How Newness Enters the World

Postmodern space, postcolonial times and the trials of cultural translation

Text by Homi K. Bhabha

Homi k. bhabha is the leading writer on contemporary post-colonialist theory. His highly revered The Location of Culture (1994) offers a positive interpretation of diasporic cultures and their engagement with former ruling powers. In it, he teases out the multi-layered complexities in the relations between cultural polarities and the resulting political meaning.

Bhabha charmingly accepts that his writing initially appears theoretically abtruse. The challenge, and reward, is subsequently profound when applied reading crystallises meaning and intent. In this extract from Location, he articulates his ideas, connecting Marxist theorist, Fredric Jameson, Joseph Conrad and Salman Rushdie whilst outlining a process of constantly evolving language. Bhabha is currently working on two new books. A selection of art essays for the University of Chicago Press, the other on questions of globalisation from the perspectives of culture and security.


"Translation passes through continua of transformation, not abstract ideas of identity and similarity."
-Walter Benjamin, "On Language As Such and the Language of Man."

It is radical perversity, not sage political wisdom, that drives the intriguing will to knowledge of postcolonial discourse. Why else does the long shadow of Conrad's Heart of Darkness fall on so many texts of the postcolonial pedagogy? [Central character] Marlow has much in him of the anti-foundationalist, the metropolitan ironist who believes that the neo-pragmatic universe is best preserved by keeping the conversation of humankind going. And so he does, in that intricate endgame that is best known to readers of the novel as the "lie" to the Intended [Conrad's literary device representing human innocence]. Although the African wilderness has followed him into the lofty drawing-room of Europe, with its spectral, monumental whiteness, despite the dusk that menacingly whispers "the Horror, the Horror," Marlow's narrative keeps faith with the gendered conventions of a civil discourse where women are blinded because they see too much reality, and novels end because they cannot bear too much fictionality. Marlow keeps the conversation going, suppresses the horror, gives history the white lie and waits for the heavens to fall. But, as he says, the heavens do not fall for such a trifle.

The global link between colony and metropolis, so central to the ideology of imperialism, is articulated in Kurtz's emblematic words - "the Horror, the Horror!" The unreadability of these Conradian runes has attracted much interpretive attention, precisely because their depths contain no truth that is not perfectly visible on the "outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze."1 Marlow does not merely repress the "truth" - however multivocal and multivalent it may be - he enacts a poetics of translation that (be)sets the boundary between the colony and the metropolis. In taking the name of a woman - the Intended -- to mask the daemonic "being" of colonialism, Marlow turns the brooding geography of political disaster - the heart of darkness - into a melancholic memorial to romantic love and historic memory. Between the silent truth of Africa and the salient lie to the metropolitan woman, Marlow returns to his initiating insight: the experience of colonialism is the problem of living in the "midst of the incomprehensible."

Marlow's inward gaze now beholds the everyday reality of the Western metropolis through the veil of the colonial fantasm; the local story of love and its domestic memory can only be told between the lines of history's tragic repressions. The white woman, the Intended, becomes the shadow of the African woman; the street of tall houses takes on the profile of tribal skulls on staves; the percussive pounding of a heart echoes the deep beat of drums - "the heart of a conquering darkness." When this discourse of a daemonic doubling emerges at the very centre of metropolitan life, then the familiar things of everyday life and letters are marked by an irresistible sense of their genealogical difference, a "postcolonial" provenance.
[…]Such "overdramatised" images are precisely my concern as I attempt to negotiate narratives where double-lives are led in the postcolonial world, with its journeys of migration and its dwellings of the diasporic. These subjects of study require the experience of anxiety to be incorporated into the analytic construction of the object of critical attention: narratives of the borderline conditions of cultures and disciplines. Anxiety is the affective address of "a world [that] reveals itself as caught up in the space between frames; a doubled frame or one that is split," as Samuel Weber describes the symbolic structure of psychic anxiety itself. And the long shadow cast by Heart of Darkness on the world of postcolonial studies is itself a double symptom of pedagogical anxiety: a necessary caution against generalising the contingencies and contours of local circumstance, at the very moment at which a transnational, "migrant" knowledge of the world is most urgently needed.

Any discussion of cultural theory in the context of globalisation would be incomplete without a reading of Fredric Jameson's essay, "Secondary elaborations," the conclusion to his collected volume Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. No other Marxist critic has so dauntlessly redirected the movement of the materialist dialectic, away from its centralisation in the State and its idealised aesthetic and disciplinary categories, towards the wayward, uncharted spaces of the cityscape, allegorised in its media images and its vernacular visions. Jameson suggests that the demographic and phenomenological impact of minorities and migrants within the West may be crucial in conceiving of the transnational character of contemporary culture.

[…] Jameson uses the language of psychoanalysis (the breakdown of the signifying chain in psychosis) to provide a genealogy for the subject of postmodern cultural fragmentation. Inverting the influential [Marxist philosopher] Althusserian edict on the "imaginary" ideological capture of the subject, Jameson insists that it is the schizoid or "split" subject that articulates, with the greatest intensity, the disjunction of time and being that characterises the social syntax of the postmodern condition.

[…] Psychoanalytic temporality invests the utterance of the "present" - its displaced times, its affective intensities - with cultural and political value. Placed in the unconscious, the "present" is neither the mimetic sign of historical contemporaneity (the immediacy of experience), nor is it the visible terminus of the historical past (the teleology of tradition). His reading of a poem, "China," illustrates what it means to establish "a primacy of the I present sentence in time, ruthlessly disintegrat[ing] the narrative fabric that attempts to reform around it." A fragment of the poem will convey this sense of the "signifier of the present" wresting the movement of history to represent the struggle of its making:

We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.

The people who taught us how to count were being very kind.

It's always time to leave.
If it rains, you either have your umbrella or you don't.

What Jameson finds in these "sentence(s) in free standing isolation," athwart the disarticulate spaces that utter the present, each time again and anew, is:
the re-emergence here across these disjoined sentences of some more unified global meaning… It does seem to capture something of the excitement of the immense, unfinished social experiment of the New China - unparalleled in world history - the unexpected emergence between the two superpowers of 'number three'…; the signal event, above all, of a collectivity which has become a new 'subject of history' and which, after the long subjection of feudalism and imperialism, again speaks in its own voice, for itself, as if for the first time.

The Horror! the Horror! Almost a century after Heart of Darkness we have returned to that act of living in the midst of the "incomprehensible," that Conrad associated with the production of transcultural narratives in the colonial world. From these disjoined post-imperial sentences, that bear the anxiety of reference and representation - "undescribable vividness… a materiality of perception, properly overwhelming" - there emerges the need for a global analysis of culture. Jameson perceives a new international culture in the perplexed passing of modernity into postmodernity, emphasising the transnational attenuation of "local" space.

My rendition of Jameson, edited with ellipses that create a Conradian foreboding, reveals the anxiety of enjoining the global and the local; the dilemma of projecting an international space on the trace of a decentered, fragmented subject. Cultural globality is figured in the in-between spaces of double-frames: its historical originality marked by a cognitive obscurity; its decentered "subject" signified in the nervous temporality of the transitional, or the emergent provisionality of the "present." […] Jameson is, indeed, a kind of Marlow in search of the aura of Ernest Mandel, stumbling upon […] Lefebvre, Baudrillard and Kevin Lynch. The architecture of Jameson's argument is like a theme park of an imperilled post-Althusserian phenomenological Marxism of which he is both the master-builder and the most brilliant bricoleur, the heroic saviour and the savvy salvage merchant.

Whether it is the emergence of new historical subjects in China or, somewhat later, the new international space in question, the argument moves intriguingly beyond Jameson's theoretical description of the sign of the "present." The radical discontinuity that exists between bourgeois private life and the "unimaginable" decentering of global capital does not find its scheme of representation in the spatial position or the representational visibility of the free-standing, disjoined sentences, to which Jameson insistently draws attention. What must be mapped as a new international space of discontinuous historical realities is, in fact, the problem of signifying the interstitial passages and processes of cultural difference that are inscribed in the "in-between," in the temporal break-up that weaves the "global" text. It is, ironically, the disintegrative moment, even movement, of enunciation - that sudden disjunction of the present - that makes possible the rendering of culture's global reach. And, paradoxically, it is only through a structure of splitting and displacement - "the fragmented and schizophrenic decentering of the self" - that the architecture of the new historical subject emerges at the limits of representation itself, "to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual to that vaster and 'unrepresentable' totality which is the ensemble of society's structures as a whole."

In exploring this relation to the "unrepresentable" as a domain of social causality and cultural difference, one is led to question the enclosures and exclusions of Jameson's "third space." The space of "thirdness" in postmodern politics opens up an area of "interfection" (Jameson's term) where the newness of cultural practices and historical narratives are registered in "generic discordance," "unexpected juxtaposition," "the semiautomisation of reality," "postmodern schizo-fragmentation as opposed to modern or modernist anxieties or hysterias." Figured in the disjointed signifier of the present, this supplementary third space introduces a structure of ambivalence into the very construction of Jameson's internationalism. There is, on the one hand, a recognition of the interstitial, disjunctive spaces and signs crucial for the emergence of the new historical subjects of the transnational phase of late capitalism. However, having located the image of the historical present in the Signifier of a "disintegrative" narrative, Jameson disavows the temporality of displacement which is, literally, its medium of communication. For Jameson, the possibility of becoming historical demands a containment of this disjunctive social time.

Although Jameson commences by elaborating the "sensorium" of the decentered, multinational network as existing somewhere beyond our perceptual, mappable experience, he can only envisage the representation of global "difference" by making a renewed appeal to the mimetic visual faculty - this time in the name of an "incommensurability-vision." What is manifestly new about this version of international space and its social (in)visibility, is its temporal measure - "different moments in historical time… jumps back and forth." The nonsynchronous temporality of global and national cultures opens up a cultural space - a third space - where the negotiation of incommensurable differences creates a tension peculiar to borderline existences. In The New World (B)order, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, the performance artist who lives between Mexico City and New York, plays with our incommensurability-vision and extends our senses towards the new transnational world and its hybrid names:

This new society is characterised by mass migrations and bizarre interracial relations. As a result new hybrid and transitional identities are emerging… Such is the case of the crazy Chica-riricuas, who are the products of the Puerto Rican-mullato and Chicano-mestizo parents... When a Chica-riricua marries a Hassidic Jew their child is called Hassidic vato loco…

The bankrupt notion of the melting pot has been replaced by a model that is more germane to the times, that of the menudo chowder. According to this model, most of the ingredients do melt, but some stubborn chunks are condemned merely to float. Vergigratia!

Such fantastic renamings of the subjects of cultural difference do not derive their discursive authority from anterior causes - be it human nature or historical necessity - which, in a secondary move, articulate essential and expressive identities between cultural differences in the contemporary world. The problem is not of an ontological cast, where differences are effects of some more totalising, transcendent identity to be found in the past or the future. Hybrid hyphenations emphasise the incommensurable elements - the stubborn chunks - as the basis of cultural identifications. What is at issue is the performative nature of differential identities: the regulation and negotiation of those spaces that are continually, contingently, "opening out," remaking the boundaries, exposing the limits of any claim to a singular or autonomous sign of difference - be it class, gender or race. Such assignations of social differences - where difference is neither One nor the Other but something else besides, in-between - find their agency in a form of the "future" where the past is not originary, where the present is not simply transitory. It is, an interstitial future, that emerges in-between the claims of the past and the needs of the present.

The present of the world, that appears through the breakdown of temporality, signifies a historical intermediacy, familiar to the psychoanalytic concept of Nachträglichkeit (deferred action): "a transferential function, whereby the past dissolves in the present, so that the future becomes (once again) an open question, instead of being specified by the fixity of the past."6 The iterative "time" of the future as a becoming "once again open," makes available to marginalised or minority identities a mode of performative agency.

Jameson dispels the potential of such a "third" politics of the future-as-open-question, or the New World (B)order, by turning social differences into cultural distance," and converting interstitial, conflictual temporalities, that may be neither developmental nor linear (not "up and down a temporal scale"), into the topoi of spatial separation.
[…] Once more the historical difference of the present is articulated in the emergence of a third space of representation, which is quickly reabsorbed into the base-superstructure division. The analogon, required by the new world system as a way of expressing its interstitial cultural temporality - an indirect and interposed communicational structure - is allowed to embellish, but not to interrupt, the base-superstructure formula.

As the West gazes into the broken mirror of its new global unconscious - "the extraordinary demographic displacements of mass migrant workers and of global tourists […] unparalleled in world history" - Jameson attempts to turn the schizophrenic social imaginary of the postmodern subject into a crisis in the collective ontology of the group faced with the sheer "number" of demographic pluralism. The perceptual (and cognitive) anxiety that accompanies the loss of "infrastructural" mapping becomes exacerbated in the postmodern city, where […] community" has been altered by mass migration and settlement. Migrant communities are representative of a much wider trend towards the minoritisation of national societies.

Is it fanciful to suggest that in this image of class as the glass of history - an optical ontology that allows a clear view to the "bottom of the stream" - there is also a form of narcissism? Class subsumes the interpellative, affective power of "race, gender, ethnic culture and the like… [which] can always be shown to involve phantasms of culture as such, in the anthropological sense, …authorised and legitimised by notions of religion."
If the specularity of class consciousness provides race and gender with its interpellative structure, then no form of collective social identity can be designated without its prior naming as a form of class identity. Class identity is auto-referential, surmounting other instances of social difference. Its sovereignty is also, in a theoretical sense, an act of surveillance. Class categories that provide a clear view to the stream's rocky bottom are then caught in an autotelic disavowal of their own discursive and epistemic limits. Such a narcissism can articulate "other" subjects of difference and forms of cultural alterity as either mimetically secondary - a paler shade of the authenticity and originality of class relations, now somehow out of place - or temporally anterior or untimely - archaic, anthropomorphic, compensatory realities rather than contemporary social communities.

If I have described the class category as narcissistic, then I have not done justice to the complexity of Jameson's ambivalence. […] As the autotelic specularity of the class category witnesses the historic loss of its own ontological priority, there emerges the possibility of a politics of social difference that makes no autotelic claims - "capable of interpellating itself;" - but is genuinely articulatory in its understanding that to be discursively represented and socially representative - to assume an effective political identity or image - the limits and conditions of specularity have to be exceeded and erased by the inscription of otherness. To revise the problem of global space from the postcolonial perspective is to move the location of cultural difference away from the space of demographic plurality to the borderline negotiations of cultural translation.


What does the narrative construction of minority discourses entail for the everday existence of the Western metropolis? Let us stay with televisual subjects of channel-switching and psychic splitting and enter the postmodern city as migrants and minorities. Our siren song comes from the Jewish ad-woman Mimi Mamoulian, talking over the phone from New York to Saladin Chamcha, erstwhile London-based voiceover artiste, now a Satanic goatman, sequestered in an Indian-Pakistani ghetto in London's Brickhall Street. The scenario comes from The Satanic Verses, and the voice is Mimi's:

I am conversant with postmodernist critiques of the West, e.g. that we have here a society capable only of pastiche: a flattened world. When I become the voice of a bubble bath, I am entering flatland knowingly, understanding what I am doing and why…. Don't teach me about exploitation.... Try being jewish, female and ugly sometime. You'll beg to be black. Excuse my french: brown.

At the Shandaar café, the talk is about Chamcha the Anglophile. Chamcha, the great projector of voices, the prestidigitator of personae, has turned into a Goat and has crawled back to the ghetto, to his despised migrant compatriots. In his mythic being he has become the "borderline" figure of a massive historical displacement - postcolonial migration - that is not only a "transitional" reality, but also a "translational" phenomenon. The question is, in Jameson's terms, whether "narrative invention … by way of its very implausibility becomes the figure of a larger possible [cultural] praxis."

Chamcha stands literally in-between two border conditions. On one hand lies his landlady Hind who espouses the cause of gastronomic pluralism, devouring the spiced dishes of Kashmir and the yogurt sauces of Lucknow, turning herself into the wide landmass of the subcontinent itself "because food passes across any boundary you care to mention." On Chamcha's other side sits his landlord Sufyan, the secular "colonial'"metropolitan who understands the fate of the migrant in the classical contrast between Lucretius and Ovid. Translated, by Sufyan, for the existential guidance of postcolonial migrants, the problem consists in whether the crossing of cultural frontiers permits freedom from the essence of the self (Lucretius), or whether, like wax, migration only changes the surface of the soul, preserving identity under its protean forms (Ovid).

This liminality of migrant experience is no less a transitional phenomenon than a translational one; there is no resolution to it because the two conditions are ambivalently enjoined in the "survival" of migrant life. Living in the interstices of Lucretius and Ovid, caught in-between a "nativist," even nationalist, atavism and a postcolonial metropolitan assimilation, the subject of cultural difference becomes a problem that Walter Benjamin has described as the irresolution, or liminality, of "translation," the element of resistance in the process of transformation, "that element in a translation which does not lend itself to translation." This space of the translation of cultural difference at the interstices is infused with that Benjaminian temporality of the present which makes graphic a moment of transition, not merely the continuum of history; it is a strange stillness that defines the present in which the very writing of historical transformation becomes uncannily visible. The migrant culture of the "in-between," the minority position, dramatises the activity of culture's untranslatability; and in so doing, it moves the question of culture's appropriation beyond the assimilationist's dream, or the racist's nightmare, of a "full transmissal of subject-matter;" and towards an encounter with the ambivalent process of splitting and hybridity that marks the identification with culture's difference. The God of migrants speaks unequivocally on this point, while fully equivocal between purity and danger:

Whether We be multiform, plural, representing the union-by-hybridisation of such opposites as Oopar and Neechay, or whether We be pure, stark, extreme, will not be resolved here.

The indeterminacy of diasporic identity, "[that] will not be resolved here" is the secular, social cause for what has been widely represented as the "blasphemy" of the book. Hybridity is heresy. The fundamentalist charge has not focused on the misinterpretation of the Koran, as much as on the offence of the "misnaming" of Islam: Mohamed referred to as Mahound; the prostitutes named after the wives of the Prophet. It is the formal complaint of the fundamentalists that the transposition of these sacred names into profane spaces - brothels or magical realist novels - is not simply sacrilegious, but destructive of the very cement of community. […] The conflict of cultures and community around the Satanic Verseshas been mainly represented in spatial terms and binary geopolitical polarities - Islamic fundamentalists vs. Western literary modernists, the quarrel of the ancient (ascriptive) migrants and modern (ironic) metropolitans. This obscures the anxiety of the irresolvable, borderline culture of hybridity that articulates its problems of identification and its diasporic aesthetic in an uncanny, disjunctive temporality that is, at once, the time of cultural displacement, and the space of the "untranslatable."

The transposition of the life of Mohamed into the melodramatic theatricality of a popular Bombay movie, The Message, results in a hybridised form - the "theological" - targeted to Western immigrant audiences. Blasphemy, here, is the slippage in-between the intended moral fable and its displacement into the dark, symptomatic figurations of the "dreamwork" of cinematic fantasy. In the racist psychodrama staged around Chamcha, the Satanic goatman, "blasphemy" stands for the phobic projections that fuel great social fears, cross frontiers, evade the normal controls, and roam loose about the city turning difference into demonism. […] As the unstable element - the interstice - enables the linkage black/blasphemy, so it reveals, once more, that the "present" of translation may not be a smooth transition, a consensual continuity, but the configuration of the disjunctive rewriting of the transcultural, migrant experience.

If hybridity is heresy, then to blaspheme is to dream. To dream not of the past or present, nor the continuous present; it is not the nostalgic dream of tradition, nor the Utopian dream of modern progress; it is the dream of translation as "survival" as Derrida translates the "time" of Benjamin's concept of the afterlife of translation, as sur-vivre, the act of living on borderlines. Rushdie translates this into the migrant's dream of survival: an initiatory interstices; an empowering condition of hybridity; an emergence that turns "return" into reinscription or redescription; an iteration that is not belated, but ironic and insurgent. For the migrant's survival depends, as Rushdie put it, on discovering "how newness enters the world." The focus is on making the linkages through the unstable elements of literature and life - the dangerous tryst with the 'untranslatable' - rather than arriving at ready-made names.

[…] The newness of cultural translation is akin to what Walter Benjamin describes as the "foreignness of languages" - that problem of representation native to representation itself. [Here], I want to foreground the "foreignness" of cultural translation.

With the concept of "foreignness" Benjamin comes closest to describing the performativity of translation as the staging of cultural difference. The argument begins with the suggestion that though Brot and pain intend the same object, bread, their discursive and cultural modes of signification are in conflict with each other, striving to exclude each other. The complementarity of language as communication must be understood as emerging from the constant state of contestation and flux caused by the differential systems of social and cultural signification. This process of complementarity as the agonistic supplement is the seed of the "untranslatable" - the foreign element in the midst of the performance of cultural translation.

I am less interested in the metonymic fragmentation of the "original." I am more engaged with the "foreign" element that reveals the interstitial; insists in the textile superfluity of folds and wrinkles; and becomes the "unstable element of linkage," the indeterminate temporality of the in-between, that has to be engaged in creating the conditions through which "newness comes into the world." The foreign element "destroys the original's structures of reference and sense communication as well" not simply by negating it but by negotiating the disjunction in which successive cultural temporalities are "preserved in the work of history and at the same time cancelled. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed." And through this dialectic of cultural negation-as-negotiation, this splitting of skin and fruit through the agency of foreignness, the purpose is, as Rudolf Pannwitz says, not "to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German [but] instead to turn German into Hindi, Greek, English."

Translation is the performative nature of cultural communication. It is language in actu (enunciation, positionality) rather than language in situ (énoncé, or propositionality). […] The "time" of translation consists in that movement of meaning, the principle and practice of a communication that, in the words of Paul de Man "puts the original in motion to decanonise it, giving it the movement of fragmentation, a wandering of errance, a kind of permanent exile."

Chamcha is the discriminatory sign of a performative, projective British culture of race and racism - "illegal immigrant, outlaw king, foul criminal or race hero." Between Ovid and Lucretius, or gastronomic and demographic pluralisms, he confounds nativist and supremacist ascriptions of national(ist) identities. This migrant movement of social identifications leads to the most devastating parody of Maggie Torture's Britain.

The revenge of the migrant hybrid comes in the Club Hot Wax sequence, named, no doubt, after Sufyan's translation of Ovid's waxy metaphor for the immutability of the migrant soul. […] It is the deejay, prancing Pinkwalla, who stages the revenge of black history in the expressivist cultural practices of toasting, rapping and scratching. In a scene that blends Madame Tussaud's with Led Zeppelin, the sepulchral wax figures of an excised black history emerge to dance amidst the migrants of the present in a postcolonial counter-masque of a retrieved and reinscribed history. Waxy Maggie Torture is condemned to a meltdown, accompanied by the Baldwinian chants of "the fire this time." And suddenly through this ritual of translation, Saladin Chamcha, the Satanic goatman, is historicised again in the movement of a migrant history, a metropolitan world "becoming minority."

Cultural translation desacralises the transparent assumptions of cultural supremacy, and in that very act, demands a contextual specificity, a historical differentiation within minority positions. […] The critique of patriarchal fundamentalism and its regulation of gender and sexual desire has become a major issue for minority cultures. Minority artists have questioned the heterosexism that regulates traditional, joint-family based communities, making gay and lesbian relations restrictive and repressive. Such is the tropic movement of cultural translation, as Rushdie spectacularly renames London, in its Indo-Pakistani iteration, as "Ellowen Deeowen."


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