“Nnyem mmíri” “Yamiri”: Locating Time in Signification
(A Critical Response to Homi K. Bhabha’s The Commitment to Theory)
“The enunciative process introduces a spilt in the performative present of cultural identification; a split between the traditional culturalist demand for a model…a stable system of reference.”
-Homi K. Bhabha The Commitment to Theory (35)
In The Commitment to Theory, Bhabha questions the role of theory. He first asserts that he is speaking of ‘Western’ theory, then goes on to ask ; “Is the language of theory merely another power ploy of the culturally privileged Western elite to produce of the Other that reinforces its own power-knowledge equation?” (20) Bhabha asserts the West (and Western Theory) have become the stage for exhibition, “place of judgment” and also ‘market-place’ (21) for even counter-cultural events. Bhabha then asks “..what the function of a committed theoretical perspective might be, once the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world is taken as the paradigmatic place of departure.” (21) He also addresses the implied opposition of theory to politics. In this, he quotes Mill’s writing on cultural politics as an example of the political view of a ‘whole truth’ that is possible and attainable if one is open to the mental position of the opponent – in this case, the colonial turned post-colonial. Challenging this Bhabha uses an agnostic argument about the unknowable quality of ‘truth’. And most importantly, locates time in the signification of Otherness.
Bhabha’s introduction of time to the signifier/signified relationship summarily ruptures it. The act of signifying is one of violence as it cripples the signified into quiescence at the moment of signification. When speaking of the Other, all text utilized in labeling the Otherness are exempt of vicissitude and remain differentiated by boundaries. Bhabha uses an illustration of a worker-woman-mother who negotiates the texts set around her. I wish to add the further illustration of a term - ‘Yamari’ - utilized by Hausa Nigerians to speak amongst themselves of Igbo Nigerians. It is a phonetic interpretation of the utterance of an Igbo phrase “Nnyem mmíri” meaning “Give me water.” Coined by Hausa soldiers during the Nigerian civil war, this term was a signifier of the destitute situation of Igbos trapped behind enemy lines in the desert landscape of northern Nigeria. But, the re-utterance of the phrase, coupled with the loss in its translation and the passage of time, borne the term ‘Yamari’ into Nigerian lexicon as an adjective for ‘Igbo’.
Bhabha introduces Foucault’s concept of ‘repeatable materiality’ as “…the process by which statements from one institution can be transcribed in the discourse of another…any change in the statement’s condition of use… any alteration in its field of experience or verification… can lead to the emergence of a new statement: the difference of the same.(22)” Time has developed theory and is its most obvious vicissitudal factor, and the delineating quality of ‘repeatable materiality’. Although signifier might remain the same, the signified will not, nor the utterance. In the case of ‘Yamari’, even the signifier is false as it is based on an improper interpretation of the utterance of a different signifier. With this is mind; I ask “What is the function for cultural signifiers in a mutable world?”