The Right to Narrate

Homi K. Bhabha

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The arts and humanities contribute to the process of cultural translation by propagating and protecting what I call the “right to narrate”—the authority to tell stories, recount or recast histories, that create the web of social life and change the direction of its flow. The right to narrate is not simply a linguistic act; it is also a metaphor for the fundamental human interest in freedom itself, the right to be heard—to be recognized and represented. When I use the term “narrative,” I do not mean to make a generic distinction between, say, novelistic narration, drama, and lyric. I use it more generally to signify an act of communication through which the recounting of themes, histories, and records, is part of a dialogical process that reveals the transformation of human agency.

What I mean by narration is close to Hannah Arendt’s conception of action and speech in The Human Condition: “Action and speech go on between men, as they are directed toward them, and they retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively ‘objective,’ concerned with the matters of the world of things.” Thus, narrative as communicative action is concerned with “something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together.” Such a “right” is not merely a legal, procedural matter; it is also a matter of aesthetic and ethical form. Freedom of expression is an individual right; the right to narrate, if you will, is an enunciative right—the dialogic right to address and be addressed, to signify and be interpreted, to speak and be heard, to make a sign and to know that it will receive respectful attention.

An enunciative right somehow assumes the right of reply, and the responsibility of replay, response, revision. I have seen the right to narrate inhabit a hesitant brushstroke, a gesture that fixes a dance movement, or an arresting camera angle. Suddenly, in painting, dance, or cinema you renew your very senses of personhood and perspective, and understand something profound about yourself, about your historical moment, about what gives value to a life lived in a particular town, at a particular time, in particular social and political conditions. The right to narrate would support claims to communal and communicative performances or receptions of testimony, storytelling, discourse, or textuality that ensure the just reception and recordation of intercultural conversations. The demand for narrative is made in the shadow of the transformative and translational conditions of historical change; it is to give authority to those speech-acts that are made under pressure, those disturbed and disrupted dialogues of humankind.

Narrative is a sign of civic life. Societies that turn their backs on this right are societies of deafening silence: authoritarian nations, police states, xenophobic cultures. When you fail to protect the right to narrate you risk filling the silence with sirens, megaphones, hectoring voices carried by loudspeakers or from towering podiums. To allow such walls of silence to be built in our midsts and our minds is to live in their shadows long after they have been torn down. We are compelled to return to the silent killing fields of the past and the present—be it colonization, partition, apartheid, the Holocaust; or Vietnam, Palestine, Ayodhya, Afghanistan, Berlin, South Africa, Rwanda—to try and give voice to those who were silenced. However sincere our spirit of reconstruction and reparation, however earnest our instinct for truth and reconciliation, the specters of these events haunt our lives like voids that we can never, retrospectively, endow with the right to narrate.

Homi K. Bhabha is the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous works exploring postcolonial theory, cultural change and power, and cosmopolitanism, among other themes. His book The Right to Narrate is forthcoming.