Colonial writers lost in the post

December 29, 1995

Postcolonial studies is drowning in a tidal wave of jargon, conceptual inanities and political exhibitionism argues Russell Jacoby. Just when poststructuralism, postmodernism and deconstructionism have become familiar, even sedate, a new contender is shaking up the neighbourhood: postcolonial theory. Fat anthologies and numerous special journal issues announce the new field. Its high-profile representatives like Gayatri Spivak, professor of hymanities at Columbia University, and Homi Bhabha, professor of English and art at Chicago University, inspire enthusiasm and adulation. For the moment, postcolonial theory seems everywhere.

To be sure, few agree what constitutes post-colonial studies. Even the "post" engenders controversy. One school maintains that postcolonial refers to societies after the onset of modern colonialism; another restricts the field to the period after the end of legal colonialisation following the second world war. The difference? About four and half centuries. Nor is there consensus about what defines the "colonised" world. The authors of a founding text, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literature, see the field encompassing not only traditional colonies in Africa and Asia but so-called "settler" colonies like the United States and Australia. They estimate "three-quarters" of the world population suffered from colonialism. Here is a new field that coolly claims half a millennium and most of the planet as its turf.

Apart from its imperial reach, a political and conceptual orientation marks postcolonial theory. In a world that has relentlessly dashed socialist hopes, postcolonial theorists uphold the notion of national cultures battling imperialism. Their work might be seen as deriving from Franz Fanon and Michel Foucault. From the Martinique psychoanalyst they inherit an anti-imperialist ethic; from the French theorist an obsession with discourse as power. The postcolonialists weld these together; they seek to subvert a ubiquitous western domination that employs texts, symbols and interpretation.

These two motifs inform Edward Said's 1978 Orientalism, a central reference for the postcolonial theorists. "I have found it useful here to employ Michel Foucault's notion of a discourse," states Said in the preface. "My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively..."

In recent years the book has come under sharp criticism from the right and the left, from Islam and the West. Princeton University's Bernard Lewis charges that orientalists no more invented the Orient than classicists invented ancient Greece.

Aijaz Ahmad, a fellow at Nehru Museum and Library in New Delhi, faults Said for pandering to a crude third worldism. No one should read Orientalism today without considering these criticisms, especially Ahmad's In Theory, which itself provoked a special issue of the magazine Public Culture. Yet Orientalism undoubtedly was the key book launching postcolonial studies.

Any evaluation of postcolonial theory must acknowledge its salutary effort to challenge repressive intellectual divisions of labour; its practitioners have boldly ignored conventional and repressive categorising. They have also rightfully protested a destructive single standard of beauty and art, which western critics sometimes assume; and they have helped open the traditional canon to those who have been slighted. All this is to the good. Yet any evaluation must assess what is less honourable: the tidal wave of jargon, the political posturing, the conceptual banalities, and the unstoppable self-promotion and cheering. A single instance of the latter might suffice: those who gush over Homi Bhabha on the jacket of his Location of Culture are gushed over by him in his acknowledgements.

It is hardly a new observation, but these professors of literature and English - and these are the departments most postcolonial theorists teach in - write the most convoluted prose. "In general terms," declares Bhabha in a typical statement, "there is a colonial contramodernity at work in the 18th and 19th-century matrices of western modernity that, if acknowledged, would question the historicism that analogically links, in a linear narrative, late capitalism and the fragmentary, simulacral, pastiche symptoms of postmodernity."

A faux-Hegelian belief that lucidity spells bourgeois repression gives rise to the comforting counter belief that opaqueness implies subversion, and this neatly dovetails with complete indifference to stylistic niceties. What does it matter if it is unreadable or makes no sense? Consider Gayatri Spivak, who recently published a transcription of a telephone interview as well as her rough notes for a lecture. "'What are we doing here, now?' A quick recap of deconstruction-bashing at the MLA, 1977-86. How it should and should not be done." Or: "If I am asked to speak on Marxism in this context, I should be obliged to repeat a reading of certain passages in Marx that I offered at SAMLA." You had to be there.

The first sentence of her "Can the Subaltern Speak?", which was at least written, runs: "Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West today is the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject. The theory of pluralised 'subject-effects' gives an illusion of undermining subjective sovereignty while often providing a cover for this subject of knowledge." This opaque and frequently cited essay takes up a favorite topic: "representation."

For Said the issue was how westerners "represented" the Orient. "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented," reads Said's epigraph for Orientalism, which he takes from Marx. For Spivak in this essay an issue is how to represent suttee or sati, the practice of sacrificing widows, which the British banned in India in 1828. Spivak offers two sentences that capture the dilemma. The British actions might be viewed as, "White men saving brown women from brown men." The Indian nationalist might respond, "The women actually wanted to die." Neither formulation is satisfactory; and neither allows the women to speak. Spivak tacks back and forth, but seems to suggest that the British turned a ritual into a crime; and that "suttee" might be read as a perverse act of freedom, even of resistance.

A nativist impulse cheering anything non-western that surfaces here is typical among the postcolonialist theorists, (although they often dissociate themselves from it). One enthusiast instructs us that "the secret weapon of cultural imperialism" is western mathematics. No need to learn the metric system, algebra or differential calculus; these all conspire to weave the imperialist net. Every culture has generated perfectly good ways to count and measure. For example, in Papua New Guinea, several hundred viable systems exist such as finger counting, knotted strings and beads. Allan Bishop calls for a revival of "ethno-mathematics" that will challenge "western imperial math". From here it is a short step to unmask plumbing, electricity and vaccinations as secret imperialist weapons.

The problem of representation inevitably raises the role of the postcolonial theorists themselves. As the heirs to postmodernism and deconstructionism, they are supremely conscious of their own position as interpreters - and supremely anxious to avoid complicity with the oppressive discourse of the past. But how do postcolonialists comfortably lodged in leading western universities evade this charge of simply perpetuating western academic domination?

Spivak herself has been accused of adopting the imperial mode. One theorist attacks her for "deafness to native voices"; another for privileging India "at the expense of other colonies such as those in Africa and the Caribbean". Even a founder of complicity studies himself, Derrida, is accused of complicity. His 1985 "Racism's Last Word," an essay in a catalogue to a anti-apartheid museum exhibition, is found wanting. Why? Because it participates in that classic imperialistic institution: a museum.

"Racism's Last Word," reveals one brave postcolonialist theorist, "replicates the politics of traditional museum performance. Exhibitions have historically constituted a primary locus for the exercise of the imperialist anthropological gaze on exoticised and objectified native subjects." Rosemary Jolly of Queen's University in Canada concludes that "Derrida's condemnation of apartheid I deploys the authoritarianism of the western subject-object binarism that is an integral part of the imperialist history of the western academy." Presumably this article, published in PMLA, the main professional journal of the Modern Language Association of America, escapes the authoritarianism and "binarism" of the imperialist academy.

Both to outflank these attacks and establish their anti-imperialist credentials, political pronouncements clutter the writings of the postcolonialists. Yet they tend to be militants in airy declarations; on specifics, they become vague. For instance, Sara Suleri of Yale University offers "life in Pakistan" as an example of postcolonial "lived experience". She reports that in 1980 the Pakistani military dictatorship enacted the Hudood Ordinances, a series of harsh laws inspired by Muslim notions. A 15-year-old was raped by her aunt's husband and son and because of the Hudood Ordinances and the prevailing Muslim rules of evidence, the young woman herself was sentenced to one hundred public lashes. The conclusion?

"Let me state the obvious I It is not the terrors of Islam that have unleashed the Hudood Ordinances on Pakistan, but more probably the United States government's economic and ideological support of a military regime." Perhaps, but everything is left out. Nothing is explained. This is less political or literary analysis than show politics.

Another case in point may be the Salman Rushdie affair, which raises many questions about colonialism, literature, persecution and the West. One might imagine that the postcolonialists would intervene to illuminate the situation with their nifty concepts. In a brief overview of the controversy Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge summarise a half-dozen other discussions of Rushdie and come to a ringing conclusion: "Here is the crux of the matter. The moment the dominant culture itself begins to draw generic lines (fiction, history; politics and postmodern play), the text gets transformed into distinct objects, with distinct effects and meanings. In political terms The Satanic Verses ceases to be postcolonial and becomes postmodern." Even this statement seems too risky and the authors retreat, agreeing with another theorist who points out that the book may be "postmodern and postcolonial at the same time."

Postcolonial studies is a new field, and must be saluted for the energy and ferment that it has brought to a literary discipline, which has often been smug and self-contained. This is the good news. Yet it is not too soon to raise an alarm about trends that threaten to drown the advances in relentless jargon, conceptual inanities and political exhibitionism. Postcolonial studies may add to the stock of human wisdom and insight; it may also turn into another boutique in the academic mall of knowledge.

Russell Jacoby teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments