Homi K Bhabha: Why we need a new, emotive language of human rights

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 rights

November 05, 2019
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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 obligations. In a world steeped in policy, Bhabha brings in the language of poetry. He opens his talk by reciting a poetic epigraph by Toni Morrison—“a great friend and a great inspiration”—to her tenth novel Home. “Whose house is this?” its opening lines ask, before proceeding to observe the strangeness of one’s surroundings; “I dreamed another, stranger, brighter.” In the closing line, this sense of foreignness finds a home: “so why does the lock fit my key?” 

By framing his talk through poetry, Bhabha’s aim is not so much to introduce aesthetics into politics, but rather to inject more real politics into politics. There are noticeable limitations, Bhabha continues, in the current rights-based discussions of immigration, which neutralises emotive issues by transforming them to legalistic ones. Introducing the language of emotions and affect can, he suggests, makes us more truthful and capable of seeing the situation as it really stands. 

The cleanly delineated rhetoric of rights, after all, so often fails to capture the complex, intimate experiences of those on the ground. The UN Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right for people to leave their resident countries for another if they demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution. But this right is not always seen through by governments. Bhabha cites the example of the Trump administration’s treatment of refugees from Central America. Last year, he points out, over 75 per cent of asylum seekers from the region convinced American border officials of their “well-founded fear of persecution.” The administration nevertheless responded by making standards tougher. The move has “nothing to do with the law” as it stands, Bhabha asserts, but rather involves “extra-level” bureaucratic interventions deployed by a hostile state.

Immigration, then, is not always a matter of affirming human rights. It is also a question of deploying literary narratives that can be a matter of life and death (proving to local authorities that your life will be endangered if you return home, for example); extraordinary administrative battles against mystifying bureaucracies; a degraded existential state of living in detention centres. One important thinker for Bhabha is Hannah Arendt, who similarly asked what happens to the human rights of the stateless. He invokes her analysis of Nazi Germany’s degradation of Jews: there was a stripping of rights, but also the slow torture of detention, and an obtuse administrative state. Violence can come in many forms. A humane immigration policy, Bhabha concludes, would approach the subject from the standpoint of the migrant, and the many risks they face in their day-to-day lives. To merely rely on rules inscribed in vaunted documents, he concludes, is to prematurely narrow one's scope at the cost of the very people one is trying to help. 


Bhabha has his own particular experiences with migration, both first-hand and in his family history. Speaking later in the ICA’s cafe, he tells me about his upbringing in a Parsi family in Mumbai. The Parsis are descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who since the rise of Islam in the seventh century have emigrated to India to avoid religious persecution, and who have since become a relatively affluent minority. Bhabha remembers the community as small but self-supporting. His family was cosmopolitan, but also felt strongly rooted socially and culturally in Mumbai. (One can see this sense of worldliness and rootedness in his work, especially the interplay between the global and the local.) Back then, Mumbai, a bustling multicultural metropolis, seemed like a city of hope. Today, however, Bhabha observes with concern the rising trend of Hindu nationalism.

Bhabha left Mumbai in the early 1970s, heading to Oxford to study for his graduate degree in English. He then lectured at Sussex for 10 years, writing essays on ambivalence, mimicry, and cultural hybridity that drew the attention of academics in America. He became a visiting professor at Princeton in 1992, and later a professor at Chicago. During that time, he published The Location of Culture (1994), a seminal work on postcolonial thought. When he accepted an offer to move to Harvard in 2000 the transfer was written up in the New York Times. “At Harvard University,” the article begins, “the acquisition of Homi K Bhabha from the University of Chicago this fall is regarded as a major coup, as if Sammy Sosa had defected to the Boston Red Sox.”

His talk at the ICA is something of a homecoming. Bhabha was on the board from 1993 and 1996 and is happy to reminisce about watching films with Stuart Hall and meeting Jacques Derrida. “I owe a huge debt to the ICA,” he says. “I owe a huge debt to London for making it possible to be both a public intellectual and an academic.” 

As a person who lives between worlds, he is sceptical of the faith we often put in the isolated nation state. Countries now rejecting migrants en masse, he says, have used migrant labour for their own economic ends, or waged war in other countries and destroyed their local infrastructure. One cannot shore up the gates to one’s nation when it is suddenly inconvenient. With climate change, these matters will be more pressing. “This is what the refugee issue says to you,” Bhabha affirms, “There is no closing the border.”

At a time when national leaders are projecting muscular narratives of mythic retreat, it is crucial to develop narratives that stress the interrelatedness of all national projects. The “greatness” of one nation today, after all, was always predicated on the toil of those in others. I ask about his decision to frame his talk through the lens of literature. He replies that literature “allows you to think beyond the language, beyond the mindset of policy and politics, to open the imagination to ways of thinking about the transformation of life.” Opening up this emotive space, he follows, allows us to think differently, consider counterfactuals. Despite the myths embedded in the “Great Again” slogan, he observes that around the world, people of different cultures have lived well together. Societies have seen the problems posed by various inequalities—inequalities of race, culture, and livelihood—as problems they were “proud to deal with.” 

Before leaving, I ask a final question. Bhabha has, in the past, been criticised for being too fond of jargon, and was caught in the crosshairs of the “plain language”wars in the late 1990s that involved Judith Butler, Edward Said and Martha Nussbaum. I ask what difficulty can lend his writing in a way that “plain language” as such cannot. He pushes back a little: “Was my language today difficult?” he asks earnestly. I didn’t think so; it was poetic, certainly. “I rather dispute the notion of plain language,” he follows. “When scientists write in their papers about their experiments, they use the terms they need to use.” It is less common to see people demanding that scientists defend their language choices. Cultural theorists and philosophers, on the other hand, are more often faced with demands to speak in plain language.

Such objections, Bhabha expands in typically paradoxical fashion, are a source of strength. People expect to understand humanists, more so they do scientists, doctors, or physicists. They feel an ownership over the language. The task, then, is not to water down one’s ideas but rather to invite people to grapple with difficulty. “The demand that we always speak in a way which they already understand is a contradiction in terms,” he follows, “but it is a good demand to make”; “I bring upon myself the responsibility to do the best I can to convince people that there is a purpose in my using terms, or a turn of phrase or even a literary style that they may not encounter.” 

After all, why shouldn’t understanding human lives be considered difficult? The very concerns that have brought Bhabha to lecture on degradation at the ICA are humanistic ones: what it might mean to live together with dignity for all; to meet difference with compassion, and to address human rights from the standpoint of those often precluded from the outset. As Bhabha’s warnings show, these are all urgent and difficult questions that with the threat of climate change and political nativism will only become more pressing. “You cannot live in a connected world, whether it’s economically connected, financially connected, culturally connected, while having these populist narrow nationalisms,” he observes. Our cultural histories, the foreign policies of our nations and their ties that have bound us to others, have to come home.