Threshold Thinking: Where Is the Third World?

Homi K. Bhabha

Globalization, driven by the priorities of financial markets and political majoritarianism, deploys new technologies to encompass those parts of the world that gravitate toward power and privilege—be it in the North or the South. Outside these enclaves lie those who resist the mimetic lure of global accumulation and appropriation; in most cases, their local histories and political circumstances do not permit them to compete for globalization’s glittering prizes. These peoples and countries remain, three-quarters of a century later, the wretched of the earth. Where once the Third World was a challenging call to fight global inequality and injustice—a call to solidarity in the cause of planetary transformation and the redistribution of the balance of power—today, there is callous contempt for “shithole countries” and a peremptory dismissal of “failed states.” In Globalization and Its Discontent (2002), Joseph Stiglitz warned us of the ravaging effects of “free-market fundamentalism,” which, a decade later, has brought in its wake a rash of related fundamentalisms that fester on the global body politic: religious fundamentalism, populist fundamentalism, and xenophobic fundamentalism. Stiglitz reminds us that the IMF’s imposition of “conditionalities” on loan-making to poor countries results in a kind of neocolonial world making. It is invariably justified as establishing free markets, individual freedoms, and economic development in the interests of the “world community.”

The binary opposition between First World and Third World, despite its polarities and pitfalls, generates a dialectical discourse with stakes in an international debate about the definition and distribution of “public goods.” Do universal goods, with their normative implications, disavow “foreign” cultural values and disregard historical differences in favor of First World priorities? Or, in Amartya Sen’s language, should global public goods be construed as “capabilities” tailored to the complex and diverse needs of specific lives? In the context of the Cold War, this dialectical discourse faced postcolonial countries with difficult “international” choices—Which side are you on?—as Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Nonetheless, the dialectical struggle inherent in the project of the Third World represented a conflict of goals and values signified in “contradictions” of contested beliefs and antagonistic economic models.

Today, the dialectical tension associated with the concept of the Third World has given way to a global bipolar dynamic consisting of sectoral profitability, selective connectivity, and accelerated networks of algorithmic advances. Profound asymmetries in opportunity and equality are portrayed as anachronistic problems of parts of the world that resist “coming up to speed” with the global agenda. I am reminded of the truth of Fanon’s riposte to the Eurocentric demand that the Third World should adopt Western paradigms of development: “No, we don’t not want to catch up with anyone.”[1] As the global juggernaut speeds past, the severity of the discontents of globalization are diminished in scale and rapidly disappear in the rearview mirror.

In such a world, the speed of neoliberal capitalist exploitation and expansion generates a narrative of progress invested in networked oases of accumulation and disruptive innovation (to use the business school jargon) that treat the rest of the world as a global wasteland. The endemic and recurrent problems of global justice, global health, global climate change, and global migration somehow slip through these networked chains of neoliberal command. They are looked upon with disdain as anachronistic “works in progress” left over from another time. If the accelerated speed of command and control is the shibboleth of the global world, the solidarity of the synchronic development of ideas, cultures, and opportunities (an optimistic utopian project, it must be admitted) was the keyword of Third-Worldism.

Let’s look through the rearview mirror for a moment and ask, Where was the Third World?

In their introduction to Inventing the Third World: In Search of Freedom for the Postwar Global South, Jeremy Adelman and Gyan Prakash tell of Jawaharlal Nehru taking the podium at the opening of the Asians Relations Conference in 1947, pointing to a map of Asia and declaring: “We stand at the end of an era and the threshold of a new period of history.” The flow of Nehru’s soaring rhetoric moves too swiftly from the “end” of an era to the inauguration of a “new” history. He flies over the fact that to stand on a historical threshold is to place oneself at a point of transition in the duration of the presentsomewhere in between the lessons of the past and the labors of the futureexperiencing the “ends” of colonialism while concurrently devising and deciphering the “means” of postcolonial life worlds to come.

In his conversation with Nehru at the Bandung conference, Richard Wright immediately saw Nehru as a visionary leader who stood courageously on the threshold of a historic transition of power in India, while addressing a similar series of transitions across Asia, Africa, and the Third World. Indeed, there is hardly a finer articulation of the political integrity and ethical aspiration of the idea of the Third World than Nehru’s speech, Tryst with Destiny, delivered on 14 August 1947 to the Constituent Assembly of India. Nehru spoke “in the midnight hour” to dedicate all Indians “to the service of India, and her people, and to the still larger cause of humanity,” and at the stroke of midnight he dedicated India to the service of the world—the Third World in particular: “Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart.” The greatness of the Nehruvian vision, as Wright encountered it at Bandung, lay in its ability keep a tryst with the complexities of historical transition. Nehru sought an “interstitial” internationalism founded on thresholds that linked newly independent states to each other, rather than throwing up geopolitical frontiers and barriers to keep them apart. Solidarity, not sovereignty, is the goal of threshold thinking. Nehru, as Wright quickly saw, attempted to maintain a prescient, if precarious, balance on both sides of the postcolonial threshold: Wright asks,

of what does [Nehru’s] greatness consist? It consists of his being what his country is: part East, part West. If one day Nehru says that the perplexities facing Asia are moral, then he is acting in a Western manner; if the next day he says that the world is gripped by a power struggle, he is looking upon life as an Asian. From his point of view, he is not merely playing with ideas; he is a reflection of what his India is, a halfway house between East and West.[2]

Nehru’s productive and combative ambivalence gives him access to a translational, global cosmopolitanism that is part East and part West, but the Asian perspective that articulates the threshold between East and West—the formative fulcrum—is capable of building a Lebenswelt that is new and different, and this is what Wright heard in Nehru’s speech. As I read both Nehru and Wright, I see an emphasis on the nation—as a threshold of subaltern hospitality accessible to the halfway house—rather than on the sovereignty of the state that frequently bars its windows and locks its doors against the lives and times of others, foreigners, strangers.

Wright’s polarised presentation of the world divided between East and West is as problematic today as it was at Bandung. It has a queasy Kiplingesque echo that I would not entertain. However, “halfway house,” as a metaphor of political and cultural mediation across national borders, is an interesting figure of speech. It invokes the aspirational ambition of the idea of Third World as a political forum of networked regional solidarities that are decentred in the very process of struggling for, and achieving, postcolonial freedoms. Here, in my view, there is an implicit appeal to political freedom as an ongoing process of threshold thinking that arises out of the experiments and exigencies of transitionality in the attempt  to negotiate an intersectional society and an intercultural polity. Perhaps this is why W. E. B. DuBois frequently hyphenates the word inter-national.

The appeal to threshold thinking, when it enters the annals of historical writing, or contemporary witnessing, activates an agency of mediation that writes transition in the language of intermediacy. The intermediate, I suggest, is not “in the middle” but “in the midst of”: an interstitial space of reflection and representation; a gap in time—the time of the threshold—that reaches out for a spatial trope with which to figure transition as history and concept. The mediation among parties, countries, or cultures is often a process of transference across a gap of interests, intentions, and inheritances—not unlike the metaphoric transfer of meaning—in order to negotiate a translation of terms and conditions. The halfway house, configured in this way, is a metonym of mediation: its portals enable  the free movement of peoples and ideas across the threshold. The halfway house, in the way of all metonyms, signifies a “whole” house whose spaces are diverse yet interconnected and whose windows share a landscape but catch the light at different times of the day.

Third World nationhood is a process of developing dynamic, evolving neighborhoods, unhindered by the sovereign possessions of the Cold War state.At their best, these visions of freedom resist the manacles of capitalist and militaristic “progress” legitimized by a moral economy of racial inequality. The political rhetoric of imperial dominance and Cold War dependency are remarkably similar, despite their distance in time and place. They share a racist intent in their enunciations of the prophecy and profitability of Western “progress,” and those recruited to labor in its interests are the very ones excluded from its promise: the colonized are classified as being historically “backward,” while Third World nations are condemned to being inherently “immature.”

Temperamentally, no two postcolonial thinkers could be more at odds than Nehru and Fanon, and yet they share a vision of hospitality that opens doors on both sides of the threshold. Fanon’s conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth is an unforgiving attack on the very idea of Europe as an icon of civility or civilization. “The Third World must start over a new history of man,” Fanon declares, “which takes account of not only the occasional prodigious theses maintained by Europe but also its crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man.” But then, as he utters his last words on the matter, Fanon stands with Nehru on the threshold of a revisionary hospitality—not without anxiety and hostility—and defines a “new humanism” that transcends the sum of the parts. In that act Fanon attempts to suture (not suppress) the wounds of the colonial past: “For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man” (WE, p. 239).

At its best, such threshold thinking in the construction of the Third World—what I have here called interstitial internationalism and elsewhere translational cosmopolitanism—is a lasting challenge to the narrow borders of disciplinary thought. Third World intellectuals are more likely to be engaged with intermediated problems rather than professional protocols. Nehru is a historian, an essayist, and a politician; Fanon, a psychiatrist, phenomenologist, and an activist. Their trysts with destiny are also trysts with the tasks of cultural translation. There are several instances in Inventing the Third World where the displacement of disciplines reveals new thresholds of representation-as-translation across art, culture, and intellectual discourse. The Third World inaugurated new parameters of citizenship—national, not nationalistic—which initiated imaginative forces of transitional and translational cultural agency in the broadest sense.

The ethno-populist systems of power of our global moment impose carceral histories and geographies on much of the world order today: minorities barred from citizenship; refugees barred from borders; speech barred from opinion; dissidents barred from public discourse; protesters barred from the park or the maidan; Black lives barred from protection. The prison house of the present, which exists in more places than we care to name, is an attempt to build walls of exclusion and interdiction where there should be a free and equal passage across the thresholds of public life and its divergent, even disjunctive, social values. This is surely what Fanon proposed as being both the trial and the testimony of an imminent Third World order.

Counterintuitively, Fanon proposes that a sense of “nationhood” must develop from an awareness of the thresholds and transitions that exist between countries, regions, and cultures. It is from this space in-between that the Third World emerges, recognizing differential histories and representing diverse interests that constitute a country, peoples, or a region. The Third World moves beyond the claims of sovereign nationalism and the confines of tribal patriotism. “A national consciousness,” Fanon argues, “which is not nationalism [and] is alone capable of giving us an international dimension” is one in which the national culture is built on the politics of difference—“the outcome of tensions internal and external to a society as a whole and its multiple layers” (WE, pp. 179, 177; my emphasis).

To negotiate these tensions internal and external to a society—to cross and recross these diverse worldly thresholds—opens the door to a politics of radical hospitality in which the idea of the Third World finds its moral compass and its historical moorings.

Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and Comparative Literature Departments at Harvard University.

A version of this post is forthcoming as a preface to and Bloomsbury Academic’s (an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.) Inventing the Third World: In Search of Freedom for the Postwar Global South, ed. Jeremy Adelman and Gyan Prakash (2022). We thank everyone involved there for permission to post the piece.

[1] Frant Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York, 2004), p. 238; hereafter abbreviated WE.

[2] Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (New York, 1956), pp. 165–66; my emphasis.

1 Comment

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One response to “Threshold Thinking: Where Is the Third World?

  1. Was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!

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