Literary and Critical Theory Homi K. Bhabha
by
David Huddart
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0057

Introduction

Homi K. Bhabha (b. 1949) is a literary and cultural critic, influential theorist of postcolonial culture, and engaged advocate for the humanities. While easily understood as a postcolonial theorist, the range of his interests means it is perhaps better to characterize his work in terms of vernacular or translational cosmopolitanism. Born in Bombay, Bhabha was educated and taught in British universities, before moving to the University of Chicago and ultimately Harvard, where he teaches in the Department of English and is director of the Humanities Center. Developing the work of psychoanalytic and post-structuralist thinkers, Bhabha has been a profoundly original voice in the study of colonial, postcolonial, and globalized cultures. The influential ideas and terms explored in his essays—such as hybridity, ambivalence, and mimicry—were formative for postcolonial theory, but they have also inspired work in management studies, art theory, architecture, human rights, development studies, theology, and many other unexpected fields. His work remains an essential reference for anyone interested in the hybrid cultural perspectives associated with colonialism and globalization. Drawing on many demanding theorists and covering a range of histories and cultures, Bhabha’s work elaborates a series of concepts that capture the ways the colonized resisted the authority of the colonizer, an authority that was from the start ambivalent and anxious. However, his discussion of examples from the colonial archive is not only of historical relevance. The ambivalence he identifies also helps us analyze contemporary developments, which see increasingly complex globalized networks alongside fiercely proclaimed identities that face off against each other. Bhabha’s work illuminates the ways that colonialism does not remain locked in the past, and is not over and done with, despite the important histories and victories of anticolonialism. Instead, to use a Freudian idiom found throughout Bhabha’s work, colonialism makes an uncanny return in the present. Indeed, we should probably continue to describe our context as the colonial present. Yet that implies not only ongoing asymmetrical relations, but also the continuation of half a millennium of resistance, negotiation, and cultural translation. Bhabha’s work continues to engage with examples of such complexities, and demands that we translate it still further to engage with examples beyond its scope. Although his work over the last two decades has been occasional and superficially unsystematic, Bhabha’s influence has grown far beyond postcolonial literary and cultural studies.

General Overviews

The historical and contemporary contexts on which he focuses, and the conceptual tools he utilizes, put Bhabha squarely within the field of postcolonial studies. Specifically, his interest in post-structuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault makes Bhabha a key figure in the development of postcolonial theory. Given this centrality to postcolonial theory, overviews of Bhabha’s work frequently, and unsurprisingly, put it in the context of related thinkers such as Edward W. Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. All three draw on a somewhat imposing range of theoretical references, including French philosophy. The texts listed here tend to introduce Bhabha’s work by putting him in the context of other theorists, even when focused on Bhabha’s writings. This tendency derives from the particular way his work is embedded in the discourses of post-structuralism and postcolonialism. In terms of work about Bhabha, Huddart 2006 is the first study solely of Bhabha’s work, exploring different key terms and their connections with other fields and thinkers, and putting Bhabha in the context of cultural studies. Byrne 2009 is a further comprehensive introduction with a more literary focus, and it features a useful interview with Bhabha. Hernández 2010 is an overview of Bhabha’s work and its relevance for architects. Shifting attention to work putting Bhabha in the context of postcolonial studies more generally, there are various overviews that situate him in revealing ways. Young 1990 was the first in-depth engagement with Bhabha’s work, and it remains an indispensable introduction to his earlier essays, putting his work alongside that of Said and Spivak. Young 2001, meanwhile, puts Bhabha into the broad currents of what the book terms “tricontinental Marxism.” Moore-Gilbert 1997 again situates Bhabha alongside Said and Spivak, and gives detailed and searching readings of all three key postcolonial theorists, as well as related figures such as Wilson Harris.

  • Byrne, Eleanor. Homi K. Bhabha. London: Palgrave, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-04398-6E-mail Citation »

    Part of the Transitions series, Byrne’s introduction to Bhabha charts a course through his relations with thinkers such as Edward W. Said and Frantz Fanon, before interrogating his sense of the “post-” or time-lag indivisible from the apparent mainstream of Western modernity. Byrne concludes with reflections on the continuing importance of Bhabha’s work. The book closes with an important interview, considering his framing of Fanon’s more famous later work, as well as restating Bhabha’s understanding of third space.

  • Hernández, Felipe. Bhabha for Architects. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A fascinating introduction of Bhabha’s relevance to architects, this book considers the way Bhabha’s concepts are already traveling into critical studies of architecture, as well as developing the implications of cultural translation for the forms and technologies of buildings. Hernández works from the observation that colonialism was in part a matter of the symbolism of architecture and urban planning, and he considers the ways Bhabha’s thought illuminates colonial, postcolonial, and globalized architectural practices and theories.

  • Huddart, David. Homi K. Bhabha. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203390924E-mail Citation »

    Part of the Critical Thinkers series, this introduction to Bhabha works its way through different key terms—including stereotypes, the uncanny, and cultural rights—to provide a sense of the different artistic, literary, and theoretical connections animating Bhabha’s theory. In addition, it closes with a chapter considering the writers who have responded (often critically) to Bhabha’s work.

  • Moore-Gilbert, Bart. Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics. London: Verso, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    Offering a nuanced reading of Edward W. Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Bhabha, Moore-Gilbert’s book probes at many apparent inconsistencies and theoretical problems, as well as establishing some of the continuities between postcolonial theory and comparable enterprises he calls “postcolonial criticism.” Moore-Gilbert demonstrates the ways Bhabha’s concerns coincide with figures such as the novelist Wilson Harris, but he also explores some of the limitations that might result for postcolonial studies from too great a focus on theory.

  • Young, Robert J. C. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first edition of Young’s book was published before The Location of Culture (Bhabha 1994, cited under Primary Texts), and it makes a persuasive case for the continuities in Bhabha’s earlier essays. (The second edition was published in 2004.) Bhabha’s work is situated alongside that of Edward W. Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, as well as in the context of Francophone thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Jacques Derrida (whose 1974 article “White Mythology” provides Young’s title), to construct a postcolonial theory that resists many of the assumptions underlying both Western humanism and Marxism.

  • Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Young’s book is a comprehensive account of the thinkers and activists associated with what he calls “tricontinental Marxism.” He covers the histories of anticolonial resistance, recalls connections between important figures, and builds the contexts that help us understand the potential and problems found in postcolonial studies. The book incorporates further discussion of Bhabha, showing that postcolonial theory owes much to different forms of Indian experience and thought.

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