Diaspora and Home: An Interview with Homi K. Bhabha

How much displacement can an individual or a group take? Homi K. Bhabha talks about migration, biography and culture - and how the refugee could become the model on which to think about new forms of belonging and citizenship.

This interview originally appeared in the book Diasporic Constructions of Home and Belonging.

Known for the introduction of theoretical key concepts such as hybridity, mimicry, difference, ambivalence and the Third Space, Homi K. Bhabha is one of today’s most influential cultural theorists and a key thinker of contemporary postcolonial studies. Klaus Stierstorfer, Professor of British Studies at the University of Münster, met with Homi K. Bhabha to talk about key ideas in his work. 

K.St.: Professor Bhabha, you have spent the greater part of your life in research on people on the move between and beyond the confines of cultures, nations and all those other contexts that traditionally are thought to generate a feeling of home and belonging. In a sense, you are thus a specialist on cultural “misfits,” those who do not fit into the readily available categories of civil societies. Your special area is not so much the home as the “unhomely” or even the “uncanny, ” as Freud’s famous term of das Unheimliche is generally translated. In fact, you have yourself been referred to as “Mister In-Between,” and I may therefore start this interview on a personal note in consideration of the fact that you have just arrived here in Münster, Germany, not as originally planned, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where you hold a famous Chair at Harvard University, but from Mumbai, your place of birth, where a family emergency had taken you at short notice: how much have you perceived yourself as being such a ‘misfit’ and in what ways has this aspect of your biography influenced your research?

H.Bh.: This is a very interesting, rather reflective question. So let me start with what you say at the very head of the question, as my being a specialist on cultural “misfits.” I think I would phrase it somewhat differently. I think what is interesting about culture itself is that it is often in its most interesting manifestations in a state of the “misfit”; to fit the different bits or parts of a particular cultural apparatus or experience together always creates a problem because the parts do not necessarily form a whole. And people regret that (e pluribus unum). Wouldn’t it be great if everybody, whatever cultures, all fit together in one big whole. But it seems to me that the most interesting and most important ethical and political problems have emerged precisely because cultures are not a seamless whole. There are discordant elements; there are divisive elements; there are divergent elements.

Let me be, on the one hand, a little more precise about this, in political terms, and then let me give you a sense of how I think one can theoretically look at the problem. In political terms the “misfit” is often the minority. And yes I have been very interested in processes and practices of minoritization. What I mean to say by this is that it’s not that I’m only interested in national minorities or religious minorities or political minorities; I am interested in those. But more than that, or as interested as I am in specific minority situations, I am interested in the whole process by which cultures, groups, societies produce a structure of minoritization. Sometimes it is a structure of alterity; sometimes it is a structure of stereotopy; sometimes it is the reflection of a hegemony; sometimes it is the promise of heterogeneity. So, this whole process of minoritization as part of the very nature of cultural ethics, cultural politics, and cultural semiosis is the ill-fitting nature of the cultural, if you like, the culture as a misfitting apparatus.

“The question ‘What is your cultural identity?’ is unanswerable.”

Homi K. Bhabha

If that is the more direct, political aspect of this problem of culture as a misfitting apparatus, the philosophical or conceptual metaphor I would use is the famous image of the broken vessel which Walter Benjamin uses in his essay on translation: he says that the pieces of a broken vessel fit together not because they are the same as each other but they fit into each other in all their differences. It is that which gives the vessel its strength, and therefore I would say to you that what you have described as the cultural “misfit” is always the problem of cultural translation. So culture is a translational reality, and to that extent it depends upon its moving parts, its often contradictory, asymmetrical moving parts, its tensile strength. After all, to put it very simply, the question “What is your cultural identity?” is unanswerable. However, if somebody asks you about a particular cultural practice with which you’re in line, you can answer that question. It’s almost as if the very nature of the cultural is metonymic in that sense.

Now, you want me to answer this in terms of my own particular history, but I feel I need to lay the grounds conceptually before I do this. It’s very interesting because Parsis were amongst the most prominent creators of urban modernity in India. Nowadays they have a very small public profile. It is forgotten, however, that amongst the early political leaders emerging in British times to represent Indians as a whole, if you like, Parsis were very prominent. So Parsis are themselves part of this asymmetric, interstitial group. A very small minority, neither Muslim nor Hindu, nor Christian – the three major faiths in India – yet Parsis were able to play in the interstices; they were able to bridge those differences to their advantage, sometimes in a creditable way, and sometimes less creditably, as they became the middle man in India.

But Parsis as a culture have various missing parts. At the heart of the faith-based culture, there is tremendous orthodoxy. As part of the life experience or the “life world,” to use a Habermasian term, the life world of the Parsis is hugely cosmopolitan. Parsis are a minority and yet they’ve made a disproportionate contribution, particularly in Delhi and Bombay, to urbanity in India and to modernity. Some of the leading businessmen, the leading merchants, the leading professionals – doctors, solicitors, accountants – were Parsis. So if you like, my own experience of the misfitting nature, and yet the efficacy of that misfitting dissymmetry or asymmetry is that it’s not a paralyzing condition. It can be a condition of various, varied contingencies and interventions. That’s the whole experience, I think, that comes from my own, from the Parsi community.

K.St.: To put it provocatively, Parsis in a sense of being or seeing themselves as a diasporic group could still be seen as one of the diasporic groups who have taken on almost a sort of national representative function.

H.Bh.: Well I wouldn’t quite say they are. Yes and no. I mean, in the political field they are not at all. Now they have no national profile; they haven’t had that for a long time. In the business world, yes they do have a certain kind of national profile. In terms of institutions, they don’t particularly, in terms of the academic world, they used to, but now they don’t. You know, it’s a very mixed picture.

K.St.: And their Parsi affiliation is not particularly highlighted, is it? Famous Parsi authors would not immediately be marked as Parsi writers. They would be writers in Indian English, theorists in Indian English, and it is only then when the Parsi background may come in. They certainly don’t seem to me like a particularly ‘fundamentalist’ group.

H.Bh.: No. Absolutely not. However, there is a small but growing body of Parsi literary production, you know, which states the Parsi experience. It’s a very fascinating experience, and a very powerful one. It’s not a very representative experience in the context of India or the world, but it is to me a very intriguing experience because it is really so much about interstitial negotiations, and today just after I’ve seen some of your own postdoctoral fellows and students, who referred to themselves as a network, what is more important in a network than the interstitial relations? What Hannah Arendt called human “inter-est,” that which is between people and brings them together.

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So it’s not that the group is larger than its parts, it actually is its parts. It’s partiality that creates that network. And I think Parsis are part of this. I mean, they have always been a kind of networking society. And now of course, if you read a journal like the main organ for Parsi life, it’s called Parsiana, published in Bombay, you turn the pages to find it is such a network. The Parsi community in diaspora sees itself as an effective network, bringing together all the continents – the Parsis in Australia, Canada, of course Toronto very prominently, the United States; Africa. So really I think Parsis are a network, and the Parsi community is about the contingent and interstitial nature of the contemporary world.

how much displacement can an individual take?

K.St.: That almost begins to sort of broach on the next question I was going to ask you about more the sense of belonging, less the sort of diasporic dispersion part. When you talk about a sense of belonging, a sense of home, and you add that kind of your own itinerary, you know, from India to England to the US, and now the world, how much change do you think a person can take, in that sort of leaving home, rebuilding home, leaving home? Is there a point when the “not being home” becomes a part of the institution of home? You know that becomes a sort of diverse sort of floating buzzwords, like nomadism, and you know you begin to feel having a cosmopolitan existence. Is there a point when that switches over from, you know, making home here, making home there, and doing the same over and over again, to sort of switching around on a mental level and beginning to have a different kind of existence, almost, in terms of making home?

H.Bh.: I particularly like this question when it is formulated as you did a moment ago; you said, “you know, how much displacement can an individual take, or a group take?” Let me try and answer it from my own experience. I think the very term “home” has two aspects of it, just as a concept. One – something to do with the normalized, the naturalized, the inevitable, the original. It’s there – the “thereness” of your existence, even more than the “hereness” of your existence. It is always there; this is my home. I understand this landscape. I know these people. I know the language, and so on. So that’s one important concept. And the other, it seems to me, is the kind of Conradian idea that home is what you return to. So, there are these two moments of temporality, these two narrative moments – coming out of the home and somehow allowing yourself to imagine, whether you can or you can’t, that you can go back: so emergence and return are complicit with the concept of home.

Now it seems to me that those of us who move homes often, though not always, follow a certain kind of narrative pattern. By that I don’t mean that everyone who moves on follows a certain narrative structure. All I mean is that in my movements, there is a narrative. There are reasons why I move; there are the losses of it, of where I moved from, and the gains of where I move to. So, it is part of a process of choice and judgment. And that sense of choice and judgment is lost very often with generalized terms like cosmopolitan or the other one you mentioned – planetary – or nomadism. [K.St.: Gilroy talks about “conviviality.”] Or conviviality. You know, I think what is lost is the fact there are certain times in which you make a decision, you make it for certain purposes; there are pluses and minuses. So there is a narrative plotting, and it is not just an endless back-and-forth. Once you have got that narrative, and I think most people do, then you can move back into the nodal points. And you know why you’re doing that.

I know I go to India regularly, because primarily my family is there. If my family were not there, I don’t know whether I would. But my family is there. I have major intellectual interests. Out of that I have a body of people that I go to see. And my life now is lived: other than my work commitments, my lecturing commitments send me all over the place, but generally it’s lived between Bombay and Boston. Those are the markers of home. Now, there was a time when it was much more triangulated, having spent many years in England, owning a home I love in London; I would move between there and Boston, or Chicago. I love being in America; my work, I find, is most productively supported there. That’s part of the narrative. I moved there because my work is productive, I have many colleagues. Now I have many close friends. I have family connections. But initially it was a decision made for a certain purpose. And out of that came a “homeyness,” if I might put it.

So it’s not as if you go and think, “I want to make my home in America.” You go for certain specific reasons. These reasons, these choices are difficult to make, these reasons have been deliberated, and then you go. And I used to go at the end of the academic term. We would always go to England for a while, and then we would go to India. Circumstances change. Now I go to England more for specific events that I’m invited to do. But because my mother is in her late 80s and she’s alone, we no longer go and spend a long time in London, which we always did because we’ve got very old and close friends there; I’ve got family there. Now London is not as it had been the primary home; I spent more years in England than I had in either the States certainly, or in India. Now I no longer go there in that “homey” way. I go there to give lectures, for work, to meet people. Does it mean then, that in my existential sense of belonging, London has ceased to exist as a home? No! It has not ceased to exist, but because of certain decisions, and because of certain circumstances, it is not the same kind of destination.

So I’m suggesting that we tend to talk theoretically about diaspora, about cosmopolitanism. We tend to use these general terms which have encrypted in them a kind of ceaseless notion of movement, of nomadism. But in fact that’s not the way life works. I’m saying there are very distinct forms of narrativity, choices, judgments, which evaluate certain locations, which create a home around certain locations. My natal home is in Bombay. My home that came out of my work is in the United States. London used to be an in-between space of a certain home. But that changes. So I think there is a continual transvaluation, or a changing. That depends very much on decisions you make.

K.St.: So, your idea would not be so much that, to take your metaphor or your concept of a narrative of relocations, a sheer iteration in that narrative could actually cause a breakdown in that narrative that entirely changes the quality of what you feel home is, the quality of the home concept so much. But it remains, as you describe it, a dynamic process all along.

H.Bh.: Yes, because what is being iterated or articulated around the concept of home are certain needs, certain interests, certain passions and affects, which actually then create that life-world, that existential comfort that you associate with home. But it seems to me that we have, to use a word I very rarely use, “essentialized” iteration, in terms like diaspora, or movement, or migration. You know, it seems as if everybody were migrating now. That is exaggerated. There are life worlds that are made for specific reasons, and they have many geographical and temporal locations. And that, I think, is both the trajectory of home, and the continual tension of home.

K.St.: I’d like to take this biographical approach a little bit further towards your work and your thinking, as it sort of runs through your very substantial and impressive life’s work now. Much of the postcolonial thinking, specifically, you have become famous for originally drew on the kind of Theory with a capital ‘T’ which became prevalent throughout the 1980s and has been losing ground perhaps again from the 1990s onwards. In fact, in The Location of Culture, you put up an eloquent defense of the uses of Theory in your essay “The Commitment to Theory.” From hindsight today, as literary and cultural studies are leaving the so-called Theory Wars at least behind, would you re-define or re-adjust the place of Theory in your readings, especially where they address postcolonial or diasporic concerns? Has that changed?

H.Bh.: I think I’m happier answering this as a more general question about the place of the theoretical. My own turn to theory came not because I had available to me a whole lot of theoretical possibilities when I was at university. When I went to university, when I was at Oxford, in the mid to late-70s it wasn’t at all like that as an undergraduate. Not at all! All the exciting courses were on feminism and psychoanalysis. But I think my attraction to theory, then and now, is not that different. My attraction to the theoretical is primarily the possibility of being able to confront what is for me, at first, a problem whose parameters I am uncertain about. I am uncertain about the epistemological notion of the parameters; I am uncertain about the historical notion of the parameters; I am uncertain about the philosophical notion. When I confront a problem, whatever nature it is, and I absolutely can put it in no frame, or it has shattered the frames that I have brought, that’s when I turn to theory.

“My attraction to the theoretical is primarily the possibility of being able to confront what is for me, at first, a problem whose parameters I am uncertain about.”

Homi K. Bhabha

People have always looked at my work as being extraordinarily difficult to read, and they think that I have a penchant for difficulty. My passion for difficulty is expressed in my love for poetry, not in my attraction to theory. If you really want something difficult, read poetry; read Rilke, if you really want something problematic. But for me the theoretical is a way of understanding how to at least make a representation of, or put a frame around, a problem, which breaks down your notion of scholarly propriety, competence, disciplinary determination and so on. To that extent I was always criticized for not having affiliations to any one particular theorist. I told them for me the creative move was to see a problem and then to take what I needed from a particular theory – syncretic, hybrid, call it what you like – to take it and transform it in a conversation with other theoretical assumptions or theoretical traditions. So in a way, I’m not even sure that what I was doing was simply a theoretical enterprise, although it is often represented as such.

The question you posed makes me think that what I do, and what I did, is much more to establish a protocol for dealing with some problematic, neglected area, some problem that people had not confronted or had marginalized. It was much more to bring things, in the Hegelian phrase, into “a regime of recognition.” That’s what I was trying to do. Which is why I’ve been attracted not simply by theoretical elaborations, or theoretical exemplification which doesn’t attract me at all. What I have been attracted by is to somehow put a frame on something that could have been missed, left invisible. And somehow by putting a frame around it, that thing gains importance.

Therefore, for me, theory is about a kind of empowerment, rather than exemplification. The question came up again today, and comes up again and again: in your class amongst your CoHaB-cohort somebody said, “you know, we were working with your theory, and then we looked at a book, an example, and it somehow didn’t fit.” And I said, “Well exactly! How boring would it be if it did?!” I’ve been asked again and again to write histories of theory, to do anthologies of postcolonialism, and I’ve always resisted that because I am not interested in codifying what has already been named. I am interested in trying to name what has not been named!

K.St.: I really like your phrase of theories functioning as to bring things into recognition. Would that also apply to texts? Is that how texts become literature, possibly with a capital “L,” when you apply theory? They become literature?

H.Bh.: Well, you need that: the bringing to recognition. And when you say “the bringing to recognition” you blur the distinction between the object of analysis, or the object of attention, and the constituting conditions of intelligibility. So the theory/practice distinction, as far as I’m concerned and to put it bluntly – never really existed.

K.St.: You’ve begun to think about the legal aspects of diasporic situations in your recent work. Your Harvard Website announces a forthcoming book of yours with Columbia University Press under the title “The Right to Narrate,” and you have given a keynote lecture at a conference in Hanover “On Writing and Rights.” Do you expect lawyers and legal scholars to play a more prominent part in defining and negotiating the place of diasporic groups vis-à-vis majority cultures and traditions? And does law have things to learn from literature (or vice versa) in tackling these complicated issues? Hence, do we need a law and literature movement in diaspora studies?

H.Bh.: Yes, very much so. You know people always think that I only do theory, but no history; the sessions with your students in Muenster brought this up a great deal, and we talked about various formations of what a diasporic legal aspect or perspective would be. We talked about the fact that there are these bodies of international civil society, the Rome Declaration, the criminal courts, the truth and reconciliation commissions. We might see these in many ways as being postcolonial or postnational, as bodies of knowledge, as archives, as well as institutions. It absolutely surprises me that we don’t have a more vivid and a more vital movement in this direction because there is no body of people whose very internal souls have been marked by the law as refugees, migrants – economic or political -, those who are documented or undocumented. The very soul-making of these groups becomes a legal issue.

Citizenship, Refugees and the Global Right of Hospitality

One of the things that also interests me is the way in which the diasporic impacts on the concept of citizenship – and here you have the legal, the cultural aspect, and a social or political aspect. Very significantly for those of us interested in diasporic studies, the notion of cultural citizenship as a form of political agency is extraordinarily important, and yet an area that is still often only descriptively presented and not conceptually, historically and theoretically laid out, which is one of the things I am trying to do. You know, the approach of analyzing law as if it were literature and using the hermeneutic methods of literary analysis to read the law is, frankly, somewhat passé and not very interesting.

I think what is much more exciting is to begin to see how some of the concepts, some of the materials with which we are involved as literary scholars, scholars of culture – the issue of time, the issue of temporality, on the one hand, the issue of civility, the issue of ethicality on the other – how these issues play out in the particular political personae that get created through migration and diaspora. And what do I mean by this? For instance, it seems to me that, although there is so much discussion these days about global citizenship, or national citizenship, transnational citizenship, those ways of thinking about belonging still participate in a discourse of permanence: whether it’s between two nations, whether it’s across the world – the notion of citizenship is, in a sense, about the possibilities of establishing yourself; it’s the politics of recognition. And I’m beginning to think that maybe the most important way we can rethink how we belong in the world is to take, ironically, the short temporal span of the refugee.

“The refugee condition makes the most stringent and severe demands on the national community or the ‘world community’ to recognize the global right of hospitality which is at the heart of human survival itself.”

Homi K. Bhabha

When you see “refuge,” or “taking refuge,” at the heart of what it would be to construct a polity of citizenship, you see that moment which militates against citizenship as a long-term element of community building. But if you take the concept of the refugee and see that as the central political practice, then, I think, you really begin to understand that we need to generate these terms of global subjectivity, transnational citizen, and so on. Maybe it’s not the permanence, but the impermanence of the status of the refugee that will be most helpful to us. Because the refugee condition makes the most stringent and severe demands on the national community or the “world community” to recognize the global right of hospitality which is at the heart of human survival itself. It is ‘survival’ rather than ‘sovereignty’ that should frame the ethical and political values that provide us with a workable concept of the good life lived with others – side by side solidarity with conditions of alterity.

K.St.: What you see sounds much more radical than Seyla Benhabib’s position as presented in her 2004 monograph Rights of Others.

H.Bh.: Benhabib’s book, I think, is really about the philosophical problem of alterity. For me, the contrast is not primarily citizenship versus alienage; the other side of citizenship really is the refugee. The former is about long-term, the latter is about short-term perspectives. We need to conceive citizenship in a more open, more liberal, more diverse, more empathetic way. I think we need to change the very value-based time scale to create and think of the refugee, in that short moment, as the one who does not belong and who maybe provides the representative time frame for re-thinking this problem. The refugee thus becomes the model and the basis on which we should think about belonging.

This interview was conducted at Schloss Wilkinghege, Münster, Germany, on September 22, 2013.


[Title Image Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash]

Homi K. Bhabha and Klaus Stierstorfer

Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Klaus Stierstorfer is a Professor of British Studies at the University of Münster, Germany.

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