Love's labour lost in theory

Post-colonial Literatures in English
June 19, 1998

Dennis Walder's intentions in Post-colonial Literatures in English are good: he intends to refute the rise of "postcolonial theory", by which he means the critical writings of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha. He cautions those who "begin their study of the subject with the aforementioned threesome to look a little further back". And yet Walder himself does not look a "little further back". In fact it seems to me that he just has not done his homework, reading only that which is fashionable and politically correct.

There always is, and has been, more to "post-colonial theory" than "the contemporary nature of what has come to be called postcolonial literatures" and the "dramatic impact" of their theory on traditional literary studies. What troubles me is that with a cursory nod at K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar's Indian Writing in English, there is no mention here of "Commonwealth literatures"; and there is no nod at all towards seminal work done in the United States and Canada outside the Spivak, Said, Bhabha circle.

Walder chooses to excuse himself by saying, "it would be foolish to pretend to offer a map, much less any kind of comprehensive account here". He thus chooses the case-study method. However, though he has a case-study on R. K. Narayan's Painter of Signs he makes no mention of Reed Way Dasenbrock's landmark article in the proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America (l987), the first article to be published on non-native English or American literatures in this primary journal of literary studies. No mention is made of several ground-breaking special issues of the journal Ariel, though he acknowledges the presence of the journal.

Walder dates the move from Commonwealth literature to post-colonial literatures to Bruce King's l974 Literatures of the World in English, calling King a US professor while in fact he is an occasional academic visitor to the US. It is generally supposed that the appropriation of Commonwealth literatures began at Frederic Jameson's l985 conference at Duke University, where he first read "Third world literatures in an age of multi-national capitalism". But in 1984, at the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association meeting in El Paso, Gayatri Spivak, when asked why she studied only Jacques Derrida and not the Indian writers Kamala Das or Kamala Markandaya, said "that work" was for others to do. Therefore it is the greatest irony that her work is now so consistently applied to "third world" literatures. It is also an irony of this book that Walder, though seeming to speak "beyond" Said, Bhabha and Spivak, is particularly impressed with "proteges" of Said, naming Gauri Vishwanathan and Anne McClintok as such, as though this were some sort of stamp of approval.

Walder's unquestioning acceptance of Vishwanathan's assessment that English education in India was not espoused by the Indians but was the result of the "hegemonic thrust" seems not to account for the genuine love with which Narayan (in My Days for instance), or Nayantara Sahgal, or Rabindranath Tagore talk about English language and literature as "their own," as Raja Rao would say. Walder even cites Tagore as saying: "'It was mainly through their mighty literature that we formed our ideas' as it 'nourished our minds in the past' so does it continue 'even now to convey its deep resonance to the recesses of our heart'". Indians took the English language and literature to their hearts and relished it in the same way in which Spivak, arch-spokesperson for post-coloniality, relishes the French writings of Derrida and Lacan. The same is also probably true of Chinua Achebe and Derek Walcott who are steeped enough in the classics to savour them even while "decentring orthodoxy". If V. S. Naipaul is to be seen as a "double agent for the coloniser" (by critics such as A. Sivanandan and Rob Nixon - referred to by Walder - and of course by Said, who has criticised Naipaul most), then the same is true of the critics who purport to criticise colonialism or the subsequent "postcolonial theory". It is disappointing that Walder fails to answer his own question "After post-colonialism?" It is time to decolonise the decolonisers and seek avenues of thought beyond the hegemony of the European postmodern theorists such as Derrida, Foucault and Lacan.

Feroza Jussawalla is professor of English, University of Texas at El Paso, United States.

Post-colonial Literatures in English: History, Language, Theory

Author - Dennis Walder
ISBN - 0 631 19491 6 and 194924
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 232

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