  17. For Bhabha this supplement is the "subaltern instance", standing in, or out, as a centre that delimits the play of difference. Just as with his deployment of différance, the theoretical movement that is intended to create the "ambivalent space" (for Western discourse) of subaltern enunciation (Bhabha 1994: 37), merely reproduces the discursive structure of Western colonial domination. But worse here, the supplement which closes off play--the possibility of hybrid significations--is not the notion of God or universalist Enlightenment progress, but the "subaltern instance" itself. Bhabha's use of supplement is not the master key (un passe-partout) of deconstruction, but the closed door of totalising metaphysical abstraction. Precisely what he purports to unravel.
  18. It is this tendency towards totalisation, even as he denies the universalism of Western theorisation, which invites repressive political consequences. Further, Bhabha's language of 'circulation'--abstract spaces of exchange, an ideological structure that operates "without being seen" (Bhabha 1994: 55)--is redolent of the circulation of capital itself: capital is always in a state of 'in-between.' A capitalism that created the conditions for colonialism here finds its 'late' refinement: subjectivity--or more specifically the postcolonial instance/subject/theorist--is commodified in a moment of infinite exchange and 'translation.' Indeed, as Adorno and Horkheimer observe, we have reached a state "in which thought inevitably becomes a commodity, and language the means of promoting that commodity" (Horkheimer and Adorno 1989: xi-xii). This brings us back to Bhabha's attack on Jameson's materialism. One might begin to recognise the political unconscious of his own work in this observation from Jameson's essay "Cognitive Mapping":

    . . . a certain unifying and totalising force is presupposed here--although it is not the Hegelian Absolute Spirit, nor the party, nor Stalin, but simply capital itself . . . It is at least certain that the notion of capital stands or falls with the notion of some unified logic of this social system itself [and the spaces generated by it], that is to say in stigmatised . . . that both are irrecoverably totalising concepts. (Jameson 1988: 348)

  19. If one of the consequences of Bhabha's adaptation of Derridean techniques is the reduction of subaltern subjectivity into commodified 'translation' across a totalising discursive space structured by capital, what of his more direct uses of Freud and Lacan? Bhabha utilises Lacan's notion of the Imaginary which forms in the subject during the formative mirror phase. His intent is to claim that this moment is analogous to the "scopic space" of colonial surveillance (Bhabha 1994: 76-7). Specifically, he draws a comparison between the colonist's construction of the colonial other as a simulacrum of 'himself' yet marked by a disjunctive difference: "white but not quite" (Bhabha 1994: 86). In this "scopic space," the idealised self-image of the mirror stage is inscribed and marked as other; fearful and different it threatens to undermine the fiction of the narcissistic unified subject--the imaginary reflection of the consciousness. Certainly, Lacan (and Freud before him) are creating an elaborate spatial metaphor to present their own theories "by materialising the interior of the psyche." Kirby continues: "[Freud] studied the psyche as an interior space, seeing is not as solid or object, but as an open bounded environment occupied by warring factions" (Kirby 1996: 77).
  20. As a mode of explication, the metaphor works well. This interior space is not preceding the material subject as such; theoretical space is not producing a material space, to return to the terms of Lefebvre's critique (Lefebvre 1974: 6). At least, not intentionally. Indeed, Lacan especially shared Derrida's concern over spatial abstractions by seeking to "displace the Euclidean model of understanding (comprehension, for example, means spatial inclusion) by inventing a 'new geometry' by means of the logic of knots" (Johnson 1979: 481). However, Bhabha takes Lacan's abstraction, tears it from its theoretical context and then attempts to redefine a material relationship. That is, the aggression of colonial space and the master/slave binary this involves is displaced again into one of Bhabha's 'in-betweens.' The discursive benefits of such a conceptual manoeuvre is that Bhabha can re-read this relationship as in some way auto-resistive. That is, resistance is inherent to the theoretical structure that he imports into the complex relationship between coloniser and Westernised 'native.' A colonial identity that is "played out . . . in the face and space of this disruption and threat from the heterogeneity of other positions" (Bhabha 1994: 77).
  21. Yet once again, whilst this has clear discursive benefits, one cannot escape the conclusion that the horror and sheer injustice of the original, lived experience has been somehow lost in an indefinable, unlocatable abstract textual space. The implication seems to be that what is being displaced is some sort of discursive guilt, a desire to overcome or de-stigmatise the complicity of Bhabha's own writing with Western discourse. I want to be clear here about what I am criticising. As a white, male, Western academic writing from the postcoloniality of a formerly imperial country, I am hardly free from possible charges of guilt displacement. Such disabling charges can only be levied by those intent on marginalising radical postcolonial theorists and writers. That is not my intent here. What I am focusing on here, is the need Bhabha seems to feel to do this through the maintenance of what is, effectively, the discursive vestiges of colonial mechanisms of power: Western academic discourse. Yet even here I must qualify my own position to pin down exactly the angle of my critique, otherwise I am at risk of reproducing the somewhat reactionary politics into which Bhabha's anti-materialist approach unfortunately drifts--or, rather, never seems to escape.
  22. I am in agreement with Bhabha's view that theory and politics are inseparable. The illusion of separation is the tendency of Western discourse to ideologically naturalise itself as universalistic truth. Likewise, one might incorporate the equally illusionary boundaries between history and culture. Where he and I must part company, however, is located in the following statement:

    Is our only way out of such dualism the espousal of an implacable oppositionality or the invention of an originary counter-myth of radical purity? Must the project of our liberationist aesthetics be forever part of a totalising Utopian of Being and History seeks to transcend the contradictions and ambivalences that constitute the very structure of human subjectivity and its systems of cultural representation. (Bhabha 1994: 19)

    This passage resonates with Foucault's critique of Western epistemology, and the oppositional structures that appear to be complicit with it: 'the logic of contradiction' (Foucault 1980). And much like Young's more explicit stance, it is an attack on the principal formulation of Western political and theoretical radicalism: Marxism. This is not to suggest that Marxism should eschew critical engagement with its fundamental tenets, but Bhabha's (and Young's) outright hostility seems to preclude them form considering materialist analysis. The premise of such an epistemology, observes Lefebvre, is to "transfer onto the level of discourse, of language per se--i.e. the level of mental space--a large proportion of the attributes and 'properties' of what is actually social space" (Lefebvre 1991: 7). Social space becomes 'unlived,' ahistorical and apolitical at best, conservative at worst. As my introduction suggested, it is necessary to recognise that Marxism needs to develop away from its totalising inheritance from Western epistemology. Yet in seeking to reject material opposition, one runs the risk of complicity or, worse, self-effacement. Even Young recognises this difficulty: "The only way to side-step these alternatives seems to be to reject the other altogether and become the same" (Young 1990: 6).

  23. This appears to be the source of both Bhabha's theoretical play and his discursive need to displace an anxiety of complicity into blacked-out spatial abstractions that just cannot be located, or relocated, and dissipate/disappear as they are approached. Young's 'side-step' has its risks as Bhabha demonstrates. By only opposing those who hold the reins of power without simultaneously attempting to dismantle the mechanisms of power which gives the Western subject its power (here Western ontology and epistemology), results in the repetition of those power structures and that subjectivity: "to become the same.' In other words, presenting back to that subjectivity an untroubled, secure mirror-image of unified selfhood that Bhabha failed to destabilise through Lacanian psychoanalysis.
  24. Alternatively, one side steps into a non-corporeal abstract space conjured from language; to simply disappear or to shout one's opposition from a sideline that provides an illusion of security and empowerment but no direct participation: i.e. beyond 'play.' Meanwhile, the physical atrocities of colonialism and late/global capitalism continue. It is a sobering reflection that however many abstract spatial boltholes are (con)textualised, such discursive practices would not prevent one Falklands War enabled by the persisting mechanisms of British colonialism (to which the Irish can attest). Nor a Gulf War conducted with lethal vigour whilst Global Capitalism (and U.S. economic imperialism) was in periodic crisis and supported, in part, by no few formerly colonised nations and individuals.[5] It is not enough to discursively displace or deny textual space to the Western subject. The mechanisms of power that exist in experiential space must also be opposed. Otherwise différance merely operates as an epistemological 'cat and mouse' chase, as the western subject continues to produce its other and the realisation of that Other as a corporeal subject is deferred. To reiterate Lefebvre's assertion: "To recognise space, to recognise what 'takes place' there and what it is used for, is to resume the dialectic: analysis will reveal the contradictions of space" (Lefebvre 1976: 17). There is still time and space, in fact an overwhelming need, for a materialist critique.


  1. © Unisa Press. First published in scrutiny 2: issues in english studies in southern africa, Vol. 3 No. 1, 1998, pp. 16-25.

    Unisa Press Journals Site


  2. The pun on Derrida's "play of differences" is intended here. It is implicit in Bhabha's use of supplementarity and différance. Back
  3. It is worth recalling how Derrida describes the 'structure' of différance, which is "the non-full non-unity 'origin'; it is the structured and differing/deferring [différante] origin of differences" (from Speech and Phenomena, Evanston, Ill.: 1973). Derrida certainly intends his concept to undermine binary oppositions, but specifically in language. Indeed, the 'structure of difference' for Derrida is constitutive of language itself. Given that colonial/postcolonial and sexual difference are only partly constituted by discourse (language) and entails significant experiential practice, the theoretical 'weight' that Bhabha draws from Derrida is questionable without clarifying how he formulates this movement from discursive abstraction to social praxis. Back
  4. Similar comments to 2 above relate to Bhabha's use of the 'supplement.' Certainly, Bhabha is attracted to the ambiguity of both terms: to defer/differ and addition/substitute, and attempt to apply this to colonial/postcolonial and, by implication, to practice. Yet it's worth stressing again, Derrida formulates these concepts in relation to words. Ann Jefferson notes: "Ambiguity of this kind and degree demonstrates very forcibly that words are not determined on a one-to-one basis by the idea or thing they are supposed to represent" (from "Structuralism and Post-structuralism", in Modern Literary Theory, eds. Ann Jefferson and David Robey--London: Batsford, 1986). For Bhabha to achieve his shift from discursive abstraction to social practice, it seems to me, would require that words are in fact taken for the idea or thing named. The ideological consequences of such naturalisation is, of course, indicative of the type of nineteenth-century discourse that Bhabha supposedly seeks to undermine. Back
  5. For an interesting discussion of critical reaction to the Gulf War, see Christopher Norris' book Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992). Back

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