Hybridity and ‘Time Lag’: Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People

In “Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite”, Emmanuel Levinas asserts that the driving force behind Western thought from Socrates to the present day has been the desire to produce a context within which Western ‘thinking beings’ can feel free from the disturbance of difference and alienation; a context in which they can feel always at home in the world. Levinas describes the idea behind the production of such a context as ‘the Philosophy of the Same’ in which freedom is not defined in terms of heterogeneity and the capacity to accommodate diversity but rather in terms of monology and the capacity to resist diversity. This interiorised or narcissistic focus, which Levinas (borrowing from Husserl) calls an egology, eschews the external encounter with otherness (and the experience of shock and displacement which it entails), preferring instead to “dissolve the other’s alterity” into “the network of a priori ideas, which I bring to bear so as to capture it” (97). This approach to difference is typically achieved (or at least, maintained) by the avoidance or the circumvention of proximity with the other and through the premature closure of dialogue. Homi Bhabha asserts, inverting Levinas’s conception, that ‘emergent cultural identifications’ (“The Postcolonial” 178-179) are formed through proximity, at the edges of identity and at the moment of the erasure of binary oppositions. This conception of a momentary erasure of difference and cultural clash is described by Bhabha as ‘time lag’, a brief interruption or break in the influence of dominant discourse (the discourse of the same) which exposes the subject to the subversive effects of alterity (the discourse of the other). What ‘time lag’ might mean in terms of human experience and the outcomes of this experience on emergent or hybrid human identity will be explored in this paper through the cross-cultural encounters of Nadine Gordimer’s South African novel, July’s People.

Epistemic control: the Other as Diversity The contemporary shifts in theory away from the concept of presence or centrality (the existence of transcendent signifieds) and toward the theorisation of dispersal and diversity have given the appearance of providing greater cross-cultural interaction while, in fact, continuing to maintain control over the definition of cultural discourses. Bhabha describes the postmodern adaptation to the postcolonial shift in the relations of power as “epistemological” (177-178). The epistemological represents for Bhabha the development of strategies for the control and containment of otherness adapted to the ethical requirements of liberalism and the interrogations of postmodernity.

2. a contemporary adaptation to the movement of history and modern thought. As Bhabha suggests. represents a shift toward a more agonistic and negotiated response to alterity. “through the concept of cultural difference” we are able to “recognise that the . (178) In this form the other is perceived as an alternative other. Enunciative Practices: The Other as Difference The enunciative. Thus. in the description of elements as they tend towards totality. The difficulty of maintaining dominance in the context of postmodern dispersion is overcome by separating diversity into self-contained epistemologies which never need to (or are allowed to) interact with each other and which the centre is able to theorise rather than directly engage. another Symbolic Order that both subverts and augments the values of the self. held in a time-frame of relativism it gives rise to liberal notions of multiculturalism. Bhabha suggests. on the other hand. in this regard. In his article “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern”.According to this approach. but always within the confines of the ever-expanding scope of Western epistemology By this means the appearance of tolerance is achieved and the threat of cultural difference is defused. that “cultural diversity is the recognition of pre-given cultural contents and customs. Bhabha attempts to broadly define the meanings that he attaches to these terms: The epistemological is locked into the hermeneutic circle. The enunciative is a more dialogic process that attempts to track displacements and realignments that are the effects of cultural antagonisms and articulations subverting the rationale of the hegemonic movement and relocating alternative. Western cultural / political dominance is [re]asserted by the containing effects of liberal tolerance that allow space for diversity. which permits the West to once more sidestep the challenge of negotiating a maturing otherness. hybrid sites of cultural negotiation. This containment of the threat of difference within the boundaries of the definable and ‘studyable’ paradigms of a celebrated diversity represents a new strategy. It is an alterity which is separated from the West. but as an alternative to Western identity it is also the site of potential disruption and alienation. diversity is celebrated while remaining the subject of Western observation and definition. This strategy Bhabha describes as the sublation of difference. cultural exchange or the culture of humanity “ (34).

The final prerequisite of such interaction is what Wilson Harris called “material change”. This is Bhabha’s enunciative which should not be seen as a product of the theorisation or thematisation of discourse but rather as the outcome of encounter. in fact. or discursive level. a willingness to concede the relative and culturally contingent nature of meaning. In the course of examining July’s People from Bhabha’s theoretical perspective. The second is a stress on the value of proximity or social engagement with the other. Harris asserts that because of the cultural and psychological displacement. where meaning and values are (mis)read or signs are misappropriated” (“The Commitment to Theory” 34). I will suggest that three features or prerequisites are. Into this conception of enunciatory engagement Bhabha introduces the idea of ‘time lag’ as a necessary phase of liminal or metonymic engagement with otherness. This is a shift to the surface. and the enormous threat to self-identity that accompanies such an interaction. This shift toward enunciatory space introduces a multiplicity of alternative cultural meanings and temporalities into the region of contestation and negotiation where cross-cultural alterities actually meet. and with it the possibility of negotiated outcomes. More than a theoretical deconstruction of the ‘authentic’. This refers to the motivation or sense of necessity that makes us willing to enter the space of acute disorientation that occurs in the context of cross-cultural openness. indispensable to the experience of a genuine negotiation of cultural alterity not only because they realign the understanding and appreciation of otherness but also have the capacity to contribute to the deconstruction of one’s own sense of cultural authenticity and that one of these prerequisites is time lag. of meaning production (from the site of substitutive metaphor to contiguous metonymy) which provides a looser. The first prerequisite is a recognition of cultural meaning as an outcome of social production and construction rather than the epistemological / metaphoric assertion of a priori principle. it rarely occurs outside the context of extreme material pressure. Material . more relative context for cross-cultural interaction. An essential ingredient of ‘time lag’ experience is proximity which ties in with the Levinasian conception of genuine engagement as an encounter with the ‘face of the other’( ). According to this view the enunciatory might be said to be metonymic or contiguous as opposed to the epistemological which could be designated as metaphoric and substitutionary. which requires an often agonistic interaction at the borders of difference.problem of cultural interaction emerges only at the significatory boundaries of cultures. in other words. proximal engagement generates a genuine space and experience of alienation and re-engagement (which are key components of ‘time lag’).

or renegotiation of meaning. but not yet Arab either.E. as is more often the case. (Emphasis added. Lawrence had entered “the boredom and the horror of two worlds: a community in which a transforming new vision (however dark and tortuous) is alive to redress the balance of the old. Yet in this early stage of disorientation no redress. Lawrence’s intimate relations with the Arabs and “his effort to imitate the Arab mentality” (148). is intended to describe the pressure derived from altered material circumstances or an inescapable cultural context which necessitates the negotiation of difference or. Maureen. Spurr describes Lawrence’s experiences as the occupation of a terrifying in-between state. “sometimes those selves would converse in the void: and then madness was very near. Lawrence’s entrance into the insecure space between reigns and identities has something of Gramsci’s quality of the interregnum in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. For Marlow it is a passage into “the dream sensation that pervaded all my days at that time” (105). is possible (or even conceivable). In Heart of Darkness both Marlow and Kurtz. among other texts. only the displacement of certainties and the intervention of metonymic alternatives. enter this space between identity and alienation to differing degrees. as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T. the . in journeying toward the ‘darkness’. according to Spurr. no longer English. as textual enactments of this process. results in the decision to withdraw from it by imposing premature closure. This absence of any firm identity takes the form of a split in which his “reasonable mind” looks critically upon the actions of his bodily self . Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. two educators. 148-149) In Wilson Harris’s words. a subjective weightlessness that caused him to drift dangerously close to the madness that had already claimed Kurtz. in which the foundations of reality and the motives for action suddenly lose their meaning. Spurr cites.” (24).change. produced a bifurcation of his identity in which he entered an intermediate zone in relation to his own sense of self. Lawrence writes of this experience in terms that approximate Bhabha’s conception of the initial experience of ‘time lag’: “I had dropped one form and not taken on the other” (148). ‘Time Lag’: Ceasing and Seizing / Unpicking and Re-linking A useful literary exploration of this conception of cultural engagement is found in David Spurr’s The Rhetoric of Empire under the heading “insubstantialization”. therefore. two environments”.

a zone of symbolic agonism which momentarily circumvents the repression of otherness.1 Gordimer inverts the roles of servant and master within the village context without initially changing the relationship behind those roles. July’s People. hybrid identities. Within this discursive space the metonymic is multiplied and the metaphoric diminished. of course. The approach taken by Gordimer’s novel reflects this stress on the value of liminality. This “time lag” represents a type of discursive absence. Thus the old attitudes continue into a context in which they make no sense.central character in Gordimer’s July’s People. in fact. Gordimer sets up this social reversal in order to explore the reactions and interactions of the participants as their identities unravel in the face of extreme cultural and ‘material change’. For Bam it is the loss of the symbols of his authority that cause him to feel the terror of his cultural displacement and loss of identity. July’s gradual appropriation of the car and the theft of the gun. and are being sheltered in his village.2 Maureen. as a “third locus which is neither my speech nor my interlocutor”(173 ). on the other hand. in the cross-cultural context. centres on a white South African family (Bam and Maureen Smales and their three children) who have escaped from Johannesburg during the long-expected black uprising with the help of their servant. the momentary displacement of metaphoric signification can. as the space between Symbolic Orders or cultures. As the prolonged nature of their exile becomes more real through the heightening agitation of the white South African radio broadcasts (and even more ominous when the broadcasts disappear from the air waves altogether). July. described by Lacan. Bam becomes progressively incapable of dealing with the extreme demands of cultural shift and gradually retreats into total closure in relation to his surroundings and his family. in The Location of Culture. 1 2 These narrative events are. be highly productive of meaningful cross-cultural outcomes if the typical tendency to impose premature closure is resisted. however. . He argues that the experience of this discursive fracture represents a “more complex possibility of negotiating meaning and agency through the time-lag” (183). set in (and written during) the period of white apartheid rule. The question that this raises is whether such an experience of disorientation can be productive of useful cross-cultural outcomes? Normally the experience of ‘culture shock’ is seen as a negative and ineffectual instance of cross-cultural encounter. of cross-cultural agonism and displacement in the production of new. in another context. enters a similar zone of displacement between cultures. Bhabha. suggests that the silencing in the “enunciatory present”. It is a disjunction which could be described. July suddenly finds himself the host and provider for this white family and they his dependents. particularly.

Maureen begins to see her past attitudes reflected back to her through July’s eyes. She has never been required by material circumstances into the exposure and negotiation of her own . or deferral of. As July begins to challenge her assumptions concerning their past and present relationship Maureen is gradually made conscious of the tremendous reversal in the balance of power and dependence that has been brought about by the black uprising. This further unsettles the foundations upon which she has so long rested the axiology of her existence. regarded her own as definitive) depended on validities staked on a belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings. essential values. In order to avoid the implications that her treatment of July and her involvement in anti-apartheid causes represents little more than a camouflage of underlying paternalism. without any apparent sense of guilt. built up over generations.seems determined. has been allowed to engage with alterity according to the much gentler and selective rhythm of the coloniser. which she had thought of as culturally universal. and her troubled relationship with July. like anyone else. . When she observes the way in which July maintains two wives. at the heart of her novel. in the face of this extreme disorientation. July has long ago traversed the space into the hybridised identity he has become. Eventually. after a series of incidents involving July. If people don’t all experience emotional satisfaction and deprivation in the same way. the crisis is also associated with a challenge to her sense of the truth of fundamental human relationships. Maureen has always considered herself liberal and progressive in her treatment of July and has tried to encourage him to think of himself as their employee rather than their servant. she is forced to reassess her understanding of relational morality. is new to Maureen and therefore deeply disorienting. (65) This transition across resistance. The humane creed (Maureen. one in the city and the other in his village. she returns to confront July on three separate occasions. Driven from his tribal home into Johannesburg he had been confronted by the “material change” of colonisation and therein been forced to negotiate otherness and the subversion of his own cultural authenticity long before. Maureen. the challenge to. to reveal the complex nuances of alterity and hegemony. Gordimer places the character of Maureen. what claim can there be for equality of need? There was fear and danger in considering this emotional absolute as open in any way. . on the other hand. For Maureen. to persist in negotiating the challenges to her values and identity in order to retain a sense of personal integrity and meaning. The ongoing exposure to Maureen of her attempts to hide the truth of their relationship behind a morally acceptable veneer exemplifies the writer’s attempt to peel back the seemingly endless layers of self-deception and cultural misinterpretation.

at the same time. When the Chief suggests that Bam should teach them to fight against the black rebellion (which he sees in tribal rather nationalistic terms) by getting Bam to show them how to shoot with his gun. thrust into this new and seemingly inescapable context.146) Faced by this dissipation of the discourse upon which she had relied for meaning. Bam remonstrates with the Chief You’re not going to shoot your own people. Paris. of an alterity which can. You wouldn’t kill blacks.” (Emphasis added p. the fixing of the other into an acceptable and laudable diversity. Mandela’s people… (Would they have forgotten Luthuli? heard of Biko? Not of their ‘nation’ although he was famous in New York and Stockholm. she begins to recognise that the language of political correctness (of racial equality and the rejection of white hegemony) which had once seemed to her to be an enunciation her tolerance has had less to do with defending the rights of black Africans than with protecting herself against bad conscience. it came lamenting. if I hurt your dignity. searching from their whole life across the silent bush in which they had fallen from the fabric of that life as loose buttons drop and are lost. Now. In this liminal context. her attempts to conceal (from herself and the other) racist and hegemonic predilections. who she refers to in the last part of the novel as the “blond man” . to justify her position to July (“If I offended you. and fails. (146) Maureen was hearing Bam say “what he and she had always said. if what I thought was my friendliness. are you? … The whole black nation is your nation. London and Moscow) -You’re not going to take guns and help the white government kill blacks. Bam and Maureen’s idealised construction of black South African aspirations and identity is thrown out of kilter. In the face of this otherness she is confronted by the look. Maureen begins to lose her bearings and with this loses the power to speak meaningfully3: 3 She no longer even has a name for her husband. is denied her as a means of rationalisation or re-orientation.cultural “absolutes” (while. the returning gaze. she has maintained good conscience by celebrating and championing its diverse existence). refuse to submit to her discursive dominance. are gradually exposed. “material change” has forced her into a proximity with the other which begins to challenge and distort her own sense of cultural certainty. 'I know I don’t know') her liberal espousals of tolerance. in the context of material change. the feeling I had for you-if that hurt your feelings'. When she tries. Even her liberal construction of the idealised identity of the other.

at the threshold of cross-cultural encounter a discursive lull. by the encounter with alternate subjectivities “the sign ceases the synchronous flow of the symbol.eluding resemblance . It is the second and final stage of ‘relinking’ or ‘seizing’ that is required in order to complete the work of ‘time lag’.new and hybrid agencies and articulations” (emphasis added 191-192).produces a subversive strategy of subaltern agency . The essential nature of both the ‘ceasing’ and the ‘seizing’ in the process of making new and hybrid cross-cultural meanings is stressed in Bhabha’s work.through the time lag . opens up for Maureen.. (170) Thus. signification can only be retrospectively applied to describe the inarticulation of experience and the altered perceptions that have resulted. Maureen is exposed to the possibility of negotiation with alterity and her sense of identity is made porous to the flow of hybrid articulations. Bhabha writes “we identify ourselves with the other precisely at a point at which he is inimitable.. Bhabha describes this moment as: The time between the event of the sign…and its discursive eventuality (writing aloud) which exemplifies a process where intentionality is negotiated retrospectively. this liminal moment of identification . but this must occur later. not the meaning of the language” (180) causes us to resist the propensity for closure. Such a discursive interruption in the Western monologue of domination is described by Bhabha as a “temporal break in representation”(“The Postcolonial” 183) where the substitutionary power of the Western metaphor is emptied of its weight (its ability to crush alterity) and the supplementarity of an alien metonymic is momentarily privileged. because change or cultural emergence is always silenced at the moment that such change occurs. “an indeterminate articulation” (179). since the first morning she had become conscious in the hut she had regained no established point of a continuing present from which to recognize her own sequence. in these terms. represents a temporal space in which ‘the articulation of the tongue. This happens because the inability to speak or name the other is the central condition for the negotiation of alterity. (as it did for Lawrence and Marlow) which is not dominated by the repressive metaphors of cultural value but in fact goes “beyond theory” (Bhabha). It is only in the moment after. ‘Time lag’. is “outside the sentence” (Barthes). We are able to enter into the experience of the other only at that intersection at which we cease to be able to speak about or position him. it also seizes the power to elaborate . In this break in the symbolic order.She was not in possession of any part of her life… The background had fallen away. As Bhabha explains. that the hybrid outcome can be spoken or written aloud (184). at the point which eludes resemblance” (184). Within this space in which the subject is cut adrift from the world of ‘truth’ (the stability of the symbolic order).

transl. the edges of cultural identity are loosened." New Formations 5 (Summer 1988): 5-23. ---. Lacan. This is Bhabha’s conception of a relinking which generates a liminal hybridity." Redrawing the Boundary of Literary Study in English. can be re-entangled in an emergent hybridity. Tradition. by Alan Sheridan. questions upon which she will reflect in retrospect. the Writer and Society: Critical Essays. "The Commitment to Theory. 1992. Gordimer. and subsequently. Annette Lavers. Norton. London: New Beacon Publications.that negotiates its own authority through a process of iterative ‘unpicking’ and incommensurable insurgent ‘relinking’. when Maureen hears the sound of a helicopter. it is only later with the reemergence of the signifier (the re-immersion into the symbolic order) that meaning can be made of this experience retrospectively. References Barthes. trans. J. Homi K. 1994.W. In the closing section of the narrative. New York: W. 1977. in the moment at which the signifier is reintroduced. London: Jonathan Cape. Harris. W. ---. 1981. Bhabha. Ed. 1967. Giles Gunn and Stephen Greenblatt. the indeterminacy of the voice of cultural certainty at the point of encounter with an ‘alternate egology’ (a legitimate other). a metonymically altered ego. . Écrits: A Selection. she flees from otherness (forgetting even her husband and children) in order to escape the abyss of disorientation and alienation into which she has fallen. "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: The Question of Agency. N. London: Routledge. The period prior to production of the signifier represents a ‘negotiating space’ in which the other is approached. The Location of Culture. Roland (1988). By this means closure is deferred (due to the lack of a suitable signifier) until the moment of discursive repetition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America. Thus. July’s People. but not before she has entered into a dialogue of inarticulation which has left deep questions within her about her cultural values and the foundations upon which they were based. (emphasis added 183-5) This ‘unpicking’ emerges out of the experience of silence. Mythologies. New York: Noonday.

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