Mimicry and Its Discontents: Examining Bhabha's Multiculturalism as Mimicry and Hybridity
In October of 2010, the German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, declared, “German multiculturalism is dead” (Connolly, 1). In February of this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in a televised debate that multiculturalism has failed, saying that “(The French) have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him.”i British Prime Minister David Cameron, in the same month, in a speech in Munich, also said that “the doctrine of state multiculturalism” has failed.ii Beginning April 2011, France expanded its former policy of banning headscarves in French public schools that took effect in September 2004 to make it state law prohibiting the use of the hijab and the burka or head covering in public spaces.iii However, because the French practice equal opportunity, the ban also extends to large crosses and Jewish skullcaps. Offenders face a fine of 150 Euros and a citizenship course. However, people forcing the women to wear the veil face a heavier fine and possible jail time of up to two years.
Now that the major powers of Western Europe deem it necessary to say that multiculturalism has failed, it is worth noting that there is a gap that looms from all sides of the spectrum. It is telling of two things – that there is an anxiety of the notion of nationhood and that the pluralism of bright-eyed idealists are shot down. The ideological foundations of what the proponents of multiculturalism have thought as the pinnacle of idealized diversity are shaken to the core.
Though this is not a direct rumination of the failures or successes of multiculturalism, this paper addresses what, possibly, multiculturalism truly is as it is understood in contemporary society. Furthermore, it hypothesizes that it is in fact a form of disguised mimicry and a type of hybridity in the interstitial or ‘third space’ as interpreted by Bhabha. Additionally, this paper addresses Bhabha the theorist, those opposed to Bhabha—particularly the scholar Marjorie Perloff—and how this damages or enhances Bhabha’s own validity as a practicing scholar.
It is impossible these days to walk into any graduate program or even an undergraduate program without encountering Homi Bhabha. The man that has made his career on locating culture, disavowing the beyond in the study of post-whatsits in our current age as well as documenting his observations and encounters of the third-space kind is still going. There is no contemporary discussion without conjuring the historic ghosts and fractured masks of mimicry that fill the gap of our – whoever we are in whatever context we exist – collective and individual memories. It is this gap that Bhabha is interested in. Though his interest sprang from a plethora of sources such as the post-colonial discourses of Africa, African-America, the Caribbean and India; his readings of V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, the poet Adrienne Rich; and contemporary artists like photographer Allan Sekula, his archaeological excavation of the beyond still possesses value from a general perspective. That is, it is almost algebraic. It is a formula that can be plugged into our modern globalist pillaged village of a world. His theories are a direct consequence of the narratives of his own personal history.
Who is he? As Niesen de Abruna writes, “He has never written from a simplistic sense of one group’s claims in opposition to another group’s, but from a belief in the potential possibility of negotiation of borderlands and boundaries as a way of getting beyond allegedly irreconcilable differences between cultures.” (91). She writes this in reference to Bhabha’s background of constantly negotiating his origins. He is a Zoroastrian Parsi, a minority sandwiched between the cultural and identity wars between Hindus and Moslems. She writes, “As practitioners of Zoroastrianism, the Parsis lived in a cultural space that negotiated the political, social and economic boundaries between the competing claims of Hindu and Moslem communities” (91). In addition to the Hindu and Moslem notions of identity, there is the British element that exists simply because India was one of the biggest British colonies. “Parsis,” Bhabha mentions in an interview, “were the middle persons between various Indian communities and the British.” (Mitchell, 80) When asked whether Parsis are characteristically Moslem or Hindu, Bhabha replies: “I like to joke that Parsis are Nietzscheans because they follow the prophet Zoroaster.” (Mitchell, 80) He adds, “They have also been a hybridized community: often their rituals pay formal respect to Hindu customs and rituals while articulating their own religious and ethnic identity.” He also mentions that what is interesting about Parsis is “their sense of a negotiated cultural identity.” He gives a number of about 100,000 Parsis in the world today, divided among the continents making their identity an interesting arena of discussion. Since they do not come from a multitudinous community, their identity comes from aligning with specific religious ideas -- and that, according to Bhabha, only for a small minority.
Bhabha does not then exaggerate when he writes, “Learning to work with the contradictory strains of languages lived, and the languages learned, has the potential for a remarkable critical and creative impulse.” His theory of locating culture is not a mere academic exercise; it is an exegesis of a life and personal and collective histories that are continually negotiated.
His theories are influenced heavily by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Edward Said, Michel Foucault and particularly the work of Walter Benjamin. Bhabha says of Benjamin’s work, “(he) has led me to speculate on differential temporal movements within the process of dialectical thinking and the supplementary or interstitial ‘conditionality’ that opens up alongside the transcendent tendency of dialectical contradiction -- I have called this a ‘third space,’ or a ‘time lag’.” (Mitchell, 82) This process of temporal movement, interstitial conditionality and transcendent tendency is also a space of ambiguity, where meaning is slippery. This speculation has led him to define the Third Space and the possibilities (and ambiguities) that occur in that space.
Speaking of the transcendent tendency of dialectical contradiction, I will take this moment to discuss Bhabha in the context of the supposed failure of multiculturalism in Europe. The term multiculturalism is really another politically-correct term for the word Mimicry. According to Homi Bhabha, “mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal.” (122) Is this representation of a difference simply a process of denial or retraction? According to Bhabha, it is not simply denial for the sake of denial but rather a process of disavowal. The process here is complex and negotiated. He adds, “(m)imicry is, thus the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the other as it visualizes power.” (122) Mimicry is a double articulation because it exists on both sides of, say, the colonizer and the colonized or, in other terms, the self and the other. There is something simultaneously expressed from and on both sides. The subject splits, becoming the originator and the performer mimicking authenticity. Authenticity is not just a state of being but also a type of construction and representation of culture and identity. Bhabha, however, still qualifies this notion because he does not see this representation as representation qua representation.
Hence, in the case of the current European dilemma, there is a dialectic that emerges when the European Self as indicated by the State heads of Europe enunciated the difference between an “us” (the European citizen) and a “them” (the Foreign Immigrant). Bhabha writes, “What emerges between mimesis and mimicry is a writing, a mode of representation, that marginalizes the monumentality of history, quite simply mocks its power to be a model, that power which supposedly makes it imitable.” (125) There are two things to elucidate here.
First, the writing he refers to recalls Benedict Anderson’s notion of a community articulated when a common language was found in what Anderson refers to as “print-as-commodity.” What Anderson means is that the reproducibility and dissemination of print knowledge (through the printing press) changed how Europe and her inhabitants saw themselves. (Anderson, 52-53) However, from Bhabha’s reckoning, writing is not a mere form of a textual apparatus. He says, “(T)hose of us who have been involved in the scriptural, text-based arts have begun to see the sign in a much more affective context.” (Mitchell, 84) The sign that he refers to is writing or perhaps the act of writing. He adds, “We have begun to see the whole place of visuality, morality, and affectivity in writing -- writing's bodily, corporeal attributes, writing or language as part of the unconscious, writing as part of temporal deferral, writing as part of social identification, writing, rhetoric, and narrative as the bases of ethical judgment.” (Mitchell, 84) In his words, “(t)he nature of the sign has been opened up for us.”
Second, the marginalization he speaks of is actually a subversive element at work because the source of power, the original or the authentic (let’s say, the European citizen), is destabilized or, in Bhabha’s terms, ‘mocked.’ Then he adds, “Mimicry repeats rather than re-presents….(t)he desire to emerge as authentic through mimicry – through a process of writing and repetition - is the final irony of partial representation.” (author’s emphasis) (125-126) Hence, according to Bhabha, the subject on the other side of the dialectic, the performer of mimicry, desires authenticity as well but participates in a mirroring of authenticity, which, in itself is a partial representation of the ‘authentic’. In the case of the Foreign Immigrant in Europe, the unveiling to be more like the “us” of the European citizenry means just that. It is a partial identity. The unveiling of the body means, to be somewhat accessible, giving partial access to European identity.
It is also interesting to note that the arrival of the Other in Europe – the Foreign Immigrant – the notion of citizenship, nationhood and belonging became an important discussion. Perhaps there is something to be said about the imagined community from Benedict Anderson’s perspective. He writes, “(the imagined community) is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (Anderson, 49) The European citizen, in Anderson’s eyes, cannot know everyone from the European community yet now, because of the Other’s arrival, threatening the “European way of life,” in whatever form that may be, is suddenly sentient and aware of his very European-ness. Bhabha writes, “the political unity of the nation, consists in a continual displacement of the anxiety of its irredeemably plural modern space – representing the nation’s territoriality is turned into the archaic, atavistic temporality of Traditionalism.” (213) The ban against the hijab is the very displacement of the European citizen’s anxiety. To have the Other, the hijab-wearing Other, mimic the European citizen by partially taking away their Other-ness, metonymically represented by the veil, still pushes the anxiety towards another direction. “In mimicry,” Bhabha writes, “the representation of identity and meaning is rearticulated along the axis of metonymy.” (128) This axis of metonymy is the location of the veil and colonial anxiety rearticulated around this imaginary presence. He continues, “As Lacan reminds us, mimicry is like camouflage, not a harmonization or repression of difference, but a form of resemblance, that differs from or defends presence by displaying it in part, metonymically.” (128) Again, in using the ban on the hijab as an example, the European citizen metonymically represented by his official in the body of President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron, sees in veil the metonymic presence of the menace that is the Other. Bhabha writes, “(I)n ‘normalizing’ the colonial state or subject, the dream of post-Enlightenment civility alienates its own language of liberty and produces another knowledge of its norms.” (123) What knowledge production does he speak of? Is it the knowledge that equity is limited towards those who are “authentic”? Bhabha answers that it is the knowledge that their presence becomes “partial.”
The veil itself becomes an inappropriate object and is appropriated accordingly. “The success of colonial appropriation,” Bhabha writes, “depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that the mimicry is at once resemblance and menace.” (123) The proliferation of the inappropriate object(s) reflects the metonymic presence of the Other that is foreign. In Europe, for instance, the proliferation of the veil is telling of the presence of conservative Islam and, in the eyes of the European citizen, to appropriate the veil is to partially hide Islam and partially Europeanize the unrecognizable Other.
In a New York Times article on November 17, 2001, some critics of Homi Bhabha expressed dismay at his appointment at Harvard University where he has since been the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Humanities Center, which, needless to say, is quite a prestigious post. Critics that expressed disbelief were Mr. Miller of NYU and particularly the emeritus professor of English at Stanford University, Marjorie Perloff, who said, ''When I heard that, I was dismayed.'' She added, ''For Harvard to be thrilled to be hiring Homi Bhabha -- he doesn't have anything to say.'' Perloff, in the article, also said, “Events of the last couple months seem to have negated much of his theory,'' (Eakin, 4) referring to what happened during 9-11. She adds, ''His idea is that nation-states aren't at each other, that everything is open, porous and possible, but look what's happened.'' (Eakin, 4) Perhaps in Perloff’s case, this was painfully true as she is an Austrian Jew whose family members were affected by the Holocaust.
Her opinion of his theories stems from her reading of one of his essays, DissemiNation, where he takes on the production and dissemination of culture, particularly the notion of nationhood. Perloff writes that “(the essay) is a powerful critique of what Bhabha takes to be inadequate ‘essentialist’ readings of nationhood – readings that attempt to define and naturalize Third World ‘nations’ by means of the supposedly homogenous, holistic and historically continuous traditions that falsely define and ensure their subordinate status.” (109)
One would think, given such a strong opening line that Perloff would extol other virtues of this essay; however, when one reads further, one finds that she is merely preparing her tools for her dissection of Bhabha’s piece.
Because of her excellent command of the German language, Perloff picks on an inaccuracy in one of the passages, saying, “Bhabha who follows Bakhtin in citing the original German is merely copying his source. We know this because Bakhtin has curiously and quite uncharacteristically made a mistake that Bhabha repeats. Two of the nouns are correctly translated but Unerfreuliches is wrongly translated as “the terrifying.” The adjective Unerfreulich from which the noun is formed is a fairly mild epithet; it means ‘unpleasant,’ ‘displeasing,’ ‘tiresome,’ ‘unsatisfactory.’ The sentence “Daβ ist Unerfreulich” is rather like saying, “That’s not good news.”” (118)
Perhaps this is so but Perloff is harder on Bhabha than on Bakhtin, demanding more from him than the Russian. She further asks and comments: “why does Bhabha cite the German to begin with? The reversion to the original is a practice he may have derived from Derrida and Lacan exegetes, who regularly cite the foreign word (e.g., graphein, differance, pharmakos, jouissance, imaginaire) in parenthesis so as to indicate that (1) they have direct access to the original, and (2) that the word in question is untranslatable and hence must be referred to in its original or “true” form.” (118-119) Again, this observation of Perloff’s may be true. However, this ‘reversion back to the original’ is not only used by deconstructionists or Post-structuralists. Even Nietzsche, a proper academic trained in philology predating both Lacan and Derrida, practiced the same thing when he used the French word ressentiment instead of the word’s equivalent in German or another language.
Perloff concludes: “instead of doing a Bhabhian reading of Goethe we might do a Goethean reading of Bhabha.” (125) She explains what she means of this reading, asking an important question, “Why, for example, does this widely travelled critic (“DissemiNation,” we read in the dedication to Paul Moritz Strimple, bears the imprint of Pforzheim – Paris – Zurich – Ahmedabad – Bombay – Milan – Lugano”), have nothing to say about urban geography or about the relation of city to the natural environment?” (125) Why aren’t there any “rivers or mountains” nor “latitudes and longitudes” as Perloff suggests? She asks both seriously and in jest her final question to Bhabha and to the discourse of nation and narration that he theorizes on: “When did weather cease to play a part in constructing human consciousness?” (125) If one reads only Perloff’s account, one would think that Homi Bhabha has made an egregious sin by not talking about the weather. However, upon closer examination of the essay DissemiNation, Bhabha devotes a short section to “the English weather” at the conclusion of his essay.
He writes, “To end with the English weather is to invoke , at once, the most changeable and immanent signs of national difference.” (243) I would end here because it seems that Perloff’s objection about the lack of environmental markers disturbed her but she, curiously, ignores his own references about the very location of England – particularly its weather – as she accuses him of not using. “(The English weather) encourages memories of ‘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.” (Bhabha, 243) As if this description was not enough, Bhabha goes on to describe India and Africa’s subtropical weather. He continues, “The English weather also revives memories of its daemonic double: the heat and dust of India; the dark emptiness of Africa; the tropical chaos that was deemed despotic and ungovernable and therefore worthy of the civilizing mission.” What then is eating away at Perloff?
Perhaps it isn’t that environmental factors have ceased to take part in our consciousness, rather, that in Bhabha’s terms, the gaze is directed towards the interstitial of every notion that we have. His turf is too slippery. Perhaps this is what disturbs Perloff. After all, he also came from a specific tradition in Oxford in the 1970s when academics began to look into the epistemological constructs of power and identity particularly between European powers and their colonies in the third world. “(S)cholars were discussing cultural encounters, especially those between European powers and their colonies in the third world, in terms not of dialogue or exchange but rather stark polarities: East and West, oppressors and victims, powerful and powerless. These views eventually coalesced in literature departments to form a brand new discipline: postcolonial studies.” (Eakin, 3) Edward Said, one of the field's founders, in particular, affected this polarized and polarizing dialectic when he wrote in his landmark book, ''Orientalism,'' originally published in 1978, that the East was doomed to play the Other to the West, imbued with traits and values that colonial rulers rejected or abhorred. Within the confines of this intellectual and political maelstrom, Homi Bhabha began his own theories of ‘rebelling’ against such tendencies to polarize.
He asks, “Must we always polarize in order to polemicize?” (Bhabha, 28) Of course, the answer is, theoretically, a resounding no in the framework that he seeks to establish. This habit of polarization does not escape the likes of Judith Butler in the communities that she engages in – the Jewish community and the lesbian community. In an interview with the Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, she discusses the penchant of the Jewish community “not to trust anyone from the outside,” that if someone was brought home, the “first question was ‘Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?’” Then upon entering the lesbian community in her tertiary education, the same mode of inquiry occurs where the first questions were, "Are you a feminist? Are you not a feminist?" or "Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?" In what Butler identifies in this interview as boycotting politics, the “we” is the identifying body that engenders who is allowed entry.
Bhabha’s anxiety over polarization is understandable. As the Butler example shows, everyone is polarized to ‘Self and Other’ or ‘Us and Them.’ The “trope of our times” that he refers to in the introduction to The Location of Culture is the ease that a person defines identity into a single neat compartmentalized box, located in the beyond. Given his experiences and his own history, this is unacceptable because it is a partial representation. The polarization is a pendulum that moves only from one side to the other, here and there. But his point is not to go to that fort-da, the here to there or vice versa; his point is in the crevice sandwiched between the fort-da of here and there. Suddenly, there is a subject and the subject possesses not just one position but multiple positions. He writes, “The move away from singularities of “class” or “gender” as primary conceptual and organizational categories has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions – of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation –that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world.” (Bhabha, 2) He locates other positions that articulate different types of subjectivity which leads to an uneasy, restless space. Hence, cultural identities are not ascribed to an ahistorical, reductive script of gender, ethnic and racial conventions where the dialectic is a simplistic black-white polarity having no gray areas, or ‘in-between’, so to speak.
He writes, “There is a sense of disorientation in the ‘beyond’: an explanatory, restless movement caught so well in the French rendition au-delà—here and there, on all sides, fort/da, hither and thither, back and forth.” (Bhabha, 2) Here lies the crux of Bhabha’s argument where the subject moves restlessly from point to point into a subjectivity of some kind. There is no beyond rather there is the in-between. Meaning is skewed. What becomes of the subject? Who is the subject in the intercourse of discourse?
“The revision of history of critical theory rests, as I have said, on the notion of cultural difference, not cultural diversity.” (Bhabha, 49) In this vein, academic rhetoric – of which post-colonial discourse is a hot-and-heavy topic in the last half century – is a type of historical revision that has a tendency for the trappings of cultural essentialism, the notion that defines and arrests movements and identities into a fixed discourse in the name of tolerance and well-meaning moralist polemics against stereotypes and prejudice. He adds, “Cultural diversity is an epistemological object – culture as an object of empirical knowledge – whereas cultural difference is the process of the enunciation of culture as ‘knowledgeable’, authoritative, adequate to the construction of systems of cultural identification.” (author’s emphasis) (Bhabha, 49-50)
The catchphrase “cultural diversity” also known as multiculturalism carries the weight of knowledgeable awareness that may or may not be false whereas cultural difference is enunciated and systemized into significations of other implications of other bodies of knowledge. This is perhaps why in Europe, now, the French, English and German governments are restless and yelling that cultural diversity a.k.a. multiculturalism has not only failed but is dead.
As Bhabha points, the ‘assimilation of contraries’ – of whatever binary dialectical notions or bodies of history that are involved – is the articulation of cultural hybridity. For example, in his essay, Signs Taken for Wonders, Bhabha writes of the missionary work in India in the early nineteenth century. The missionaries shrewdly translated the Bible to Hindi in order for it not to appear foreign to the natives they sought to convert. “What is the value of English in the offering of the Hindi Bible?” Bhabha asks. “It is the creation of a print technology calculated to produce a visual effect that will not ‘look like the work of foreigners’; it is the decision to produce simple, abridged tracts of the plainest narrative that may inculcate the habit of ‘private, solitary reading’, as a missionary wrote in 1816, so that the natives may resist the Brahmin’s ‘monopoly of knowledge’ and lessen their dependence on their own religious and cultural traditions.” (168) The resulting text is a hybrid – an English Bible with Hindu text, two very distinct parts combined. The assimilation of contraries in this context articulates a discourse of mimicry and subversive co-opting of dissemination of knowledge. On one hand, the missionaries mimic the native’s language so that their agenda of conversion can be achieved. On the other hand, the natives (who were of lower castes as given away by their profession of farming) quite possibly saw an attractive notion in appropriating the cultural power and knowledge of the Brahmin class.
This articulation is not static knowledge (of Eurocentric) discourse but an existence in “inter,” – the between – what Bhabha calls “the cutting edge of translation and negotiation” making it possible to begin a holistic discourse free of simplistic polemic.
However, as one of his strongest critics, Perloff, shows, there is an intrinsic need for a type of simplistic polemic. Why does she nitpick on the weather? What does this questioning of Homi Bhabha’s authenticity as an academic mean? Does Perloff raise valid points? Indeed, she does. However, her criticism sheds an interesting light on Homi Bhabha’s own theories. Homi Bhabha, then, and his “emptiness” is, by Marjorie Perloff’s analysis, a mimic man because his academic jargon is not up to par to her academic standard. As she explains, he merely parrots Bhaktin instead of going further and deeper into the German words as any other academic such as Perloff – whose native language is German – would do. It is precisely this analysis of Bhabha that Perloff unwittingly contributes to his own theory of mimicry and the meaning of ambivalence – that if he, a member of the post-colonial community, takes on the “book”, the writing and the jargon of academia to not only mimic academics but also, like in his own definition of mimicry, become something other than the mirror of an academic, then Perloff plays right into the interstitial meaning of the nothingness she perceives from Bhabha’s writing. This issue of translation is a continuum that Homi Bhabha invokes, a re-reading, or, in Seth’s words in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a re-memory, a re-membering of a thing that is or isn’t there. Perhaps there is truly nothing beneath all his words. However, it does seem that this is his point. Homi Bhabha’s writing and theorizing is performing the very theories he seeks to illuminate.
Asked about his own opacity in writing, Bhabha answers that he “takes the question of accessibility very seriously,” and “that moment of obscurity contains, in some enigmatic way, the limit of what I have thought, the horizon that has not as yet been reached, yet it brings with it an emergent move in the development of a concept that must be marked, even if it can't be elegantly or adequately realized.” (Mitchell, 82) Bhabha, then, means to be obscure on purpose because the space of ambiguity, the liminality of his own discourse, polarizes the thinking process because meaning is doubled or negated (or, as Perloff says, emptied). But it isn’t simply the limits of Bhabha’s thinking that he wishes to attempt to realize. It is his form of resistance. He writes, “Through the opaqueness of words, we confront the historical memory of the Western nation which is ‘obliged to forget.’” (237) This obligation to forget is the current generation’s claim of innocence, that it was “them” – the uncivilized and culture-less – from the distant past who can do the wrongs only written about in history books. But the re-memory and re-membering of words, which is essentially, a translation of sorts of the same words, the same language that the colonizer used, the confrontation of the past helps the previously colonial subject, the Other, negotiate his history and identity and simultaneously have the authenticating Self re-evaluate its own position in the discourse of identity and nationhood.
Aloni, Udi. “Judith Butler: As A Jew, I was taught it was ethically imperative to speak up,” Haaretz Daily News, original printing February 24, 2010.
Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities,” “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.” London: Verso, (original printing 1983) Reprinted 1991: 48-59.
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Connolly, Kelly. “Angela Merkel Declares Death of German Multiculturalism,” The Guardian, original printing on October 17, 2010: 1. (Web)
Eakin, Emily. “Harvard’s Prize Catch A Delphic Postcolonialist,” The New York Times, original printing November 17, 2001: 1-4. (Web)
Mitchell, W.J.T. “Translator Translated: Interview with Cultural Theorist Homi Bhabha,” Artforum (March 1995): 80-84.
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[i] Original broadcasting on February 11, 2011; partial transcript can be found on CBN.com with the heading, France's Sarkozy: Multiculturalism Has Failed
[iii] See bbc.co.uk under the heading, “France Issues First Fine for Woman in Islamic Veil,” originally published April 12, 2011.