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A Critical Analysis of Homi K. Bhabha’s “How Newness Enters The World” Essay

The Indian theorist Homi K. Bhabha shifted the limelight from the binary1 of the colonizer and the colonized to the liminal spaces in-between in the domain of Postcolonial studies. In Difference, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism, he stated, “There is always, in Said, the suggestion that colonial power is possessed entirely by the colonizer which is a historical and theoretical simplification” (200). He asserted that colonization is not just a conscious body of knowledge (Said’s manifest Orientalism) but also the “unconscious positivity” of fantasy and desire (Bhabha’s latent Orientalism) (Young, “White Mythologies” 181).

Bhabha used that vantage point — of liminal spaces — to study the phenomenon of cultural translation in his essay “How Newness Enters the World…” which was published in a collection of essays titled under The Location of Culture (1994). The liminal zone that the postcolonial immigrant occupies is the guiding question of this essay. Bhabha explains: I used architecture literally as a reference, using the attic, the boiler room, and the stairwell to make associations between certain binary divisions such as higher and lower…. The stairwell became a liminal space, a pathway between the upper and lower areas…. (3-4)

In “How Newness…” Bhabha directs this framework to critique Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. He argues that the category of Postmodern assumes a neat categorization of subject positions, which leaves no room for subjects to exist in the liminal space. He asserts, “For Jameson, the possibility of becoming historical demands a containment of this disjunctive social time.” (217)

Bhabha elaborates upon the concept of liminal space with the help of the idea of blasphemy, as it comes out in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and underlines the controversy of the Rushdie Affair2. Bhabha says, “Blasphemy is not merely a misrepresentation of the sacred by the secular; it is a moment when the subject-matter or the content of cultural tradition is being overwhelmed, or alienated, in the act of translation.” (225) In essence, Bhabha is arguing that the very act of inhabiting the liminal space — whether by Rushdie or his characters — is blasphemy.

However, it is necessary to consider that critics like Timothy Brennan claim that Rushdie “… is not abroad at all. Politically and professionally he is at home.”(Wars 65) Brennan adds that Rushdie’s knowledge of Islam is limited to some childhood experiences and a course that he did at Cambridge University. If we look at Rushdie from this perspective, then Rushdie would cease to inhabit what Bhabha calls the liminal space between two cultures and instead belong to and speak for the imperial west.

Nevertheless, apart from Rushdie’s fiction, Bhabha employs various other kinds of evidence to support his theoretical stand in this essay. The first of which is the epigraph3 from Walter Benjamin’s “On Language as Such…” in this essay Benjamin suggests that translation is the origin of all knowledge: “The language of things can pass into language of knowledge and name only through translation” (70-71). It is the gap between the original and the translated text that Bhabha terms as the liminal space.

To illustrate this use of translation in cultural terms Bhabha cites Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He argues that Marlow’s lie to the intended (about her fiance’s last words) is an example of cultural translation where “Marlow does not merely repress the ‘truth’ … as much as he enacts a poetics of translation….” (212). Marlow inhabits the in-between space of the colony and the western metropolis, where nothing crosses from one to the other in its original form, without a certain degree of cultural translation.

This essay is organized in three sections: New World Borders, Foreign Relations and Community Matters. However, it is strung together by the common idea of liminality. The first section draws a parallel between Marlow’s lie and Jameson’s theory of the postmodern, which Bhabha calls his “theme park”. Both of these, according to Bhabha’s framework, are attempts to keep the “conversation of humankind going” and “to preserve the neo-pragmatic universe”. (212) Bhabha elucidates his criticism of Jameson by re-visiting the poem China, which Jameson had earlier commented upon in his book4. He contests Jameson for not appropriating the newness of China but translating it back into certain familiar terms. He destabilizes Jameson’s periodization and claims that communities cannot be explained in pre-modernist terms, the history of communities parallels the history of modernity.

In the next section, Bhabha scrutinises Jameson’s postmodern city through the subject position of migrants and minorities. He challenges the importance given to class relations in the Marxist discourse by shifting the focus to minority groups. It is important to note that minority is a not just a matter of quantity, but as Deleuze and Guattari point out in “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature”, it is a matter of subject position.

The last section poses the last challenge to Jameson, as Bhabha pitches communities directly against class, using Partha Chatterjee’s “A Response…” as evidence. Bhabha comments, “Community disturbs the grand globalizing narrative of capital, displaces the emphasis on production in ‘class’ collectivity…” (230). In other words, minority subject position of belonging to a community punctures the larger Marxist narrative of class-consciousness; he calls community the “antagonist supplement of modernity.”

Bhabha concludes the essay by proposing an alternative perspective through Derek Walcott’s poems. Bhabha draws a bridge5 between the central concerns of naming in Walcott’s poem (“Names”) and the central idea of his essay by asserting that the right to signify, the right to naming, is itself “an act of cultural translation.” (234). He suggests a breakthrough in the form of the spaces that lie between “above and below and heaven and hell”. He argues that the only possibility of an agency that enables one to posses something anew lies in the in-between spaces — the liminal spaces.

Concepts, such as liminality are indispensible in today’s ever-globalising context but many other theorists have criticized his theoretical model on various grounds. The Indian Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad says that Bhabha uses a “… a theoretical melange which randomly invokes Levi-Strauss in one phrase, Foucault in another, Lacan in yet another.” (68), he asserts that in such a framework “theory itself becomes a marketplace of ideas….” (70). Viewed from a Marxist standpoint, Bhabha’s theories may seem as if they leave no room for resistance and action, Ahmad claims that Bhabha is irrelevant for a majority of the population that has been denied access to such benefits of “modernity” (69), and that Bhabha cuts access to “progress” as well as a sense of a “long past”.

Ahmed’s criticism can be taken a step further to conduct a theoretical study of the effectiveness of Bhabha’s arguments. In Nation and Narration Bhabha announced that his intention was to engage “the insights of poststructuralist theories of narrative knowledge … in order to evoke this ambivalent margin of the nation-space….” (4) Catherine Belsey in Poststructuralism… explains that the simple inference of poststructuralism is that language is “differential” and not “referential” in nature. (9) Taking from Saussure’s theory on language, it studies language synchronically where the signifier is not referentially tied to the signified. On the other hand, it is evident from Benjamin’s essays6 that he views language as a diachronic system where it represents the “…medium in which objects meet and enter into relationship with each other, no longer directly, as once in the mind of the augur or priest, but in their essences” (68). In other words, Benjamin’s theory of language is referential, where the word has or once had a direct connection with the thing it represents.

These two models of language seem like blocks from different puzzles, which do not really fit with one another. This poses a serious challenge to the effectiveness of Bhabha’s theoretical groundwork, as he does not address this rift between the two models and employs them simultaneously.

However, we cannot discount Bhabha’s breakthrough on this ground, as his theories are essential to make sense of the postcolonial condition of immigrants and diasporic Literature, especially in the ever-globalizing world that we inhabit. He has given an indispensible insight into the possibilities that lie in these liminal spaces.

Works Cited
Ahmad, Aijaz. In theory: Classes, nations, literatures. London: Verso, 1994. Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Benjamin, Walter, and Knut Tarnowski. “Doctrine of the Similar (1933).” New German Critique 17 1979: 65-69 —. “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Walter Benjamin: selected writings 1 1996: 62-74 Bhabha, Homi K. (1983a), “Difference, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism” The Politics of Theory. Ed. Francis Barker et al. Colchester: University of Essex. —. “How Newness Enters the World: Postmodern Space, Postcolonial Times and the Trials of Cultural Translation.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 2004. 212-235. —. Nation and narration. New York: Routledge, 1990.

—. “The Location of Culture. 1994. “With a new preface by the author. London: Routledge, 2004. Brennan, Timothy. Wars of position: The cultural politics of left and right. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Chatterjee, Partha. “A Response to Taylor’s “Modes of Civil Society”.” Public Culture 3.1 1990: 119-132. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Oxford: World’s Classics, 1990. Deleuze, Gilles. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Theory and History of Literature. Vol. 30. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. 1988.” London: Vintage, 1998. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage 1979.

Walcott, Derek. Collected Poems, 1948-1984. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1992. Young, Robert. White Mythologies: History Writing and the West. London and New York:
Routledge (1991).

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