Exploring Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies

One of the things I need to do (or at least think I need to do) for my work on Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun is enhance my understanding of post-colonial theory. My own interests in the novel are rather different than those I take to be the usual concerns of post-colonial criticism, but given the Anglo-Egyptian contexts of the novel and its author, I know I need to give some thought to ways they might be engaging with Egypt’s colonial history, through the novel’s portrayal of Egyptian history and politics, and also through the role played in the novel by Asya’s literary studies and by Soueif’s own intertextual allusions, particularly to George Eliot. Surprisingly, perhaps, I have muddled along this far in my professional life without paying a lot of attention to post-colonial theory: I have always had plenty to read in the areas of my own research and writing, though I have made occasional forays, mostly for teaching purposes, into specific debates, such as those over post-colonial readings of Jane Eyre. But I have never tried in any systematic way to map out this field–and I don’t intend to do so now, either, as I do know enough to be aware just how complex, varied, and wide-ranging it is. Still, I feel I need to orient myself (so to speak!) well enough that I can consider how or if to draw on the insights of post-colonial theorists to explain what I think Soueif is up to in her novel. More particularly, I have a tentative working hypothesis that Soueif is actually offering a kind of counter-argument to some of the assumptions of post-colonial theory, particularly about the ways the Victorian novel is typically treated as “a vehicle for imperial authority”: to test or develop this hypothesis, I need to improve my fluency in this discourse.

As a first step, I have been working my way through the handy volume Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, by Helen Tiffen, Gareth Griffiths and Bill Ashcroft (the source of the quotation near the end of the previous paragraph). I feel a little anxious about how far to rely on this book, because I don’t bring to it enough independent ideas about what I am rapidly learning are vexed concepts to know if its explanations are neutral or tendentious. It is definitely helping me get started, though, just by identifying and defining terms I have heard (and even used) without always knowing exactly their significance or ramifications. Thanks to my Sony Reader, I now have a handy personalized index to terms that seem especially likely to prove relevant to my thinking about In the Eye of the Sun. One of the first ones I explored, for instance, was “hybridity,” a term which has been used quite a bit by critics to describe Soueif’s Anglo-Egyptian identity. It does seem to mean pretty much what I thought it did (their starting definition is “the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonization,” and they go on to outline its place in the work of Bakhtin and Bhabha particularly). What I hadn’t known was that it was a controversial notion if used to “stress mutuality,” which has been seen to minimize “oppositionality.” The authors touch on other complications of the term as well, such as Robert Young’s concern that “hybridity” was commonly used “in imperial and colonial discourse in negative accounts of the union of disparate races.” I did want to use the term to summon up a positive, creative relationship between the English and the Egyptian elements of the novel; now I’m aware that if I do so, I may have to defend that usage, and I have some ideas about where to look as I think that problem through. That’s useful.

I’ve brushed up on some other terms too, including liminality, contrapuntal reading, (af)filiation, and rhizome, and reviewed their explanations of the really big concepts, such as Orientalism, imperialism, and post-colonialism (learning in the process that there is a whole debate about whether or not to hyphenate). Though the extent and intricacy of the ‘jargon’ involved is still somewhat alienating to me, it’s clear that for some of the questions I’m going to want (or need) to address, this specialized vocabulary will help me do so with greater precision, whether in my own analysis or in response to questions others might have for me–when I present my first version of the paper at a conference in May, for instance.

One negative effect of reading this glossary, though, has been to confirm my prejudice against post-colonial readings because built into their very methodology is an assumption about the outcome of the reading: built into the definition of both contrapuntal and post-colonial readings here is a pre-determined conclusion about what any particular text will reveal:

contrapuntal reading: A term coined by Edward Said to describe a way of reading the texts of English literature so as to reveal their deep implication in imperialism and the colonial process.

post-colonial reading: A way of reading and rereading texts . . . to draw deliberate attention to the profound and inescapable effects of colonization on literary production. . . . It is a form of deconstructive reading . . . which demonstrates the extent to which the text contradicts its underlying assumptions . . . and reveals its (often unwitting) colonialist ideologies and processes.

By these definitions, post-colonial readings are highly tendentious, even question-begging: here we have a critical method that says we don’t really need to read the book to know what it says or does, and that preemptively rules out the possibility that a given text might be in a different–perhaps an oppositional–relationship to “colonialist ideologies and processes.” The world “implication” is also the kind of weasel word that drives me crazy: it seems to imply some kind of complicity, but without actually attributing agency or blame. I’m reminded of Derek Attridge’s complaint, in the exchange with Henry Staten that I wrote about a little while ago that sometimes in the rush to interpretation we fail to “respond accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work.” These definitions of post-colonial reading seem to me models for sausage-grinder criticism: put in any Victorian novel, for instance, turn the handle, and it comes out in the same shape (and casing) as any other one.

I’d be interested to know (as I’m sure many of you are wiser in the ways of this critical field than I) first, if the definitions I’ve quoted from this particular reference work seem reasonably reliable, at least as introductions to what these terms mean and how they are used (or would you recommend another source?), and second, if you have any response to my objection about criticism that assumes its conclusions even before it begins, and/or could steer me towards any good exchanges about this (perceived) problem among people working in post-colonial studies. (I am aware of–and will soon be re-reading–Erin O’Connor’s provocative essay “Preface for a Post-Postcolonial Criticism” (and the responses to it) in Victorian Studies.)

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