Cultural Liminality / Aesthetic Closure?:
The “Interstitial Perspective” of Homi Bhabha
published in Literary Imagination, 1, no. 1 (Spring 99):109-25.
Homi K. Bhabha’s influential and widely disseminated essay “DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation”  is a powerful critique of what Bhabha takes to be inadequate “essentialist” readings of nationhood– readings that attempt to define and naturalize Third World “nations” by means of the supposedly homogenous, holistic, and historically continuous traditions that falsely define and ensure their subordinate status. Nations and cultures, he argues both here and throughout The Location of Culture, must be understood as “narrative” constructions that arise from the “hybrid” interaction of contending national and cultural constituencies:
It is in the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. . . . 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. (LC 2)
The “interstitial perspective,” as Bhabha calls it (LC 3), replaces “the polarity of a prefigurative self-generating nation ‘in itself’ and extrinsic other nations” with the notion of “cultural liminality within the nation” (LC 148). “The liminal figure of the nation-space would ensure that no political ideologies could claim transcendent or metaphysical authority for themselves. This is because the subject of cultural discourse—the agency of a people—is split in the discursive ambivalence that emerges in the contest of narrative authority between the pedagogical and the performative” (LC 148)—which is to say, between the people’s status as “historical ‘objects’ of a nationalist pedagogy,” and their ability to perform themselves as “‘subjects’ of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary [national] presence” (LC145).
Hybridity, liminality, “interrogatory, interstitial space” (LC 3)—these are the positive values Bhabha opposes to a retrograde historicism that continues to dominate Western critical thinking, a “linear narrative of the nation,” with its claims for the “holism of culture and community” and a “fixed horizontal nation-space” (LC 142). We must, he argues eloquently, undo such thinking with its facile binary oppositions. Rather than emphasizing the opposition between First World and Third World nations, between colonizer and colonized, men and women, black and white, straight and gay, Bhabha would have it, we might more profitably focus on the faultlines themselves, on border situations and thresholds as the sites where identities are performed and contested.
In advancing this revisionist argument, Bhabha draws on an astonishing variety of theoretical, literary, and art texts. From A to Z (Althusser to Zizek), from Marx to Chantal Mouffe to Toni Morrison: citations from these “authorities”—some of them artists, most of them political or cultural theorists as well as philosophers—are woven together so as to constitute what we might call an oratorical collage, in which argument tends to be subordinated to exhortation. Bhabha seems to be most comfortable when he alludes to poststructuralist theory, especially to the writings of Derrida and Lacan. But, as someone trained as a literary scholar (with a doctorate in English), he also cites, throughout The Location of Culture, novels and poems, photographs and art installations that are germane to his argument. It is the treatment of the literary and the artistic vis-à-vis what Bhabha calls the “liminal site of modern society”(LC 146) that I wish to consider here.
Let me begin with the passage, early in “DissemiNation,” in which Bhabha is questioning the “progressive metaphor of modern social cohesion—the many as one—shared by organic theories of the holism of culture and community, and by theorists who treat gender, class or race as social totalities that are expressive of unitary collective experiences” (LC142). His example of such cultural holism—of the “founding dictum,” E pluribus unum—is Goethe’s classic travel book Italienische Reise (Italian Journey, as that narrative is seen through the lens of Bakhtin’s critical analysis in his essay “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism.” This essay, composed in the late 1930s and published in English translation in Speech Genres & Other Late Essays (1986), edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist,  is, according to Holquist, actually a fragment from one of Bakhtin’s several lost books:
Its nonappearance resulted . . . from effects that grew out of the Second World War. . . . Sovetsky pistael (Soviet Writer), the publishing house that was to bring out Bakhtin’s book The Novel of Education and Its Significance in the History of Realism, was blown up in the early months of the German invasion, with the loss of the manuscript on which he had worked for at least two years (1936-38). Bakhtin retained only certain preparatory materials and a prospectus of the book; due to the paper shortage, he had torn them up page by page during the war to make wrappers for his endless chain of cigarettes. He began smoking pages from the conclusion of the manuscript, so what we have is a small portion of its opening section, primarily about Goethe. (MMB xiii)
I mention these awful circumstances because, as we shall note below, it provides an interesting “national” context for Bakhtin’s own literary perspective. In the essay fragment we have, Bakhtin posits that Goethe had the “startling ability to see time in space” and vice-versa, to “visualize time” (MMB 30). For the ordinary observer, for example, “Mountains are the epitome of stasis, the embodiment of immobility and immutability” (MMB 29). But in fact, so the Goethe of the Italian Journey observes, they change internally, become active, and create weather; their appearance contains their history. Conversely, Bakhtin shows, Goethe is only interested in history when it can be visualized, when its imprint on nature and culture can be seen. When it cannot, a curious mental block sets in. When, for example, in a mountain valley south of Palermo, the guide explains “how, long ago, Hannibal had given battle here and what stupendous feats of valour had taken place on this very spot,” Goethe irritatedly rejects what he calls an “odious evocation of defunct ghosts” (IJ 222), there being no trace, in the landscape before him, of past acts of violence and war. For the author of the Italian Journey, Bakhtin shows with a wealth of detail, “the word coincided with the clearest visibility. . . . .The invisible did not exist for him. But at the same time his eyes did not want to (and could not) see that which was ready-made and immobile. His eyes did not recognize simple spatial contiguities or the simple coexistence of things and phenomena. Behind each static multiformity he saw multitemporality (MMB 28). This chronotope—Bakhtin’s famous term for the space-time unit in narrative, is at once representative of a larger shift from Romanticism to Realism at Goethe’s moment but also, as Bakhtin makes clear, curiously idiosyncratic. Goethe’s meteorological theories, for example, were often quite wrong even though they gave him a wealth of metaphors for poetry.
One of Bakhtin’s examples of Goethe’s visualization of time is the following passage from the Italian Journey:
In a country where everyone enjoys the day but the evening even more, sunset is an important moment. All work stops; those who were strolling about return to their homes; the father wants to see his daughter back in the house—the day has ended. We Cimmerians hardly know the real meaning of day. With our perpetual fogs and cloudy skies we do not care if it is day or night, since we are so little given to take walks and enjoy ourselves out of doors. But here, when night falls, the day consisting of evening and morning is definitely over. . . . The bells ring, the rosary is said, the maid enters the room with a lighted lamp and says: “Felicissima notte!” This period of time varies in length according to the season, and people who live here are so full of vitality that this does not confuse them, because the pleasures of their existence are related not to the precise hour, but to the time of day. If one were to force a German clock hand on them, they would be at a loss. . . . (IJ 42; MMB 31)
And Goethe appends a sketch in which he uses concentric circles to give a visually graphic image of the relationship between Italian time and its German counterpart.
Bhabha, who cites this passage in “DissemiNation,” seems to take this relationship quite literally. “Goethe’s realist narrative,” he claims, “produces a national-historical time that makes visible a specifically Italian day in the detail of its passing time. “The recurrent metaphor,” he surmises, is “of landscape as the inscape of national identity”; the passage illustrates “the power of the eye to naturalize the rhetoric of national affiliation and its forms of collective expression” (LC 143, my italics). And Bhabha calls this “a national vision of emergence.”
As such, Goethe’s narrative is an example of a false holism. “Can this national time-space,” Bhabha asks, “be as fixed or as immediately visible as Bakhtin claims?” (LC143). “Can we accept Bakhtin’s repeated attempt to read the national space as achieved only in the fullness of time” (LC 144)? And he concludes: “We are led to ask whether the emergence of a national perspective—of an élite or subaltern nature—within a culture of social contestation, can ever articulate its ‘representative’ authority in that fullness of narrative time and visual synchrony of the sign that Bakhtin proposes” (LC144).
Bhabha does make the qualification that the “fullness of time” in Italian Journey is not achieved without a “narrative struggle.” “From the beginning . . . ,” he remarks, “the Realist and Romantic conceptions of time coexist in Goethe’s work, but the ghostly (Gespenstermässiges), the terrifying (Unerfreuliches), and the unaccountable (Unzuberechnendes) are consistently surmounted by the structuring process of the visualization of time” (LC143). Given this willed suppression of what Freud was to call the uncanny (daß Unheimliche), the Italian Journey, or at least Bakhtin’s reading of it, is compared unfavorably to later “accounts of the emergence of national narratives”—John Barrell’s “splendid analysis of the rhetorical and perspectival status of the ‘English gentleman’ within the social diversity of the eighteenth-century novel; and . . . Houston Baker’s innovative reading of the ‘new national modes of sounding, interpreting and speaking the Negro in the Harlem Renaissance’.”  A triumph, it seems, of contemporary theory over the merely literary text (Goethe’s) as well as its mere critical elucidation (Bakhtin’s).
Does the fact that Bakhtin’s fragmentary text was written in the 1930s, Barrell’s and Baker’s fifty years later in the eighties (1983 and 1987 respectively) make any difference? Chronology—or, for that matter—history in general–seem to be of little interest to Bhabha, as is evident from his repeated assumption that the “fullness of narrative time and visual synchrony of the sign” are somehow equivalent to nationhood. Neither in the Bildungsroman fragment nor in related essays is nation a critical category; on the contrary, as a self-designated “philosophical anthropologist,” Bakhtin looked for categories that transcend specific nation and culture: he moves easily across space and time from Goethe to Rabelais to Dostoievsky. Perhaps this was the case because, for an exile, if not to say prisoner, in his own nation, the Soviet Union, throughout his precarious and tragic life, questions of nationhood or ethnicity naturally took the back-seat to larger issues of speech patterning and literary structure, to narrative mode and generic choice.
As for Goethe, it is helpful to remember that the Italienische Reise was written between 1786-88, almost a hundred years before Italy actually was a unified nation. In the pre-Napoleonic, pre-nationalist culture within which Goethe operated, neither what Bhabha calls the pedagogical imperative–the people’s status as “historical ‘objects’ of a nationalist pedagogy— nor the performative–the people’s ability to perform themselves as “‘subjects’ of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary [national] presence” (LC145)— would seem to be especially relevant. In the context of Goethe’s narrative, the comparison of “German” to “Italian weather” cited above is little more than a comparison of Northern and Southern life styles, a comparison of a locale in which the greyness of daylight gradually modulates in the black of night with one where the bright day suddenly ends when the sun sets. The commentary might apply to Boston and Barcelona as easily as to “the German” and the “Italian,” although Goethe’s weather and time maps would then have to be adjusted.
Indeed an actual reading of the Italian Journey would have shown Bhabha that this particular travel book, far from treating everyday life in Italy as a “progressive metaphor of modern social cohesion” (LC 142), is fixated on difference, otherness, and transformation—the very hybridity he takes it to deny. Goethe’s visually-minded narrator is aware of every new flower, every rock formation, the course of every mountain stream. “Having taken this journey in order to escape the inclemencies I had suffered on the fifty-first parallel,” he writes of the passage through the Tyrolean Alps, “I had hoped, I must confess, to enter a true Goshen on the forty-eighth. I found myself disappointed, as I should have known beforehand, because latitude by itself does not make a climate but mountain ranges do, especially those which cross countries from east to west” (IJ 14). And a few days later from Bolzano, “Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes? . . . . Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced? This is what I am trying to discover. The fact that I have to look after myself keeps me mentally alert all the time and I find that I am developing a new elasticity of mind” (IJ 21). Arriving in Roverto en route to Verona, he notes that here “the language changes abruptly. North of this point it had wavered between German and Italian. Now, for the first time I had a pure-bred Italian as a postilion. The innkeeper speaks no German and I must put my linguistic talents to the test” (24). And soon, on the shores of Lake Garda, he finds himself (latitude 45 degrees and 50 minutes) in “a totally unfamiliar environment” (IJ 25):
The people lead the careless life of a fool’s paradise. To begin with, the doors have no locks, though the innkeeper assures me that I would not have to worry if all my belongings were made of diamonds. Then the windows are closed with oil paper instead of glass. Finally, a highly necessary convenience is lacking, so that one is almost reduced to a state of nature. When I asked the servant for a certain place, he pointed down into the courtyard. “Qui abasso può servirsi! ” “Dove? ” I asked. “Da per tutto, dove vuol! ” was his friendly answer” (IJ 25).
A definitive difference between nations? Rather, a difference between the rural and the urban, where bathroom arrangements will be quite different. Goethe’s main thrust is to differentiate Venice from Florence, Florence from Rome, and later from Naples and Palermo. Florence, for example, is a town that doesn’t speak to Goethe and which he passes through quickly, the art and culture of the Quattrocento being quite unfamiliar to him. Rome, by contrast, is, for Goethe, as Bakhtin says, the “great chronotope of human history” (MMB 40), in that it bears witness to the complex strata of its past:
Here is an entity which has suffered so many drastic changes in the course of two thousand years, yet it is still the same soil, the same hill, often even the same column or the same wall, and in its people one still finds traces of their ancient character. Contemplating this, the observer becomes, as it were, a contemporary of the great decrees of destiny, and this makes it difficult for him to follow the evolution of the city, to grasp not only how Modern Rome follows Ancient, but also how, within both, one epoch follows another (IJ 120).
This is an instance of what Bakhtin calls the “fullness and clarity of the visibility of the time in space.” But the charms of Einfühlung don’t always work: sometimes, as I remarked earlier, the visible remains impenetrable. Consider the following entry from Ferrara dated October 16, 1786:
For the first time on my trip I am in low spirits and feel utterly indifferent to this beautiful, depopulated city in the middle of a flat plain. Once upon a time these same streets were animated by a brilliant court. Here Ariosto lived disappointed and Tasso unhappy, and we persuade ourselves that we are edified by visiting their shrines. The mausoleum of Ariosto contains a great deal of badly distributed marble. Instead of Tasso’s prison we are shown a woodshed or coal cellar in which he was certainly not confined. At first nobody in the house knows what one wants to see. After a while they remember, but not before they have been tipped. I was reminded of Dr. Luther’s famous ink stain which is touched up from time to time by the custodian of the castle. There must be something of an itinerant journeyman about most travellers to make them want to look for such signs. (IJ 91-92).
The absence of connection here recalls the Hannibal-in-Sicily passage I cited earlier. And there are many such disconnects—moments when the spatial and temporal fail to intersect producing the psychic pain Bakhtin refers to in his discussion of “the ghostly (Gespentermässiges), the terrifying (Unerfreuliches), and the unaccountable (Unzuberechnendes), which were strong in his initial feeling of a merged past and present” (MMB 36).
Bhabha, who wants to see this “narrative struggle” as the “repression of a ‘cultural’ unconscious; a liminal, uncertain state of cultural belief when the archaic emerges in the midst of margins of modernity” (LC 143), makes a curious clinamen that somewhat gives his game away. Bakhtin, let us note, talks about the ghostly, the terrifying, and the unaccountable as elements of Goethe’s “initial,” that is, youthful failure of assimilating the past, the reference being to the psychological difficulties of the poet’s postgraduate days, as recounted by the late Goethe in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (see MMB 35). It is there, not in the Italian Journey, that Goethe uses the three German nouns quoted above. Bhabha who follows Bakhtin in citing the original German is merely copying his source. We know this because Bakhtin has curiously and quite uncharacteristically made a mistake that Bhabha repeats. Two of the nouns are correctly translated, but Unerfreuliches is quite wrongly translated as “the terrifying.” The adjective Unerfreulich from which the noun is formed is a fairly mild epithet; it means “unpleasant,” “displeasing,” “tiresome,” “unsatisfactory.” The sentence “Daß ist Unerfreulich” is rather like saying, “That’s not good news.”
But why does Bhabha cite the German to begin with? The reversion to the original is a practice he may have derived from Derrida and Lacan exegetes, who regularly cite the foreign word (e.g., graphein, differance, pharmakos, jouissance, imaginaire) in parentheses so as to indicate that (1) they have direct access to the original, and (2) that the word in question is untranslatable and hence must be referred to in its original or “true” state. But since Bhabha is not concerned, as is, say, Gayatri Spivak in her Introduction to Grammatology, with teasing out the etymologies and semantic values of a given author’s more difficult terms, his practice here and elsewhere in The Location of Culture serves no function except to guarantee some sort of authenticity to the original –an odd phenomenon, given Bhabha’s declared distrust of the authentic, the organic, the true. 
The gesture toward origins, in any case, remains suspended, for the Italian Journey functions for Bhabha only as example, as illustration for the larger theoretical and ideological statements the cultural critic wishes to make. The citation of examples, preferably cited in their original language or from an original source and reproduced from an original manuscript, is, of course, a legacy of the New Historicism. But whereas a critic like Stephen Greenblatt gives the literary text, culturally constructed or not, equal time with the non-literary texts under consideration, the more recent “Cultural Studies” trend, exemplified by The Location of Culture, is to reduce the primary text to mere counter or commodity. Thus Goethe’s Italian Journey is read as conveying a particular message—E pluribus unum—even though it deals with the confrontation of a “strange” and alien culture on the part of an extraordinary late eighteenth-century European poet, a poet who is also a novelist, dramatist, and autobiographer as well as a more-than-amateur chemist, geologist, meteorologist, and botanist. Whereas Bhabha’s cultural model is characterized by its hybridities and liminalities — the nation, we are told again and again, is an arena of contestation and rival performativities–the artwork has, evidently, no more than instrumental value, illustrating and exemplifying the political and ideological thesis of the critic who happens to find it of use.
The same thing is likely to occur—and I turn now a quite different example — when Bhabha deals with contemporary art works. In the Introduction to The Location of Culture, Bhabha talks of “the borderline work of culture” as one that “demands an encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of the continuum of past and present,” one that “creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation” (LC 7). “Such art,” he suggests, “renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present” (LC 7). A primary instance is the work of Los Angeles photographer Allan Sekula:
. . . it is in the photographic art of Alan [sic] Sekula that takes the borderline condition of cultural translation to its global limit in Fish Story, his photographic project on harbours: ‘the harbor is the site in which material goods appear in bulk, in the very flux of exchange.’ The harbour and the stockmarket become the paysage moralisé of a containerized, computerized world of global trade. Yet, the non-synchronous time-space of transnational ‘exchange’, and exploitation, is embodied in a navigational allegory.” (LC 8)
And Bhabba cites Sekula’s own comment in the Preface to Fish Story:
Things are more confused now. A scratchy recording of the Norwegian national anthem blares out from a loudspeaker at the Sailor’s Home on the bluff above the channel. The container ship being greeted flies a Bahamian flag of convenience. It was built by Koreans working long hours in the giant shipyards of Ulsan. The underpaid and the understaffed crew could be Salvadorean or Filipino. Only the Captain hears a familiar melody. 
Bhabha seems to take this as a confirmation of his own program for the “articulation of cultural differences . . .that initiate . . . innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation” (LC 1-2). As he explains it: “Norway’s nationalist nostalgia cannot drown out the babel on the bluff. Transnational capitalism and the impoverishment of the Third World certainly create the chains of circumstance that incarcerate the Salvadorean or the Filipino/a. In their cultural passage, hither and thither, as migrant workers, part of the massive economic and political diaspora of the modern world, they embody the Benjaminian ‘present’: that moment blasted out of the continuum of history” (LC 8).
But does Fish Story in fact embody this “babel on the bluff”? Sekula’s 1995 traveling exhibition, reproduced in book form by October (MIT) Books, with its sequence of hundreds of color photographs, slide sequences, and text panels that comment on the project, ironizes not only the picturesque harbor scenes that are a staple of Impressionist and modernist painting, but also those dramatic pictures of oil spills, boat people, and burning aircraft carriers that flood the media. By contrast, in Fish Story nothing is “readily visible,” to use Bakhtin’s term. The sequential photographic frames display, by means of bright colors and their seemingly “objective” view of ships’ interior, longshoremen, and other struggling workers [figures 1 & 2], a shipping industry that has been stripped of the colorful role it once played in cultural life. As the curator for the Witte de With exhibition in Rotterdam, put it:
Former harbors have been transformed into palatial residential districts, while far beyond the horizon line of the city and out of view of its inhabitants, barren and inhospitable terrains have risen where cargoes packed into huge, standardized containers are loaded and unloaded by automatic means. The very identity of the world of shipping has been obscured through the forces of industrialization and a concomitant increase in magnitude; its traditionally close ties with the population have been undermined. . . . labor conditions are deteriorating, jobs are becoming scarce and those who are employed have to work harder and harder just to keep their heads above water. 
Sekula’s is a straightforwardly Marxist interpretation of the damage global capitalism has inflicted on the workers—in this case, sailors, dock workers, and longshoremen– of the world. As such, it ironically reproduces the very discourse of class and ethnicity Bhabha has been at such pains to oppose. Fish Story posits the classic Marxist binary between rich and poor, capitalist and worker, colonizer and colonized. The fact that a given ship from the Bahamas was built by Koreans, has a crew made up of Salvadoreans and Filipinos, even as its captain is Norwegian, is not, I would argue, a sign of the hybridity or the liminality of the waterfront system. On the contrary, the captain is First World, the crew from the Third, the Captain is white, crew and work force, people of color, and so on. The order of this world is one of extreme stratification.
A sequel to Fish Story called Freeway to China has recently been exhibited at the Getty Center for the Humanities,where I have had the good fortune to see it.  These new consecutive-frame images of the Los Angeles port at San Pedro “are immediately readable,” according to the exhibition’s curator Moira Kenney, “as a coherent sociological exploration of the port’s political and economic realities, although the narrative emphasizes its distinctions and disruptions. At the center of the group, formalistic images of cranes, ships, and piers under construction (see figure 3) suggest the vitality of the expanding economy”; but, Kenney adds:
Against this backdrop, images of Russian, German and American workers complicate this expansionist argument. . . . Working on a Belgian ship sailing from Abu Dhabi with cranes built by Filipino laborers, the Russians represent a new migrant workforce, disenfranchised by the collapse of the Soviet Union. An even stronger irony is suggested in the portrait of Mason Davis [see figure 3], an African American welder who represents the local labor pool that has worked only sporadically since the recent federal cuts in defense spending.
This artful photographic discourse, defining, as it does, “the growing inequity of a multinational economic transformation that has not trickled into lived Los Angeles” (Kenney) present us with stark and often powerful images, reminiscent in their bright red and black posters of the late Rodchenko, but here the bright colors and idealized figures are designedly parodic, pinpointing as they do the bleak life of the actual workers –welders, machinists, shop stewards– dwarfed by the girders, cranes, and other varieties of huge and strangely beautiful machinery—machinery that hardly needs human participation. The message about the destruction of the social fabric on the part of global capital is clear enough,  but it is a message that seems curiously at odds with Bhabha’s own liminality model. True, the San Pedro labor pool may include poor black locals and Filipino migrant workers as well as recent Russian immigrants, but in Sekula’s poster-like photographs, they wear the same uniform and hence look very much alike [figure 4]. Indeed, Sekula’s thrust seems to be that, whatever the background and ethnicity of the workers, labor is the victim of an eerily depersonalized capital.
Why, then, does Bhabha use Sekula’s art work as illustrative of hybridity and “border discourse,” of “the [workers’] ‘right’ to signify from the periphery of authorized power and privilege” (LC 2)? Perhaps because, in his eagerness to find supporting evidence for what is, after all, a theoretical rather than an empirical construct, Bhabha bases his reading on Sekula’s own commentary on the multinational status of shipyard workers and owners rather than on what is actually there in the artist’s images.  Perhaps Sekula struck him as a kindred spirit—a fellow-Contributing Editor to October and fellow academic —and he evidently admired the artist’s mise en question of the grand narrative of pre-Industrial culture, the “Fish Story” of European maritime progress.
That this narrative is itself romantic, that it reinscribes, moreover, the very binary opposition of past and present, tradition and modernity, oppressor and oppressed that Bhabha has been at such pains to contest (see LC 35), is curiously elided in the critic’s drive to establish his theoretical credentials and parameters and hence to let the art and literary chips fall where they may. Indeed, the secondariness of the art construct vis-à-vis the critic’s theoretical discourse affects even the discussion of a novel Bhabha does seem to have read—Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In the Introduction to The Location of Culture, he discusses the role of Beloved herself in Morrison’s novel and produces the following hyperbolic catechistic sequence:
Who is Beloved?
Now we understand: she is the daughter that returns to Sethe so that her mind will be homeless no more.
Who is Beloved?
Now we may say: she is the sister that returns to Denver, and brings hope of her father’s return, the fugitive who died in his escape.
Who is Beloved?
Now we know: she is the daughter made of murderous love who returns to love and hate and free herself. Her words are broken, like the lynched people with broken necks; disembodied like the dead children who lost their ribbons. But there is no mistaking what her words say as they rise from the dead despite their lost syntax and their fragmented presence. (LC 17)
Now we understand, now we may say, now we know. What is a novel that it can so readily and melodramatically be explained away? More important for our purposes here: what is the marginal, the liminal, the interstitial, if the “affirmative” message that “the slave mother regain[s] through the presence of the child, the property of her own person” (LC 17) can be stated thus baldly? And third—and here I turn in conclusion from literary meaning to literary history, that other large area occluded by the cultural-theory paradigm before us—how does the generic slave narrative cum ghost story of the late 1980s, produced by a middle-class urban, college-educated African-American novelist, compare with actual slave narrative? And what about the modes of production and reception of Beloved? How do bestsellerdom and the Nobel Prize relate to marginality and hybridity in our culture? To Toni Morrison’s own place in that culture?
These, I suspect, are not questions that would interest Homi Bhabha, his being more manifesto than reasoned argument, more pathos than dianoia. Perhaps it is the epideictic mode, the ceremonial oratory of display, that has won Bhabha such enthusiastic readers and prevented us from asking too many hard questions. In the meantime, his liminality model is not without some astonishing ironies. Think, for example, of Bakhtin, writing from those very interstices of society (and, for that matter, of Western Europe) that Bhabha finds so appealing, a Bakhtin who was powerless, marginalized, and thus unable to invent himself as a “performative subject” or to contest the various dominant discourses of Stalinist Russia. Bakhtin, whose exile, subalternity, and suppression, his resort to writing paper for the making of cigarette wrappers, does not prevent him from being seen, in “DissemiNation,” as one of the purveyors of the “plenitudinous present and eternal visibility of a past” (LC151). But then, in Bahbha’s scheme of things, the moment of writing is not germane to the larger argument, any more than it matters that the word Italian, in Goethe’s day, could hardly refer to a nation-state, there being no unified Italy, only a loose assemblage of geographically and linguistically related city-states and provinces.
We must not overstate the case. In its general outlines, Bhabha’s hybridity paradigm has enormous appeal: we want to believe, after all, that the postcolonial location is one where the binary opposition of oppressor and oppressed, male and female, master and victim, has become irrelevant, that the new playing field is one of performative contestation rather than ethnic or national separation and rivalry. But the commodification of literature and art—the treatment of complex novels, poems, and art works as so much illustrative material for the “larger” goal of making profound ethical and epistemological generalizations, may well destroy the paradigm from within. For long after Bhabha’s “DissemiNation” has disappeared from the library shelves, long after even Bakhtin’s brilliant analyses of chronotopes and dialogism have been qualified by newer theoretical and critical models, Goethe’s Italian Journey will still be read, even as it has already been read for more than two hundred years.
Perhaps, then, instead of doing a Bhabhian reading of Goethe we might do a Goethean reading of Bhabha. Why, for example, does this widely travelled critic (“DissemiNation,” we read in the dedication to Paul Moritz Strimpel, bears the imprint of Pforzheim — Paris — Zurich — Ahmedabad— Bombay— Milan—Lugano”),  have nothing to say about urban geography or about the relation of city to the natural environment? Why no rivers and mountains in Bhahba’s essays, no references to latitude or longitude? When did weather cease to play a part in constructing human consciousness, and why? Goethe, I suspect, would have interesting things to say on these and similar questions.
 The essay first appeared as the final chapter in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 291-322. It is reprinted in somewhat revised form in Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 139-70. The lower-case letters used in the title are intentional, but a funny thing has happened to Bhabha’s punning “DissemiNation” in the revised version. Because the chapter titles are printed in capital letters, the title now appears simply as “DISSEMINATION.” All further references to the essay are to The Location of Culture, subsequently cited as LC.
 M. M. Bakhtin, “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel), in M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist; trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), pp. 10-59. Subsequently cited in the text as MMB
The best translation of Goethe’s Italienische Reise is W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer’s Italian Journey ,<1786-1788> (1962; San Francisco, North Point, 1982), subsequently cited as IJ.
 LC 144. The reference is to John Barrell’s English Literature in History, 1730-1780 (London: Hutchinson, 1983) and Houston Baker Jr.’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
 In all fairness to Bhahba, his is a common strategy in contemporary criticism, one of the best examples being the constant garbling of the Freudian uncanny, frequently cited in scholarly journals in the wrong case as “the Unheimlich—where the neuter demonstrative pronoun—Daß—demands the noun Unheimliche. Again, in a recent announcement for Christopher Reiner’s Ogling Anchor (Baker and Taylor, 1998), the noun Witz (German for “joke”), is defined as “a term associated with the 19th century German theory of . . . ‘romantic poetry’ and referred to by Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthes [sic] in The Literary Absolute as the ‘other knowledge’—other than logical discursive analytical knowledge.”
 LC 8. Cf Allan Sekula Fish Story (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
 See catalogue, Allan Sekula, “’Middle Passage’ from ‘Fish Story’,” Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, December 21, 1996-February 23, 1997.” http:/www.boijmans. rotterdam.ni/engels/agenda/archief/tsekula.htm.
 Freeway to China was exhibited together with Robbert Flick’s sequential photographs of Los Angeles boulevards, in a show called Port and Corridor: Working Sites in Los Angeles (August 15-October 18, 1998), curated for the Getty Research Institute Exhibition Gallery by Moira Kenney.
 In the Getty installation, the walls beneath the photographs bear citations from Marx, for example the following from Grundrisse:
“Circulation proceeds in space and time. Economically considered, the spatial condition, the bringing of the product to the market, belongs to the production process itself. The product is finished only when it is on the market. Only on the market is it a commodity.”
 It is interesting that Moira Kenney, in her commentary cited above, performs a similar reading.
 Sekula is Professor of Visual Arts at the California Institute of the Arts and produced Highway to China during his tenure as a Getty Senior Scholar in 1996-97.
 In the Nation and Narration version, this catalogue appears as the epigraph; see p. 291; in LC it denies this pride of place and put in the first footnote: see p. 266.