Liminality, Mimicry, Hybridity and Ambivalent in Literary Speculations of Homi K. Bhabha

Homo Bhabha's Literary Theory

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2010

17 Pages


Liminality, Mimicry, Hybridity, and Ambivalent in Literary

Speculations of Homi K. Bhabha

Can this text become the margin of a margin? Where has the body of the text gone when the margin is no longer a secondary virginity but an inexhaustible reserve, the stereographic activity of an entirely other ear?

Jacques Derrida Margins of Philosophy, p. xxiii

Overflows and cracks: that is, on the one hand compels us to count in its margin more and less than one believes is said or read, an unfolding due to the structure of the mark (which is the same word as marche, as limit, and as margin); and on the other hand, luxates the very body of statements in the pretensions to univocal rigidity or regulated polysemia. A lock opened to a double understanding no longer forming a single system.

Jacques Derrida Margins of Philosophy, p. xxiii

Homi K. Bhabha was born in Mumbai in a family of Parsi background. Besides having a successful career as a Harvard professor and as a writer of two influential books— The Location of Culture and Nation and Narrations, he has published widely in journals including New Formations, October, Oxford Literary Review and Screen. He sits on the editorial board of, amongst others, October, Critical Inquiry, and New Formations, and is a regular contributor to Artforum.He is currently at work on A Measure of Dwelling, a theory of vernacular cosmopolitanism forthcoming from Harvard University Press and The Right to Narrate, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

Homi K. Bhabha is a well-acknowledged man of learning in cultural studies and theories concerning colonialism and postcolonialism. His study of oppressions, traumatic colonial feelings, and impact of other powerful factors which produce another cultures, creeds, habits and civilizations are deeply influenced by Foucault, Edward W Said, Jacques Derrida, Lacan and Sartre. His theoretical postulations are based on fundamental but experimental concepts of liminality, hybridity, mimicry and “ambivalence which is a stimulant of cultural productivity”.

On the basis of culture as liminal, hybrid, mimicry, and ambivalent subject of society, state and nation, he provides interesting analyses of novelists such as Morrison, Gordimer, Walcott, Rushdie and Conrad, as well as analyses of documents and archives from the Indian Mutiny, discussions of nineteenth-century colonial history, Third World cinema, and post-modern space; all the while demonstrating an uncanny ease with the mobilization of a vast intellectual array of ideas and theorists such as Jameson, Fanon, Derrida and Lacan, in a sophisticated and sustained exploration of nationhood, national identity and social agency. Key concepts of Bhabha are encapisulated in four words: liminal, hybrid, mimicry, and ambivalent. They “describe ways in which colonized peoples have resisted the power of the colonizer, a power that is never as secure as it seems to be… Instead of seeing colonialism as something locked in the past, Bhabha shows how its histories and cultures constantly intrude on the present, demanding that we transform our understanding of cross-cultural relations. The authority of dominant nations and ideas is never as complete as it seems, because it is always marked by anxiety, something that enables the dominated to fight back. To demonstrate this anxiety, Bhabha looks back to the histories of colonialism.” (Hudart: p.1)

The location of culture, for him, is the result of dissemination of centers of cultures or seeds of cultures and its infinite proliferations, substitutions, centers, points or traces of those points of cultures which had ever been tried to efface. Being a deconstructionist he defines culture as a product of another culture. In the essay, “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation” which was included in The Location of Culture, maintaining the idea about ‘potent symbolic and affective sources of cultural identity,’ he said:

“It is the mark of the ambivalence of the nation as a narrative strategy — and an apparatus of power — that it produces a continual slippage into analogous, even metonymic, categories, like the people, minorities, or 'cultural difference' that continually overlap in the act of writing the nation. What is displayed in this displacement and repetition of terms is the nation as the measure of the liminality of cultural modernity. (Bhabha: 292)

Let us understand the word ‘ambivalence’ which has been occurred in the above citation. Basically, it refers a state of mental or social or cultural or behavioral condition of people which includes positive and negative aspects of anything. Bhabha explains the idea of ambivalence in the form of culture or culture itself from deconstructive standpoints. Derrida thought of text as a being of chains or chains of world-thinking and, it is therefore, every text is an addition to the prior text or ur-text (text in the history). Likewise, Homi Bhabha said, by combining the Saidean sense of culture and Derridean sense of text, that culture is not singular or does not make singular effect or cannot be developed of singular effect but it includes multifarious impressions of habits and practices of colonizers or men of power. The change in the system of culture that takes place after colonial period of any nation will always be ambivalent and hybridized. Hybridization of any culture creates ambivalent condition—a condition in which people feel their culture and habits belonging to ‘no one’s land.’ Hybridity and ambivalence are different enough from each other. They are different in meanings and their implications. The one is the effect of the other one. Ambivalence is integral to the features of hybridity.

According to Ashcraft most postcolonial writing has focused on the hybridised nature of postcolonial culture as a strength rather than a weakness. It is not a case of the oppressor obliterating the oppressed or the coloniser silencing the colonised. In practice it stresses the mutuality of the process. Ashcroft says how “hybridity and the power it releases may well be seen as the characteristic feature and contribution of the post-colonial, allowing a means of evading the replication of the binary categories of the past and developing new anti-monolithic models of cultural exchange and growth”.

Basically hybridity refers in its most basic sense to mixture. The term originates from biology and was subsequently employed in linguistics and in racial theory in the nineteenth century. Its contemporary uses are scattered across numerous academic disciplines and is salient in popular culture. Homi Bhabha explains the history of hybridity as history of culture and its major theoretical discussion amongst the discourses of race, post-colonialism, identity (social sciences), anti-racism and multiculturalism, and globalization his discussion traverses the development of hybridity rhetoric from biological to cultural illustrations in literature.

Bhabha thinks that the idea of nation is often based on naturalised myths of racial or cultural origin. Asserting such myths was a very important part of the imperial process and therefore an important feature of much imperial writing and indeed postcolonial writing. The need for commonality of thought to encourage resistance became a feature of many of the first postcolonial novels. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is an example of a novel dealing with the collective resistance to imperialism. More recently we have become aware of how problematic such accounts are. The simple binaries that made up imperial and postcolonial studies have in some way become redundant with regard to later literature. As Mudrooroo has said of the Aborigine’s, they were a tribe like any other, susceptible to change and influence from outside forces. He says; “the Aboriginal writer is a Janus-type figure with a face turned to the past and the other to the future while existing in a postmodern, multi cultural Australia in which he or she must fight for cultural space”. (1990. p. 24) So, in a sense Mudrooroo embraces his hybridised position not as a “badge of failure or denigration, but as a part of the contestational weave of cultures”. (1990. p. 24) Bill Ashcraft et la noted that ‘hybridity' commonly refers to “the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonisation.” (2003. p. 118) Robert Young notes how hybridity wasinfluential in imperial and colonial discourse in giving damaging reports on the union of different races. Young would argue that at the turn of the century, ‘hybridity' had become part of a colonialist discourse of racism. In Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, to be a Creole or a ‘hybrid' was essentially negative. They were reported in the book as lazy and the dangers of such hybrids inevitably reverting to their ‘primitive' traditions is highlighted throughout the novel. In reading Young alongside Rhys, it becomes easy to see the negative connotations that the term once had.

In his essay, ‘Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences', Bhabha stresses the interdependence of coloniser and colonised. Bhabha argues that all cultural systems and statements are constructed in what he calls the ‘Third Space of Enunciation'. (1995.p.183) In accepting this argument, we begin to understand why claims to the inherent purity and originality of cultures are ‘untenable'. Bhabha urges us into this space in an effort to open up the notion of an international culture “not based on exoticism or multi-culturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity.”(p. 209) In bringing this to the next stage, Bhabha hopes that it is in this space “that we will find those words with which we can speak of Ourselves and Others. And by exploring this ‘Third Space', we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves”. And by exploring this ‘Third Space', we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves”. (ibid)

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is another key to Bhabha’s postulations. It is, literally, the quality of the second stage of a ritual in the theories ofArnold van Gennep[1], Victor Turner[2], and others. In these theories, a ritual, especially a rite of passage involves some change to the participants, especially theirsocial status. Turner describes liminality as the transitional state between two phases, individuals were "betwixt and between": they did not belong to the society that they previously were a part of and they were not yet reincorporated into that society. Liminality is a limbo, an ambiguous period characterized by humility, seclusion, tests, sexual ambiguity, and communitas (which is defined as an unstructured community where all members are equal). Bhabha thinks this state of cultural being as productive and cause of forthcoming hybrid generation of culture. Bhabha does not discriminate the effectivity of colonizers and adoptivity of the colonized. He said:

“Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation … It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: 'Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banksThe bridge gathers as a passage that crosses.'(Bhabha: pp2-5)

He has different idea about liminality, though he seemed to be impressed by Turner. Liminality, for him, is one of the factors of amoebic re-productivity of culture itself. As a practitioner of cultural studies one should try to find examples of "liminality" (borders, thresholds, in-betweenness) in literature in order to assess the limitations and expediences of Bhabha's conceptual model. Diasporic writers are expositors of such a meaning of liminality.We categorize the exilic predicaments of Salman Rushdie, Naipaul, or Wole Soyinka in terms of "national" identity? In an effort to deal with these "in-between" categories of competing cultural differences, Homi K. Bhabha attempts in his introduction to The Location of Culture to shed light upon the "liminal" negotiation of cultural identity across differences of race, class, gender, and cultural traditions: It is in the emergence of the interstices--the overlap and displacement of domains of difference--that the inter-subjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed 'in-between', or in excess of, the sum of the 'parts' of difference (usually intoned as race/ class/ gender, etc.)? How do strategies of representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable?

In other words, Bhabha argues that cultural identities cannot be ascribed to pre-given,irreducible, scripted, ahistorical cultural traits that define the conventions of ethnicity. Nor can "colonizer" and "colonized" be viewed as separate entities that define themselves independently. Instead, Bhabha suggests that the negotiation of cultural identity involves the continual interface and exchange of cultural performances that in turn produce a mutual and mutable recognition (or representation) of cultural difference. As Bhabha argues in the passages below, this "liminal" space is a "hybrid" site that witnesses the production--rather than just the reflection--of cultural meaning. A liminal space, made by nature of cultures, does not separate but rather mediates their mutual exchange and relative meanings. Even breached condition of cultures—liminal points or threshold of cultures assists in making culture new or hybridized. The diagram may describe it:


[1] A researcher in ceremonies and his significant works in modern French folklore. He is recognized as the founder of folklore studies in France. The Rites of Passage) (1909) which includes his vision of rites of passage rituals as being divided into three phases: preliminary, liminaire (liminality) (a stage much studied by anthropologist The Rites of Passage) (1909) which includes his vision of rites of passage rituals as being divided into three phases: preliminary, liminaire, and post-liminaire (a stage much studied by anthropologist, Victor Turner), and [post-liminaire] (post-liminality) They describe separation, transition, and reincorporation.

[2] A British anthropologist who had scholarly status to Clifford Geertz, best known for his work on symbols, rituals and rites of passage.

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Liminality, Mimicry, Hybridity and Ambivalent in Literary Speculations of Homi K. Bhabha
Homo Bhabha's Literary Theory
Lovely Professional University, Punjab
English Literature & Literary Theory
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Cultural Studies, Literary Theory, Homi K Bhabha, Lacan, Mimicry, Hybridity, Liminality
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Dr Valiur Rahaman (Author), 2010, Liminality, Mimicry, Hybridity and Ambivalent in Literary Speculations of Homi K. Bhabha, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 10/2/2019

    Hello Sir,
    Thanks for sharing this article.
    Kindly review it, there are some typos.

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