Race, Time, and the Revision of Modernity Homi K. Bhabha

The discourse of race that I am trying to develop displays the problem of the ambivalent temporality of modernity that is often overlooked in the more “spatial” traditions of some aspects of postmodern theory. Under the rubric “the discourse of modernity,” I do not intend to reduce a complex and diverse historical moment, with varied national genealogies and different institutional practices, into a singular shibboleth—be it the “idea” of Reason, Historicism, Progress—for the critical convenience of postmodern literary theory …

The power of the postcolonial translation of modernity rests in its performative, deformative structure that does not simply revalue the contents of a cultural tradition, or transpose values “cross-culturally.” The cultural inheritance of slavery or colonialism is brought before modern­ity—not to resolve its historic differences into a new totality, nor to forego traditions. It is to introduce another locus of inscription and intervention, another hybrid, “inappropriate” enunciative site, through that temporal split—or time lag—that I have opened up for the signification of postcolonial agency …

The ethnocentric limitations of Foucault’s spatial sign of modernity become immediately apparent if we take our stand, in the immediate postrevolutionary period, in San Domingo with the Black Jacobins, rather than Paris. What if the “distance” that constitutes the meaning of the Revolution as sign, the signifying lag between event and enunciation, stretches not across the Place de la Bastille or the Rue des Blancs-Monteaux, but spans the temporal difference of the colonial space? What if we heard the “moral disposition of mankind” uttered by Toussaint L’Ouverture for whom, as C.L.R. James so vividly recalls, the signs of modernity, “liberty, equality, fraternity… what the French Revolution signified, was perpetually on his lips, in his correspondence, in his private conversations” 1. What do we make of the figure of Toussaint—James invokes Phaedrus, Ahab, Hamlet—at the moment when he grasps the tragic lesson that the moral, modern disposition of mankind, enshrined in the sign of the Revolution, only fuels the archaic racial factor in the society of slavery? What do we learn from that split consciousness, that “colonial” disjunction of modern times and colonial and slave histories, where the reinvention of the self and the remaking of the social are strictly out of joint?

These are the issues of the catachrestic, postcolonial translation of modernity. They force us to introduce the question of subaltern agency, into the question of modernity: what is this “now” of modernity? Who defines this present from which we speak? This leads to a more challenging question: What is the desire of this repeated demand to modernize? Why does it insist, so compulsively, on its contemporaneous reality, its spatial dimension, its spectatorial distance? What happens to the sign of modernity in those repressive places like San Domingo, where progress is only heard (of) and not “seen,” is that it reveals the problem of the disjunctive moment of its utterance: the space which enables a postcolonial contra-modernity to emerge …

The “subalterns and ex-slaves” who now seize the spectacular event of modernity do so in a catachrestic gesture of reinscribing modernity’s “caesura” and using it to transform the locus of thought and writing in the postcolonial critique. Listen to the ironic naming, the interrogative repetitions, of the critical terms themselves: black “vernacularism” repeats the minor term used to designate the language of the native and the household slave to make demotic the grander narratives of progress. Black “expressionism” reverses the stereotypical affectivity and sensuality of the stereotype to suggest that “rationalities are produced endlessly in populist modernism.”2 “New ethnicity” is used by Stuart Hall in the black British context to create a discourse of cultural difference that marks ethnicity as the struggle against ethnicist “fixing” and in favor of a wider minority discourse that represents sexuality and class. Cornel West’s genealogical materialist view of race and Afro-American oppression is, he writes, “both continuous and discontinuous with the Marxist tradition” and shares an equally contingent relation to Nietzsche and Foucault.3 More recently, he has constructed a prophetic pragmatic tradition from William James, Niebuhr, and Du Bois suggesting that “it is possible to be a prophetic pragmatist and belong to different political movements—e.g., feminist, Black, Chicano, socialist, left-liberal ones.”4 The Indian historian Gyan Prakash, in an essay on post-Orientalist histories of the Third World, claims that:

“it is difficult to overlook the fact that … Third World voices … speak within and to discourses familiar to the ‘West.’ … The Third World, far from being confined to its assigned space, has penetrated the inner sanctum of the ‘First World’ in the process of being ‘Third Worlded’—arousing, inciting, and affiliating with the subordinated others in the First World … to connect with minority voices.”5

The intervention of postcolonial or black critique is aimed at transforming the conditions of enunciation at the level of the sign—where the intersubjective realm is constituted—not simply setting up new symbols of identity, new “positive images” that fuel an unreflective “identity politics.” The challenge to modernity comes in redefining the signifying relation to a disjunctive “present”: staging the past as symbol, myth, memory, history, the ancestral—but a past whose iterative value as sign reinscribes the “lessons of the past” into the very textuality of the present that determines both the identification with, and the interrogation of, modernity: what is the “we” that defines the prerogative of my present? The possibility of inciting cultural translations across minority discourses arises because of the disjunctive present of modernity. It ensures that what seems the “same” within cultures is negotiated in the time lag of the “sign” which constitutes the intersubjective, social realm. Because that lag is indeed the very structure of difference and splitting within the discourse of modernity, turning it into a performative process, then each repetition of the sign of modernity is different, specific to its historical and cultural conditions of enunciation.

This process is most clearly apparent in the work of those “postmodern” writers who, in pushing the paradoxes of modernity to their limits, reveal the margins of the West.6 From the postcolonial perspective we can only assume a disjunctive and displaced relation to these works; we cannot accept them until we subject them to a lagging: both in the temporal sense of postcolonial agency with which you are now (over)familiar, and in the obscurer sense in which, in the early days of settler colonization, to be lagged was to be transported to the colonies for penal servitude!

In Foucault’s introduction to the History of Sexuality, racism emerges in the 19th century in the form of an historical retroversion that Foucault finally disavows. In the “modern” shift of power from the juridical politics of death to the biopolitics of life, race produces a historical temporality of interference, overlapping, and the displacement of sexuality. It is, for Foucault, the great historical irony of modernity that the Hitlerite annihilation of the Jews was carried out in the name of the archaic, premodern signs of race and sanguinity—the oneiric exaltation of blood, death, skin—rather than through the politics of sexuality. What is profoundly revealing is Foucault’s complicity with the logic of the “contemporaneous” within Western modernity. Characterizing the “symbolics of blood” as being retroverse, Foucault disavows the time lag of race as the sign of cultural difference and its mode of repetition.

The temporal disjunction that the “modern” question of race would introduce into the discourse of disciplinary and pastoral power is disallowed because of Foucault’s spatial critique: “we must conceptualize the deployment of sexuality on the basis of the techniques of power that are contemporary with it” (my emphasis).7 However subversive “blood” and race may be, they are in the last analysis merely an “historical retroversion.” Elsewhere Foucault directly links the “flamboyant rationality” of social Darwinism to Nazi ideology, entirely ignoring colonial societies which were the proving grounds for social Darwinist administrative discourses all through the 19th and early 20th centuries.8

If Foucault normalizes the time-lagged, “retroverse” sign of race, Benedict Anderson places the “modern” dreams of racism “outside history” altogether. For Foucault race and blood inter­fere with modern sexuality. For Anderson racism has its origins in antique ideologies of class that belong to the aristocratic “prehistory” of the modern nation. Race represents an archaic ahistorical moment outside the “modernity” of the imagined community: “nationalism thinks in historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations … outside history.”9 Foucault’s spatial notion of the conceptual contemporaneity of power as sexuality limits him from seeing the double and overdetermined structure of race and sexuality that has a long history in the peuplement (politics of settlement) of colonial societies; for Anderson the “modern” anomaly of racism finds its historical modularity, and its fantasmatic scenario, in the colonial space which is a belated and hybrid attempt to “weld together dynastic legitimacy and national community … to shore up domestic aristocratic bastions.”10 The racism of colonial empires is then part of an archaic acting out, a dream text of a form of historical retroversion that “appeared to confirm on a global, modern stage antique conceptions of power and privilege.”11 What could have been a way of understanding the limits of Western imperialist ideas of progress within the genealogy of a “colonial metropolis”—a hybridizing of the Western nation—is quickly disavowed in the language of the opéra bouffe as a grimly amusing tableau vivant of “the [colonial] bourgeois gentilhomme speaking poetry against a backcloth of spacious mansions and gardens filled with mimosa and bougainvillea.”12 It is in that “weld” of the colonial site as, contradictorily, both “dynastic and national,” that the modernity of Western national society is confronted by its colonial double. Such a moment of temporal disjunction, which would be crucial for understanding the colonial history of contemporary metropolitan racism in the West, is placed “outside history.” It is obscured by Anderson’s espousal of “a simultaneity across homogeneous empty time” as the modal narrative of the imagined community. It is this kind of evasion, I think, that makes Partha Chatterjee, the Indian “subaltern” scholar, suggest, from a different perspective, that Anderson “seals up his theme with a sociological determinism … without noticing the twists and turns, the suppressed possibilities, the contradictions still unresolved.”13

These accounts of the modernity of power and national community become strangely symptomatic at the point at which they create a rhetoric of “retroversion” for the emergence of racism. In placing the representations of race “outside” modernity, in the space of histor­ical retroversion, Foucault reinforces his “correlative spacing”; by relegating the social fantasy of racism to an archaic daydream, Anderson further universalizes his homogeneous empty time of the “modern” social imaginary. Hidden in the disavowing narrative of historical retro­version and its archaism, is a notion of the time lag that displaces Foucault’s spatial analytic of modernity and Anderson’s homogeneous temporality of the modern nation. In order to extract the one from the other we have to see how they form a double boundary: rather like the more general intervention and seizure of the history of modernity that has been attempted by postcolonial critics. Retroversion and archaic doubling, attributed to the ideological “contents” of racism, do not remain at the ideational or pedagogical level of the discourse. Their inscription of a structure of retroaction returns to disrupt the enunciative function of this discourse and produce a different “value” of the sign and time of race and modernity. At the level of content the archaism and fantasy of racism is represented as “ahistorical,” outside the progressive myth of modernity. This is an attempt, I would argue, to universalize the spatial fantasy of modern cultural communities as living their history “contemporaneously,” in a “homogeneous empty time” of the People-as-One that finally deprives minorities of those marginal, liminal spaces from which they can intervene in the unifying and totalizing myths of the national culture. However, each time such a homogeneity of cultural identification is established there is a marked disturbance of temporality in the writing of modernity. For Foucault it is the awareness that retroversion of race or sanguinity haunts and doubles the contemporary analytic of power and sexuality and may be subversive of it: we may need to think the disciplinary powers of race as sexuality in a hybrid cultural formation that will not be contained within Foucault’s logic of the contemporary. Anderson goes further in acknow­ledging that colonial racism introduces an awkward weld, a strange historical “suture,” in the narrative of the nation’s modernity. The archaism of colonial racism, as a form of cultural signifi­cation (rather than simply an ideological content), reactivates nothing less than the “primal scene” of the modern Western nation: that is, the problematic historical transition between dynastic, lineage societies and horizontal, homogeneous secular communities. What Anderson designates as racism’s “timelessness,” its location “outside history,” is in fact that form of time lag, a mode of repetition and reinscription, that performs the ambivalent historical temporality of modern national cultures—the aporetic coexistence, within the cultural history of the modern imagined community, of both the dynastic, hierarchical, prefigurative “medieval” traditions (the past), and the secular, homogeneous, synchronous cross-time of modernity (the present). Anderson resists a reading of the modern nation that suggests in an iterative time lag that the hybridity of the colonial space may provide a pertinent problematic within which to write the history of the “postmodern” national formations of the West.

To take this perspective would mean that we see “racism” not simply as a hangover from archaic conceptions of the aristocracy, but as part of the historical traditions of civic and liberal humanism that create ideological matrices of national aspiration, together with their concepts of “a people” and its imagined community. Such a privileging of ambivalence in the social imaginaries of nationness, and its forms of collective affiliation, would enable us to understand the coeval, often incommensurable tension between the influence of traditional “ethnicist” identifications that coexist with contemporary secular, modernizing aspirations. The enunciative “present” of modernity, that I am proposing, would provide political space to articulate and negotiate such culturally hybrid social identities. Questions of cultural difference would not be dismissed with a barely concealed racism—as atavistic “tribal” instincts that afflict Irish Catholics in Belfast or “Muslim fundamentalists” in Bradford. It is precisely such unresolved, transitional moments within the disjunctive present of modernity that are then projected into a time of historical retroversion or an inassimilable place outside history.

The history of modernity’s antique dreams is to be found in the writing out of the colonial and postcolonial moment. In resisting these attempts to normalize the time-lagged colonial moment, we may provide a genealogy for postmodernity that is at least as important as the “aporetic” history of the Sublime or the nightmare of rationality in Auschwitz. For colonial and postcolonial texts do not merely tell the modern history of “unequal development” or evoke memories of underdevelopment. I have tried to suggest that they provide modernity with a modular moment of enunciation: the locus and locution of cultures caught in the tran­sitional and disjunctive temporalities of modernity. What is in modernity more than modernity is the disjunctive “postcolonial” time and space that makes its presence felt at the level of enunciation. It figures, in an influential contemporary fictional instance, as the contingent margin between Toni Morrison’s indeterminate moment of the “not-there”—a “black” space that she distinguishes from the Western sense of synchronous tradition—which then turns into the “first stroke” of slave rememory, the time of communality and the narrative of a history of slavery. This translation of the meaning of time into the discourse of space; this catachrestic seizure of the signifying “caesura” of modernity’s presence and present; this insistence that power must be thought in the hybridity of race and sexuality; that nation must be reconceived liminally as the dynastic-in-the-democratic, race-difference doubling and splitting the teleology of class-consciousness: it is through these iterative interrogations and historical initiations that the cultural location of modernity shifts to the postcolonial site.


1 / Cyril Lionel Robert James, The Black Jacobins, Allison and Busby, London 1980, p. 290–291.

2 / Paul Gilroy, “One Nation under a Groove,” Anatomy of Racism, ed. D.T. Goldberg, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1980, p. 278.

3 / Cornel West, “Race and Social Theory: Toward a Genealogical Matrialist Analysis,” Toward a Rainbow Socialism, ed. M. Davis, M. Marable, F. Pfeil, M. Sprinker, Verso, London 1987, p. 86ff.

4 / Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, Macmillan, London 1990, p. 232–233.

5 / Gyan Prakash, “Post-Orientalist Third-World Histories,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32/1 (1990), p. 403.

6 / Robert Young in White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, Routledge, London and New York 1990, also suggests, in keeping with my argument that the colonial and postcolonial moment is the liminal point, or the limit-text, of the holistic demands of historicism.

7 / Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexuaité, Gallimard, Paris 1976.

8 / See Michel Foucault, Foucolt Live, trans. J. Johnstone, S. Lotringer, Semiotexte, New York 1989, p. 269.

9 / Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, London 1983, p. 136.

10 / Anderson, Imagined Communities.

11 / Ibid.

12 / Ibid.

13 / Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, Zed Books for United Nations University, London 1986, p. 21–22.


Homi K. Bhabha, “Race, Time and the Revision of Modernity,” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, H. Tiffin, Routledge, London and New York 2006, p. 219–223.