My journey through Homi Bhabha’s the location of culture

El Mexterminator (inter-cultural specimens of Ethno-techno),
Performance and installation directed by Guillermo Gómez-Peña 
Homi Bhabha’s the location of culture [276pp/12 essays] should come with an advisory, something like, “do not attempt to process this at home, or in a coffee shop, or on the treadmill, or anywhere alone.”  Bhabha’s references and winding passages make for difficult reading and beg to be discussed in a group that could collectively, maybe, follow his train of thought.  Also I learned never to skip over his epigraphs or anecdotes because therein lie the clues to understanding whatever the H he is talking about.  Not having had the benefit of such a warning, I muddled through passages like this doozy:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo -scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classification can be seen as the desperate effort to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.  (130) ????????????????

??????????…then I sat with the text, tried not to panic, and sifted out several important takeaways that made all of my muddling potentially worthwhile. 

In “Signs taken for wonders” Bhabha’s key idea is the ambivalence of the colonizer and the colonized.  He gives the example of missionaries that debated whether they needed to learn about the colonial culture and become proficient in the subordinate language in order to Christianize, or if evangelization should be standardized and the gospel taught in the language of the dominant culture.  This suggests a certain ambivalence about what it means to dominate another culture and is the same ambivalence that is in the work of colonial chroniclers such as Sahagún.  The colonized is also in an ambivalent position as we see in Bhabha’s anecdote about Anund Messeh, the suborned Indian catechist who finds a group of about 500 people in a grove of trees outside Delhi in May 1817.  The group has accepted the Christian Bible, but Anund Messeh finds that they have their own attitude toward baptism and the Eucharist and have put their own conditions on how they will receive the sacraments.  In fact, the group will only accept the Bible as an authority that is mediated by their own values.  Ambivalence is this double conscious hovering between submission and acquiescence to authority and is at the root of Bhabha’s concept of hybridity.

The place of difference and otherness, or the space of the adversarial, within such a system of "disposal" as I have proposed, is never entirely on the outside or implacably oppositional.  It is a pressure, and a presence, that acts constantly, if unevenly, along the entire boundary of authorization [authority], that is, on the surface between what I've called disposal-as-bestowal [submission] and disposition-as-inclination [acquiescence]. (Location of Culture, 109)

Thanks to some guy named chadafrican on youtube I was able to work through Bhabha’s introduction and concept of mimicry.  Essentially in the introduction to Location of culture Bhabha questions binary divisions by analyzing the border zone.  He is critical of the tendency to think that post-colonial discourse works in a binary of essences like East and West, Third and First Worlds, I and the Other, Black and White, civilized and barbaric, etc.  Instead Bhabha examines the border as space of performative interstitiality (hybridity) at work within colonial relationships.  (See Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity.)  This interstitial performativity is the site and means of articulation of hybridity and colonial newness.  For Bhabha then, the boundary does not delineate something that already exists, but rather the border (think of Juri Lotman Semiosphere) is a space of constant cultural churning:

The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of a continuum of past and present.  It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation.  Such art does not merely recall the past as a social cause or an aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. (Location of Culture, 10).

Another important concept for Bhabha is mimicry.  Colonial mimicry is subversive because the repetition of the dominant culture always takes place with difference (See Derrida’s concept of différance) and, in this way, resists and subverts the colonial gaze.  This repetition with difference disrupts and calls into question the concept of essential cultures.  (Since mimicry is never an exact replica of the “original,” then the colonizers’ performance of culture is also probably not an “original” either).

Finally, my favorite essay in the book is “Sly Civility” which in my notes I subtitle, “Sly Civility: The Power of ‘Meh.’”  “Meh” is the Internet slang that technically communicates indifference or a virtual shoulder shrug, but can actually be quite hostile, which is precisely what Bhabha is getting at here.  In his epigraph, he quotes Freud who is talking about paranoid people that interpret performed indifference as hate.  Freud agrees that sometimes a statement of indifference (like, ‘meh.’) communicates not only indifference, but also hate:

One does them only when one feels quite indifferent to the passerby, when one can treat him like air; and, considering, too, the fundamental kinship of the concepts of ‘stranger’ and ‘enemy’, the paranoiac is not so far wrong in regarding this indifference as hate…(Freud quoted in Location of culture, 93)

Here Bhabha is talking about an ambivalent position of colonized resistance, which is not rebellious, but is a means of living within the framework of authority.  He cites a sermon from 1818 in which Archdeacon Potts describes the set of attitudes associated with the colonial performance of sly civility:

If you urge them with their gross and unworthy misconceptions of the nature and will of God, or the monstrous follies of their fabulous theology, they will turn it off with a sly civility perhaps [meh.], or with a popular and careless proverb” (Location of culture, 99).

So, that’s all for the location of culture.  I hope my notes can help some other hapless Homi Bhabha reader feel a little less alone.