Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity



Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity


When Robinson Crusoe set foot on the island and declared it his own, a new page was inscribed in the history of colonialism. The shipwreck becomes a historical moment in this history. Defoe is able to create a textual plantation with the undaunted Robinson at its center, involved in a double (d) divine action of invention and original self-invention. The footprint, however, will unsettle his undisturbed tranquility, and fear enters the stage. Neither the bible nor his guns will bring him peace. Crusoe will undergo the painful experience of recurrent traumatic nightmares before the event. The silence is broken. The Other has already inhabited the Self prior to the uncanny encounter: anxiety invades the body and mind of the stranded hero. The “textual empire” is shaken by the unknown: “The island is full of noises.” The captured absent/present utterances are therefore unbounded; authority is de-authorized (is it?), and writing hybridized.


What is hybridization?, Bakhtin asks:

    It is a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consiousnesses, separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation, or by some other factor. (358)

When on a certain Friday, the encounter actually happens, Crusoe will demonstrate to the highest degree of perfection the noble qualities of an English tradesman-Gentleman: those of making and self-making, prowess and determination. Driven by an instinctive sense of a charitable concern for the meek, he rescues a young criolos cannibal from being devoured by other cannibals. Faithful to the already-established Spanish tradition, he names him Friday, teaches him English, the words of God, and above all, the basics of humanity; in other words, he has driven him out of utter darkness to an overwhelming whitening light.

Under these conditions, however, Crusoe paradoxically is more isolated than ever since the words he hears are his words –the very words he wanted Friday to say, to repeat. Crusoe is blinded by his narcissism. He seems, Brantlinger states, “almost to will his isolation, and to cling to it even when it is being invaded” (Brantlinger 3). Friday does not exist. Friday is a lie, an illusion created by a mad masterly imagination. He is an ever incomplete, insubstantial image, a mere inorganic shadow, a dark spot on the ground, an image. Friday is filling an empty space cynically prepared and strategically organized by the colonizer as a speaking subject. The mirror-image that Friday is striving to see reflected will be a distorted one, a neither-nor : one that is ambivalent, doubled. “It was one of the tragedies of slavery and of the conditions under which creolization had to take place,” Kamau Brathwaite states,

    that it should have produced this kind of mimicry; should have procduced such “mimic-men.” But in the circumstances this was the only kind of white imitation that would have been accepted, given the terms in which the slaves were seen .

Nevertheless, some postcolonial critics argue that it is precisely this kind of mimicry that disrupts the colonial discourse by doubling it. For them, the simple presence of the colonized Other within the textual structure is enough evidence of the ambivalence of the colonial text, an ambivalence that destabilizes its claim for absolute authority or unquestionable authenticity. Hence, today, the term hybridity has become one of the most recurrent conceptual leitmotivs in postcolonial cultural criticism. It is meant to foreclose the diverse forms of purity encompassed within essentialist theories. Homi Bhabha is the leading contemporary critic who has tried to disclose the contradictions inherent in colonial discourse in order to highlight the colonizer’s ambivalence in respect to his position toward the colonized Other.

Along with Tom Nairn, Homi Bhabha considers the confusion and hollowness that resistance produces in the minds of such imperialist authors as Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and E. M. Forster. But while Nairn sees their colonialist grandiose rhetoric as disproportionate to the real decadent economic and political situation of late Victorian England, Bhabha goes as far as to see this imperial delirium forming gaps within the English text, gaps which are

    the signs of a discontinuous history, an estrangement of the English book.They mark the disturbance of its authoritative representations by the uncanny forces of race, sexuality, violence, cultural and even climatic differnces which emerge in the colonial discource as the mixed and split texts of hybridity. If the English book is read as a production of hybridity, then it no longer simply commands authority.

His analysis, which is largely based on the Lacanian conceptualization of mimicry as camouflage focuses on colonial ambivalence. On the one hand, he sees the colonizer as a snake in the grass who, speaks in “a tongue that is forked,” and produces a mimetic representation that “… emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge ” (Bhabha 85). Bhabha recognizes then that colonial power carefully establishes highly-sophisticated strategies of control and dominance; that, while it is aware of its ephemerality, it is also anxious to create the means that guarantee its economic, political and cultural endurance, through the conception, in Macaulay’s words in his “Minute on Indian Education” (1835),”of a class of interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”–that is through the reformation of that category of people referred to by Frantz Fanon in the phrase, “black skin/white masks,” or as “mimic men” by V.S.Naipaul.

On the other hand, Bhabha immediately diverts his pertinent analysis by shifting the superlative certainty of the colonizer and the strategic effectiveness of his political intentions into an alarming uncertainty. Macaulay’s Indian interpreters along with Naipaul’s mimic men, he asserts, by the very fact that they are authorized versions of otherness, “part-objects of a metonymy of colonial desire, end up emerging as inappropriate colonial subjects…[who], by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence (88), de-stabilize the colonial subjectivity, unsettle its authoritative centrality, and corrupt its discursive purity. Actually, he adds, mimicry repeats rather than re-presents….(author’s emphases ), and in that very act of repetition, originality is lost, and centrality de-centred. What is left, according to Bhabha, is the trace, the impure, the artificial, the second-hand. Bhabha analyses the slippages in colonial political discourse, and reveals that the janus-faced attitudes towards the colonized lead to the production of a mimicry that presents itself more in the form of a “menace ” than “resemblance”; more in the form of a rupture than consolidation.
Hybridity, Bhabha argues, subverts the narratives of colonial power and dominant cultures. The series of inclusions and exclusions on which a dominant culture is premised are deconstructed by the very entry of the formerly-excluded subjects into the mainstream discourse. The dominant culture is contaminated by the linguistic and racial differences of the native self. Hybridity can thus be seen, in Bhabha’s interpretation, as a counter-narrative, a critique of the canon and its exclusion of other narratives. In other words, the hybridity-acclaimers want to suggest first, that the colonialist discourse’s ambivalence is a conspicuous illustration of its uncertainty; and second, that the migration of yesterday’s “savages” from their peripheral spaces to the homes of their “masters” underlies a blessing invasion that, by “Third-Worlding”the center, creates “fissures” within the very structures that sustain it.


Further reading

Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Bhabha, Homi. Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1995.

Chambers, Iain & Lidia Curti, eds. The Post-Colonial Question. London: Routledge, 1996. 9-11; 49-50; 134-5; 250-51.

Belnap,Jeffrey Grant.The Post-colonial State and the “Hybrid” Intellectual. California: U.M.I., 1993.

Bakhtin, M.M.. The Dialogic Imagination. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. “Creolization in Africa.” Ashcroft, et al. The Postcolonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995. 202-205.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “The Gender of Tradition: Ideologies of Character in Post-Colonization Anglophone Literature.” Order and Partialities: Theory, Pedagogy and the “Postcolonial.” Ed. Kostas Myrsiades and Jerry McGuire. Albany : SUNY P, 1995. 87-110.

James, C. L. R. Beyond a Boundary. London : Hutchinson, c1963.

Mongia, Padmini, ed.Contemporary Postcolonial Theory. London: Arnold,1996. 127-8; 284-91; 329-31.

Ranger, T. O. Dance and Society in Eastern Africa, 1890-1970: the Beni ngoma. London : Heinemann, 1975.

Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Young, Robert J.C..Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.



Author: Abdennebi Ben Beya


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