There are occasional glimpses in this work of what one contributor, Ann Stoler, describes as the "scrambled categories in which people lived I and the ruptures and reinscriptions of them today". The volume is the reconfigured remnants of an Amsterdam conference that was to have focused on visual images and stereotypes of Africa and Asia. However, as Jan Nederveen Pieterse explains, the participants arrived with a more diverse set of concerns.
Although Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh's brief introduction reads, at times, like an unrevised conference grant application, the editors do also make fruitful and rewarding points - especially concerning negritude, the difficulties attaching to the notion of "postcoloniality" and the indeterminate nexus with which they are concerned. There is also a useful caution concerning the limited impact of colonialism (a theme pursued in some of the papers), although the anthropomorphism of the claim that countries such as India were so used to foreign invasions that they "knew how to take them in their stride" is disconcerting.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's offering differs from her original conference presentation and, apart from its brief introduction, is the verbatim text she read in a quite different context (a meeting of the Modern Languages Association), complete with references to her fellow teachers. The retention of these interlocutory traces, and the "local flavour", is justified by the author on the grounds that "these signs and marks can be of some interest to readers from various parts of the world, if only because they might then produce some effort to work out how, in their contexts, the teaching of literature can be transnational".
Roland Barthes was correct to suggest that the unity of a text lies not in its origin but its destination, but the punter paying good money for a collection of thematically linked papers is entitled to more than the disingenuous recycling of bons mots from the great and good with the admonition to work it out for yourself: there was a time when editors used to do this, or at least some of it, for the reader.
Indeterminacy is used by some authors as a charter for their own lack of focus. Conversely, few of the more rigorous contributions demonstrate any of the nuance and thick description the editors hint at in the introduction. Patrick Brantlinger's account of the evolutionary "inevitabilities" that accompanied 19th-century genocide, for instance, is too deterministic; ideologies are seen to operate with an extraordinary efficacy and a degree of fit between intention and result. Indicative of the simplification is his characterisation of George Augustus Robinson's naming of some of the "last" Tasmanians as symbolic of their "transmogrification into well-behaved Christian aborigines". The fact that the names given included "Queen Cleopatra" and "Lalla Rookh" suggest that a much more complex romantic fantasy was at work.
My intention here is not in any way to dispute the horror of the narrative dissected by Brantlinger, but to suggest that any programme for the disarticulation of imagination from colonialism and its legacy demands a successful diagnosis of complex internal logics rather than the projection of a unidimensional template onto the evidence.
Paradoxes make a welcome appearance in Parekh's study of Locke and Mill's hyphenated relation to colonialism, but he dwells on paradoxes in liberalism and the consequent dangerous undertow. Corby gives an interesting account of "ethnographic showcases" that were characterised by a concern with "categorising, filing, controlling, narrating". Yet, one wonders how useful the ethnographic exhibition is as a metaphor for that domain of bureaucratic colonial identification, characterised by Homi Bhabha as "almost the same but not quite" and which seems far more relevant for understanding the late 20th century in which state structures still perpetuate and struggle with diverse colonial imaginations. It is here, surely, where (as Ashis Nandy once put it) the "West" continues to operate, "in structures and in minds".
Christopher Pinney is lecturer in South Asian anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
The Decolonization of Imagination: Culture, Knowledge and Power
Editor - Jan Nederveen Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh
ISBN - 1 85649 9 6 and 280 X
Publisher - Zed Books
Price - £39.95 and £14.95
Pages - 246