Print edition : September 26, 2003

Shambling around McWorld: the postcolonial theorist as political animal.

THE postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha has long been a presence in theliterary world, as a commentator who seems to set terms for the reception of what is called Indian English literature. But of late Bhabha seems to command larger stretches of cultural terrain. He has become a considerable presence in the American artworld, for instance, and so a presence on what one may call its anglophone margins; and his appearance at the recent Documenta may well make Bhabha a personage in the artworld at large. The Documenta has come to be the artworld's great event, a quinquennial gathering of minds, in which the practice of art tries to take its bearings in the larger world. The exhibition of artworks had been its principal business till now, but that was just the last of the five `Platforms' on which the work of the last Documenta was done. The large themes addressed there were a measure of its organisers' ambition, which was "to examine and analyse the predicaments and transformations that form part of the deeply inflected historical procedures and processes of our time".

A modified Kallighat painting (19th Century).-

Bhabha appeared on the first of these platforms. Its theme was democracy unrealised, but "in an affiliative spirit" Bhabha proposed "an alternative title: Democracy De-realised". We shall soon look at what he means by this. But as Bhabha spoke on, his listeners may have imagined themselves witnesses to some announcement. The `de-realising' of democracy would appear to have brought forth a hero: whom we might baptise Subaltern Man. Though Bhabha does not introduce his wonder so, this sublimation of the political animal seems a lineal descendant of the subaltern of the 19th century's colonial empires: the `native' trained to do his European masters' work. The soul of Subaltern Man seems to have been enriched though, through his long gestation, by the sufferings of all whom Empire wronged; and he is announced here as a moral exemplar to its inheritors, and a model citizen of the world to come.

That will seem a caricature; and it is so to some extent. But what gets said as we go on should excuse it. Before taking up with Bhabha, however, it might be well to advertise something else said on the platform he had graced. The historian Immanuel Wallerstein, was there as well and, though rehearsing what he had to say will delay us, his remarks on Democracy, Capitalism and Transformation will serve as foil here.1 Wallerstein surveys "democracy and the World System up to now". The phrase "world system" suggests a broad perspective on what would usually be called the global economy, which has come to be ruled by capital for capital, seemingly. Now the evolution of the world system in the last 200 years or so has secured a nominal democracy, at least, to the polities of the First World; and if democracy is measured formally, by the extent of suffrage and the protection by law of civil liberties, then the nation states of North America and Western Europe would be models of democratic polity. But neither possessing the vote nor enjoying individual freedom has given their citizens an equal say in the running of these states; and given the cost of securing office, how capital might subvert suffrage seems plain to see. Enlarging the notion of democracy "by insisting on substantive results in addition to mere electoral process" has extracted from the powers of capital "a set of concessions" that Wallerstein calls the Welfare State: which he defines "loosely as all state action that supported and made possible increases in wage levels, plus the use of the state for a certain amount of redistribution of the global surplus".

This redistribution, however, has only benefited "the cadres of the system" - those "who are not at the top but have skills" useful to those at the top. The personnel of Wallerstein's cadres are not uniformly spread across the globe: in the Third World "at most 5 per cent" of the population could be counted such, while "in the wealthiest states perhaps 40 to 60 per cent" would be so counted. These cadres are "constantly being solicited and appeased" by the powers of capital, moreover, "since their assistance is needed to maintain the political equilibrium of the world system" by keeping "in their place the majority of the world's population". That will sound harsh, to anglophone Indian ears particularly. But, we must keep it in mind as we look at Bhabha. Democracy has meant little to the majority as "they have received very little of its presumed benefits"; and extending "the re-distributive effects of the welfare state" to more and more of the world's people does not seem feasible, because enlarging the cadres would slow down too much "the ceaseless accumulation of capital". But "calling a halt to the democratisation process is politically difficult" as well: and the increasing demand for substantive democracy will soon result, Wallerstein thinks, in "an intense political struggle over the successor state to the capitalist world economy". This will be a struggle between those who want that to be "a basically democratic system, and those who do not want that". Wanting democracy is not a simple matter though. One has to "go back to the drawing board and say what the struggle is about"; and some broadly conceived equality must be its object, because "without equality in all areas of social life there is no possible equality in any area of social life, only the mirage of it".

The challenge to imagine equality anew would tempt artists certainly. But, one must ask if they have the wherewithal to do so, especially when the artworld receives the likes of Bhabha as wise men. Let us consider his `de-realisation' of democracy now. The coinage is meant to name an "alienation disclosed in the very formation of the democratic experience and its expressions of Equality" in the first instance; but Bhabha wants, as well, to use the word "in the surrealist sense of placing an object, idea or image in a context not of its making, in order to de-familiarise it, to frustrate its naturalistic and normative `reference' and see what potential for translation that idea or insight has: a translation across genre and geopolitics, territory and temporality". Doing so is recommended because "the power of democracy, at its best, lies in its capacity for self-interrogation, and its translatability across traditions". One may wonder whether if just that is what is best about any sort of democratic polity. Suppose, anyhow, that one's notion of democracy can be `placed' anew in some such way; what concordance must be supposed to obtain now, between social process on the one hand and the `psychic automatism' that Surrealism prized on the other, for the `frustration of naturalistic and normative reference' to reveal anything at all about an alienation 'disclosed in the very formation of democratic experience'? Bhabha does not let us in on the secret. Or perhaps he does not posit any relation here, since his phrasing implies that any such `placing' would be surrealist; but what will these different `de-realisations' share, then, besides a name?

All is made moot, however, by what immediately follows. "If we attempt to De-Realise Democracy", Bhabha now says, "we recognise not its failure, but its frailty, its fraying edges or limits that impose their will of inclusion and exclusion on those who are considered - on the grounds of their race, culture, gender or class - unworthy of the democratic process". How the `fraying limits' of an idea or a process might impose their will we are not told; and one wonders what special purchase on the notion of democracy, and on all contexts `not of its making', tells Bhabha that its `potential for translation' will always be thus actualised.

Reading on will tax charity, but let us persist. "The great British liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill", Bhabha next avers, "realised that one of the major conundrums of his celebrated theory of democracy consisted in the fact that he was a democrat in his country and a despot in another country: in colonial India. What needed to be acknowledged - as Mill was not able to do in that great document of modern democracy, On Liberty - was the self-contradictoriness of liberal democracy that raged like a war of values in its very soul". As it happens, On Liberty is not quite a `document of democracy': Mill's defence of individual freedoms is not a defence of democratic governance and, far from being an `expression of Equality', it is advanced on what moral philosophers would call consequentialist grounds. Individual freedoms are valuable precisely because they foster individuals: men and women who are able to think and act in defiance of custom and convention and received opinion.2

'Company Painting' (19th century), a modified image.-

Mill's theory of democracy is detailed in a tract titled Representative Government; and his arguments for democracy are consequentialist as well. He distances himself there from "the political theories of the last age: in which it was customary to claim representative government for England or France by arguments which would have equally proved it the only fit form of government for Bedouins or Malays". Such arguments would have appealed to certain rights that men and women are supposed to possess naturally. But, though rights matter to Mill, he does not premise democracy on natural rights. There is `a war of values' between Mill and his 18th century predecessors certainly; but it does not `rage in the very soul of democracy'. For Mill representative democracy is "the ideally best form of government" when it ensures not only that "the rights and interests of every or any person are secure from being disregarded", but also that "the general prosperity attains a greater height, and is more widely diffused, in proportion to the amount and variety of the personal energies enlisted in promoting it". Where such desiderata are not realised democracy need not "promote a better and higher form of national character" than other forms of government might; and that it improves or preserves `national character' is what finally justifies a form of government to Mill.

The national character of a polity depends on the `races' that compose it; and it turns out that very few of Mill's races have the virtues needed to make a success of democracy. Mill's ethnology is a rough and ready thing, answering imperial purpose only perhaps: or so one is apt to think when he maintains, in his concluding chapter on "the government of dependencies by a free state", that while those English colonies settled by `Anglosaxon stock' should be able to govern themselves well, colonies like India would only be tyrannised by representantive assemblies composed of `natives'. But none of this warrants Bhabha's pronouncement that "internal to democracy is a struggle between a sincerely held universalism as a principle of cultural comparison and scholarly study" on the one hand, "and ethnocentrism, even racism, as a condition of ethical practice and political prescription" on the other; or the apparent corollary that "at the heart of democracy we witness this de-realising dialectic between the epistemological and the ethical, between cultural description and political prescription, between principle and power".

The conflations of category here are not easily sorted out; one wonders, for instance, what `sincerely held universalism' could be serving Mill as a `principle of comparison'. Anyway, as he considers colonial India, Mill seems to be doing as Bhabha recommends: he puts his `idea of democracy' in `a context not of its making' - a proceeding that would be surrealist if we take Bhabha's word for it - and finds little `potential for translation' there. The `context' here is Mill's sense of Indian political reality, which his `ethnocentrism' may distort; but if Bhabha is right the outcome of the experiment would have been the same regardless. It seems truer to say, of course, that Mill simply sacrifices principle to power in concocting an India to justify imperial dominion; but on neither telling of what he does is Mill's understanding of democracy `de-realised' in any way, by any `dialectic between cultural description and political prescription'.

Let us look now at how, when considering the government by free states of dependencies they possess "either by conquest or by colonisation", Mill handles the `conundrum' with which Bhabha had saddled him. The phrase "free state" may be glossed, to begin with, as "a polity where the people are ruled by representatives they choose". Such rule need not be institutionalised, as governance properly speaking, in what we have come to call the state; but when it is, a free state for Mill would be a polity where the power exercised over citizens by the state, in the course of governance, is authorised by the citizens themselves, through the acts and decrees of a representative body. Whether this suffices for democracy is another matter: one might insist, for instance, that in a democratic polity the representatives of the people must both initiate and direct all action by the state. Democratic polities are best realised through nation states, Mill thinks, as free countries whose peoples are formed either from single races or from some mixture of `similar' ones. But while "the government of a people by itself has a meaning and reality", he says, "such a thing as government of one people by another does not and cannot exist". What is important here is that Mill's reasoning is all of a piece: the very considerations that make democracy the `ideally best' form of government also make it likely that "a free country which attempts to govern a distant dependency, inhabited by a dissimilar people, by means of a branch of its own executive, will almost inevitably fail".

One may smile at the political anthropology, so to say, that leads Mill to think so.3 But, it is not any `ethnocentrism' that makes him curtail what may be thought democratic privilege, in a free nation that has acquired a dependency whose `natives' cannot govern themselves, and insist that the only proceeding "which has any chance of tolerable success" is for that nation "to govern through a delegated body of a comparatively permanent character: allowing only a right of inspection, and a negative voice, to the changeable administration" of its own state. What makes Mill `a democrat in his own country' almost requires him, one might now say, to be `a despot in India'. I do not mean to defend Mill; there is a great difference, after all, between acquiring dependencies by conquest rather than colonisation, and perhaps he is being disingenuous when he neglects that. But Mill's understanding of democracy is not `de-realised' by any conundrum here.

Bhabha's divagations would not be worth notice, of course, but for his reputation as a theorist. That someone so plainly inept should have gained such repute will surprise, until one considers what has come, in art worlds at least, to pass for theory. Immediately following the dicta just quoted we find that, "those who have been the victims of Democracy De-realised have their own lessons to teach. For, they experience not only the injustice of colonisation and slavery, but" - Bhaba now declares, astonishingly, for someone acquainted with India - such victims also "know in some profound way the ethical impossibility of perpetuating discrimination, segregation, or global injustice in the modern world". One cannot say whether this is mendacity or delusion; the man ministers, after all, to the American artworld. Bhabha takes himself for a `victim' as well and, and as his lesson draws on, the litany of names alone show how very much he has to teach us: Gramsci, Auden, Wittgenstein, Derrida. What these seeming familiars might hear themselves saying, as Bhabha serves up their words, is anyone's guess.

One wonders what Bhabha and Wallerstein could have said to each other. Wallerstein does hold that equality "is the opposite of" the racism, which seems to be "the pervasive sentiment of life in the capitalist world economy"; but the word "equality" would not be understood in any congruent way by Bhabha, one thinks, because his talk of `cultural justice' seems immune to the circumstance that the world system is a particular sort of economy. Re-imagining economic arrangements would be integral to re-imagining equality for Wallerstein; and the seeming compact between the powers of capital and the American state would surely loom large for him, if only for the distortion that induces, now that capital is so agile, between the state and the people in polities elsewhere. Let us see how Bhabha assesses the situation. "Yielding national sovereignty to the international regime leaves the compromised nation-state suffering from social schizophrenia", he says, as "its affiliative authority is now metonymically displaced onto the global city" in which one finds "the unbalanced playing field of the growth of global capital and the claims of marginalised people".

This `international regime' is not specified; but we may suppose it is constituted by the American state acting in concert with the powers of capital, with the states of Western European polities as junior partners. The first claim is attributed to Manuel Castells; the actions of the state in India under the current government might be thought to illustrate it nicely. The phrase last quoted serves to air a commonplace; but Bhabha pays no heed to how capital might unbalance `the playing field' or compromise national polities. The second claim seems to be Bhabha's own; let us unpack it. The `affiliative authority' possessed by the international regime in `the global city' is being compared, presumably, to the authority possessed by the state in national polities; and the suggestion is that the first authority is a displaced form of the second. One may well wonder if that is so: the international regime has simply usurped the authority of the state in many national polities. But grant, for the moment, that the `affiliations' that underwrote the authority of the nation state have been `displaced onto the global city'; what features of this displacement, one must now ask, would the word "metonymic" illuminate or clarify?

Bhaba does not enlarge on his `theorising' here; perhaps this mysterious metonymy is a matter of plain fact to him. The current international regime seems to incarnate what he means when he talks of the state in general terms; and it turns out that "the hegemony of the state" can best be contested by `subalterns' who do not "homogenise or demonise the state in formulating an opposition to it". The subaltern is introduced as a political type here, of which the native faces of colonial empire seem poor examples. But why these are ancestors to the chosen among Bhabha's subalterns should soon come clear. Bhabha seems to start with Gramsci's notion of the subaltern; but "those who are committed to cultural justice and the emancipatory work of the imagination" are exemplary sorts of subaltern now, coming together in "a cultural front whose struggle for fairness and justice emphasises the deep collaboration between aesthetics, ethics and activism" as they intervene "in state practices from a position that is contiguous or tangential to the `authoritarian' institutions of the state". Bhabha himself would belong to such a `cultural front' surely; so let us see how his writing here `emphasises' this `deep collaboration'.

How `laws' are enforced by the international regime seems to have disclosed to him only that "today's world is marked by a denser sense of jurisdictional uncertainty and unsettlement, of a kind that earlier forms of globalisation - colonisation and imperialism - had not quite encountered". The genocidal sanctions imposed on Iraq between the two Gulf Wars were, one must now suppose, the unfortunate consequences of some `jurisdictional uncertainty' that the current `form of globalisation' just happened to encounter. One cannot tell if Bhabha would contest the legality of these sanctions; but beyond the legal reasoning that secured them there "rises another, contiguous and conflictual horizon of ethical and textual interpretation" for him, which, though it "may not be readily achievable or visible", nonetheless "represents a profound commitment to fairness and justice". This `horizon' is not readily visible because "the concept of [global or] world civilisation is very sketchy and imperfect". Bhabha is quoting Levi-Strauss here; but he appears to agree, and to concede that in using "categories like world civilisation or global culture" we must guard against too carelessly "thinking of aims [or claims] to be pursued by existing societies".

How anyone could be contiguous to a remote horizon remains a mystery; anyway, the hope that the current `form of globalisation' will lead to world civilisation can only be "a wager on the future" now. But, though the lineaments of world civilisation are not readily visible they "sustain a fragile faith in the making of a world of fairness": even as this faith "is rendered all the more anxious by the practical impossibility of achieving global justice in any comprehensive sense". Faced with injustices legally perpetrated on existing societies by the international regime Bhabha would, it appears, lay his wager on the dimly seen future that the doings of this regime will bring about: the subaltern strategy of remaining "conflictual but contiguous" seems to consist, now, in simply conceding what Hegel called the truth of power. That will seem less than kind; and perhaps my redactions have imposed on Bhabha's argument, such as it is, an alien logic. Sympathetic readers may see, through the verbiage, how the concession to power here is informed by some vision of the `ethical order' which Hegel thought the state should embody; one can only hope they are not hallucinating when they do so.

'Company painting' (19th century), a modified image.-

We were, anyhow, considering the prospect of some `deep collaboration between aesthetics, ethics and activism', so let us look next at how Bhabha commandeers poetry for his purposes. He had begun his adventures with legality and justice by quoting from Auden's Law like Love. The stock figure of the judge here, whom Auden early on declares that Law is The Law, is taken for legality personified; and after laying his wager, Bhabha quotes six lines from the long penultimate stanza of the poem, in which Auden is said to "capture with great insight the different kind of ethical and poetic justice" with which we may "go beyond the roundelay of Law is The Law". Bhabha could, one supposes, provide a sample of unethical justice if pressed. Anyway, here is the entire stanza:

1 If we, dear, know we know no more Than they about the law, If I no more than you Know what we should and should not do 5 Except that all agree Gladly or miserably That the law is And that all know this, If therefore thinking it absurd 10 To identify Law with some other word, Unlike so many men I cannot say Law is again, No more than they can we suppress The universal wish to guess 15 Or slip out of our own position Into an unconcerned condition. Although I can at least confine Your vanity and mine To stating timidly 20 A timid similarity, We shall boast anyway: Like love I say.

Like love we don't know where or why Like love we can't compel or fly Like love we often weep Like love we cannot keep.


So much, anyway, for any collaboration our theorist might discern between `aesthetics, ethics and activism' here. Bhabha now enlists Claude Lefort to explain "how the aspiration and agency of rights makes state power confront its authority and autonomy" by appealing to justice over mere legality; claims to human rights, Bhabha quotes Lefort saying, "do not attack state power head-on but obliquely", sidestepping that power as it were, as they" touch the centre from where the state draws the justification of its own right to demand the allegiance and obedience of all". That may very well be; why Bhabha supposes that this "follows my description of the subaltern strategy", though, is a mystery. Wherever human beings accommodate colliding wants without deserting or trying to destroy each other, they may properly be described as `conflictual but contiguous'. But as human beings rarely find themselves out of such situations, Bhabha's formula simply submerges, in the most general instance, any situation where claims to human rights might secure the repeal of unjust laws; and so cannot indicate any strategy to follow in such a situation.

Doing so seems a waste of words almost, but let me describe the logical vacuum Bhabha has produced. He seems to be sketching some particular mode of political agency with his talk of subalterns: who contest power not `head-on' but `obliquely', always "flying just below the level of the state", remaining `contiguous' to it no matter how they come in conflict with it. But in `theorising' that agency Bhabha makes almost all our doings samples of subaltern action, which makes entirely vacuous his notion of the subaltern. "I have long argued", Bhabha had said as he began his sermon, "that when faced with the perils and trials of democracy, our lessons of equality and justice are best learned from the peoples of the colonised or enslaved worlds", and not from "the Western imperial nations and sovereign states that claim to be the seed-beds of democratic thinking": presumably because those peoples have "harvested the bitter fruits of liberal democracy". Perhaps such lessons are best learnt so, whether or not such peoples know ethical possibilities in any `profound' way, and maybe the sort of subaltern Gramsci envisaged will emerge, in the world as we have it, from among them; perhaps this subaltern will even come, as Bhabha seems to suggest, from those exemplary descendants of `the colonised and the enslaved' who, as champions of `cultural alterity' in the First World itself, inhabit a "third space that is neither the Global as the Gigantic nor the local as smallness". But nothing Bhabha goes on to say tells us why or how such preceptors will bear forth the brave new just; Subaltern Man as Bhabha draws him is a cipher, merely, and no political alternative - the pun is intended - to anything at all.

The `cultural injustice' Mill seems to abet, when he pronounces Indians incapable of governing themselves, is the prime sample of democracy's `bitter fruit' for Bhabha. That sort of thing is what the `de-realising' of democracy amounts to, seemingly, for him; and from Bhabha's frequent invocations of the African American poet and activist W.E. DuBois we gather that the search for `cultural equality' will join the progeny of the colonised and the enslaved as the bearers and social nurses of Subaltern Man. One wonders how true that is even in America; most Indian expatriates there are willingly absorbed into the cadres of Wallerstein's world system even as they retain their cultural particularities. More seriously, one has to wonder if belonging to a `cultural front' will give prospective subalterns the wherewithal to `fly below the level of the state'. They would have to comprehend enough now, of how the international regime exercises power, to anticipate its moves now and again; and that would require some practical understanding of the world system as an economy.

Bhabha himself could be stood in Wallerstein's cadres if one could say how his peculiar `skills' are useful to those who administer the world system. That would require some analysis of how the study of the Third World in the American academy serves the state and the powers of capital, though, for which there is no room here; so we shall have to leave our theorist with the last word on `aesthetics and activism'. Looking at a "photographic essay on the life world of containerised vessels", which he takes for "a narrative about the survival and extension of public space as a political and cultural question", Bhabha sees "in the oblique cropping or cutting of the frame as the prow ploughs the global seas", lying at `an oblique angle' and "conflictually contiguous with the ship's forward movement, a horizon that disturbs and diverts the deadly direction of the global economy". Disturbs and diverts, no less, the way the world goes: what a marvel that its image should beggar wish just so.


1. The deliberations of the platform on democracy unrealised have been gathered into a volume bearing that title, published by the firm of Hatje Cantz.

2. Regarding the England of his day Mill fears that "when the majority... have learnt to feel the power of the government their power then individual liberty will be as much exposed to invasion from the government, as it already is from public opinion". In certain moods On Liberty seems to rue democracy: individuals of great talents or social position are no longer powers to themselves, Mill laments, and today "the only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of the masses".

3. Mill seems to consider races as biological materiel, almost, for nations: which, when they are considered as polities as social wholes which both organise and are organised by the exercise of power seem to be complex historical entities, whose emergence and territorial consolidation have been materially conditioned by the exigencies of geography and climate. Nation states have to be incarnated as countries, one might say; and Mill does not think that representative democracy will work in polities that extend over many nations.

4. "Love" is an uncanny word in Auden's work, of course. But it is never found in the neighbourhood of "justice" or its relatives, I shall hazard claiming, except in the last two stanzas of September 1, 1939: to which Law like Love is actually a companion piece. One has to wonder if Auden's contemporaries, Christian or not, read in the poem a challenge to the dogma of the absolute difference between Yahweh's law and God the Father's love; how Luther is talked of in September 1, 1939 would have invited them to, one thinks. Taken so, the poem might be heard to announce an eschatology obverse to Christian theodicy, so to say; and though Auden's verse will not easily lend itself to such experiments, perhaps one could rescue Bhabha from himself by supposing Auden to use "love" somewhat as Hegel uses the word in The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor