The Imperial Archive
Bhabha’s Mimicry and Man: Destabilizing the Colonial Paradigm
Last updated 17 June 2007
“The mimicry of the post-colonial subject is therefore always potentially destabilizing to colonial discourse, and locates an area of considerable political and cultural uncertainty in the structure of imperial dominance.” (Key Concepts, p142)
While immersed in the totalising lexicon of colonial discourse, with its propagation of adamantine racial binary oppositions, suppressed groups find their identities constructed on their behalf, compelling them to enact the roles attributed them by their imperial masters. Using disciplinary techniques that have been extensively analysed by Michel Foucault, the metropolitan powers envisaged a situation in which their colonies would be fully self-regulating and self-policing. This would be achieved through an ostensibly symbiotic relationship, in which the native population would abandon the less civilised customs and cultural heritage, and assimilate into a larger colonial collective. The colonised state would thus become a benevolent replica of the home nation, with resistance insidiously abrogated by the imposition of a new identity. In this sense, the colonised subject effectively colludes in his/her own subjugation without the (explicitly visible, but nonetheless latent) threat of physical coercion. A panoptical arrangement of bodies in space, and minds in collusive harmony would perpetuate the rule of the colonial power, inculcating a passivity within its subjects.
It programmes, at the level of an elementary and easily transferable mechanism, the basic functioning of a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms. (Discipline and Punish, p209)
This is a comprehensive strategy of normalisation, with a succession of compliant satellite states contributing to the holistic enhancement of the mother country’s fortunes. In this paradigm, the native population will use the doctrines of the hegemonic power to construct their own identities as subjects of Empire, rather than autonomous individuals subjugated in an unequal power relationship. However, as Homi Bhabha has so meticulously demonstrated, when the civilising light is refracted through the prism of actual lived experience, new and subversive forms of resistance can be enacted using the very weapons that were intended to repress and mould. The abyssal gaze is thus imposed upon the colonizer.
In his essay “Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse”, Bhabha suggests that the very techniques that broadcast the dominance and impenetrability of the Imperial discourse, actually expose its inherent weaknesses that ultimately destroy itself from within. He states that:
It is as if the very emergence of the 'colonial' is dependent for its representation upon some strategic limitation or prohibition within the authoritative discourse itself. The success of colonial appropriation depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace. (Mimicry and Man; hereafter M&M)
In order to sustain the monochromatic, explicitly prejudicial value system that provides Empire with its locomotive force, there must always remain a chiasmic distance between the exploited colonies and the superior colonisers. When a territory is defined merely in terms of its economic value, with minimal or no consideration of its inhabitants as true human beings, it is a relatively simple task to treat them inhumanely and drain the area of anything with a market value. The dividing line between the metropolitan centre and the colonial periphery is reinforced by the continual objectification of its peoples as Other, something distinctly different from everything that the Imperial power embodies. However, mimicry profoundly destabilises this standard, as it threatens to nebulise the central island of authority into an archipelago of undifferentiated states, threatening the official justification of the “white man’s burden.” In V.S. Naipaul’s memorable moniker, these “Mimic men” will have all the outward appearance of the colonial power, except for the profane, impenetrable boundary that is the essentialism which defines the Imperial ethos. This is what is so paradoxically seditious about cultural transplantation. There is no longer an authentic, original, pure controlling force- everything will be contaminated/ empowered by the subversive force of imitation. The “Other” will have become a diluted “equal”- however, the “mother country” will “be more equal than others.” While replicating, with significant modifications of its own, the physical and symbolic infrastructure of its coloniser in a prolonged initiation ritual, it can never be expected to develop a nation free from external administration. “mimicry represents an ironic compromise…almost the same, but not quite.” (M&M)
Bhabha, in his characteristically dense and erudite manner, continues:
The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority. And it is a double vision that is a result of what I've described as the partial representation/ recognition of the colonial object. (M&M)
As soon as mechanisms of discourse are “franchised” to the subject colony, so too are the means to subvert its values and create a chimerical, subversive metamorphoses- rather than simply emulating the authorative system, it changes it, “glocalizes” it, attacks it. If a power is transferable, it is no longer elevated beyond the reach of the disempowered. Further, the transformation that occurs when the language is integrated into the native society’s own idioms can be very different from the painless assimilation that was perhaps envisaged- their own individual interpretations and practices can actually enhance, or make more explicit the differences innate in their unbalanced association. Instead of being forever conceptualised as an inchoate version of the perfect whole, the subjected country may develop resentment that it is condemned to reside at the bottom of feudal hierarchy, having a taste of independence while being denied its full expression. This profound ambiguity, constituted through the Empire’s own methods, generates a dangerous hybridity, capable of jeopardising the entire Imperial project. The erosion of the walls between colonised/ colony has the ever potential to collapse completely,
The ambivalence of colonial authority repeatedly turns from mimicry - a difference that is almost nothing but not quite - to menace - a difference that is almost total but not quite. And in that other scene of colonial power, where history turns to farce and presence to 'a part' can be seen the twin figures of narcissism and paranoia that repeat furiously, uncontrollably. (M&M)
Bill Ashcroft has written extensively on the converse myth of essentialism within the native countries, suggesting that propagating a myth of a hermetically sealed, ethnically and cultural pure nation can be an effective short-term expedient in formulating strategies of resistance against an occupying force. However, he contends that culture is as organic as the people who give it life, a dynamic force that is always in a condition of absorption and production. In this way the idea of a cultural purity that existed prior to the colonial incursion is as erroneous as it is potentially fascistic. He compellingly argues that all cultural interactions indelibly change both participants, irrespective of the nature of the relationship.
Discursive interpolation at this point begins to have a material effect, it never leaves the dominant space intact…its transformative power is (very often) dialogic and regenerative. (Post Colonial Transformation, p54/55)
What is intended as a process of consolidation can often give life to new forms of insurrectionism. The very existence of similarities with an axiomatic system predicated upon extolling a dogmatic alterity fundamentally challenges the basis of such assertions, threatening the imminent collapse of the entire system. This syncretic union of disparate modes of discourse has a dangerous aspect, as well as the Utopian idea of cross-cultural exchange. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea illustrates the acute difficulties that can occur when a subject finds that the certainties that had been propagated for generations become volatile, replaced with anxieties and alienation.
I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born again. (WSS, p166)
While Rhys appropriates the story of Jane Eyre and manipulates it to gave a material basis to the one-sided othering of “Bertha”, the story refuses to cater to any desires for a harmonious ending. Antoinette, a creole who became an internal émigré in the only home that she has ever known, was unable to reconcile (with her societ(ies)) the differences that separated her from true identification with one particular group. This is not presented as a positive cultural exchange - the process of resolving deep seated difficulties can often be a prolonged one, with no end in sight. Both her and Rochester’s lack of taxonomical certainties about their place in the world is part of a larger problem of identity construction in a changing world. If the centre cannot hold, what can the individual use to orientate herself with? Is she condemned to a schizophrenic volatiliy, or can new possibilities emerge from the conflagration of the Imperial archetype- a deconstruction or revitalisiation through globlization.
Wide Sargasso Sea (is radically ambiguous)…Featuring a Creole narrator/ protagonist who is neither black (Afro-Caribbean) nor white (European), and whose story mimics rather than merely represents, the story of her literary predecessor, Rhys’ novel maintains a constant tension between the obligation to reproduce its precursor text and the will to disobey it. The dialectic remains unresolved. (“A Tale of Two Parrots: Walcott, Rhys and the Uses of Colonial Mimicry”, p657)
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