The Location of Culture

Currently the most useful portion of The Location of Culture (1994) written by Homi Bhabha in regards to my research is found in his description of Renee Green’s Sites of Genealogy (1991) used to illustrate his concept of liminality.

Bhabha quotes Green from an interview she conducted with Miwon Kwon where Green is talking about the difficulty with fixed categories (4). What is noted is that the idea of a group or a community is not fixed. Green asks “What is a black community? What is a Latino community?” (4). Questions such as this can be applied to almost every group and sphere that a person moves in and out of. Where does one end and the next one begin?

Bhabha then goes on to describe a work by Green as an “in-between moment” (5):

Green’s ‘architectural’ site-specific work, Sites of Genealogy …, displays and displaces the binary logic through which identities of difference are often constructed – Black/White, Self/Other. Green makes a metaphor of the museum building itself, rather than simply using the gallery space:

‘I used architecture literally as a reference, using the attic, the boiler room, and the stairwell to make associations between certain binary divisions such as higher and lower and heaven and hell. The stairwell became a liminal space, a pathway between the upper and lower areas, each of which was annotated with plaques referring to blackness and whiteness.’ (5)

The stairwell has become, as Bhabha explains, a “liminal space” (5). It becomes a space where mixing occurs. Because the stairwell is open at either end, neither location is required to be fixed. There is movement between the two places and therefore there is an exchange of ideas. Bhabha states “this interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (5).

The idea that there is such a thing as a “homogeneous national culture” is precarious (7). With the recognition that our economies are interdependent upon each other (recalling the recent debt crisis) it quickly becomes apparent that internationalism is unavoidable. It stands to reason that cooperation and sharing between cultures becomes desirable. Ideas of nationalism are being redefined. “The hideous extremity of Serbian nationalism proves that the very idea of a pure, ‘ethnically cleansed’ national identity can only be achieved through the death, literal and figurative, of complex interweavings of history, and the culturally contingent borderlines of modern nationhood” (emphasis mine) (7).

Yet while there is apparent proof of redefinition there is still contention. Resistance may take more subtle forms (or not). In the Netherlands, there are two words that have recently come into use. “Autochtoon” meaning “authentic” Dutch and “allochtoon” literally meaning “from another country” (Essed and Trienekens 53, 57). A person who is born to parents who are autochtoon, but is born, raised, and a citizen of another nation would also be autochtoon. In contrast, a person of Japanese heritage, for instance, whose family had lived and worked in the Netherlands for three generations would be considered allochtoon (see the hyperlinked figure).

Opposition or not, national identity is not fixed. If national identity is fluid, then is it possible that racial identities are also fluid? What does it mean if they are? What does that look like? How does it function? Is there a place for racial identities? What about ethnic identities? How do they differ, if at all?

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Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Essed, Philomena, and Sandra Trienekens. “Who Wants to Feel White? Race, Dutch Culture and Contested Identities.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 31.1 (Jan 2008): 52-72. EBSCOHost, ECULib. Web. 22 May 2009.

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Revised: February 13, 2011.

White Women, Race Matters

To pull out a couple of points from my reading today that have “stickability” is Ruth Frankenberg’s brief critique of whites as being non-cultured and the notion of fluid borders between constructed classes.

“…[a] feeling that deep down whites are nothing…” (Dyer 222).

Although the quote above comes from the book White by Richard Dyer written in 1997, Dyer’s exploration on whites and representation had already been published by Routledge in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations in 1993. Ruth Frankenberg’s essay White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness was also published in 1993. It stands to reason that discourses on the construction of whiteness were well under way. I point this out because Frankenberg’s text opens with a line, printed as follows:

“Fundamentally a relational category, whiteness does have content…” (emphasis Frankenberg’s) (632)

Dyer’s text in using film to illustrate, discusses the notion of whiteness (among other things) as being empty, void, and nothing (Dyer). It is a fear of those things on the part of whites that is displayed in the films he discusses (Dyer). Frankenberg explains that the concept of whiteness at least “generates norms, ways of understanding history, ways of thinking about self[,] other, [and] culture” (632).

Frankenberg adds that seeing whiteness as “no culture” (or empty) would mean the practices within whiteness remain unnamed. White cultural practices therefore become the norm, the default, universal rather than specific, even though dominant (633). What is a (white) person’s identity if on the one hand they have no culture and on the other they are the default? Frankenberg asserts that it is therefore important to name whiteness in order to “dislodge the claims […] to rightful dominance” (633).

Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture suggests that while groups may find commonality in a shared experience, that the overlap where difference occurs within groups is negotiated in a liminal space. Bhabha, in offering a visual for his concept turns to the work Sites of Genealogy by Renee Green (Bhabha 5). Bhabha describes an upper floor and lower floor separated by a stairwell, which becomes the liminal space where culture is able to flow between the two places (Bhabha 5). It is in this transitional space that appropriation occurs. As Frankenberg says “The borders of white identity have proven malleable over time” (633). She adds that in a similar way “whiteness, masculinity, and femininity are coproducers of one another” (633). So while whites (“white, American, male” (634)) are skilled appropriators they also impose their cultural practices on others by implication of normalcy.

I think Frankenberg’s last point on what to do is also important. She suggests that Americans (I suggest all whites) learn more about the “histories that lie behind that normativity, the multiple currents that came together to make the normative space that white Americans now inhabit, and the processes of assimilation, loss and forgetting that took place along the way” (634).

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Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Frankenberg, Ruth. “White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness.” 1993. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 632-34. Print.