‘We need a public sphere of the digital world’

In New Delhi last week to deliver the inaugural Whabiz D. Merchant Lecture on ‘Art and Insecurity’,critical theorist HOMI K. BHABHA,currently Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English & American Literature & Language,and Director of the Humanities Centre,at Harvard University,spoke to Sudeep Paul about the status of theory today,longstanding criticisms against him and the Sen-Bhagwati debate:

Written by HOMI K. BHABHA | Published: August 7, 2013 4:47 am

In New Delhi last week to deliver the inaugural Whabiz D. Merchant Lecture on ‘Art and Insecurity’,critical theorist HOMI K. BHABHA,currently Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English & American Literature & Language,and Director of the Humanities Centre,at Harvard University,spoke to Sudeep Paul about the status of theory today,longstanding criticisms against him and the Sen-Bhagwati debate:

Has the ghost of the Frankfurt School been laid to rest? Or is Critical Theory all the more alive?

To the extent that Critical Theory (CT),of many traditions,always tries to dig deep and look for the conceptual paradigms,the deep social framework and value questions about form and meaning that inhabit anything — from the making of a car,book or sculptural installation — and questions the very being of social forms and culture,it can never be dead. We need it because,by analysing cultural objects or ideas,we begin to understand the embedded values in them and how they can be most useful in the great conversations of mankind. At one time,even the most radical CTs wanted to preserve their own orthodoxy and territory. In my work,the problem always comes first. Once you understand the problem,you can use theoretical traditions to illuminate it. There was a time when people wanted to be Derrideans for being Derrideans,Lacanians to be Lacanians. That has certainly stopped. It’s a good thing. Not that people should forget the theoretical giants,but it’s more important to lead with the problem than say that you’re following a particular school.

You’ve been accused from the start of being inaccessible and obscure. Your seminal argument was that CT and the humanities must have their own vocabulary,and not speak the layman’s language. But theory itself is nothing if not translatable?

Yes. I’m very intolerant of people who don’t know the historical development of a language,a concept,a critical position,and criticise it as being inaccessible. It’s like telling somebody: Don’t develop the ideas with which you live and work. In science,business,or law,very specific terminology is always accepted because it’s supposed to be a very professional discourse. Those of us in art,literature,art history,etc are always supposed to speak the common man’s language,as if art has no conceptual history,as if literature doesn’t have conceptual,critical questions. We’re always supposed to be somehow able to speak a language that satisfies a wide audience who are self-elected.

The second point is that we should now take it to be our strength. Nobody from the public will put up their hand and say to a scientist: I don’t think your formula or discovery is right because I don’t understand it. But that also means more people listen to us if we can actually talk to them. The responsibility for furthering the future of the arts and humanities lies on people like me who feel they have a commitment to it,making audiences feel that these things,such as death,poetry,the emotions,are important,vital for them. On the other hand,there have to be institutions that let these conversations happen. There has to be give-and-take on both sides.

Our colonisers left long ago. Migration and cultural mixing within India dwarf the immigrant experience in the West. This subverting and mixing of discourses,speaking truth to power,was always happening here,and continues to. With your contribution to the ideas of hybridity,mimicry and ambivalence,do you see India as this vast laboratory of hybridisation?

The very fact that we have such a live Dalit literary tradition is absolutely about speaking truth to power. And I have always said that when I went to England to study for the first time,I felt immediately that Bombay was a more cosmopolitan place. We’re very right to criticise the culture and politics of colonialism. There’s no questioning the racial politics of empire. But what the colonisers didn’t realise was that,when they imposed these cultures on us,we actually began to really know how to use them,to manipulate them — we learnt many languages,and that’s why some of the most lively literary works in the English language come from the post-colonial world. We made it our own. I was speaking today of “affect”,and it is the case that in India,the rational and the affected,the spiritual and the secular,go hand in hand,and that is very important.

Hybridity is also the natural cultural logic of the globalised world. Globalisation has not been a homogenisation,but the opposite.

In fact,what you find in globalisation is that there are oases of progress and oceans of deprivation. But these oceans of deprivation are not simply longstanding problems that simply haven’t joined the bandwagon of globalisation. It’s also really quite important for people to understand that cultural homogeneity isn’t established because somebody’s wearing a T-shirt. The significance of wearing a T-shirt with a Bob Marley face on it in Goa is very different from wearing that T-shirt in Sydney. People don’t realise that because something looks the same,its social and cultural significance,are not the same.

You’ve been criticised for inhabiting the ‘structure of Western power’. You argue that living in the West didn’t make you partake of that power. You didn’t like the Bush administration. So,is that accusation difficult to make today because the US is a changed country?

Not necessarily. If the argument is that people who have an Indian or South Asian provenance,working in and contributing to the West,should return because their need is so much back home — then whether it’s Bush or Obama,it doesn’t make a difference. There’s no question we now have Obama. But we also have Guantanamo. So it seems to me the question of why you live where you live is a very complicated web of coincidences,decisions and choices. It’s very difficult to undo those. The world now is mobile and capacious enough to make your contributions in the various places where you feel at home. I feel very much at home in India,I lived for many years in London and now I live in Boston. And in each one of these sites,I try and do the best I can. That’s more important — to be able to see a kind of distributive value of what you can contribute,rather than to make it a polarising argument of whether you are at home or not.

Were you still surprised by the

Padma Bhushan?

I was. And I was also very honoured and delighted. I love living in India. I have a home in Bombay. I enjoy being there. I love the mode of discussion,the way people talk,the warmth,the hospitality. I love the intimacy that people presume in order to ask you difficult questions,on problematic issues. But,for me,to get an honour of that kind,of that magnitude,was a special thing.

There is an intellectual mudslinging going on involving Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. A debate on the political economy has expanded into a larger battle in the media and on social media. Is it exhilarating that everybody is weighing in on this,or has it descended into poor taste?

I know Amartya Sen very well,he’s a colleague of mine at Harvard and a good friend. I also know Jagdish Bhagwati,although he’s not a colleague. It seems to me that these issues are posed in oppositional terms in the press. That’s why it becomes a mudslinging. These are crucial issues that shouldn’t be brought down to that level. I think social media is very important,but we have not developed the kind of public institutions that would allow social media to be more than episodic. We need it to have a sense of the ongoing conversations in a place of public resonance. And I don’t think we have those institutions. That’s why,whether Twitter or Facebook,we have to build into these very important innovations space for reflective conversations. That is one of the most important bases of democratic growth. Kant talked about the absolutely essential role of public reason. We have to create institutions where public reason can be disseminated,constructed in a context so that

we can have the full use of digital communication. We need a public sphere of the digital world.

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