[On October 11, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Empire and the End of the Postcolonial’” as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Christopher Taylor, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. Below is a response to the lecture from Debojoy Chanda, English.]
“Is the Postcolonial Also the Post-Revolutionary?”
Written by Debojoy Chanda (English)
Over the last decade, critics have begun to ask whether postcolonial studies is a disciplinary formation whose moment has passed. A field that was consolidated between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, postcolonial studies was assailed by a sense of epistemological crisis after the World Trade Center attacks. Scholars worried that postcolonial theory appeared to have lost its relevance and efficacy, given its apparent inability to successfully anticipate or theorize these events. Against such a backdrop, Chris Taylor’s lecture, “Empire and the End of the Postcolonial” took up the question of temporality that he argues has haunted the field since its inception. Leading us through key articles by Anne McClintock, Ann Laura Stoler, and a PMLA panel, Taylor examined the question: when is the postcolonial?
Taylor began his lecture by locating Afro-Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James’ 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, as a postcolonial text before its time. This was a text that took the Haitian Revolution as a prefiguration of a future revolutionary Pan-Africanism. James’ own position as an intellectual was located within a present defined by Italian Fascism and the rise of Hitler, a past that was the Revolution, and a possible future movement toward a Pan-Africanism. Given James’ temporal location, postcolonial theorizations can be understood as situated either in a past or in a future moment. In other words, these theorizations are about chalking out revolutionary possibilities for an anticipated future, keeping in mind past anti-colonial revolutions and their lessons. If theorists critical of postcolonial studies fail to locate its topicality in the present, that is, according to Taylor, because postcolonial studies does not situate itself in a present.
Given the apparent linearity of past and future within which postcolonial studies seems to be located, many critics, Taylor suggests, tend to view the ‘postcolonial’ as a moment that is in tandem with a larger Enlightenment telos of a linear world history. As a result, postcolonial studies is made to look like yet another problematic Enlightenment version of world history that needs to be abnegated in favor of more ‘correct’ theorizations. However, suspicions of world history as a standardized modular form are in fact articulated by postcolonial theorists like Partha Chatterjee, who discuss how a ‘First World’ narrative of capitalist development cannot be seamlessly imposed upon an ex-colonized ‘Third World.’ In addition, gestures toward ‘correct’ theorizations, Taylor points out, are rather incongruously expressed in terms like ‘World Anglophone studies’—a term that is fast supplanting ‘postcolonial studies.’ The irony of an ‘English’ disciplinary formation against which ‘Anglophone’ is reduced to an ‘other,’ is inescapable: the ‘World’ in question is in fact the ‘rest of the world,’ making ‘World Anglophone’ yet another essentialist category based on an Anglo-American ‘selfhood.’ Such gestures are insufficient to replacing a field faulted for having outlived its scholarly relevance.
In keeping with its suspicions of a world historical telos, when socialist formations like the Soviet Union were collapsing and romantic possibilities of the First World Left and Third World guerillas walking shoulder to shoulder in an anti-colonial cause began to disappear, postcolonial studies unsurprisingly emerged as a powerful scholarly presence. Postcolonial theory is therefore a post-revolutionary theory. This post-revolutionary stance, Taylor suggests, is an effect of postcolonial studies’ Janus-like posture of looking ahead to a future revolutionary moment, in the face of the failure of past revolutions: the field was consolidated as Communism became a political possibility of the past, while Third World liberation was deferred to a future. Thus, revolutionary time did not seem to be building up to a culmination in the present that the ‘postcolonial’ could locate. Given this temporal disjunction from the point of view of a present, Anne McClintock expresses skepticism toward the ‘post’ of ‘postcolonialism.’ In addition, she is doubtful of ‘colonialism’ as a rubric that encompasses forms of colonization as disparate as internal colonization and imperial colonization. However, McClintock fails to realize that given its alignment with post-structuralism, postcolonialism rendered its own nomenclature under erasure—it was a category that was, after all, trying to uncover and view a past through means that colonization had already rendered dubious, and to theorize a revolutionary future that Anglo-American neoliberalism had already jeopardized.
As for the ‘Global South,’ this was a term that made the borders defining ex-colonized countries nebulous, as a member of the audience pointed out. Taylor agreed that the term ‘Global South,’ by effecting this haziness, added another level of essentialism to these countries’ identities. However, he simultaneously drew attention to Benedict Anderson’s seminal text Imagined Communities (1983). In this text, Anderson emphasized that nations were, in the end, constructed through a process of emergence facilitated by ‘print capitalism,’ to use his oft-quoted term. According to Anderson, with capital expanding markets, a standardized orthography arose, and with it, disparate people located in the same homogenous empty time, began reading the same print forms together. As a result, they formed deep, horizontal kinships, and were able to imagine a nation-in-development together—a nation that was not dependent on definitions in terms of borders.
The notion of print capitalism, according to Partha Chatterjee, in no way gave up the modular form of development associated with a nation-state. What the Subaltern Studies collective—of which Chatterjee was a member—tried to articulate, was the inability of an ex-colonized country to attain nationhood via a bourgeois-democratic revolution of the classic nineteenth-century type. Postcolonial theory tried to cope with this loss of a world-historical horizon, thus rethinking how one would write historiography.
Adding to Taylor’s point about the loss of a historical horizon, I would say that postcolonialism is perennially haunted by the specter of a world history: according to Hegel, the Western colonization of a spatial entity actually begins this entity’s being-in-the world (and in world history) as a country (234). By this logic, if the emergence of countries qua nations is contingent upon their emergence on a world map, a map of a country can be said to emanate into a ‘world’ consciousness only when the West has ‘discovered’/colonized and written about this country. However problematic this may sound, until colonization happens, the country in question is not, by Hegel’s logic, globally recognized as an entity, and the writing of its history remains deferred. Postcolonial theory, from this point of view, can be seen as an attempt to question the writing of history as a whole—it writes against the grain.
Taylor closed his lecture with a reference to a 2007 PMLA roundtable discussion between several scholars who addressed the futility of postcolonial studies in the present. The truth, according to Taylor, was that 9/11 and the Iraq War had caught many intellectuals off-guard, and they displaced their disenchantment upon postcolonial studies’ apparently Eurocentric (and world-historic) tendencies. Hence, perhaps, the backlash against postcolonial studies. This is the space and time within which Anglo-American academia locates postcolonial studies at present; however, Taylor’s point is that the discipline never temporally located itself in a present to begin with. Taylor ended with the question of how postcolonial studies could deal fruitfully with and emerge from this crisis in which it found itself. In other words, he seemed to suggest that postcolonial studies had now to articulate its position in the present. Given this quandary, reconfigurations of postcolonial theory are being effected. It remains to be seen which of these reconfigurations will stand the test of time.
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