Homi Bhabha’s “Signs Taken for Wonders”: A Critique
Since its publication decades ago, Homi Bhabha’s essay, “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817,” has been a foundational text in subsequent/emerging “postcolonial” studies. Biblical studies has typically picked up academic trends a decade or so after they appear in some other setting, and surely enough for the last few decades postcolonial biblical studies has added a further facet to a diverse and diversifying field.
For any interested, consequently, Bill Bell’s recent critique of Bhabha’s influential essay should be assigned reading: “Signs Taken for Wonders: An Anecdote Taken from History,” New Literary History, 43/2 (Spring 2012), pp. 309-329. It is available via Project Muse here.
He essentially shows that Bhabha rather seriously misunderstood and misconstrued the events that he purports to report. If, consequently, our critical theories should be based on actual field-data studies, then it means that, at the least, Bhabha’s study can’t really be cited as a basis for much.
There may well be other bases for postcolonial exegesis, and many now are the studies that incorporate that approach. Categories such as “mimicry” and disguised “subversion,” for example are now required items in scholarly vocabulary. And there are, no doubt, data that justify these categories. But Bell’s essay Is a salutary reminder to keep our theories rooted firmly in historical data. This isn’t some frontal assault on postcolonial studies (so, please, no flame-throwing defenders feeling the need to leap to its defence and denounce me as an enemy). But any field and approach is subject to criticism, and should welcome it.