Bhabha’s DissemiNation: Stream of Consciousness Style

Today I am reading “DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation” from The Location of Culture by Homi Bhabha. I have put it off for a long time because it is hard and also because, knowing my committee, I’m likely to get asked about it and I want it to be fresh. In order to force myself to focus, rather than writing a summary after reading, as I have been doing (when on my best behavior), I am going to blog as I go. If you read the notes below and I’m off base on anything, please let me know.


Derrida is mentioned in the first sentence. God help me.

The Time of the Nation

So, once I get past that–what feels like an inside joke over my head–Bhabha starts with a rather lovely paragraph about gatherings that result from dispersals (exiles, emigres, and refugees). He seems to be putting gathering and dispersal in tension with one another, but also gathering in the context of that dispersal so that culture and national character come out of the gathering that is prompted out of the scattering of people as a moment of upheaval. He writes, “The nation fills the void left in the uprooting of communities and kin, and turns that loss into the language of metaphor. Metaphor, as the etymology of the word suggests, transfers the meaning of home and belonging, across the ‘middle passage’, or the central European steppes, across those distances, and cultural differences, that span the imagined community of the nation-people” (139-140). I think this statement resonates really clearly with the immigrant narratives I’ve read and with the way that the middle passage haunts many works of African American literature (quite literally in Beloved, for example).

From there, he goes on to frame what exactly he’s setting out to focus on in the chapter, shifting away from discourses about nationalism and the (Western) ideas of the nation, citizenship, and culture therein and instead toward nation as a narrative strategy and the way that the categories (sexuality, class, difference) slip within this narrative as it is non-linear but constructed to be so. (I think?) “We need another time of writing that will be able to inscribe the ambivalent and chiasmatic intersections of time and place that constitute the problematic ‘modern’ experience of the Western nation” (141).

Then comes some stuff on the Enlightenment, which I know is important, but I always find tedious. Basically to comment on the complex temporality of the nation, he points out a la Anderson, that nations both desire to be modern and trumpet their age. “To write the story of the nation demands that we articulate that archaic ambivalence that informs the time of modernity. We may begin by questioning that 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.” (142) In addition to the temporal element. Bhabha has a spatial metaphor as well, arguing against an idea of the nation as horizontal (homogenous), as in the Bakhtin master/slave dialectic (I think?).

It seems to me that what he’s saying is that the notion of a nation constructed through discourses of “out of many, one” and “of the people” is a recursive process in which the people are both constructed by the discourses of/about the nation and are active participants in that construction. Thus the nation rewrites itself even as it lives out the already “written” discourses. It’s clear her how the point about the nation not being horizontal is important because even though all of “the people” may be involved in the daily life of the nation only certain people are involved in the discourses about “the people.”

“The people are not simply historical events or parts of a patriotic body politic. They are also a complex rhetorical strategy of social reference: their claim to be representative provokes a crisis within the process of signification and discursive address. We then have a contested conceptual territory where the nation’s people must be thought in double-time; the people are the historical ‘objects’ of a nationalist pedagogy, giving the discourse and authority that is based on the pre-given or constituted historical origin in the past; the people are also the ‘subjects’ of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence of the nation-people to demonstrate the prodigious, living principles of the people as conteporaneity: as a sign of the present through which national life is redeemed and iterated as a reproductive process.” (145)

The Space of the People

The nation is caught up in a couple of disruptions and boundaries. “The boundary that marks the nation’s selfhood interrupts the self-generating time of national production and disrupts the signification of the people as homogenous. the problem is not simply the ‘selfhood’ of the nation as opposed to the otherness of other nations. We are confronted with the nation split within itself, articulating the heterogeneity of its population. The barred Nation It/Self, alienated from its eternal self-generation, becomes a liminal signifying space that is internally marked by the discourses of minorities, the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities, and tense locations of cultural difference” (148). To me, this sounds similar to Anderson’s idea in Imagined Communities that the nation is a nation because the people within its (imagined) borders buy into the idea that they have something in common and are unified by the common national identity, even though the people may not even know each other, much less have anything in common. The idea of the nation thus depends up on not focusing too much on the heterogeneity of the people and their histories and interests. ” Oh, here he goes: “Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries–both actual and conceptual–disturb those ideological manoeuvres through which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities. For the political unity of the nation consists in a continual displacement of the anxiety of its irredeemably plural modern space–representing the nation’s modern territoriality is turned into the archaic, atavistic temporality of Traditionalism” (149).

He then goes through examples from Frued and Levi-Strauss that I’m sure are very important but for my purposes are not a thing to focus on.

Of Margins and Minorities

Drawing on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bhabha moves to how the pepole on the margins of the culture are the most individuated. By focusing on the margins, he hopes to “explore forms of cultural identity and political solidarity that emerge from the disjunctive temporalities of the national culture” (151). Specifically, he’s focusing on the colonized and women.

Bhabha expounds on Frantz Fanon’s essay “On national culture” and Julia Kristeva’s “women’s time,” the later of which I find most interesting. According to Bhabha, Kristeva’s assertion that “the borders of the nation…are constantly faced with a double temporality: the process of identity constituted by historical sedimentation (the pedagogical); and the loss of identity in the signifying process of cultural identification (the performative)” is similar to his own argument about the people emerging from ambivalence in the national narrative (153). He claims that the postcolonial and feminist arguments of Fanon and Kristeva ask us to rethink the way that history works within national narratives that depict the people as “one” and asks us to consider “how do we understand such forms of social contradiction?” (153)

One response to these questions is the “loss of identity” of the signifier–the nation, I think– through pluarlism. The sign of the nation depends up on unity and the inclusion of heterogeneity can be supplemented by minority discourses. This section gets really thick and muddy. It sounds to me like Bhabha is critiquing what in feminist discourses is called the “add women and stir” method. “In the metaphor of the national community as the ‘many as one’, the one is now both the tendency to totalize the social in a homogenous empty time, and the repetition of that minus in the origin, the less-than-one that intervenes with a metonymic, iterative temporality” (155). Whut?

I understand this more, I think: “The discourse of the minority reveals the insurmountable ambivalence that structures the equivocal movement of historical time. How does one encounter the past as an anteriority that continually introduces an otherness or alterity into the present? How does one then narrate the present as a form of contemporaneity that is neither punctual nor synchronous? In what historical time do such configurations of cultural difference assume forms of cultural and political authority?” (157) In other words, when the past structures the margins and center of culture and the nation in the present how can historical time be understood as linear?

Social Anonymity and Cultural Anomie

Back to Imagined Communities. “The steady onward clocking of calendrical time {seriously?}, in Anderson’s words, gives the imagined world of the nation a sociological solidity; it links together diverse acts and actors on the national stage who are entirely unaware of each other, except as a function of this synchronicity of time which is not prefigurative but a form of civil contemporaneity realized in the fullness of time.” (158)

Epiphany. I haven’t read Anderson in a while, but I just remembered that a big part of his argument about the development of the modern nation and “imagined communities” rises out of the development of standard time instead of local time. When the train became a major part of modern life, in order to create timetables and run on schedules and all that jazz, time had to be standardized. You know, time zones and all that. That shift to standard time helped foster a sense of contemporaneity and synchronicity that is so important to our public sphere and sense of the nation even today–think of the 24 hr news cycle and all. This memory helps me understand what Bhabha’s getting at more. Because standard time is such a big part of the modern nation, it’s important, if maybe counter-intuitive because time is so hard to grasp and yet so fundamental, to interrogate the way that national time and the theory of temporality and history that emerge from it can function in hegemonic ways.

He then moves to another author on my list, Ernst Renan’s “What is a nation?” I learned a new word. pleb·i·scite: a vote by which the people of a country or region express their opinion for or against an important proposal. Renan argues, that the nation exists daily as a metaphorical plebiscite of the will of the nation. “The wish of nations is, all in all, the sole legitimate criteria, the one to which one must always return.” Bhabha analyzes Renan’s argument, teasing out of it a “syntax of forgetting” by which the temporality of a nation depends on the will of the nation-people to forget certain aspects of the past–massacres and the like–in favor of the national history. (National amnesia) “To be obliged to forget–in the construction of the national present–is not a question of historical memory; it is the construction of a discourse on society that performs the problem of totalizing the people and unifying the national will” (160-61). Further, “this breakdown in the identity of the will is another instance of the supplementary narrative of nationness that ‘adds to’ without ‘adding up'” (161).

Bhabha then kind of slams Anderson for borrowing from Walter Benjamin, but reading him without proper nuance.

Cultural Difference

My brain is starting to power down. Meep. Meep. Meep. More tea, please.

Okay, back.

This section is all about signs and signification. Oh, semiotics, how I do need a brush-up, I guess. The meat of it seems to be that cultural difference, like linguistic difference, can create alienation between the signifier and the signified. i.e. when I say bride, I think white dresses and something blue, but in other cultures the signifier “bride” could conjure something totally different. This is a shallow reading, I’m sure. Bhabha writes, “In the act of translation the ‘given’ content becomes alien and estranged; and that, in its turn, leaves the language of translation. Aufgabe*, always confronted by its double, the untranslatable–alien and foreign” (164).


The English Weather (no joke)

This section is very short and has this great image of the weather in England against the weather in India or Africa. Though he doesn’t expound much, I think that what Bhabha is doing here is using something as local and temporal as weather to mark the way that the center and the peripheral are positioned in relationship to each other, even as that relationship is arbitrary at the will of the nation–in this case at the will of England. Further, the weather of England has cultural import because it is at the center of the empire: “To end with English weather is to invoke, at once, the most changeable and immanent signs of national difference. It encourages memories of the ‘deep’ nation crafted in chalk and limestone; the quilted downs; the moors menaced by the wind; the quiet cathedral towns; that corner of a foreign field that is forever England” (169). I remember when I studied abroad in England, I had quite specific expectations–often wrong–of what it would be like, because the cultural dominance of England and the role of weather in literature. This is an odd, but lovely way to conclude.

unisonant– didn’t really need to look up, but here it is: 1. Being in unison; having the same degree of gravity or acuteness; sounded alike in pitch. I’m exhausted and there were so many German words in the preceeding sections that I started losing my ability to read English as English. Charming.

“For it is by living on the borderline of history and language, on the limits of race and gender, that we are in a position to translate the differences between them into a kind of solidarity” (170). Word.


So, I think I’ve got it enough to connect it to my other scholarship on citizenship and literary works. If not, I can always resort to the Lucille Bluth method. (Kidding, kidding…)


10 thoughts on “Bhabha’s DissemiNation: Stream of Consciousness Style

  1. Pingback: Bundle Up in the Historic Cold | Ph.D.s and Pigtails

  2. Thanks so for much for taking the time to outline some of the key ideas in Bhabha’s essay. I had to give a presentation on this essay and your write-up was enormously helpful!

  3. This is a great commentary on the chapter, Kasey! I am also preparing for my comps and going crazy trying to finish up all my sources! All the best

  4. You are a lifesaver! I am in the midst of a rhetoric class that is kicking my butt and was insanely overwhelmed by Bhabha. Reading this as I read through the text really helped. I love that your posts are both academic and easy to follow. Also, an _Arrested Development_ reference never hurt anyone! Thanks.

  5. I feel the same way like you did and this is my reading part for my postcol class… but you take away the world off my shoulder, thanks a lot…

  6. Literally just read DissemiNation and it’s so helpful to read this straight after. I often feel like his complex point can be stated more simply. Also if I have to see the word ‘incommensurable’ one more time today imma get pissed.
    Regarding the German words, I find it kind of funny that he’s added so many, especially since they don’t add anything (they’ve been adequately translated, and are simply repeat of the English); I can’t help but think that all it does is unnecessarily confuse non-German speakers. Maybe he is just covering his own back because he translated it himself?

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