Voices of victimhood

Post-Colonial Theory
March 27, 1998

Post-colonial theory can present an easy target for its detractors. They might point to the incongruity between its insurgent rhetoric and the disenabling arcana of deconstructivist textual analysis that it, characteristically, mediates. What can be more futile than appealing to the downtrodden masses in language of the utmost obscurity? Moreover, the theorists themselves, while leading lives exasperatingly lacking in persecution, persistently appropriate the vocabulary of victimhood. Placing in neat parentheses their own privileged status within the western academy, they freely accuse others of complicity in a universal system of neo-colonial dominance. To be fair, the target is made even easier, since each of the three leading exponents of post-colonial theory, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, frequently draw attention to their own anomalous positions, sometimes with breathtaking effect, as when Spivak rhetorically asks, "how about attempting to learn to speak in such a way that the masses will not regard as bull****?" or when Said asks of Jacques Derrida a question that could well be asked of himself: "We must ask how he can systematically place himself outside the logocentric world when every other writer somehow could not?" Bart Moore-Gilbert, in this lucid and exceptionally accessible account of the subject, takes these and other charges seriously, using them to frame and enliven his analysis of the work of Said, Spivak and Bhabha (his unreverential treatment assures us that we need not take his cognomen, "the holy trinity", as seriously as we might otherwise). By examining the pre-history of post-colonialism in "Commonwealth" literary criticism in the 1960s and 1970s and providing a brief glance at the studies of the literature of empire, Moore-Gilbert demonstrates the importance of Said's Orientalism (1978) in providing an alert, decentred reading of colonial discourse while acknowledging ways in which Said's insights are partially prefigured in the writings of Franz Fanon, post-colonial writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe or Kamau Braithwaite as well as some of the "Commonwealth" critics. The crucial role of postcolonial theory has been to reveal and displace what Wilson Harris has called the "unconscious prejudices in the complacently 'humanistic' approach".

In particular, Moore-Gilbert tackles the trenchant criticisms in Aijaz Ahmad's In Theory, a book that takes issue with the European provenance of post-colonialism's theoretical basis (in the postmodern and deconstructivist criticism of Michel Foucault, Derrida, Roland Barthes and others), the deracination and metropolitanism of its three leading exponents (all working in western academy), their emphasis on western discourse analysis, comparative neglect of resistant voices from the third world and the politically disenabling nature of high textual analysis itself. This catena of charges adds up, in Ahmad's view, to a reinscription of western or neo-colonial domination by other means. To some extent, as Moore-Gilbert indicates, these objections were anticipated in a collection of essays on post-colonial theory, After Europe, edited by Stephen Slemon and Helen Tiffin. Tiffin herself complains that "post-colonial theory relegates other forms of post-colonial criticism, which do not rely on French-derived 'high theory' to an inferior category of analysis that is assumed to be both an anterior or more 'primitive' stage in its own emergence and to be incapable of self-consciousness about its own epistemological assumptions or methodological procedures ..."

But, as Moore-Gilbert points out, the overlap, in terms of intellectual filiation, institutional location and critical procedures between the post-colonial theorists and their critics is so considerable, that the latter risk falling prey to their own criticism. There is indeed something so self-reflexive and open-ended about post-coloniality, that enquiry can seem simultaneously stimulated and repelled.

One important question this book touches on, but perhaps insufficiently develops, is the interplay between post-colonial theory and literature. Despite the literary backgrounds of Said, Spivak and Bhabha, their interest in postcolonial writing appears insignificant when contrasted with their preoccupation with critical theory. Spivak, in particular, occasionally exhibits something approaching hostility towards literature, as when she opines that "reading literature 'well' is in itself a questionable good and can indeed be sometimes productive of harm and 'aesthetic' apathy within its ideological framing". In Said's Orientalism, anthropological documentation and travelogue are preferred exemplars of orientalist discourse. Moore-Gilbert quotes Dennis Porter's Orientalism and its Problems to the effect that the literary text retains, par excellence, a "potential for ideological irresponsibility". Its complex relationship between narrator and the narration can possess "counter-hegemonic qualities". More straightforwardly, while acknowledging the truism that creative literature is strongly marked by the dominant outlook of the society in which it is written, what is surely of far greater interest is its capacity to transcend what we might expect to find.

In this connection, I was struck by Spivak's analysis of the Jean Rhys novel Wide Sargasso Sea, for it seems to illustrate the dangers of reading novels in an overdetermined way, sifting the evidence to discover confirmation of what one already supposed. At one point Spivak notes that Christophine, the black servant of the main protagonist, Antoinette, is made to leave the text abruptly "with neither narrative nor characterological explanation or justice". Such a reading enables Spivak to invoke her theory of the "voiceless subaltern", to accuse Rhys of silencing the voice of black resistance while at the same time congratulating her for refusing to "represent" the subaltern thus leaving what Spivak elsewhere describes as the "inaccessible blankness" that serves ... "to reveal the horizon and limits of western knowledge". In my reading of the text, however, the explanation for Christophine's disappearance is much simpler and is provided in a longish dialogue between Christophine and Antoinette's husband in which the latter makes it clear that she must leave or be arrested for the practice of Obi (magic). Rhys even gives us the moment of departure, when Christophine is invited to say farewell to her mistress.

My point is that the "Commonwealth" critics in After Europe, like Moore-Gilbert himself, derive their interest in theory from a prolonged engagement with post-colonial literatures; as Moore-Gilbert wistfully notes in the acknowledgements, "what I really liked was reading novels". The fact that the writings of Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott or R. K. Narayan demanded to be read and evaluated in contexts other than the cultural traditions of Britain or Europe in itself began to articulate a hybrid critical approach that has been strengthened, though not dominated by theory. As Moore-Gilbert's study shows, the influence of theory on post-colonial criticism has in the last two decades been generally beneficial. Perhaps Said's "reconstituted humanism" indicates a new willingness of theorists to pay heed to the voice of the practitioner. Moore-Gilbert has written the best guide to post-colonial theory I have read.

Ronald Warwick is a freelance writer and lecturer, who was formerly literature officer, Commonwealth Institute.

Post-Colonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics

Author - Bart Moore-Gilbert
ISBN - 1 85984 909 1 and 034 5
Publisher - Verso
Price - £40.00 and £14.00
Pages - 243

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