Bhabha, Homi, DissemiNation....
Return to Part I
302 Homi K. Bhabha
What is politically significant is the effect of this finality of the state on the liminality of the representation of the
people. The people will no longer be contained in that national discourse of the teleology of progress; the anonymity
of individuals; the spatial horizontality of community; the homogeneous time of social narratives; the historicist
visibility of modernity, where 'the present of each level [of the social] coincides with the present of all the others, so
that the present is an essen- tial section which makes the essence visible'.34 The finitude of the nation emphasizes the
impossibility of such an expressive totality with its alliance between an immanent, plenitudinous present and the
eternal visibility of a past. The liminality of the people -- their double inscription as pedagogical objects and
performative subjects -- demands a "time' of narrative that is disavowed in the discourse of historicism where
narrative is only the agency of the event, or the medium of a naturalistic continuity of Community or Tradition. In
describing the marginalistic integration of the individual in the social totality, Foucault provides a useful description of
the rationality of the modern nation. Its main characteristic, he writes,
is neither the constitution of the state, the
coldest of cold monsters, nor the rise of bourgeois
individualism. I won't even say it is the constant effort to integrate individuals into the political totality. I
think that the main characteristic of our political rationality is the fact that this integration of the
individuals in a community or in a totality results from a constant correlation between an increasing
individualisation and the reinforcement of this totality. From this point of view we can understand why
modern political rationality is permitted by the antinomy between law and order.35
From Discipline and Punish we have learned that the most individuated
are those subjects who are placed on the
margins of the social, so that the tension between law and order may produce the disciplinary or pastoral society.
Having placed the people on the limits of the nation's narrative, I now want to explore forms of cultural identity and
political solidarity that emerge from the disjunctive temporalities of the national culture. This is a lesson of history to
be learnt from those peoples whose histories of marginality have been most profoundly enmeshed in the antinomies
of law and order -- the colonized and women.
Of margins and minorities The difficulty of writing the history of the
people as the insurmountable agonlsm of the
living, the incommensurable experiences of struggle and survival in the construction of a national culture, is nowhere
better seen than in Frantz Fanon's essay On National Culture.36 I start with it because it is a warning against the
intellectual appropriation of the culture of the people (whatever they may be) within a representationalist discourse
that may be fixed and reified in the annals of History. Fanon writes against that form of historicism that assumes that
moment when the differential temporalities of cultural histories coalesce in an immediately readable present. For my
purposes, he focuses on the time of cultural representation, instead of immediately historicizing the event. He
explores the space of the nation without immediately identify- ing it with the historical institution of the state. As my
concern here is not with the history of nationalist movements, but only with certain traditions of writing that have
attempted to construct narratives of the imaginary of the nation-people, I am indebted to Fanon for liberating a
certain, uncertain time of the people. The knowledge of the people depends on the discovery, Fanon says, "of a
much more fundamental substance which itself is continually being renewed', a structure of repetition that is not
visible in the translucidity of the people's customs or the obvious objectivities which seem to characterize the people.
'Culture abhors simplification' Fanon writes, as he tries to locate the people in a performative time: 'the fluctuating
movement that the people are just giving shape to'. The present of the people's history, then, is a practice that
destroys the constant principles of the national culture that attempt to hark back to a 'true' national past, which is
often represented in the reified forms of realism and stereotype. Such pedagogical knowledges and continuist
national narratives miss the 'zone of occult instability where the people dwell' (Fanon's phrase). It is from this
instability of cultural signification that the national culture comes to be articulated as a dialectic of various
temporalities -- modern, colonial, postcolonial, 'native' -- that cannot be a knowledge that is stabilized in its
enunciation: 'it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation. It is the present act that on each of its
occurrences marshalls in the ephemeral temporality inhabiting the space between the "I have heard'" and "you will
I have heard this narrative movement of the post-colonial people, in their attempts to create a national culture. Its
implicit critique of the fixed and stable forms of the nationalist narrative makes it imperative to ques- tion those
western theories of the horizontal, homogeneous empty time of the nation's narrative. Does the language of
culture's "occult instability' have a relevance outside the situation of anti-colonial struggle? Does the
incommensurable act of hying -- so often dismissed as ethical or empirical -- have its own ambivalent narrative, its
own history of theory? Can it change the way we identify the symbolic structure of the western nation?
A similar exploration of political time has a salutary feminist history in Women's Time.38 It has rarely been
acknowledged that Kristeva's celebrated essay of that title has its conjunctural, cultural history, not simply in
psychoanalysis and semiotics, but in a powerful critique and redefinition of the nation as a space for the emergence
of feminist political and psychic identifications. The nation as a symbolic denominator is, according to Kristeva,
a powerful repository of cultural knowledge that erases the rationalist and progressivist logics of the 'canonical'
nation. This symbolic history of the national culture is inscribed in the strange temporality of the future perfect, the
304' Homi K. Bhabha
which are not dissimilar to Fanon's occult instability. In such a historical time, the deeply repressed past initiates a
strategy of repetition that disturbs the sociological totalities within which we recognize the moder- nity of the national
culture -- a little too forcibly for, or against, the reason of state, or the unreason of ideological misrecognition.
The borders of the nation are, Kristeva claims, constantly faced with a double temporality: the process of identity
constituted by historical sedimentation (the pedagogical); and the loss of identity in the signifying process of cultural
identification (the performative). The time and space of Kristeva's construction of the nation's finitude is analogous to
my argument that it is from the liminality of the national culture that the figure of the people emerges in the narrative
ambivalence of disjunctive times and meanings. The concurrent circulation of linear, cursive, and monumental time, in
the same cultural space, constitutes a new historical temporality that Kristeva identifies with psychoanalytically
informed, feminist strategies of political identification. What is remarkable is her insistence that the gendered sign can
hold such exorbitant historical times together.
The political effects of Kristeva's multiple, and splitting, women's time leads to what she calls the 'demassification
of difference'. The cultural moment of Fanon's 'occult instability" signifies the people in a fluctuating movement which
they are just giving shape to, so that postcolonial time questions the teleological traditions of past and present, and
the polarized historicist sensibility of the archaic and the modern. These are not simply attempts to invert the balance
of power within an unchanged order of discourse. Fanon and Kristeva seek to redefine the symbolic process
through which the social imaginary -- nation, culture, or community -- become subjects of discourse, and objects of
psychic identification, in attempting to shift, through these differential temporalities, the alignment of subject and
object in the culture of community, they force us to rethink the relation between the time of meaning and the sign of
history within those languages, political or literary, which designate the people 'as one'. They challenge us to think the
question of community and com- munication without the moment of transcendence; their excessive cultural
temporalities are in contention but their difference cannot be negated or sublated. How do we understand such forms
of social contradiction?
Cultural identification is then poised on the brink of what Kristeva calls the "loss of identity' or Fanon describes as
a profound cultural 'undecidability'. The people as a form of address emerge from the abyss of enunciation where the
subject splits, the signifier "fades', the pedagogical and the performative are agonistically articulated. The language
of national collectivity and cohesiveness is now at stake. Neither can cultural homogeneity, or the nation's horizontal
space be authoritatively represented within the familiar territory of the public sphere: social causality cannot be
adequately understood as a deterministic or overdetermined effect of a 'statist' centre; nor can the rationality of
political choice be divided between the polar realms of the private and the public. The narrative of national cohesion
can no longer be signified,
in Anderson's words, as a 'sociological solidity'39 fixed in a 'succession of plurals" -- hospitals, prisons, remote
villages -- where the social space is clearly bounded by such repeated objects that represent a naturalistic, national
Such a pluralism of the national sign, where difference returns as the same, is contested by the signifier's 'loss of
identity' that inscribes the narrative of the people in the ambivalent, "double' writing of the perfor- mative and the
pedagogical. The iterative temporality that marks the movement 'of meaning between the masterful image of the
people and the movement of its sign interrupts the succession of plurals that produce the sociological solidity of the
national narrative. The nation's totality is confronted with, and crossed by, a supplementary movement of writing.
The heterogeneous structure of Derridean supplementarity in writing closely follows the agonistic, ambivalent
movement between the peda- gogicai and performative that informs the nation's narrative address. A supplement,
according to one meaning, 'cumulates and accumulates presence. It is thus that art, techne, image, representation,
convention, etc. come as supplements to nature and are rich with this entire cumulating function' (pedagogical).4°
The double entendre of the supplement suggests, however, that 'It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of ....
If it represents and makes an image it is by the anterior default of a presence ... the supplement is an adjunct, a
subaltern instance .... As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief....
Somewhere, something can be filled up of itself.., only by allowing itself to be filled through sign and proxy'
(performative).41 It is in this supplementary space of doubling -- not plurality -- where the image is presence and
proxy, where the sign supplements and empties nature, that the exorbitant, disjunctive times of Fanon and Kristeva
can be turned into the discourses of emergent cultural identities, within a non- pluralistic politics of difference.
This supplementary space of cultural signification that opens up - and holds together - the performative and the
pedagogical, provides a narrative structure characteristic of modern political rationality: the marginal integration of
individuals in a repetitious movement between the antinomies of law and order. It is from the liminal movement of the
culture of the nation -- at once opened up and held together - that minority discourse emerges. Its strategy of
intervention is similar to what parliamentary procedure recognizes as a supplementary question. It is a question that is
supplementary to what is put down on the order paper, but by being 'after' the original, or in 'addition to' it, gives it
the advan- tage of introducing a sense of 'secondariness' or belatedness into the structure of the original. The
supplementary strategy suggests that adding 'to' need not 'add up' but may disturb the calculation. As Gasché has
succinctly suggested, 'supplements ... are pluses that compensate for a minus in the origin'.42 The supplementary
strategy interrupts the successive seriality of the narrative of plurals and pluralism by radically changing their mode
of articulation. In the metaphor of the national community as the 'many as one', the one is now both the tendency to
totalize the social in a homogenous empty time, and the repetition of that minus in the origin, the less-than-one that
intervenes with a metonymic, iterative temporality. One cultural effect of such a metonymic interrup- tion in the
representation of the people, is apparent in Julia Kristeva's political writings. If we elide her concepts of women's
time and female exile, then she seems to argue that the 'singularity' of woman -- her representation as fragmentation
and drive -- produces a dissidence, and a distanciation, within the symbolic bond itself which demystifies 'the
community of language as a universal and unifying tool, one which totalises and equalises'.43 The minority does not
simply confront the pedagogical, or powerful master-discourse with a contradictory or negating referent. It does
not turn contradiction into a dialectical process. It interrogates its object by initially withholding its objective.
Insinuating itself into the terms of reference of the dominant discourse, the supplementary antagonizes the implicit
power to generalize, to produce the sociological solidity. The questioning of the supplement is not a repetitive
rhetoric of the 'end' of society but a meditation on the disposi- tion of space and time from which the narrative of the
nation must begin. The power of supplementarity is not the negation of the preconstituted social contradictions of the
past or present; its force lies -- as we shall see in the discussion of Handsworth Songs that follows -- in the
renegotia- tion of those times, terms, and traditions through which we turn our uncertain, passing contemporaneity
into the signs of history.
Handsworth Songs,44 is a film made by the Black Audio Collective during the uprisings of 1985, in the
Handsworth district of Birmingham, England. Shot in the midst of the uprising, it is haunted by two moments: the
arrival of the migrant population in the 1950s, and the emergence of a black British peoples in the diaspora. And the
film itself is part of the emergence of a black British cultural politics. Between the moments of arrival and emergence
is the incommensurable movement of the present; the filmic time of a continual displacement of narrative; the time of
oppression and resistance; the time of the performance of the riots,cut across by the pedagogical knowledges of
state institutions, the racism of statistics and documents and newspapers, and then the perplexed hying of
Handsworth songs, and memories that flash up in a moment of danger.
Two memories repeat incessantly to translate the living perplexity of history, into the time of migration: the arrival
of the ship laden with immigrants from the ex-colonies, just stepping off the boat, always just emerging -- as in the
phantasmatic scenario of Freud's family romance -- into the land where the streets are paved with gold. Another
image is of the perplexity and power of an emergent peoples, caught in the shot of a dreadlocked rastaman cutting a
swathe through a posse of policemen. It is a memory that flashes incessantly through the film: a dangerous repetition
in the present of the cinematic frame; the edge of human life that translates what will come next and what has gone
before in the writing of History. Listen to the repetition of the time and space of the peoples that I have been trying to
In time we will demand the impossible in order
to wrestle, from it that which is possible, In time the
streets will claim me without apology, In time I will be right to say that there are no stories ... in the riots
only the ghosts of other stories.
The symbolic demand of cultural difference constitutes
a history in the midst of the uprising. From the desire of the
possible in the impossible, in the historic present of the riots, emerge the ghostly repetition of other stories, other
uprisings: Broadwater Farm, Southall, St. Paul's, Bristol. In the ghostly repetition of the black woman of Lozells Rd,
Handsworth, who sees the future in the past: There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories, she
told a local journalist: "You can see Enoch Powell in 1969, Michael X in 1965'. And from that gathering repetition
she builds a history.
From across the film listen to another woman who speaks another historical language. From the archaic world of
metaphor, caught in the movement of the people she translates the time of change into the ebb and flow of language's
unmastering rhythm: the successive time of instaneity, battening against the straight horizons and the flow of water
I walk with my back to the sea, horizons straight ahead
Wave the sea away and back it comes,
Step and I slip on it. Crawling in my journey's footsteps
When I stand it fills my bones.
The perplexity of the hying must not be understood as some existen- tial, ethical anguish of the empiricism of
everyday life in 'the eternal living present', that gives liberal discourse a rich social reference in moral and cultural
relativism. Nor must it be too hastily associated with the spontaneous and primordial presence of the people in the
liberatory discourses of populist ressentiment. In the construction of this discourse of 'living perplexity' that I am
attempting to produce we must remember that the space of human life is pushed to its incommensurable extreme; the
judgement of living is perplexed; the topos of the narrative is neither the transcendental, pedagogical Idea of history
nor the institution of the state, but a strange temporality of the repetition of the one in the other -- an oscillating
movement in the governing present of cultural authority. Minority discourse sets the act of emergence in the
antagonistic in- between of image and sign, the accumulative and the adjunct, presence and proxy. It contests
genealogies of 'origin' that lead to claims for cultural supremacy and historical priority. Minority discourse
acknowledges the status of national culture -- and the people -- as a contentious, perfor- mative space of the
perplexity of the living in the midst of the pedagogical representations of the fullness of life. Now there is no reason to
believe that such marks of difference -- the incommensurable time of the subject of culture -- cannot inscribe a
'history' of the people or become the gathering points of political solidarity They will not,
however, celebrate the monumentality of historicist memory, the socio- logical solidity or totality of society, or the
homogeneity of cultural experience. The discourse of the minority reveals the insurmountable ambivalence that
structures the equivocal movement of historical time. HOw does one encounter the past as an anteriority that
continually introduces an otherness or alterity within the present? How does one then narrate the present as a form of
contemporaneity that is always belated? In what historical time do such configurations of cultural difference assume
forms of cultural and political authority?
Social anonymity and cultural anomie
The narrative of the modern nation can only begin, Benedict Anderson suggests in Imagined Communities, once the
notion of the 'arbitrariness of the sign' fissures the sacral ontology of the medieval world and its over- whelming visual
and aural imaginary. By 'separating language from reality' (Anderson's formulation), the arbitrary signifier enables a
national temporality of the 'meanwhile', a form of 'homogenous empty time'; the time of cultural modernity that
supersedes the prophetic notion of simultaneity-along-time. The narrative of the 'meanwhile' permits "transverse,
cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfilment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and
calendar'.45 Such a form of temporality produces a symbolic structure of the nation as 'imagined community' which,
in keeping with the scale and diversity of the modern nation, works like the plot of a realist novel. The steady
onward clocking of calendrical time, in Anderson's words, gives the imagined world of the nation a sociological
solidity; it links together diverse acts and actors on the national stage who are entirely unaware of each other, except
as a function" of this synchronicity of time which is not prefigurative but a form of civil contemporaneity realized in the
fullness of time.
Anderson historicizes the emergence of the arbitrary sign of language -- and here he is talking of the process of
signification rather than the progress of narrative -- as that which had to come before the narrative of the modern
nation could begin. In decentring the prophetic visibility and simultaneity of medieval systems of dynastic
representation, the homogeneous and horizontal community of modern society can emerge. The people-nation,
however divided and split, can still assume, in the function of the social imaginary, a form of democratic 'anonymity'.
However there is a profound ascesis in the sign of the anonymity of the modern community and the time --
meanwhile -- of its narrative consciousness, as Anderson explains it. It must be stressed that the narrative of the
imagined community is constructed from two incom- mensurable temporalities of meaning that threaten its
coherence. The space of the arbitrary sign, its separation of language and reality, enables Anderson to stress the
imaginary or mythical nature of the society of the nation. However, the differential time of the arbitrary sign is neither
synchronous nor serial. In the separation of language and reality -- in the
process of signification -- there is no epistemological equivalence
of subject and object, no possibility of the mimesis
of meaning. The sign temporal- izes the iterative difference that circulates within language, of which meaning is made,
but cannot be represented thematically within narrative as a homogeneous empty time. Such a temporality is
antithetical to the alterity of the sign which, in keeping with my account of the supplemen- tary nature of cultural
signification, singularizes and alienates the holism of the imagined community. From that place of the 'meanwhile',
where cultural homogeneity and democratic anonymity make their claims on the national community, there emerges a
more instantaneous and subaltern voice of the people, a minority discourse that speaks betwixt and between times
Having initially located the imagined community of the nation in the homogeneous time of realist narrative, towards
the end of his essay Anderson abandons the 'meanwhile' -- his pedagogical temporality of the people. In order to
represent the collective voice of the people as a performative discourse of public identification, a process he calls
unisonance, Anderson resorts to another time of narrative. Unisonance is 'that special kind of contemporaneous
community which language alone suggests',46 and this patriotic speech-act is not written in the synchronic,
novelistic 'meanwhile', but inscribed in a sudden prim- ordiality of meaning that 'looms up imperceptibly out of a
horizonless past' (my emphasis).47 This movement of the sign cannot simply be historicized in the emergence of
the realist narrative of the novel. It is at this point in the narrative of national time that the unisonant discourse
produces its collective identification of the people, not as some transcen- dent national identity, but in a language of
incommensurable doubleness that arises from the ambivalent splitting of the pedagogical and the performative. The
people emerge in an uncanny simulacral moment of their 'present' history as 'a ghostly intimation of simultanaeity
across homogeneous empty time'. The weight of the words of the national dis- course comes from an 'as it were --
Ancestral Englishness'.48 It is precisely this repetitive time of the alienating anterior -- rather than origin -- that
Lévi-Strauss writes of, when, in explaining the 'unconscious unity' of signification, he suggests that 'language can only
have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually'.49 In that sudden timelessness of 'all at once',
there is not synchrony but a break, not simultaneity but a spatial disjunction.
The 'meanwhile' is the barred sign of the processual and performative, not a simple present continuous, but the
present as succession without synchrony -- the iteration of the arbitrary sign of the modern nation- space. In
embedding the meanwhile of the national narrative, where the people live their plural and autonomous lives within
homogeneous empty time, Anderson misses the alienating and iterative time of the sign. He naturalizes the
momentary 'suddenness' of the arbitrary sign, its pulsa- tion, by making it part of the historical emergence of the
novel, a narrative of synchrony. But the suddenness of the signifier is incessant, instantaneous rather than
simultaneous. It introduces a signifying space of
310 Homi K. Bhabha
repetition rather than a progressive or linear seriality. The "meanwhile' turns into quite another time, or ambivalent
sign, of the national people. If it is the time of the people's anonymity it is also the space of the nation's anomie.
How are we to understand this anteriority of signification as a position of social and cultural knowledge, this time
of the 'before' of signification, which will not issue harmoniously into the present like the continuity of tradition --
invented or otherwise? It has its own national history in Renan's 'Qu'est ce qu'une nation?' which has been the
starting point for a number of the most influential accounts of the "modern emergence of the nation -- Kamenka,
Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Tzvetan Todorov. It is the way in which the pedagogical presence of modernity -- the
Will to he a nation -- introduces into the enunciative present of the nation a differential and iterative time of
reinscription that interests me. Renan argues that the non-naturalist principle of the modern nation is represented in
the will to nationhood -- not in the identities of race, language, or territory. It is the will that unifies historical memory
and secures present-day consent. The will is, indeed, the articulation of the nation-people:
A nation's existence is, if you will pardon
the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's
existence is a perpetual affirmation of life .... The wish of nations, is all in all, the sole legitimate criteria,
the one to which one must always return.50
Does the will to nationhood circulate in the same
temporality as the desire of the daily plebiscite? Could it be that
the iterative plebiscite decentres the totalizing pedagogy of the will? Renan's will is itself the site of a strange
forgetting of the history of the nation's past: the violence involved in establishing the nation's writ. It is this forgetting
-- a minus in the origin -- that constitutes the beginning of the nation's narrative. It is the syntactical and rhetorical
arrangement of this argument that is more illuminating than any frankly historical or ideological reading. Listen to the
complexity of this form of forgetting which is the moment in which the national will is articulated: 'yet every French
citizen has to have forgotten [is obliged to have forgotten] Saint Bartholomew's Night's Massacre, or the
massacres that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century.'51
It is through this syntax of forgetting -- or being obliged to forget - that the problematic identification of a national
people becomes visible. The national subject is produced in that place where the daily plebiscite -- the unitary
number -- circulates in the grand narrative of the will. However, the equivalence of will and plebiscite, the identity of
part and whole, past and present, is cut across by the 'obligation to forget', or forgetting to remember. This is again
the moment of anteriority of the nation's sign that entirely changes our understanding of the pastness of the past, and
the unified present of the will to nationhood. We are in a discursive space similar to that moment of unisonance in
Anderson's argument when the homogenous empty time of the nation's 'meanwhile'
is cut across by the ghostly simultaneity of a temporality of doubling and repetition. To be obliged to forget -- in the
construction of the national present -- is not a question of historical memory; it is the construction of a discourse on
society that performs the problematic totalization of the national will. That strange time -- forgetting to remember --
is a place of 'partial identification' inscribed in the daily plebiscite which represents the performative discourse of the
people. Renan's pedagogical return to the will to nationhood is both constituted and confronted by the circula- tion
of numbers in the plebiscite which break down the identity of the will - it is an instance of the supplementary that
'adds to' without 'adding up'. May I remind you of Lefort's suggestive description of the ideological impact of
suffrage in the nineteenth century, where the danger of numbers was considered almost more threatening than the
mob: 'the idea of number as such is opposed to the idea of the substance of society. Number breaks down unity,
destroys identity.'52 It is the repetition of the national sign as numerical succession rather than synchrony that reveals
that strange temporality of disavowal implicit in the national memory. Being obliged to forget becomes the basis for
remembering the nation, peopling it anew, imagining the possibility of other contending and liberating forms of cultural
Anderson fails to locate the alienating time of the arbitrary sign in his naturalized, nationalized space of the
imagined community. Although he borrows his notion of the homogeneous empty time of the nation's modern
narrative from Walter Benjamin, he fails to read that profound ambivalence that Benjamin places deep within the
utterance of the narrative of modernity. Here, as the pedagogies of life and will contest the perplexed histories of the
living people, their cultures of survival and resistance, Benjamin introduces a non-synchronous, incommensurable gap
in the midst of storytelling. From this split in the utterance, from the unbeguiled, belated novelist there emerges an
ambivalence in the narra- tion of modern society that repeats, uncounselled and unconsolable, in the midst of
The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace
of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer
able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounselled and
cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommen- surable to extremes in the
representation of human life. In the midst of life's fullness, and through the representation of this fullness,
the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.53
It is from this incommensurability in the midst of the everyday that
the nation speaks its disjunctive narrative. It
begins, if that's the word, from that anterior space within the arbitrary sign which disturbs the homogenizing myth
of cultural anonymity. From the margins of moder- nity, at the insurmountable extremes of storytelling, we encounter
the question of cultural difference as the perplexity of living, and writing, the nation.
Cultural difference Despite my use of the term 'cultural difference',
I am not attempting to unify a body of theory, nor
to suggest the mastery of a sovereign form of 'difference'. I am attempting some speculative fieldnotes on that inter-
mittent time, and intersticial space, that emerges as a structure of undecidability at the frontiers of cultural hybridity.
My interest lies only in that movement of meaning that occurs in the writing of cultures articulated in difference. I am
attempting to discover the uncanny moment of cultural difference that emerges in the process of enunciation:
Perhaps it is like the over-familiar that constantly
eludes one; those familiar transparencies, which,
although they conceal nothing in their density, are nevertheless not entirely clear. The enunciative level
emerges in its very proximity.54
Cultural difference must not be understood as the
free play of polarities and pluralities in the homogeneous empty
time of the national com- munity. It addresses the jarring of meanings and values generated in- between the variety
and diversity associated with cultural plenitude; it represents the process of cultural interpretation formed in the
perplexity of living, in the disjunctive, liminal space of national society that I have tried to trace. Cultural difference, as
a form of intervention, participates in a supplementary logic of secondariness similar to the strategies of minority
discourse. The question of cultural difference faces us with a disposition of knowledges or a distribution of practices
that exist beside each other, Abseits, in a form of juxtaposition or contradiction that resists the teleology of dialectical
sublation. In erasing the harmonious totalities of Culture, cultural difference articulates the difference between
represen- tations of social life without surmounting the space of incommensurable meanings and judgements that are
produced within the process of trans- cultural negotiation.
The effect of such secondariness is not merely to change the 'object' of analysis -- to focus, for instance, on race
rather than gender or native knowledges rather than metropolitan myths; nor to invert the axis of political
discrimination by installing the excluded term at the centre. The analytic of cultural difference intervenes to transform
the scenario of articulation -- not simply to disturb the rationale of discrimination. It changes the position of
enunciation and the relations of address within it; not only what is said but from where it is said; not simply the logic
of articulation but the topos of enunciation. The aim of cultural difference is to re-articulate the sum of knowledge
from the perspective of the signifying singularity of the 'other' that resists totalization -- the repetition that will not
return as the same, the minus-in-origin that results in political and discursive strategies where adding-to does not
add-up but serves to disturb the calculation of power and knowledge, producing other spaces of subaltern
signification. The identity of cultural difference cannot, therefore, exist autonomously in relation to an object or a
practice 'in-itseif', for the identification of the subject of cultural
discourse is dialogical or transferential in the style of psychoanalysis. It is constituted through the locus of the Other
which suggests both that the object of identification is ambivalent, and, more significantly, that the agency of
identification is never pure or holistic but always constituted in a process of substitution, displacement or projection.
Cultural difference does not simply represent the contention between oppositional contents or antagonistic
traditions of cultural value. Cultural difference introduces into the process of cultural judgement and inter- pretation
that sudden shock of the successive, nonsynchronic time of signification, or the interruption of the supplementary
question that I elaborated above. The very possibility of cultural contestation, the ability to shift the ground of
knowledges, or to engage in the 'war of position', depends not only on the refutation or substitution of concepts. The
analytic of cultural difference attempts to engage with the 'anterior" space of the sign that structures the symbolic
language of alternative, antagonistic cultural practices. To the extent to which all forms of cultural discourse are
subject to the rule of signification, there can be no question of a simple negation or sublation of the contradictory or
opposi- tional instance. Cultural difference marks the establishment of new forms of meaning, and strategies of
identification, through processes of negotia- tion where no discursive authority can be established without revealing
the difference of itself. The signs of cultural difference cannot then be unitary or individual forms of identity because
their continual implication in other symbolic systems always leaves them 'incomplete' or open to cultural translation.
What I am suggesting as the uncanny structure of cultural difference is close to Lévi-Strauss understanding of 'the
unconscious as providing the common and specific character of social facts ... not because it harbours our most
secret selves but because ... it enables us to coincide with forms of activity which are both at once ours and other'.55
Cultural difference is to be found where the 'loss'
of meaning enters, as a cutting edge, into the representation of
the fullness of the demands of culture. It is not adequate simply to become aware of the semiotic systems that
produce the signs of culture and their dissemination. Much more significantly we are faced with the challenge of
reading, into the present of a specific cultural performance, the traces of all those diverse disciplinary discourses and
institutions of knowledge that constitute the condition and contexts of culture. I use the word 'traces' to suggest a
particular kind of discursive transformation that the analytic of cultural difference demands. To enter into the
interdisciplinarity of cultural texts -- through the anteriority of the arbitrary sign -- means that we cannot contextualize
the emergent cultural form by explaining it in terms of some pre-given discursive causality or origin. We must always
keep open a supplementary space for the articulation of cultural knowledges that are adjacent and adjunct but not
necessarily accumulative, teleological, or dialectical. The 'difference' of cultural knowledge that 'adds to' but does not
'add up' is the enemy of the implicit generalization of knowledge or the implicit homogenization of experience, to
borrow Lefort's phrase.
314 Homi K. Bhabha
Interdisciplinarity, as the discursive practice of cultural difference, elaborates a logic of intervention and
interpretation that is similar to the supplementary question that I posed above. In keeping with its subaltern,
substitutive - rather than synchronic - temporality, the subject of cultural difference is neither pluralistic nor
relativistic. The frontiers of cultural difference are always belated or secondary in the sense that their hybridity is
never simply a question of the admixture of pre-given iden- tities or essences. Hybridity is the perplexity of the living
as it interrupts the representation of the fullness of life; it is an instance of iteration, in the minority discourse, of the
time of the arbitrary sign -- 'the minus in the origin' -- through which all forms of cultural meaning are open to
translation because their enunciation resists totaLization. Interdisciplinarity is the acknowledgement of the emergent
moment of culture produced in the ambivalent movement between the pedagogical and performative address, so that
it is never simply the harmonious addition of contents or contexts that augment the positivity of a pre-given
disciplinary or symbolic presence. In the restless drive for cultural translation, hybrid sites of meaning open up a
cleavage in the language of culture which suggests that the similitude of the symbol as it plays across cultural sites
must not obscure the fact that repetition of the sign is, in each specific social practice, both different and differential.
It is in this sense that the enunciation of cultural difference emerges in its proximity; to traduce Foucault, we must not
seek it in the "visibility' of difference for it will elude us in that enigmatic transparency of writing that conceals nothing
in its density but is nevertheless not dear.
Cultural difference emerges from the borderline moment of translation that Benjamin describes as the 'foreignness
of languages.56 Translation represents only an extreme instance of the figurative fate of writing that repeatedly
generates a movement of equivalence between representation and reference, but never gets beyond the equivocation
of the sign. The 'foreignness' of language is the nucleus of the untranslatable that goes beyond the transparency of
subject matter. The transfer of meaning can never be total between differential systems of meaning, or within them,
for 'the language of translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds .... [it] signifies a more exalted
language than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien',sT It is too often the slippage
of signification that is celebrated, at the expense of this disturbing alienation, or overpowering of content. The erasure
of content in the invisible but insistent structure of linguistic difference does not lead us to some general, formal
acknowledgement of the function of the sign. The ill fitting robe of language alienates content in the sense that it
deprives it of an immediate access to a stable or holistic reference 'outside" itself- in society. It suggests that social
conditions are themselves being reinscribed or reconstituted in the very act of enuncia- tion, revealing the instability
of any division of meaning into an inside and outside. Content becomes the alien raise en scene that reveals the
signifying structure of linguistic difference which is never seen for itself, but only glimpsed in the gap or the gaping of
the garment. Benjamin's
argument can be elaborated for a theory of cultural difference. It is only by engaging with what he calls the 'purer linguistic air' -- the anteriority of the sign -- that the reality-effect of content can be overpowered which then makes all cultural languages 'foreign' to themselves. And it is from this foreign perspective that it becomes possible to inscribe the specific locality of cultural systems -- their incommensurable differences -- and through that apprehension of difference, to perform the act of cultural translation. In the act of translation the 'given' content becomes alien and estranged; and that, in its turn, leaves the language of translation Aufgabe, always confronted by its double, the untranslatable -- alien and foreign.
The foreignness of languages
At this point I must give way to the vox populi: to a relatively unspoken tradition of the people of the pagus -- colonials, postcolonials, migrants, minorities -- wandering peoples who will not be contained within the Heim of the national culture and its unisonant discourse, but are themselves the marks of a shifting boundary that alienates the frontiers of the modern nation. They are Marx's reserve army of migrant labour who by speaking the foreignness of language split the patriotic voice of unisonance and become Nietzsche's mobile army of metaphors, meto- nyms, and anthropomorphisms. They articulate the death-in-life of the idea of the 'imagined community' of the nation; the worn-out metaphors of the resplendent national life now circulate in another narrative of entry permits and passports and work permits that at once preserve and proliferate, bind and breach the human rights of the nation. Across the accumulation of the history of the west there are those people who speak the encrypted discourse of the melancholic and the migrant. Theirs is a voice that opens up a void in some ways similar to what Abraham and Torok describe as a radical antimetaphoric: 'the destruction in fantasy, of the very act that makes metaphor possible -- the act of putting the original oral void into words, the act of introjection',s8 The lost object -- the national Heim -- is repeated in the void that at once prefigures and pre-empts the 'unisonant', which makes it unheimlich; analogous to the incorporation that becomes the daemonic double of introjection and iden- tification. The object of loss is written across the bodies of the people, as it repeats in the silence that speaks the foreignness of language. A Turkish worker in Germany: in the words of John Berger:
His migration is like an event in a dream dreamt by another. The migrant's intentionality is permeated by historical necessities of which neither he nor anybody he meets is aware. That is why it is as if his llfe were dreamt by another .... Abandon the metaphor .... They watch the gestures made and learn to imitate them ... the repetition by which gesture is hid upon gesture, precisely but inexorably, the pile of gestures being stacked minute by minute, hour by hour is exhausting. The rate of work allows no time to prepare for the gesture. The body loses its mind in the gesture. How opaque the disguise ofThrough the opaqueness of words we confront the historical memory of the western nation which is 'obliged to forget'. Having begun this essay with the nation's need for metaphor, I want to turn now to the desolate silences of the wandering people; to that 'oral void' that emerges when the Turk abandons the metaphor of a heimlich national culture: for the Turkish immigrant the final return is mythic, we are told, 'It is the stuff of longing and prayers.., as imagined it never happens. There is no final return' .60
words .... He treated the sounds of the unknown language as if they were silence. To break through his silence. He learnt twenty words of the new language. But to his amazement at first, their meaning changed as he spoke them. He asked for coffee. What the words signified to the barman was that he was asking for coffee in a bar where he should not be asking for coffee. He learnt girl. What the word meant when he used it, was that he was a randy dog. Is it possi- ble to see through the opaqueness of the words?59
Diamond, ex-colonial landowner, and through this post-colonial mimicry, exacerbates the discursive split between the image of a continuist national history and the 'cracks and absences" that she knew herself to be. What emerges, at one level, is a popular tale of secret, adulterous Argentinian amours, passion in the pampas with Martin de la Cruz. What is more significant and in tension with the exoticism, is the emergence of a hybrid national narrative that turns the nostalgic past into the disruptive 'anterior' and displaces the historical present -- opens it up to other histories and incommensurable narrative subjects. The cut or split in enunciation -- underlining all acts of utterance -- emerges with its iterative temporality to reinscribe the figure of Rosa Diamond in a new and terrifying avatar. Gibreel, the migrant hybrid in masquerade, as Sir Henry Diamond, mimics the collaborative colonial ideologies of patriotism and patriarchy, depriving those narratives of their imperial authority. Gibreel's returning gaze crosses out the synchronous history of England, the essentialist memories of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. In the middle of an account of her punctual domestic routine with Sir Henry -- sherry always at six -- Rosa Diamond is over- taken by another time and memory of narration and through the 'grand- stand view' of imperial history you can hear its cracks and absences speak with another voice:
Then she began without bothering with once upon atime and whether it was all true or false he could see the fierce energy that was going into the telling ... this memory jumbled rag-bag of material was in fact the very heart of her, her self-portrait .... So that it was not possible to distinguish memories from wishes, guilty reconstructions from confessional truths, because even on her deathbed Rosa Diamond did not know how to look her history in the eye.64And what of Gibreel Farishta? Well he is the mote in the eye of history, its blind spot that will not let the nationalist gaze settle centrally. His mimicry of colonial masculinity and mimesis allows the absences of national history to speak in the ambivalent, ragbag narrative. But it is precisely this 'narrative sorcery" that established Gibreel's own re-entry into contemporary England. As the belated post-colonial he marginalizes and singularizes the totality of national culture. He is the history that happened elsewhere, overseas; his postcolonial, migrant presence does not evoke a harmonious patchwork of cultures, but articulates the narrative of cultural difference which can never let the national history look at itself narcissistically in the eye. For the liminality of the western nation is the shadow of its own finitude: the colonial space played out in the imaginative geography of the metropolitan space; the repetition or return of the margin of the postcolonial migrant to alienate the holism of history. The postcolonial space is now 'supplementary' to the metro- politan centre; it stands in a subaltern, adjunct relation that doesn't aggrandise the presence of the west but redraws its frontiers in the menac- ing, agonistic boundary of cultural difference that never quite adds up, always less than one nation and double.
He was joined to the adversary, their arms locked around one another's bodies, mouth to mouth, head to tail .... No more of these England induced ambiguities: those Biblical-satanic confusions ... Quran 18:50 there it was as plain as the day .... How much more practical, down to earth comprehensible .... lblis/Shaitan standing for darkness; Gibreel for the light .... O most devilish and slippery of cities .... Well then the trouble with the English was their, Their -- In a word Gibreel solemnly pronounces, that most naturalised sign of cultural difference .... The trouble with the English was their ... in a word ... their weather.67
The English weather
To end with the English weather is to invoke, at once, the most change- able and immanent signs of national difference. It encourages memories of the 'deep' nation crafted in chalk and limestone; the quilted downs; the moors menaced by the wind; the quiet cathedral towns; that corner of a foreign field that is forever England. The English weather also revives memories of its daemonic double: the heat and dust of lndia; the dark emptiness of Africa; the tropical chaos that was deemed despotic and ungovernable and therefore worthy of the civilizing mission. These imaginative geographies that spanned countries and empires are changing; those imagined communities that played on the unisonant boundaries of the nation are singing with different voices. If I began with the scattering of the people :across countries, I want to end with their gathering in the city. The return of the diasporic; the postcolonial.
Handsworth Songs; Fanon's manichean colonial Algiers; Rushdie's tropicalized London, grotesquely renamed Ellowen Deeowen in the migrant's mimicry: it is to the city that the migrants, the minorities, the
diasporic come to change the history of the nation. If I have suggested
that the people emerge in the finitude of the nation, marking the liminality
of cultural identity, producing the double-edged discourse of social
territories and temporalities, then in the west, and increasingly elsewhere, it is the city which provides the space in which emergent identifications and new social movements of the people are played out. It is there that,
in our time, the perplexity of the living is most acutely experienced. In the narrative graftings of my essay I have attempted no general theory, only a certain productive tension of the perplexity of language in
various locations of living. I have taken the measure of Fanon's occult instability and Kristeva's parallel times into the 'incommensurable narrative' of Benjamin's modern storyteller to suggest no salvation, but a
strange cultural survival of the people. For it is by living on the borderline of history and language, on the limits of race and gender, that we are in a position to translate the differences between them into a kind of
solidarity. I want to end with a much translated fragment from Walter Benjamin's essay, The Task of the Translator. I hope it will now be read from the nation's edge, through the sense of the city, from the periphery
of the people, in culture's transnational dissemination:
Fragments of a vessel in order to be articulated together must follow one another in the smallest details although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of making itself similar to the meaning of the original, it must lovingly and in detail, form itself according to the manner of meaning of the original, to make them both recognisable as the broken fragments of the greater language, just as fragments are the broken parts of a vessel.68
1 In memory of Paul Moritz Strimpel (1914--87): Pfotzheim -- Paris --
-- Ahmedabad -- Bombay -- Milan -- Lugano.
2 I am thinking of Eric Hosbawm's great history of the "long nineteenth
century', especially The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (London: Weidenfeld &
Nicolson, 1975) and The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (London: Weidenfeld &
Nicolson, 1987). See especially some of the suggestive ideas on the nation and
migration in the latter volume, ch. 6.
3 E. Said, The World, The Text and The Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1983), p. 39.
4 F. Jameson, "Third World literature in the era of multinational capitalism',
Social Text, (Fall 1986).
5 J. Kristeva, 'A new type of intellectual: the dissident', in Toril Moi (ed.), The
Kristeva Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 298.
6 E. Said, "Opponents, audiences, constituencies and community', in Hal Foster
(ed.), Postmodern Culture (London: Pluto, 1983), p. 145.
7 J. Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Chicago University
Press, 1981), p. 210.
8 B. Anderson, "Narrating the nation', The Times Literary Supplement.
9 P. Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse
(London: Zed, 1986).
10 E. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983),
11 ibid., p. 38.
12 L. Althusser, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx (London: Verso, 1972), p. 78.
13 M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. C. Emerson and
M. Holquist, trans. V. W. McGee (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press,
1986) p. 31.
14 ibid., p. 34.
15 ibid., p. 36 and passim.
16 ibid., pp. 47--9.
17 S. Freud, "The Uncanny', in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological
Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1955), p. 234. See
also pp. 236, 247.
18 John Barrell, English Literature in History, 1730-80 (London: Hutchinson
19 Houston A. Baker Jr, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago
University Press, 1987), esp. chs. 8--9.
20 Barrell, op. cir., p. 78.
21 ibid., p. 203.
22 Richard Price, Maroon Societies quoted in Baker op. cir., p. 77.
23 Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society (Cambridge: Polity, 1986),
pp. 212--14, my emphasis.
24 A. Giddens, The Nation State and Violence (Cambridge: Polity, 1985), p. 216.
25 N. Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 1980), p. 113.
26 R. Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), p. 43.
I must thank Prof. David Lloyd of the University of California, Berkeley, for
reminding me of Williams' important concept.
27 E. Said, 'Representing the colonized', Critical Inquiry, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter
28 S. Freud, Civilisation and Its Discontents, Standard Edition (London: Hogarth.
1961), p. 114.
29 Freud, op. cir., p. 114.
30 J.-F. Lyotard and J.-L. Thebaud, Just Gaming, tram. Wlad Godzich
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p. 41.
31 C. Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Felicity Baker
(London: Routledge, 1987). Mark Cousins pointed me in the direction of this
remarkable text. See his review in New Formations, no. 7 (Spring 1989). What
follows is an account of Lévi-Strauss' argument to be found in Section 11 of
the essay, pp. 21--44.
32 M. Foucault, Technologies of the Self, ed. H. Gutman et al. (London: Tavistock,
33 ibid., pp. 151--4. I have abbreviated the argument for my convenience.
34 L. Althusser, Reading Capital (London: New Left Books, 1972), pp. 122--32.
I have, for convenience, produced a composite quotation from Althusser's
various descriptions of the ideological effects of historicism.
35 Foucault, op.cit., pp. 162--3.
36 F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969). My
quotations and references come from pp. 174--90.
37 J.-F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian
Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 22.
38 Moi, op.cit., pp. 187--213. This passage was written in response to the insis-
tent questioning of Nandini and Praminda in Prof. Tshome Gabriel's seminar
on 'syncretic cultures" at the University of California, Los Angeles.
39 Anderson, op.cit., p. 35.
40 J. Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G. C. Spivak (Baltimore, Md: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 144-5. Quoted in R. Gasché,, The "Fain
of the Mirror (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 208.
41 ibid., p. 145.
42 Gasché, op.cit., p. 211.
43 Moi, op.cit., p. 210. I have also referred here to an argument to be found on
44 All quotations are from the shooting script of Handsworth Songs, generously
provided by the Black Audio and Film Collective.
45 Anderson, op. cit., p. 30.
46 ibid., 132.
49 Levi-Strauss, op.cit., p. 58.
S0 This collection, ch. 2, pp. 19-20.
51 ibid., p. 11.
52 Lefort, op.cit., p. 303.
53 W. Benjamin, 'The storyteller', in Illuminations. trans. Harry Zohn (London:
Cape, 1970), p. 87.
54 M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith
(London: Tavistock, 1972), p. 111.
55 C. Lévi-Strauss, op.cit., p. 35.
56 Benjamin, op.cit, p. 75.
57 W. Benjamin 'The Task of the Translator', Illuminations (London: Cape, 1970),
58 N. Abraham and M.Torok, 'lntrojection -- Incorporation', in S. Lebovici and
D. Widlocher (eds), Psychoanalysis in France (London: lnternational Universities
Press, 19g0), p. 10.
59 J. Berger, A Seventh Man Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975). 1 have composed
this passage from quotations that are scattered through the text.
60 Berger, op.cit., p. 216.
61 S. Freud, Group Psychology and the Ego, Standard Edition vol. XVIII (London:
Hogarth, 1961), p. 119.
62 S. Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking, 1988), p. 337.
63 ibid., p. 130.
64 ibid,, p. 145.
65 ibid., p. 320.
66 ibid., p. 353.
67 ibid, p. 354. I have slightly altered the presentation of this passage to fit in
with the sequence of my argument.
68 Timothy Bahti and Andrew Benjamin have translated this much-discussed
passage for me. What I want to emphasize is a form of the articulation of
cultural difference that Paul de Man clarifies in his reading of Walter
Benjamin's complex image of amphora.
[Benjamin] is not saying that the fragments constitute a totality, he says
that fragments are fragments, and that they remain essentially fragmentary.
They follow each other metonymically, and they never constitute a totality.
Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p. 91