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Dr.

Richard Clarke LITS3304 Notes 12A

HOMI BHABHA REPRESENTATION AND THE COLONIAL TEXT:


A CRITICAL EXPLORATION OF SOME FORMS OF MIMETICISM
The critic of texts ought to be investigating the system of discourse by which the world is
divided, administered, plundered, by which humanity is thrust into pigeonholes, by which
we are human and they are not, and so forth. (Edward Said, qtd. in Bhabha, 93)
Bhabha begins by arguing that the division between the subjects of the enunciation and the enounced (93)
(of which Benveniste and company speak) is one resolved in the discourse of literary history (93). It
accom plishes this through the inception of an origin whereby history turns to a kind of myth (93).
Bhabhas point is that all traditional m odels of literary history, ranging from Leavis to Lukcs to Auerbach,
are based on a m imetic view of literature: they are motivated by the possibility of a history of literature
driven forward by the progressive discovery of the essentially unmediated nature of reality in its works (94).
There is a profound link between historicism and realism, between the plausibility of linear order and
coherence in history and the imm ediate evidence of the real in Literature (95). The central purpose of the
western novel (95), Bhabha quotes Said, is to represent characters and societies m ore or less freely in
development (95).
Ironically, Bhabha argues, much criticism that deals with Third World literature views the problem
of representing the colonial subject (95) at this mim etic level (95). Anti-colonial cultural nationalists argue
that the
unmediated reality that an authentic literary tradition must ideally reveal--the mark of its
originality--it is argued, can hardly be written in a language and literature of colonial
imposition. The historical and ideological determinants of W estern narrative--bourgeois
individualism, organicism, liberal humanism, autonom y, progression--cannot adequately
reflect, for instance, the Caribbean environment. . . . The discourses and institutions of
English Literature can only provide a dim and refracted light, that casts a shadow on an
alien culture. (95)
However,
although the refractions of a W estern tradition are accepted as ironical (if not tragic), the
dem and for a literary tradition, a history, is put in exactly the same historicist and realist
terms--the fam iliar quest for an origin that will authorise a beginning. Trinidad and The
Beacon which published the earliest W est Indian short stories, insisted on the use of local
settings, speech, character, situations and conflicts, and warned against the use of foreign
literature which would create inauthenticity. And so, the early barrackyard stories of
C.L.R. James and Maynard inaugurated the history of W est Indian literature with an
emphasis on the unmediated value of text and reality. (96)
Bhabha argues that there is another way of raising the issue of the representation of the colonial subject
which questions the collusion between historicism and realism (96) by proposing that the category of
literature, as of its history, is necessary and thoroughly mediated: that its reality is not given but produced;
its meanings transformative, historical and relational rather than revelatory (96). Such a critical view
entails a critique of representation as simply given (96).
Bhabha contends that the post-Saussurean model of the sign has given writing a materiality, a
productive position, where before w e saw only through it to the reality or Truth beyond (97). The values of
historicism and realism, the unmediated and sequential progression to truth, the originality of vision (97)
are
historical and ideological productions without any of the inevitability that they claim. They
are necessary fictions that tragically believed too m uch in their necessity and too little in
their own fictionality. (97)
Such concepts as historicism and realism are historically- and culturally-specific, the product of the postfeudal W est (97) and closely linked to the developm ent of the ideas of tradition, herm eneutics,
historiography (97) which occurred there. These concepts are ideological in the sense in which the

Dr. Richard Clarke LITS3304 Notes 12A

discourses of historicism and realism m anifestly deny their own material and historical construction (97).
These concepts are also allegedly unmediated and universal (97) because the unity of tradition lies in an
absolute presence--a mom ent of transcendent originality (97).
Bhabha contends that to represent the colonial subject is to conceive of the subject of difference,
of an-other history and an-other culture (98). This requires a notion of literary representation that does not
conceive of the problem of representation as the presentation of different images of the colonial, some m ore
progressive than others (98) and demands an end of the collusion of historicism and realism by unseating
the Transcendental subj ect (98). Such a rethinking of signification would conceive of writing as a
signifying practice (98) or process which conceives of meaning as a system ic production within
determ inate institutions and system s of representation--ideological, historical, aesthetic, political (98) and
which does not permit meaning to be recuperable through a direct reference to the origins of m imetic
reflection or authorial intention (98). Such a model dem ands a theoretical self-consciousness of those
critical practices which in claiming to restore the natural and reasonable meanings of texts, are in fact
engaged in strategies of naturalisation and cultural assimilation which make our readings unwillingly
collusive and profoundly uncritical (99). Bhabha has in mind the discursive practice of literary criticism
itself, the discourse by which texts are systematised, synthesised and signified within a range of cultural
institutions (99). Bhabhas point is that titles such as Commonwealth literature or the Caribbean
Tradition which have becom e com monplace m ay have a ring of truth, but it is only the shrill school bell
that establishes a discipline and guards its boundaries defensively (99).
Bhabha has in mind two particular schools of criticism. Using the Caribbean as his crucible,
Bhabha identifies at least two such models operative in the Third World: what he describes as the Leavisian
Universalist (what I would call the liberal humanist) and the Nationalist (what I would term the cultural
nationalist or, as Bhabha puts it, Nationalist criticism: i.e. that written from a Third World perspective,
anti-colonial and anti-racist, dem anding that discrim inatory stereotypes should be identified, and so
replaced with authentic images of Black consciousness [footnote 15]). These he associates with the work
of Kenneth Ramchand and Gordon Rohlehr respectively. He contends that Ramchands and Rohlehrs are
both, despite obvious methodological and other differences, basically representationalist theories (99)
which share a problematic form within which their questions are posed (99): to wit, a predom inantly
mimetic view of the relation between the text and a given pre-constituted reality (99) which does not do
justice to the w ay in which language actually works nor the relationship which exists between a text and
the Real. Epistemologically, both rely on the classic subject/object structure of knowledge, central to
empiricist epistemology (99) and, thus, the question of appearance and reality (99). Accordingly, the
representation--the literary text--becom es the image of the represented--the given reality-which as the essential, original source determines the form and action of its means of
representation. The effect of such a placing of the text/reality, in terms of the
subject/object structure of knowledge, traps the text within what Derrida calls a violent
hierarchy organised byt the privileged term (reality) to which the other term (the Text) is
both necessitated and subordinated. (99-100)
W hat is consequently extolled is the issue of m imetic adequacy (100) w hich provides the norm ative
knowledge of the text: the
image m ust be measured against the essential or original in order to establish its
degree of representativeness, the correctness of the image. The text is not seen as
productive of meaning but essentially reflective or expressive . . . neither a discourse or a
practice, but a form of recognition. Such analysis is largely content-oriented. The main
question that is asked of the production of the image, the significant knowledge allowed of
it, is in relation to the pre-given model or original. (100)
From this point of view, Bhabha contends, the debate between these two seemingly very different camps
represented by Ram chand and Rohlehr is fought essentially on the sam e ground (99): it is broadly within
these empiricist term s . . . that the discourses of Universalist and Nationalist criticism circulate and pose
the questions of colonial difference and discrimination (100)
Bhabha accuses the liberal humanist approach to criticism represented by Ramchand of

Dr. Richard Clarke LITS3304 Notes 12A

ahistoricism and universalism. He has in mind Ram chands view (inspired by F. R. Leavis) that literature
matters as literature, not as a substitute for something else (Ramchand, qtd in Bhabha 56), that practical
criticism (101), that is, close reading and verbal analysis of the words-on-the-page (101) are the only
things that matter, and that literature has, in a manner famously described by Sidney, a moral impact upon
feeling, thoughts and standards of living (56). So viewing the text, however, denies the cultural and
historical basis of the literary (101), that is, the very grounds on which to pose the question of the colonial
in literary representation (101) w hich is fundamentally a problem of the signification of historical and
cultural difference (101). The result of this is that the
opposition set up between the literary as a unique verbal experience and its socio-political
appropriation is a combative act to preserve, it is claimed, the specificity of the literary from
other discourses. But this conscious separation of the literary from other discourses, this
act of exclusion is in itself ideological in its claims to neutrality and innocence, and
prepares the way for the appropriation of the text as an object of a moral discourse that
claims universality for its imperatives. (101)
Proposed as a safeguard against the prescriptivism of the Nationalist critics (101), Bhabha contends that
criticism as a practice of reading becomes . . . a form of intuitionism of moral values (102) and the text
as a practice of writing becomes an essentially spiritual reality, a logos (102). As a result, the material
specificity of how language works, which is the way the words on the page as system s of significations
produce the text . . . evaporates in the religiosity of im manent universal meanings that Leavis proposes and
Ramchand echoes (102), Bhabha points out, because the exclusiveness of this notion of literature denies
its specificity as a practice of writing, the m eaning of which is constructed in a process of reference and
difference in relation to other ideological and historical discourses which constitute its conditions of
existence and intervention (102). The [d]ifferences of class, gender and race (102) which constitute the
text of politics and history are always superseded in the quest for universal meanings (102) which abuts in
the affirmation of a Transcendental Human Nature (102).
In espousing liberal humanism, Ramchand overlooks, Bhabha contends, not only the Eurocentrism
but also the fierce nationalism which in fact informed much of the work of seemingly ahistorical critics like
Leavis who was the most parochial and nationalist of critics (103). For him, the English language, was
essentially the language of Shakespeare . . . (formed) in a genuinely national culture . . . rooted in the soil
(103). It is for this reason that, ironically, the Leavisian method (103) so enthusiastically recomm ended by
Ramchand is necessarily imbued with an ideological and cultural reference . . . with a marked neocolonialist emphasis (103).
For Bhabha, anti-colonialist, anti-racist Nationalist criticism (104) is engaged in the task of
image-analysis (104) by focussing on the characterisation in a given text. Attention in the work of critics
such as Gordon Rohlehr (or Ngugi wa Thiongo) to the negative stereotyping of non-Europeans demands a
mimetic reading, frequently sociological (104) which seeks to refer the texts representations to a pre-given
reality (104). This results in a mode of criticism that em phasises the signified as independent of the
means of its representation (104) as a result of which the ideological and discursive construction of racial
difference (105) is repressed. Trapped within a realist problem atic (105), cultural nationalist criticism
makes of character the sign of the sociolect, the vraisemblable, what is most easily . . . recognisable as
the individual (105). The cultural nationalist critic speaks against one stereoptype but essentially, and
inevitably, for another (105) by dem anding that the derogatory stereotype . . . be replaced by positive
(Nationalist) images (105). The B lack image m ust correspond to an emergent Black consciousness
(105) that is more often than not a function of a given socialist-nationalist thesis of liberation (105) and
frequently accompanied by a Lukcsian emphasis on typicality and totality (105).
Bhabhas point is that all such claims are m ade on the basis that the stereotype is distorted in
relation to a given norm or model (105), resulting in a m ode of prescriptive criticism (105) that som e have
called the normative fallacy (105) which privileges an ideal dream -image in relation to which the text is
judged (105). Cultural nationalist criticms re-presents the problem of difference and discrimination as the
problem of im age and its distortion (106) as a result of which it shares with the liberal humanist approach a
problematic of recognition (106):

Dr. Richard Clarke LITS3304 Notes 12A

Distortion is the recognition of difference in relation to the pre-giveness of an affirmative


image which constitutes the primary cognition of which the literary text is only a secondary
elaboration. The demand is then for the replacing of one content with another, until through
a process of correction the right image is produced. Literature as a discourse or practice,
engaged in a form of transformative work is effaced, and the succession of images--a
question of the history of textual signification and ideological struggle--becomes the
moralist rectification of a given essence. The construction of the colonial as a sign of
difference within the production of literary discourses is a perspective denied within this
critical tradition. The problem of representing difference as a problem of narrative can only
be seen, within this kind of critical discourse, as the demand for different representations.
(106)