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“Small Acts”

The Perspective, Location and Agency of Theory in South African Cultural Studies

Ashraf Jamal

In an interview with David Attwell, recorded in 1993 at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth College New Hampshire, Homi Bhabha turns his liminal gaze to the fate of South Africa. His position, that of “an outsider … a bystander and consumer of the media” (Attwell 1993: 109), invokes a reading of the state of the nation and its cultural predicament which, nine years hence, remains compelling. What is particularly striking about the conversation, conducted at a geographical remove during a charged historical time when South Africa forges what will prove to be an on-going process of disinterring itself from a legacy of oppression, is Bhabha’s eschewal of a saving telos and his insistence on turning and returning to “the semiosis of the moment of transition” (1993: 104). For Bhabha this moment is not the Gramscian interregnum between two distinct states of governance. Rather, his conception subsumes the notion of two distinct states as well as Antonio Gramsci’s conception of the moment between as the emergent locus for a symptomatic morbidity. Here Bhabha diverges from the perception of those within South Africa for whom the interregnum has served as a prevailing trope, most notably Nadine Gordimer in The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places (1988: 262) and Michael Chapman in Southern African Literatures (1996: 327-331). Rather, between the renunciation of a past and the proleptic fulfilment of a future, Bhabha proffers a more enabling conception of the moment of transition; one which, having “overcome the given grounds of opposition … opens up a space of translation: a place of hybridity, figuratively speaking, where the construction of a political object that is new, neither the one nor the other, properly alienates our political expectation, and changes, as it must, the very forms of our recognition of the moment of politics” (Bhabha 1994: 25).