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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

March 27, 2019: NeMLA 2019 Recaps: Homi Bhabha

[This past week we held the 50th Anniversary NeMLA Convention in Washington, DC. It was a great time as ever, and this week I’ll highlight a few of the many standout moments and conversations for me. Lemme know if you’d like to hear or chat more about the NeMLA Board, the American Area, next year’s convention in Boston, or anything else!]
On three stand-out phrases from Homi Bhabha’s bracing and inspiring keynote address.
1)      Disappointed hope: The central focus of Bhabha’s talk was a reimagining of our current moment’s unfolding histories of migration and displacement, and his recurring image and phrase for those histories was “disappointed hope” (or, as he put it in one moment, “migration holds hope hostage”). Although of course the emphasis on disappointment is tough for this critical optimist (and advocate of hard-won hope) to hear, the phrase also reflects a key tenet of Bhabha’s talk and his current projects: his argument for the vital need of making the humanity and desires of migrants (rather than false worries about “crisis”) central to our responses and policies. So even if we see their hopes as disappointed or held hostage, we are nonetheless focusing on the hopes and perspectives that motivate these individuals and communities, and working to imagine solidarity based (as Bhabha argued throughout) on a recognition of their alterity to our own situation yet a concurrent empathy with their situation.
2)      Concentration and internment camps: The principal voice with which Bhabha put his own in conversation throughout the talk was Hannah Arendt. That included a key thread about her concept of “the banality of evil” as it appears in our own era, among many other engagements with Arendt’s ideas and arguments. Those engagements also meant that Bhabha was able to use both Arendt’s voice and her world (especially that of World War II) to further develop his own perspective on the 21st century world and its challenges, however. And in one particular phrase, which I believe was partly echoing Arendt’s words but also extending them with Bhabha’s own perspective, he connected the 1940s to our own moment pitch-perfectly: describing a world in which those defined as “other” are put in “concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.” All too terribly true.
3)      Despair and Repair: As those first two items illustrate, Bhabha’s talk was, as I put it above and to say the least, bracing in its consistent engagement with some of the darkest moments and elements of our world, past and present. “I dwell in despair,” he put it succinctly and accurately at one point. Yet he followed that phrase with a recognition that he is “mindful of the need for repair,” and I can’t imagine a more concise duality through which to express my own goals of highlighting the darkest histories but working toward the light. As Hannah Arendt herself once put it, “In dark times [a phrase she used consistently to describe her epoch], we search for courage.” Indeed we do—and as I’ve argued at length, we cannot find such courage by eliding or ignoring the darkness, but rather through and beyond it. While that means I might quibble a bit with Bhabha’s use of “dwell,” I certainly recognize the need to acknowledge and engage with our despair—and then to work together on the vital need and goal of repair. I can think of few talks I’ve ever heard that made the case for each element of that equation more eloquently than did Homi Bhabha’s NeMLA 2019 keynote address.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. NeMLA reflections to share?

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