I've been trying to read Homi Bhabha's "DissemiNation" as if for the first time. I've been trying to come to it innocent, and yet it appears before me already read. I've been trying to forget that the nation is an unstable, ambivalent fiction, pedagogically consolidated and subject to performative contestation, so that I can encounter the argument anew. But how do you forget that which you don't remember learning? I was five in 1990; I don't know a nation prior to "DissemiNation."

"DissemiNation" was first collected in Nation and Narration, edited by Homi Bhabha and published by Routledge. In the essay and his editorial introduction to the volume, Bhabha follows Ernest Renan (in particular his 1882 "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?") and Benedict Anderson (in particular his 1983 Imagined Communities) in theorizing the nation as a "form of cultural elaboration" unfolding in time. The nation, Bhabha writes, is "a system of cultural signification" that must be understood "as it is written," "through its narrative address," as "a form of social and textual affiliation," and as "a narrative strategy."1 Importantly, the national narrative is not singular, and key to Bhabha's account (as well as the place where he most significantly departs from Anderson) is that the nation itself "opens up the possibility of other narratives of the people and their difference."2

There's an irony here. Nation and Narration includes fifteen other essays, including Doris Sommer's on "foundational fictions" and Timothy Brennan's on "the national longing for form," but it belongs, in the first and final instance, to Bhabha. Literally: "first and final." Bhabha's introduction on "narrating the nation" and "DissemiNation" bookend the rest. Reviewing Nation and Narration in 1992, Ian Baucom wrote that Bhabha as editor "contains the performativity of the work's various texts in much the same way as the hegemonies of the nation constrain the uncertainties of the people."3 It's a perfect line, not least because it explains how Bhabha overdetermined the legacy of the volume. Also, Baucom pithily captures Bhabha's primary insight: namely, that that the nation is characterized by a split between official (here: editorial) temporality and the time of the writing-people, between hegemony and uncertainty, between the first word and the final say.

Whereas Anderson's account hinges on an understanding of the national "meanwhile" which "gives the imagined world of the nation a sociological solidity,"4 Bhabha's nation consists of unstable and competing temporalities including the colonial, postcolonial, native, and modern. Bhabha's nation-people do not emerge as a solidity out of homogenous empty time, but rather out of subaltern temporalities "in a language of incommensurable doubleness that arises from the ambivalent splitting of the pedagogical and the performative."5 The nation is riven by the split between official discourse and that which resists it.

Translation: Bhabha's nation is not one. The nation is not what it says it is; nor, for that matter, are we who we think we are. We are not (we never were) the "great" nation that the American President exhorts his red-hatted followers to remake. We are not (we never were) the homogenous India to which the Hindutva Prime Minister urges his saffron-robed acolytes to return. We are all what Bhabha calls "the historical 'objects' of a nationalist pedagogy"; by that same token, we are "the 'subjects' of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence of the nation-people to demonstrate the prodigious, living principle of the people."6 We are dead objects and living subjects. We reside in textbooks and demonstrate on sidewalks. We are the people of the census: counted, uncounted, and those who don't count.

Bhabha appears to be riffing on the distinction between the constative (a speech-act that states or describes) and performative (a speech-act that does) from J. L. Austin's 1962 How to Do Things with Words. Bhabha doesn't cite Austin, nor have critics generally remarked on the influence, but to my mind, it's crucial because of the way in which Austin and Bhabha ultimately diverge. For Austin, there is no "constative" utterance that is not also performative. All speech-acts do; they inaugurate new contexts and are susceptible to what Austin terms "infelicities," including the possibility of being misheard, misunderstood, or misconstrued. By contrast, maintaining the distinction between the pedagogical and the performative is crucial for Bhabha because it underlies his politics. The whole point of Bhabha's performative is that it interrupts and subverts the pedagogy of the nation. Thus, Bhabha can claim that, "the margins of the nation displace the center; the peoples of the periphery return to rewrite the history and fiction of the metropolis.... The bastion of Englishness crumbles at the sight of immigrants and factory workers."7 Or, even more triumphantly, "The people will no longer be contained in that national discourse of the teleology of progress."8

In 2020, as COVID-19 spreads, as Trump tweets promises of war crimes and rages against the "foreign virus," as India and China institutionalize the oppression of Muslim minorities, as Australia burns, as Brexit takes hold, you'd be forgiven for finding Bhabha's politics of performativity dissatisfying. It was frankly dissatisfying to many readers upon first publication. "[It] takes a very modern, very affluent, very uprooted kind of intellectual to debunk both the idea of 'progress' and the sense of a 'long past,' not to speak of 'modernity' itself,'" Aijaz Ahmad wrote in 1992's In Theory.9 Arjun Appadurai, writing in 1993, included Nation and Narration in a list of Western academic works characterized by a "disturbing tendency...to divorce the study of discourse forms from the study of other institutional forms."10 Michael Sprinker, also in 1993, lamented Nation and Narration's almost total omission of Marxist debates on nationalism. In 2001, Neil Larsen read this omission as revealing a desire to cleanse "cultural nationalism of its historical [and] class determination[s]."11

What was suspected of Nation and Narration was suspected of its most famous essay, which is maybe why "DissemiNation" does not appear in the bibliographies of Lauren Berlant's The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (1997), Benedict Anderson's The Spectre of Comparisons (1998), Pheng Cheah's Spectral Nationality (2003), and Manisha Basu's The Rhetoric of Hindu India (2016), to name just a few well-known works on nationalism and literature published in the intervening years. It's the omission of Marxist debates. It's Bhabha's "metropolitan" fetishization of textual discursivity (a charge frequently leveled at postcolonial theory more generally12). It's the ambivalent, and some would say altogether too optimistic, politics of performativity.

But I also wonder if the trouble with Bhabha's "DissemiNation" is that we absorbed its lessons too quickly. It was easy to "learn" the pedagogical-performative distinction and apply it and then, it didn't change the world. I'm typing these words with the American newspaper of record open in the next browser window: enough said.

How do we channel Bhabha's exuberance about the abilities of migrants, postcolonial or otherwise, to rewrite the histories of the metropolis, never mind the nation-state more generally, when faced with resurgent state power? To elaborate just one example, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed in India in December 2019 abandons the secular principles of the nation's Constitution for a vision of citizenship predicated on religion. Along with the National Register of Citizens, the CAA is widely understood to be an effort to delegitimize Indian Muslims by providing a pathway to Indian citizenship for religious minorities from surrounding countries Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan; notably, this excludes Muslims, even those who are being persecuted, like the Rohingya in Myanmar. Since its passage, tens of thousands have protested the CAA around India and the world. Protestors have been assaulted, jailed, killed. Students have been attacked while exercising free speech on their campuses. At Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, demonstrators counter the Bharatiya Janata Party's fiction of "amending citizenship" with a reinterpretation of the acronym, CAA: "Communal Arbitrary Act."13 Performative rewriting? A narrative strategy? In February 2020, coinciding with President Trump's visit to India, Hindu mobs in Delhi attacked Muslim communities; the Indian police stood by; over two dozen people were killed; at the time of this writing, that number is going up.14

It's hard to keep faith with what Bhabha termed the nation's "disjunctive narrative." By that same token, crises like the CAA confirm the ongoing urgency of thinking and rewriting the nation even after its seeming eclipse by rubrics like the transnational, the world, the planetary, and the Anthropocene. The globalization theory of the early 1990s might read today as outmoded, as Hadji Bakara writes in his entry for this cluster, but theories of the nation are more vital than ever in the era of plainly resurgent nationalisms. (And I wrote this before COVID-19 ground life in the United States to a halt, before the travel bans and regional quarantines around the world, before Viktor Orbán of Hungary began to rule by decree, before). The trouble is, critiques of nationalism in the early 1990s were predominantly issued by postcolonial theorists, and, as Monika Bhagat-Kennedy recently argued, "scholars are being asked to be more global just as the world has become more national in its orientation" because of ongoing resistance to the postcolonial.15

From the vantage of 2020, Bhabha's "DissemiNation" appears caught in the crosshairs of resistance to performativity and the postcolonial, on the one hand, and exhaustion with "theory" and discourse analysis, on the other. Bhabha is the kind of 1990s theorist we are supposed to have gotten over by now. All those unruly citations (Fanon and Freud, Lyotard and Lévi-Strauss, Bakhtin and Goethe and Althusser and Foucault and Said and Kristeva...!). All that hopeful deconstruction. The promise of hybridity. The possibility of subversion. As if the "problem of knowledge"16 that was the problem of figuring the nation-people could be solved. As if we could read or write our way out of it.

Might we though? Might we still? What would we gain if we could retrieve the "knowledge of what we already know,"17 not to retrospectively congratulate ourselves for theoretical nuance, nor to belatedly flagellate ourselves for theoretical obfuscation, and not to marvel at the resemblance of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad present to the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad past, but rather, still, to write the nation's margins otherwise? In the thirty years since "DissemiNation," we have come to doubt the world-historical efficacy of discourse analysis, the significance of literary signification, and the power of the word but, I think, for the wrong reasons. What if Bhabha like Jacques Derrida, from whom he borrowed, with a difference, the title "DissemiNation" had followed Austin's speech-act theory all the way to its conclusion, and ultimately revised the pedagogical-performative distinction by collapsing it? On the one hand, Bhabha takes care to note that "the marginal or 'minority' is not the space of a celebratory, or Utopian, self-marginalization"; on the other hand, he insists that it counters the "authoritarian, 'normalizing' tendencies" within official national cultures.18 The strict binarism of pedagogical and performative ultimately hamstrings the force of the latter. What if Bhabha had ended with the recognition of the performativity of normalization, over and above the performative gathering of fragments? What if he offered the renewed understanding that "the problematic totalization of the national will"19 itself functions through the translation of differences into coercive alliances?

We need to take closer notes on the performativity of the pedagogical at the nation's frontiers. Beyond hailing what Bhabha called the "unspoken tradition[s]" of "colonials, postcolonials, migrants, minorities...who will not be contained" within the "unisonant discourse"20 of the nation, we need to speak those traditions, and hear them. What we need is less subversion and more persuasion. Less disruption, more renewed solidarity. Less repetition with a difference and more pedagogy of difference. The problem posed by the nation was never simply power. The problem is whose.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is Assistant Professor of English and Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory at the University of Arizona.


  1. Homi Bhabha, "Introduction: narrating the nation," Nation and Narration, ed. Homi Bhabha (Routledge, 1990), 2-3.[]
  2. Homi Bhabha,"DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation," Nation and Narration (Routledge, 1990), 292, 300.[]
  3. Ian Baucom, "Narrating the Nation," Transition, no. 55 (1992): 152.[]
  4. Bhabha, "DissemiNation," 308.[]
  5. Ibid., 309.[]
  6. Ibid., 297.[]
  7. Bhabha, "Introduction," 6.[]
  8. Bhabha, "DissemiNation," 302.[]
  9. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures (Verso, 1992), 68.[]
  10. Arjun Appadurai, "Patriotism and its Futures," Public Culture, no. 5 (1993): 412.[]
  11. Neil Larsen, Determinations: Essays on Theory, Narrative and Nation in the Americas (Verso, 2001), 42-43.[]
  12. For example, Leela Gandhi writes, "[T]he obligatory subversiveness of postcolonial literature is seriously limited by the nation of 'textual politics' favoured by postcolonial literary theory. In a move which effectively replaces politics with textuality, such theory delivers a world where power is exclusively an operation of discourse, and resistance a literary contest of representation" (156). See Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).[]
  13. Mustafa Quraishi and Appu Ajith, "Standing Their Ground: Documenting the daily resistance at Shaheen Bagh," The Caravan, January 31, 2020.[]
  14. Jeffrey Gettleman, Sameer Yasir, Suhasini Raj and Hari Kumar, "How Delhi's Police Turned Against Muslims," The New York Times, March 12, 2020.[]
  15. Monika Bhagat-Kennedy, "Nation After World: Rethinking 'The End of Postcolonial Theory,'" Interventions 20, no. 3 (2018).[]
  16. Bhabha, "DissemiNation," 297.[]
  17. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003): 124.[]
  18. Bhabha, "Introduction," 4.[]
  19. Bhabha, "DissemiNation," 311.[]
  20. Ibid., 315.[]