Postcolonial theory, it has been argued, has run its course. This is the premise of a meeting held recently in Berlin. Some scholars have underscored the importance of poststructural thinkers in the shaping of postcolonial theory; others point, in particular, to the publication of Said’s Orientalism (1978) as the foundational movement of postcolonial studies; and yet others have been drawn to such intellectual developments as ‘Subaltern Studies’, often seen as the form in which postcolonial studies took its most distinctive shape in India. As is true of nearly every field of intellectual inquiry, fractures and fissures gradually opened up within postcolonial studies. One of the founding members of ‘Subaltern Studies’ and among the most eminent scholars of Indian history, Sumit Sarkar, effected a departure from the Subaltern Studies collective less than a decade after its inception with a stinging critique of postcolonial studies. He charged it with being ineffective, as incapable of any ‘real’ intervention in a world where the last pockets of resistance to neoliberalization policies and capitalism’s surge had apparently been abandoned by the early 1990s, and as so enamored with its own languages of interpretation and intellectual concerns as to be spectacularly insensitive to questions of material culture and political economy.
On the other hand, there is the view, which has a large number of adherents, that (to borrow from the language of the meeting’s concept note) “postcolonial studies have been proven extremely effective for the humanities.” Phenomena that were formerly at the margins have been brought to the forefront; those who were left out of the narratives of history, and of the nation-state, have struggled, often successfully, to make themselves heard. The master narratives of the Enlightenment are no longer accepted uncritically, and it is widely recognized – though postcolonial theory has been scarcely alone in coming to this awareness – that many of the universalisms taken for granted are particularisms, often of an insidious sort. One could continue in this vein. Even among the adherents of postcolonial studies, however, there is a growing recognition that exhaustion has set in, the questions put on offer are predictable, and that one is only likely to encounter regurgitation of familiar arguments.
I shall, in successive posts, put forward nine theses (preceded by a prologue) that do not so much enter into this debate as they attempt to suggest that the practitioners of postcolonial studies, for all their achievements and insights, were entirely evasive about some fundamental questions. We should be thinking of ‘ecumenical futures’ which, however, are not possible without a rather different intellectual framework for understanding the nature of oppression in contemporary society and the place of modern knowledge systems in consolidating intolerable forms of inequality between the Global South and the Global North and even within the Global North. Indeed, the dominant strands of contemporary theory, since from around the 1970s, have, I think it can reasonably be argued, been largely insensitive to most of the considerations raised in the posts that will follow enumerating the theses.
Prologue: Before we speak of ‘postcolonial fatigue’, we should perhaps be asking whether everyone is suffering from this fatigue in equal measure. Curiously, even if practitioners of postcolonial studies often saw themselves as heavily indebted to the insights of Derrida and Foucault, postcolonialism had few adherents in the French academy and the enterprise remained largely confined to the Anglo-American world and perhaps the wider Anglophone academy. How far this has to do with ‘French exceptionalism’, and with the sense (embodied, to take one infamous illustration, with the Law of 2005, previously referenced on my blog) that French colonialism left behind a glorious inheritance, albeit one squandered and trivialized by formerly colonized subjects, is an interesting question in itself.
However, there is little reason to suppose that postcolonial studies were as pervasive even in the American or English academy as is sometimes assumed to be the case. True, nearly every American university or college of some standing had resolved, some years ago, to hire at least one postcolonial scholar, but postcolonial scholars remained in a wholly distinct minority, even if on occasion they managed to attract a disproportionate amount of attention. In similar fashion, it is possible to argue that the authors most frequently referenced by postcolonial scholars – Conrad, Kipling (usually ‘Kim’), Forster, Fanon, Achebe, Rushdie (generally ‘Midnight’s Children’), among others – were joined by other authors over the years, but nevertheless postcolonial scholarship turned on a rather small sliver of original (and most commonly literary) texts. I recall, fifteen years after Said had published Orientalism, meeting the chair of the department of English at a small college in Michigan who had never heard of Said; more to the point, however pervasive the writings of Said, Spivak, Bhabha, or James Clifford in departments of English (and, for reasons that are obvious, in anthropology, a discipline originating under colonialism) among a small coterie of scholars, the practitioners of many other disciplines proceeded in their work in complete indifference to postcolonial studies. Once one moves outside the domain of the academy, there are far more unsettling questions about the at best tenuous relationship of postcolonial studies to the wider public sphere. The three decades that postcolonial studies has flourished in the American academy are precisely those where the US has engaged in rapacious conduct around the world, from its illegal mining of Nicaragua’s harbours to the Gulf War of 1991 and, more recently, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One can be certain that postcolonial studies, even if some of its practitioners occasionally deluded themselves into believing that their interventions and interpretations were calculated to make a difference in the ‘real’ world – and, yes, one might legitimately ask how ‘real’ is real, and why literature should not be construed as being just as ‘real’ as the nitty-gritty stuff on the street – made no difference to the outcome of US foreign policy. The gist of all this should, in any case, be transparent: before we convince ourselves of a postcolonial fatigue, perhaps we should seriously ask if postcolonial studies traveled as far as is sometimes alleged.