Homi Bhabha’s Concept of Hybridity

One of the most widely employed and most disputed terms in postcolonial theory, hybridity commonly refers to the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonization. As used in horticulture, the term refers to the cross-breeding of two species by grafting or cross-pollination to form a third, ‘hybrid’ species. Hybridization takes many forms:linguistic, cultural,political, racial, etc. Linguistic examples include pidgin and creole languages, and these echo the foundational use of the term by the linguist and cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin,who used it to suggest the disruptive and transfiguring power of multivocal language situations and, by extension, of multivocal narratives. The idea of a polyphony of voices in society is implied also in Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque, which emerged in the Middle Ages when ‘a boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture’ (Holquist 1984: 4).

The term ‘hybridity’ has been most recently associated with the work of Homi K. Bhabha, whose analysis of colonizer/colonized relations stresses their interdependence and the mutual construction of their subjectivities (see mimicry and ambivalence). Bhabha contends that all cultural statements and systems are constructed in a space that he calls the ‘Third Space of enunciation’ (1994:37). Cultural identity always emerges in this contradictory and ambivalent space,which for Bhabha makes the claim to a hierarchical ‘purity’of cultures untenable. For him, the recognition of this ambivalent space of cultural identity may help us to overcome the exoticism of cultural diversity in favour of the recognition of an empowering hybridity within which cultural difference may operate:

It is significant that the productive capacities of this Third Space have a colonial or postcolonial provenance. For a willingness to descend into that alien territory . . . may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures,but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. (Bhabha 1994: 38)

It is the ‘in-between’ space that carries the burden and meaning of culture, and this is what makes the notion of hybridity so important. Hybridity has frequently been used in post-colonial discourse to mean simply cross-cultural ‘exchange’. This use of the term has been widely criticized, since it usually implies negating and neglecting the imbalance and inequality of the power relations it references. By stressing the transformative cultural, linguistic and political impacts on both the colonized and the colonizer, it has been regarded as replicating assimilationist policies by masking or ‘whitewashing’ cultural differences.

The idea of hybridity also underlies other attempts to stress the mutuality of cultures in the colonial and post-colonial process in expressions of syncreticity, cultural synergy and transculturation. The criticism of the term referred to above stems from the perception that theories that stress mutuality necessarily downplay oppositionality, and increase continuing post-colonial dependence.There is,however,nothing in the idea of hybridity as such that suggests that mutuality negates the hierarchical nature of the imperial process or that it involves the idea of an equal exchange. This is,however,the way in which some proponents of decolonization and anti-colonialism have interpreted its current usage in colonial discourse theory. It has also been subject to critique as part of a general dissatisfaction with colonial discourse theory on the part of critics such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Benita Parry and Aijaz Ahmad. These critiques stress the textualist and idealist basis of such analysis and point to the fact that they neglect specific local differences.

The assertion of a shared post-colonial condition such as hybridity has been seen as part of the tendency of discourse analysis to de-historicize and de-locate cultures from their temporal, spatial, geographical and linguistic contexts, and to lead to an abstract, globalized concept of the textual that obscures the specificities of particular cultural situations. Pointing out that the investigation of the discursive construction of colonialism does not seek to replace or exclude other forms such as historical, geographical, economic, military or political, Robert Young suggests that the contribution of colonial discourse analysis, in which concepts such as hybridity are couched,

provides a significant framework for that other work by emphasising that all perspectives on colonialism share and have to deal with a common discursive medium which was also that of colonialism itself: . . . Colonial discourse analysis can therefore look at the wide variety of texts of colonialism as something more than mere documentation or ‘evidence’. (Young 1995: 163)

However, Young himself offers a number of objections to the indiscriminate use of the term.He notes how influential the term ‘hybridity’ was in imperial and colonial discourse in negative accounts of the union of disparate races – accounts that implied that unless actively and persistently cultivated, such hybrids would inevitably revert to their ‘primitive’ stock. Hybridity thus became, particularly at the turn of the century, part of a colonialist discourse of racism. Young draws our attention to the dangers of employing a term so rooted in a previous set of racist assumptions, but he also notes that there is a difference between unconscious processes of hybrid mixture, or creolization, and a conscious and politically motivated concern with the deliberate disruption of homogeneity. He notes that for Bakhtin, for example, hybridity is politicized, made contestatory, so that it embraces the subversion and challenge of division and separation. Bakhtin’s hybridity ‘sets different points of view against each other in a conflictual structure, which retains “a certain elemental, organic energy and openendedness”’ (Young 1995: 21–22). It is this potential of hybridity to reverse ‘the structures of domination in the colonial situation’ (23), which Young recognizes, that Bhabha also articulates. ‘Bakhtin’s intentional hybrid has been transformed by Bhabha into an active moment of challenge and resistance against a dominant colonial power . . . depriving the imposed imperialist culture,not only of the authority that it has for so long imposed politically, often through violence, but even of its own claims to authenticity’ (23).

Young does, however,warn of the unconscious process of repetition involved in the contemporary use of the term. According to him, when talking about hybridity, contemporary cultural discourse cannot escape the connection with the racial categories of the past in which hybridity had such a clear racial meaning. Therefore ‘deconstructing such essentialist notions of race today we may rather be repeating the [fixation on race in the] past than distancing ourselves from it, or providing a critique of it (27). This is a subtle and persuasive objection to the concept. However, more positively, Young also notes that the term indicates a broader insistence in many twentieth-century disciplines, fromphysics to genetics,upon ‘a double logic,which goes against the convention of rational either/or choices, but which is repeated in science in the split between the incompatible coexisting logics of classical and quantum physics’ (26). In this sense, as in much else in the structuralist and poststructuralist legacy, the concept of hybridity emphasizes a typically twentieth-century concern with relations within a field rather than with an analysis of discrete objects, seeing meaning as the produce of such relations rather than as intrinsic to specific events or objects.

Whilst assertions of national culture and of pre-colonial traditions have played an important role in creating anti-colonial discourse and in arguing for an active decolonizing project, theories of the hybrid nature of post-colonial culture assert a different model for resistance, locating this in the subversive counter-discursive practices implicit in the colonial ambivalence itself and so undermining the very basis on which imperialist and colonialist discourse raises its claims of superiority.

Further reading : Bakhtin 1981, 1994; Bhabha 1994; Kraniauskas 2004; Puri 2004; Radhakrishnan 2000; Ramazani 2001; Smith 2004; Stoneham 2000; Young 1995; for opposing views see Ahmad 1992; S. Mishra 1996; Parry 1987; Smyth 2000.

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