Wednesday, 14 January 2009

928 - The Bay and Homi Bhabha

Homi K Bhabha writes controversially about globalisation and multiculturalism. A snap sentence from the back of his book The Location of Culture (2nd ed. 2004) says that he argues 'that cultural production is always most productive where it is most ambivalent and transgressive'. An interview online, by W.J.T. Mitchell, says of him that 'he has told people exactly what they didn't want to hear, at the moments they didn't want to hear it, in a way that has been impossible to ignore'.

This is interesting, from his preface to The Location of Culture, about the writer V.S. Naipaul:
It was the ability of Naipaul's characters to forbear their despair, to work through their anxieties and alienations towards a life that may be radically incomplete but continues to be intricately communitarian, busy with activity, noisy with stories, garrulous with grotesquerie, gossip, humour, aspirations, fantasies - these were signs of a culture of survival that emerges from the other side of the colonial enterprise, the darker side. (pp. xii-xiii)

He quotes Naipaul on

the Trinidadian.... a cosmopolitan.... a natural anarchist, who has never been able to take the eminent at their own valuation. (p. xiii)

I may be reading too much into him, but his ideas strike a chord. They help me make sense, first of my own cultural journey, and second, of Whitley, to which I was attracted because of its edgy seaside town location.

My own journey has taken me into Evangelical Christianity and back out again. Although I found acceptance and comfort in its monoculture, I wasn't prepared to give up my identity to it. I left, struggling with enormous issues of guilt, in despair, and believing I'd committed an unforgivable sin. It took me many years to accept that a loving God (if one exists) has no problem with guilt or cultural rejection. Bhabha would say, I suspect, that my experience of Christianity was one of cultural colonisation on an individual level. Gradually I let myself be colonised, until, at the last, I protested. But by that stage I was complicit in the process of colonisation, and had let go of any sense of an alternative culture I might measure myself by. I experienced fragmentation, followed by a gradual redefinition of identity, in a manner I instantly recognise in Bhabha's analysis of Naipaul's characters above.

I also recognise, in his analysis, commonalities between the postcolonials he describes and the mature, softly anarchic, arctic tribespeople described by Hugh Brody. And I wonder, therefore, whether the process encouraged by the early Christians, of commitment to an impossible story, till one is forced to allow the shattering of one's reliance either on one's newly adopted or one's prior culture, is calculated precisely to bring one to a recognition of one's hunter-gatherer mind, in the sense that this is, in Brody's words, "humanity's most sophisticated combination of detailed knowledge and intuition" (The Other Side Of Eden, p.306).

Which brings me to Whitley Bay. Though predominantly white and working class, it too, like the India Bhabha comes from, has experienced waves of cultural colonisation, many of which it has enjoyed and conspired in. Adopting the long-term role offered to it of a thriving seaside town, in the early half of the twentieth century, it also allowed physical colonisation by holidaymakers on a week by week basis. Now, however, this adopted identity has been withdrawn, to be replaced by one defined by the harsher, and as yet, poorly understood cultural pressures of globalisation. Does it hold tight to the vestiges of seaside glory; or recognise its power-base is gone, and seek a new identity as a dormitory town serving Newcastle? Or is a third, 'hunter-gatherer' option open to it?

Bhabha and Naipaul might indicate there is. One that admits to despair, but proceeds 'towards a life that may be radically incomplete but continues to be intricately communitarian, busy with activity, noisy with stories, garrulous with grotesquerie, gossip, humour, aspirations, fantasies'. That sounds like the Whitley I sense around me. A survivor's tale, profoundly spiritual, anarchic, natural and new. It would not be so easily managed from outside, but it would be truer and more valuable to the wider region because of it.


Andy said...

So would you still describe yourself as a Christian?

(Nailing my colours to the mast: I cheer for Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, Harris, ...)

Steve Lancaster said...

I cheer for Dawkins, Dennett (more so Dennett, as far as the book goes), Harris (like the fact he's PhDing in Neuroscience), and Hitchens (for sheer British Stephen Fry cool), too.

I weep for the inability of most religious leaders to engage constructively (or compassionately) with the arguments they make.

And as for the labels, any labels, I can take them or leave them!

But about The God Delusion (which I am half way through) - IMO the most it does is demonstrate there are so many combinations and permutations by which we can make sense of the world that no God worth his/her/its salt would make doctrinal box-ticking a condition of entry to heaven (if such a place exists).

Dawkins is absolutely on the ball where he says that science has something to say about all aspects of our existance. But Christians are equally on the ball when they point to the concept of unconditional love (though not, IMO, when they don't). I want to explore the impact unconditional love has on our understanding of evolution, neuroscience, social and cutural progression. It's a legitimate idea, regardless of whether the gospels are historiacally accurate or not (they're almost certainly not).

There's a book called 'The Book of Atheist Spirituality' which is probably worth a look. And the most exciting church experiments are, I reckon, those that recognise the Christian story is about the deconstruction of religion, in exactly the same way Hitchens and crew deconstruct it, two thousand years later. Check out Pete Rollins' group, Ikon, and a project called 'The Garden' in Brighton, for example. ('The Garden' is a community attempting to explore the inspiration found in evolution - hence its name).

The question is, what are you left with when everything is taken apart, and how do you proceed? It's central to hunter-gatherer shamanistic initiation, Christianity, medieval Jewish mysticism, science, postmodern literature, and your average mid-life crisis wherever, whenever. So pretty valid, I reckon!