Can Homi Bhabha's work in academia really combat racism in the Metropolitan Police? Jennifer Wallace talks to the would-be champion ofthe oppressed
Human rights are relational rather than given. They are part of human artifice," Homi Bhabha tells a crowd of Amnesty International activists in Oxford's Sheldonian theatre. It is not quite what they want to hear.
It is 50 years since the Declaration of Human Rights, and Amnesty is marking the occasion with a series of lectures in Oxford. Earnest listeners, committed to Amnesty's ideals of universal human rights and its international campaigns against injustice, imprisonment and torture, turn up to hear the man billed as working "out of an anguished preoccupation with the lived conditions and experiential knowledge of the oppressed of the earth".
But, suave and handsome in a high-necked Indian suit, Bhabha, professor in humanities at the University of Chicago, tells them that recognising the rights of another culture is a complicated activity. It involves the risk of treating that culture en bloc rather than allowing for differences within it.
Bhabha, 48, is one of the most controversial figures in the academic world of postcolonial studies. "He raises explosive issues," laughs Stuart Hall, retired professor of cultural studies. For some, he is the voice of the oppressed, who has suggested how colonised peoples can achieve a sense of identity and self-worth and thus resist their oppressors.
Robert Young, the foremost postcolonial theorist in Britain, argues that Bhabha's work allows people from minority cultures to gain enough self-confidence to make political demands. People flock to hear him because they feel he stands up to power and articulates their experience of marginalisation.
For others, though, Bhabha is the postmodern theorist extraordinaire, who reduces everything to representation and language, and fails to engage with practical reality. He is abstract and difficult to understand, almost "poetic", Hall says.
His position as oppressed subaltern thinker is hard to reconcile with his status as international celebrity, primarily based on just two collections of essays, Nation and Narration and The Location of Culture. And his emphasis on the complexity of identity makes it hard to imagine how he could ever wage a political campaign or make simple, hard-hitting political demands. A critic such as Aijiz Ahmad, author of the best-selling book In Theory, laments what he sees as Bhabha's refusal to "construct grand narratives" and hence his lack of desire to change the world.
For Bhabha is interested in what happens when people from different cultures meet and learn about their different traditions, prejudices and assumptions. Historically, this has happened most often when one country colonises another. Conquest leads to racism and oppression, but it can also produce a creative resistance. When missionaries tried to introduce the Bible in India, says Bhabha, the Indians said they had nothing against the book, but asked: "How could the word of God come out of the mouths of meat-eaters?" The story illustrates what he calls "hybridisation" or "a particular intersection of cultural knowledge that emerges in a negotiation of authority or power". The Indians appeared to accept the Bible, but resisted it by demanding a vegetarian version. By the kind of confrontation through circumvention Bhabha has identified in the history of colonised peoples, they become active agents rather than passive victims.
Bhabha argues that the colonisers, too, can benefit. "The very process of colonisation shifts certainties and sureties," he says. "It exposes the fictionality of certain ideas that are seen to be universal." In much of his work, he shows that types of belonging we take for granted - such as national or ethnic identity - are socially or historically constructed and are highly complex. By crossing the borders of identity, literally by travelling or imaginatively, by writing, you can challenge its definition - you can show it is not fixed in stone. It is this emphasis on the value of crossing borders, of "hybridity", that has laid Bhabha open to the criticism of being blithely unconcerned about the reality of exile.
He acknowledges the criticism. "Hybridity is like the way I'm dressed - Indian jacket, silk scarf, corduroys and a collarless shirt from Italy. There you are, Mr Hybrid." Nonetheless, his concerns are serious and in touch with the real experience of exiled peoples: "Hybridity is a fraught, anxious and ambivalent condition. It is about how you survive, how you try to produce a sense of agency or identity in situations in which you are continually having to deal with the symbols of power or authority." He is interested in the pain of displacement and the triumph of psychological survival.
This rescues Bhabha from the accusation that he celebrates uprootedness from a position of security. For a start, he rejects the idea that he plays on his own marginalisation. Although he comes from India, he grew up in a comfortable, middle-class Parsee family, a "cosmopolitan minority" in Bombay. He went to Oxford University to read English and remained in the British education system, writing a doctorate on V. S. Naipaul and accepting a readership in English at the University of Sussex. From there, he was headhunted by various American institutions and now is based in Chicago, although he also holds a visiting professorship at University College London.
While he admits he is an outsider, he rejects any claim to subaltern identity: "I find identity politics very problematic." He is more interested in being an "engaged and committed academic" and in bridging the gulf between academia and politics.
Yet it is on the political application of his ideas that Bhabha is hardest to pin down. Even Young finds Bhabha's work impractical. "It is not going to help you to combat racism in the Metropolitan police," he says.
Hall doubts how far Bhabha's theory can have a radical political effect:
"He shows the theoretical possibility of being in between different cultures - which is never to be at one with any one set of cultural values - as if that theoretical insight itself dislocates systems of real power. But it is perfectly possible for power to continue to operate, despite your having shown that it is untenable to do so. All the struggles cannot be theoretical."
Bhabha, however, is convinced it is vital to expose the complexity of the world before making simplistic political claims. His theory of the hybrid nature of cultures does not deny them a voice, as Ahmad claims, but highlights the paradoxical nature of modern, multicultural, globalised life.
But he is clear-cut on some issues. The fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, he says, is "very interesting for revealing two different notions of what a text is" and should provoke exploration of the Muslim experience within Britain. But Bhabha is finally prepared to draw a line: Rushdie's life should not be threatened.
And he is likely to become more involved in politics. In his Oxford lecture, he challenged Article of the Declaration of Human Rights, which states that people belonging to ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities should not be denied the right "to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion and to use their own language".
The article preserves identities rather than allowing them to evolve, Bhabha says, and thus fails to acknowledge the contribution a minority can make to the culture of a state. Bhabha plans to become involved in various pressure groups questioning the whole notion of human rights.
So, in an age in which the First World seems to get richer and the Third World poorer, is he optimistic about the future?
"We are at a crossroads," he says. "There are a range of connections - financial, economic - across the world. And yet, despite that, profound inequalities and discriminations are pulling the world apart, in a familiar tug-of war between the privileged and the under-privileged, the powerless and the empowered. These two systems intersect at certain points, and those are the points at which we need to act."
Jennifer Wallace is director of English at Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Colonial writing, page 28