Whither Postcolonial Studies?

Whither Postcolonial Studies?

Postcolonialism is not strictly speaking a theory, it is a galaxy of critical thinking, all the more difficult to delineate and define as it is prone to collective self-criticism and constantly evolving. Its founding text is Edward Said's celebrated Orientalism (1978), which broke new ground compared with the old critical tradition of anticolonialism by forcefully highlighting (and not without a few simplistic assertions which the author qualified in his later works) that the violence of colonialism was not just the stark brutality of conquest and plundering, of material human exploitation, of the peremptory universalism of the 'civilizing mission', and of racial oppression, but also a form of epistemic violence, a sort of vice of the mind, which essentialized the modern West's 'Others' and classified them hierarchically while pretending to describe and understand them scientifically. Said treated the mental set-up and symbolic representations that constituted the epistemic base of imperialism as a discursive formation in the foucauldian sense. His purpose, which was to deconstruct this colonial discourse, was consonant with the poststructuralist and postmodernist intellectual climate then rising in the English and social science departments of Anglo-American universities, where the influence of Foucault and Derrida was increasing in the wake of the 'cultural turn'. For Said as for the postcolonial thinkers who soon followed in his footsteps, this denunciation of the system of thought underlying colonialism remained indispensable, in spite of the fact that colonial empires mostly belonged to a receding past. Through the heritage of the modernist ideology once exported by colonizing Europe, western hegemony remained rampant under renewed forms in the formerly colonized countries. In the words of Ashish Nandy, a well-known Indian postcolonial thinker, 'this colonialism colonizes minds in addition to bodies (...). The West is now everywhere, within the West and outside; in structures and in minds' (The Intimate Enemy, p. xi). The postcolonial critic's main purpose is thus to explode once for all the linear narrative of progress, this European myth, and the reference pattern of modernity modeled on the historical experience of the West which is still ubiquitous in everyday speech as in the social sciences: this model institutes a hierarchy of subjects and forms of knowledge, which is commonly conveyed in binary oppositions such as colonizer/colonized, occidental/oriental, civilized/primitive, scientific/superstitious, developed/developing, etc.

One should not forget that this line of critical thinking was born in the domain of English literary studies, in response to the need of importing into the study of the anglophone literatures of the South the type of cultural criticism developed since the 1950s by cultural studies. While deeply transforming the critique of colonialism, it has also tended to dematerialize it by confining it to the order of culture. Inevitably, the exclusive focus on colonial discourse, along with the demystification of the foundational master narratives of modernity and the assertion that colonialism has unmasked an essential flaw in western rationality, has caused postcolonialism to diverge substantially from the universalist, rationalist and economicist paradigm of orthodox Marxism. A materialist reaction to this idealist critical stance has emerged in the 1990s from among the ranks of postcolonial intellectuals themselves, with authors like Aijaz Ahmad, Arif Dirlik, Tim Brennan or Benita Parry in the forefront. One cannot face the challenge of global capitalism, says Arif Dirlik, while dismissing en bloc the lines of argumentation of the former economic and social criticism and merely replacing them with the denunciation of eurocentricism and the promotion of cultural difference. Many postcolonial authors now consider that the repudiation of the Enlightenment and the ensuing metanarratives of emancipation (first and foremost Marxism) has gone too far, as it may provide arguments to anti-democratic political forces, and severs the social science critique of world capitalism of many of its strongest tools. This materialist criticism often goes together with an incrimination of the postcolonial intellectual. There is of course a glaring chasm between the social and material situation of these diasporic intellectuals stationed in Western universities who pursue comfortable careers as professional critics of the universalist discourse of modernity, and the precarious living conditions of the subaltern populations of the periphery of the developed world. For Arif Dirlik, as for Aijaz Ahmad, postcolonial thinking is the intellectual outcome of a class situation: it emerges, they say, when the intellectual of the South reaches the Northern academia and passes himself off as an authorized interpreter of the exploited and speechless indigenous populations of the non western world.

Historians, for their part, often criticize postcolonial thinkers for their tendency to essentialize what they call 'coloniality' in the shape of a uniform and invariant power configuration, a generic conception of colonialism impervious to geographical specificities and applicable to all periods of the history of European overseas expansionism from 1492 through 1970. This coloniality, devoid as it is of empirical content, takes little account of the varying behaviour of the dominated towards the colonial power, of the social and cultural resources that they mobilized to confront it, and of the dynamics of this interaction or confrontation. Colonial regimes as they appear in historical sources were neither monolithic nor omnipotent, and their history was always marked by inconsistencies, ambiguities, inner contestations and negotiations. Moreover, postcolonial thinking always tends to cast the history of inter-cultural relations in the mould of a coercion/resistance relationship, leaving out from its straightjacketed narratives the failures, inadequacies or refusals of both colonial domination and indigenous resistance. It considers solidarity but not betrayal in rebellious behaviour. It plays down the aspects of consent to colonial subjection on the part of the dominated. Finally it ignores the passive (but major) role of individuals and social groups who have kept themselves out of the game all along, both in the West and in the colonized world.

Some postcolonial authors (David Scott, Vilashini Coopan and others) have recently suggested that the critical force and heuristic value of the postcolonial paradigm in the contemporary context of globalization are now verging on exhaustion. Underlying this assertion is the conviction that globalization is not the last variant of neo-imperialism but a radically new phase of the history of capitalism, and that it has nothing in common with the colonialism of history books, nor with the old binary relationship between centre and periphery. Thus the explanatory power of the narrative of decolonization has virtually disintegrated (the same kind of obituary also figures in the anti-globalization manifesto by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire), and postcolonial studies is bound to be superseded by globalization studies. This diagnosis however is not universally shared. The debate on whether globalization is a totally unprecedented phenomenon remains open, and various postcolonial authors emphasize the many features that it still shares with the colonial age of imperialism: both are rooted in the imbrication of capitalism, modernism and the expansionism of financial powers, and both result in multi-dimensional (economic, political and especially cultural) relations of domination and unequal exchange on a world scale. Reference is often made in this sense to Globalization and its discontents, the book by Nobel Prize Winner and former chief economist of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz, who explicitly draws a parallel between IMF policies and colonialism. Moreover the growing place occupied by teachings on diasporas, cosmopolitanism, frontier studies, transnational flows of all types in the university departments of Postcolonial Studies is a clear sign that the thematic content and field of interest of postcolonial studies are far from rigid and static, and increasingly consonant with those of globalization studies.

Generally speaking, it seems that the at times byzantine theoretical controversies and the political impasses in which postcolonial thought tended to get stuck in the 1990s have been partially overcome. The idealism and indifference to historical contexts and empirical data of colonial discourse theory, the binary opposition between 'West' and 'rest', the paralyzing radicalism of anti-eurocentricism, the outright rejection of the notions of progress, modernization and development stemming more or less directly from the Enlightenment on the grounds that they once served to justify colonialism, are all becoming more flexible and balanced. Moreover, some of the key militant postulates of postcolonialism have now gained all but universal acceptance. The critique of elitism and eurocentricism now virtually belongs to what one might call the doxa of social sciences. Interdisciplinary connections are currently taking place with all sorts of academic specialties where postcolonial theory hardly figured previously: environmental studies, religious studies, visual studies, media studies, linguistics, etc. The influence of postcolonial criticism is now present in a diffused state in all sectors of social science research where approaches 'from below' are priviledged or which deal with ethnic relations, gender, circulations, etc., including periods of history or regions of the world which never experienced colonialism as such (ancient history, East Asia). From this one may conclude either that postcolonial studies is losing its specificity and actually vanishing, or conversely that it has achieved its aim. Intellectually, in any case, it has now reached the end of a cycle. But its capacity for renewal and its institutional status in the anglophone academe, not to mention the current prestige of its star authors, hardly seem to portend its impending doom.