Postcolonialism Redux

I am still working on my understanding of postcolonial theory, with an eye to revising my paper on Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun for eventual journal submission. The more I read, the clearer some things become, though I don’t pretend to anything like mastery over a field that (the more I read) looks increasingly complex and conflicted–which is to be expected of any field, of course, as you try to move beyond rough generalities. I think I do now see past some of my earlier confusions and slippages, and I also understand better the importance of some of the things people with more expertise in this area have said to me along the way. I think I also see ways in which some of these things people have said to me represent specific approaches to postcolonial studies that are themselves disputed. I realize that I have nothing to contribute to expert debate in this field (except, perhaps, grounds for further correction or guidance–which, of course, I will be happy to receive), so those of you who know this already, or are tired of trying to explain, can ignore what follows, but it helps my own thinking to see if I can say ‘out loud,’ as it were, what I have been learning.

One of the most important things I’m getting better at is making distinctions between different meanings of “postcolonialism.” For starters, I now understand that there was a time when (particularly in certain fields of study besides literature, such as history, economics, or political science) “postcolonial” meant more or less just what it sounds like, that is, it was a chronological marker meaning after the end of colonial rule. I think that the term was (and is) still used in this way, including in some discussions of literature that try to place particular texts or writers historically and also nationally. Gradually, however, this chronological sense of “post” as “after” shifted towards “post” as “against” or “anti”–at least, in some kinds of discourse, particularly including literary or theoretical. While not the first, perhaps one of the most important works in developing this meaning, or this use, of the term to signify an attitude rather than an era is The Empire Writes Back, in which the authors argue that what makes the literature of an array of countries is “distinctively post-colonial” is that it “foreground[s] the tension with the imperial power, and emphasiz[es] their differences from the assumptions of the imperial center” (2). In Feroz Jussawalla’s words,

What most convincingly defines a postcolonial novel, then, is the author’s attitude towards his or her country and its culture, an attitude of its distinctness and difference from that of the European colonizer. (“Postcolonial Novels and Theories”)

So now we have not just a historical distinction between pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial literature, but an ideological distinction between literature that is postcolonial in its attitude and literature that is not. Here I admit to some continuing confusion: is the opposite of postcolonial literature of this kind pro-colonial literature, or imperialist literature? Or is it the literature of the “imperial center” or “European colonizer”? Is that literature, by virtue of being, well, itself, assumed to be pro-colonial? Or is it, more neutrally, just literature that (again, by virtue of being itself) represents that against which postcolonial literature defines itself?

There is a further important distinction to be made between the discourse of postcolonial literature and that of postcolonial theory, or between postcolonialist as category of literary texts, and postcolonialist as a category of critical or theoretical discourse or a reading strategy. This issue was rightly brought up a couple of times by commenters on my previous posts (e.g. here), and I am increasingly aware of its relevance to the decisions I need to make about how (or why) to write about Soueif’s novels. Before I say more about that, though, I want to touch on a couple of additional points about identifying or defining certain texts as postcolonial, and particularly about what doing so means or implies about their relationship to canonical Western texts.

First, in my conference paper, I framed my reading of In the Eye of the Sun with an argument about how the novel resists being read as a “postcolonial novel”. I knew I was using a broad brush, but I felt from the reading I’d done so far that the generalization I had in mind was a reasonably safe one: that “postcolonial novels” were understood to be those that wrote back (to use Ashcroft, Tiffin, and Griffith’s phrase) against the literary language and forms of “the West”–again, those having (or assumed to have) a particular political attitude. So far, what I’ve read since has rather reinforced this view than undermined it (e.g. Jussawalla, who writes that “postcolonial literature is widely understood to be a literature that writes against empire”). There is an easy slip from here to the idea that all texts from postcolonial circumstances (historical, national) are assumed to be written about the same range of issues and from the same perspective. The very close relationship in critical writing between texts identified as postcolonial and postcolonial criticism and theory is part of what makes the big picture look this way, I think: that is, as a commentor pointed out at The Valve, it is typical for postcolonial texts to be addressed by postcolonial critics, which means they are known and talked about within a relatively specific (I might even say, narrow) context that artificially homogenizes their actual variety. At the same time, given the specific understanding of postcolonialism as an attitude or worldview, one to which the texts selected for such analysis need to, or are expected to, conform, some circularity in this process seems inevitable. This is what I had gathered, albeit impressionistically, from my own previous ventures into this field, and some of the articles I have read make points similar to mine about the resulting interpretive constraints. Here’s what I said in the previous exchange,

Your second point, about the distinction between postcolonialism as reading strategies and literature labelled “postcolonial” rightly identifies a slippage in my usage of that term, one I struggled with–but one that I think does happen in a more general way, in that books coming from “postcolonial” places are read with an emphasis on the kinds of issues (political, national) that are also primary in postcolonial theory. That is, a frequent starting assumption is that these books are primarily about colonialism, national identity, etc.–if not unambiguously as “national allegories,” then at least as statements about postcolonial positionality.

And here, for instance, is Jussawalla again:

Another unfortunate consequence of the rise of postcolonial theory is the unwillingness of some proponents to see anything in postcolonial literature except its challenges to hegemonic forces. Indeed, some novelists have articulated a sense of frustration with continually being tied to the colonial millstone.

Working towards a more nuanced understanding of the ways writers have engaged with the Western literary tradition, I thought John Marx’s essay “Postcolonial literature and the western canon” gave a very helpful synthesis; like the authors of The Empire Writes Back, who propose a development from “settler” literature to “literature produced under ‘imperial licence” to varieties of resistance and then appropriation, Marx highlights a movement from repudiation to critique, with an emphasis on anti-imperialism, to revision and rewriting, a less confrontational and more transformative form of engagement. Marx writes,

[A]cts of unwriting and rewriting had the effect of destabilizing the homology between colonial mastery and the mastery of European culture. . . . though such reworked versions tend to reinforce the centrality of Western writing by default, treating canonical texts as a source of raw material could not help but transform them . . . moreoever, they estranged the canon for Western readers, and uncovered complexity many had never noticed before.

I found particularly interesting Marx’s argument that the incorporation of postcolonial writing into the curriculum–and its wider audience more generally–has “enabled [even obliged, he implies] educators and their students to re-examine the interaction between literature and history as well as to redefine the meaning of cultural literacy and literary culture.” He sees as a result the emergence of a new, inclusive model of humanism. He quotes Anthony Appiah: “What is necessary to read novels across gaps of space, time, and experience is the capacity to follow a narrative and conjure a world: and that, it turns out, there are people everywhere more than willing to do.” In Marx’s view,

Because it maintains an authority to mediate local culture, postcolonial literature reveals that cultural differences can be overcome, as demonstrated by what Appiah describes as a basic human capacity to read and understand literature (at least of the narrative sort). Without sacrificing its point of entry into literary curricula as the representative of cultures repressed by imperialism, therefore, postcolonial literature seems poised to acquire the responsibility once claimed by the Western canon of mediating and defining the essential elements of our humanity.

The idea that literature bridges difference is hardly new, but this particular spin on it–that postcolonial literature in particular is coming to define a new ethically reinvigorated humanism for a global world– intrigues me and marks one of the key points I want to explore further. (It provides, among other things, a framework for reading both the literary and the ethical value of something like Nadeem Aslam’s extraordinary novel The Wasted Vigil, which I am currently reading.)

Marx’s (and, I gather, Appiah’s) interest in humanism seems like a useful place to return, however, to the distinction between talk about postcolonial literature and talk about postcolonial theory. Here, I’ve been trying to figure out how to understand (if not necessarily reconcile) arguments about the meaning of “implication” (as discussed, for instance, here) alongside claims that postcolonial theory is not “totalizing” (e.g. here). Still in the interests of trying to grasp larger principles (which are hard for a beginner to discern from ‘primary’ theoretical texts–though I have been reading what I can of these too), I found the distinction proposed in Neil Lazarus’s introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies illuminating, though no doubt it (like everything else) is controversial.

Lazarus suggests that there are two main approaches to postcolonialism, one which considers Eurocentrism an “ideology,” and one which considers it an “episteme.” He considers Said someone who held the former view along with a “realist epistemology,” the implications of which are that one can stand outside Eurocentrism and “subject its claims to scrutiny”; “it is quite obvious [in Said’s work] that there is an ‘East’ and that it is systematically misrepresented in Orientalist discourse.” (Lazarus believes that scholars following Said have wrongly emphasized the Foucauldian idea that discourses produce worlds or realities.)

The second approach he describes considers Eurocentrism as “a hegemonic mode of conceptualization, whose structuring propensities are so deeply and insidiously layered that they cannot but be determinative of all scholarly production.” Resistance to Eurocentrism on this model can lead to scholars rejecting “modernity, Europe, and rationality itself”–because these modes of thought replicate (reflect, are constitutive of) Eurocentric values, and it is thus impossible to critique Eurocentrism from within.

I’m not sure, but I wonder if this distinction is at the heart of the objection raised here to my protest about postcolonial theory appearing to assume its conclusions when it claims that all literature of the colonial era is “implicated” in colonialism or imperialism. If Eurocentrism functions as what Lazarus is calling an episteme, that implication does seem inevitable. But if Eurocentrism is what he calls an ideology, then some writers, even Victorian writers, might, in principle, stand outside it and “subject its claims to scrutiny.” Would they still be “implicated”? Here, I’m still confused about whether the intent is to accuse (and, as I’ve said before, not only is the word “implication” not neutral, but neutrality is probably not a morally appropriate stance towards slavery or colonialism) or just to make a sort of obvious point that every writer during the colonial era had some link–personal, financial, etc.–to colonial enterprises, just as today most of us in the west have some link to, say, child labour or deforestation. The account of “implication” offered to me here,

Pointing out that a novel is implicated in colonialism is akin to arguing that, much like the society it seeks to describe (and out of which it was produced), a novel necessarily confronts, and is confronted by, its colonial legacy—even, and especially, when it does not do so explicitly.

does not altogether help me sort this out, because it continues to blur textual and critical postcolonialism, because I’m not sure what the “colonial legacy” of a novel would be, and because I don’t see why not confronting colonialism directly means confronting it (or being confronted by it) especially. I also continue to wonder whether, once you’ve adopted the view that everything is always already Eurocentric, it doesn’t became crucial (just as it might have been before that was your perspective) to distinguish between those that, despite (even in spite of) these lurking structural or systemic implications, nonetheless set out on the face of things to oppose or criticize colonialism. In any case, if the point of the postcolonial reading is to reveal how a novel “confronts, or is confronted by, its colonial legacy,” then I’m still not convinced that there isn’t something reductive about that approach (the same comment argued that it was reductive on my part to say “that post-colonial critics simply create confrontational, or corrective, readings”)–but as was also pointed out, every critical approach has its domain, and it may be no more reasonable to object to the emphasis of postcolonial critics on empire than it would be to object to the emphasis of feminist critics on gender.

Though I hope I’m making progress, clearly I still have a lot to learn about the terms and stakes of these debates. Perhaps ironically, then, the most important insight I have arrived at in the past couple of weeks may be in answer to my own very early question about Soueif, which was “whether working on an Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory” (here). RFD noted that “if non-post colonial readings of novels like Soueif’s are going to happen, the novels need to be read by people who aren’t interested in post-colonial reading.” As I replied to him,

In fact I was not initially inclined to approach In the Eye of the Sun as a postcolonial text, or through postcolonial theory, but as I went along I felt–perhaps wrongly–that given the existing critical literature on it and the novel’s own awareness of moving between cultures and languages and so on, I had to start by trying to explain why I thought that was not in fact the best way to go. So that was the strategy I settled on for framing this paper, though in many ways the heart of the paper, for me, is the middle section I omitted here, in which I try to demonstrate the “affinities” between the two novels.

My latest round of reading suggests that suggests that a postcolonial reading is not in fact called for, though an appreciation of how Soueif might (or might not) be considered a postcolonial writer might be appropriate. Though I have a number of dissatisfactions with the paper I came up with for ACCUTE, chief among it is that I did not set out, after reading In the Eye of the Sun, to work on the issues that seem to be central to postcolonial theory (national identity, place, language) but rather wanted to consider the novel in relation to my own previous work on the ethics of fiction, particularly in relation to George Eliot. I think now that I should have done just that–but that I am better equipped to return to that project now, not least because postcolonialism in both literature and criticism is in so many respects an ethical project.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.