Mimicry in Postcolonial Theory

An increasingly important term in post-colonial theory, because it has come to describe the ambivalent relationship between colonizer and colonized. When colonial discourse encourages the colonized subject to ‘mimic’ the colonizer, by adopting the colonizer’s cultural habits, assumptions, institutions and values, the result is never a simple reproduction of those traits. Rather, the result is a ‘blurred copy’ of the colonizer that can be quite threatening. This is because mimicry is never very far from mockery, since it can appear to parody whatever it mimics. Mimicry therefore locates a crack in the certainty of colonial dominance, an uncertainty in its control of the behaviour of the colonized.

Mimicry has often been an overt goal of imperial policy.For instance, Lord Macaulay’s 1835 Minute to Parliament derided Oriental learning, and advocated the reproduction of English art and learning in India (most strategically through the teaching of English literature). However, the method by which this mimicry was to be achieved indicated the underlying weakness of imperialism. For Macaulay suggested that the riches of European learning should be imparted by ‘a class of interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, opinions, in morals, and in intellect’ (Macaulay 1835). In other words, not only was the mimicry of European learning to be hybridized and therefore ambivalent, but Macaulay seems to suggest that imperial discourse is compelled to make it so in order for it to work.

The term mimicry has been crucial in Homi Bhabha’s view of the ambivalence of colonial discourse. For him, the consequence of suggestions like Macaulay’s is that mimicry is the process by which the colonized subject is reproduced as ‘almost the same, but not quite’ (Bhabha 1994: 86). The copying of the colonizing culture, behaviour, manners and values by the colonized contains both mockery and a certain ‘menace’, ‘so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace’ (86). Mimicry reveals the limitation in the authority of colonial discourse, almost as though colonial authority inevitably embodies the seeds of its own destruction.The line of descent of the ‘mimic man’ that emerges in Macaulay’s writing, claims Bhabha, can be traced through the works of Kipling, Forster, Orwell and Naipaul, and is the effect of ‘a flawed colonial mimesis in which to be Anglicized is emphatically not to be English’ (1994: 87).

The consequences of this for post-colonial studies are quite profound, for what emerges through this flaw in colonial power is writing, that is, post-colonial writing,the ambivalence of which is ‘menacing’ to colonial authority. The menace of mimicry does not lie in its concealment of some real identity behind its mask, but comes from its ‘double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority’(88). The ‘menace’ of post-colonial writing,then,does not necessarily emerge from some automatic opposition to colonial discourse, but comes from this disruption of colonial authority, from the fact that its mimicry is also potentially mockery. While Macaulay’s interpreter, or Naipaul’s ‘mimic man’ (discussed below), are appropriate objects of a colonial chain of command, they are also ‘inappropriate’ colonial subjects because what is being set in motion in their behaviour is something that may ultimately be beyond the control of colonial authority. This ‘inappropriateness’ disturbs the normality of the dominant discourse itself. The threat inherent in mimicry, then, comes not from an overt resistance but from the way in which it continually suggests an identity not quite like the colonizer. This identity of the colonial subject – ‘almost the same but not white’ (89) – means that the colonial culture is always potentially and strategically insurgent.

Mimicry can be both ambivalent and multi-layered. In his novel The Mimic Men, V.S. Naipaul opens with a very subtle description of the complexity of mimicry when he describes his landlord:

I paid Mr Shylock three guineas a week for a tall, multimirrored, book-shaped room with a coffin-like wardrobe. And for Mr Shylock, the recipient each week of fifteen times three guineas, the possessor of a mistress and of suits made of cloth so fine I felt I could eat it, I had nothing but admiration. . . . I thought Mr Shylock looked distinguished, like a lawyer or businessman or politician. He had the habit of stroking the fore of his ear inclining his head to listen. I thought the gesture was attractive; I copied it. I knew of recent events in Europe;they tormented me;and although I was trying to live on seven pounds a week I offered Mr Shylock my fullest, silent compassion. (Naipaul 1967: 7)

This deeply ironic passage uncovers the way in which both hegemony and mimicry work. Although the title suggests a disparagement of the tendency to emulate the colonizer, the complexity and potential insurgency of mimicry emerges in this passage. The narrator not only copies the habits of the landlord, but mimics the guilt of a post-war Europe concerning the Jews, a guilt that is embedded also in a cultural familiarity with the implications of the name ‘Shylock’ (the Jew who demanded repayment of a pound of flesh in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice). He is encouraged to mimic a compassion for the one exploiting him.But the very irony of the passage suggests an inversion, a mockery just under the surface; not a mockery of Shylock but of the whole process of colonization that is being enacted in the narrator’s mimicry and cultural  understanding.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.

Further reading: Bhabha 1984a,1994; Castro-Klarén 1999; Huggan 1994, 1997; McQuillan 2002; Parry 1987.
Source: Ashcroft, Bill. Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies. London: Routledge, 1998.

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