The theorist and author of The Location of Culture on the uses of the imagination in times of political crises—and why we need to bring the language of emotion into our discussions of human rightsby Rebecca Liu / November 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
The leading postcolonial theorist Homi K Bhabha is indelibly associated with specific words. There is his notion of cultural hybridity, the idea that world cultures do not appear fully formed and distinct, but are in fact malleable entities endlessly being shaped. Then there is mimicry, his idea that during imperial times the colonised subject was drawn to mirror the customs of the coloniser. This attempt will always fail, he writes, but that failure brings forth the possibility of protest (the colonised mimicker is both, he wrote, “resemblance and menace” to the coloniser). Both terms capture the spirit of ambivalence and flux animating Bhabha’s wide-ranging thought on cultures, diaspora, and belonging. Today, on a rainy Monday afternoon at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA), where he is being honoured, the Harvard professor is thinking of another term: degradation.
It is a pressing concern. Across the world, Bhabha remarks, we are seeing the degradation of the foreigner. “Strongman” rulers across the world, he says, are tantalising their supporters with retrograde visions of national greatness that involve the subjugation of “the other,” often taken to be minorities, migrants, and dissidents. Taking on Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” Bhabha says: “great refers to majoritarian sovereignty and the possibility of nationalist populist alliances; again references a revanchist temporality of degradation that goes full animal by legitimating a mythical return to a state of racial purity; a closed-in cultural homogeneity; a sexuality that is deeply regulated; a walled insecurity of territorial sovereignty.”
In such a time, he contends, we need a new language. In the place of discrimination, a word steeped in the language of “rights” that presumes the benevolent intervention of institutions, we should speak instead of degradation, a more emotive term. “Degradation,” Bhabha says, “deals in images; it deals in the language of abuse; it deals in incivility.” While “discrimination” casts racial violence as a bug in the system, degradation suggests that in certain hands, it can be a feature. In some states today, as journalist Adam Serwer has noted, the cruelty is the point.
Immigration, statehood, and statelessness are often spoken of using the language of rights and legal…