20 April 2008

My Lovesong to Homi Bhabha, by Homi Bhabha

[One day, while trying to find the Dana Palmer building at Harvard, I became hopelessly lost, and stumbled into Professor Bhabha's office. The acclaimed postcolonialist was deep in discussion with someone just inside his door, but nevertheless took a moment to comment on my hair, before I slinked away. The tale that follows is that story written from my perspective as if talking to Professor Bhabha, but using Bhabha’s own text (with a few words changed for context). See Phil's post below for commentary. (From "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation," in The Location of Culture.)]

In my travels through Harvard Yard, I was alive to the metaphoricity of the peoples of academic communities – important or inconsequential – and, as such, found that the space of the modern intellectual is never simply vertical. Their metaphoric movement requires a kind of 'doubleness' in their environment; a temporality of representation that moves between ceremonial formations and social processes without a centred causal logic. And such cultural movements disperse the homogeneous, spatial unity of the vertical academic.

What is displayed in this displacement and repetition of terms is the intellectual as the measure of the liminality of academic culture. Indeed his exercise of power may be both institutionally effective and psychically affective because the discursive liminality through which he is signified may provide greater scope for strategic manoeuvre and negotiation. It is precisely in reading between these borderlines of the academic that I could see how the concept of the “intellectual” merges within a range of discourses as a double narrative movement. The intellectual is not simply an historical event or a part of a collegiate body politic. He is also a complex rhetorical strategy of social reference: his claim to be representative provokes a crisis within the process of signification and discursive address.

The title of this post owes something to the wit and wisdom of Homi Bhabha but something more to my own experience of migration. I have lived that moment of the scattering of the people through Harvard Square that in other times and other places, in the universities of others, becomes a time of gathering. Gatherings of lost MIT students; gathering on the edge of 'foreign' universities; gathering at the frontiers of new spaces; gatherings in the multiple Au Bon Pains of Cambridge Center; gathering in the half-life, half-light of foreign academic discourses, or in the uncanny fluency of another's language; gathering the signs of approval and acceptance, degrees, discourses, disciplines; gathering the memories of the underappreciation of the humanities in one’s own home university, of other worlds lived retroactively; gathering the past in a ritual of revival; gathering the present. Also the gathering of people in the intellectual diaspora: indentured, migrant, untenured; the gathering of incriminatory statistics, educational performance, institutional statutes, interdisciplinary status - the genealogy of that lonely figure that John Berger named the seventh man. The gathering of clouds from which the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish asks 'where should the birds fly after the last sky?'

In the midst of these lonely gatherings of the scattered students and migrant faculty, their myths and fantasies and experiences, I, lost, stumbled into your office, a historical fact of singular importance.

“Your hair!” you cried, in a repetition of gesture after gesture, the dream dreamt by another, the mythical return.

I, the lost object, returned a blush.

“Men like us,” you said, pointing to your bald pate, “we dream of hair like that!”

But the discourse of the hirsute was not my main concern. In some ways it was the historical uncertainty and settled nature of that building which I was attempting to find, the Dana Palmer building, an obscure and ubiquitous form embodying the locality of culture. I left your office, embarrassed.

In the narrative graftings of this I have attempted no general theory, only a certain productive tension of the perplexity of academics in various locations of living. For it is by living on the borderline of the personal and the institutional, on the limits of importance and inconsequence, that we are in a position to translate the differences between them into a kind of solidarity. I want to end with a much translated fragment from Walter Benjamin's essay, "The task of the translator." I hope it will now be read from the intellectual's edge, through the sense of the university, from the periphery of its faculty, in Bhabha's transnational dissemination:

Fragments of a vessel in order to be articulated together must follow one another in the smallest details although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of making itself similar to the meaning of the original, it must lovingly and in detail, form itself according to the manner of meaning of the original, to make them both recognizable as the broken fragments of the greater language, just as fragments are the broken parts of a vessel.

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