March 30, 2009

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.)


Unknown said...

If I may, the problem with taking the idea that "the Victorian novel is typically treated as "a vehicle for imperial authority" as a figure for postcolonial theory is that it only engages you with the least interesting people, the ones who were happy to be polemic at the cost of not doing anything interesting with the literature. I feel like in the days when Said's thesis was still sort of novel, poco types were fighting a different battle, and a lot of the "canonical" theory is exactly as blunt an instrument as you say because it still harks back to that critical moment. But just because some people's conception of poco is as undifferentiated as "Victorians! Bad!" doesn't mean the general approach isn't sound (to ask as questions what so many polemicists simply asserted without argument; now that we've acknowledged that empire existed, and that literature noticed, the question is the interesting one: how did it? Why did it? and so forth). Plus, I still haven't read Soueif, but I can't think of a single interesting writer who didn't think about empire in more ambiguous and interesting ways than the majority of the postcolonial readings of them. all of which is to say (in a roundabout way, since I'm still pre-coffee), be careful that you don't set up a straw man version of postcolonial theory; it's very easy to do, and fair, since there are so many uninteresting theorizers out there, but you wouldn't be doing as much with Soueif's novel as you could.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks, Aaron: fear of setting up a straw man version of postcolonial criticism is one of the things motivating me to proceed with caution here, but some of what I read did rather confirm that reductive view of it. I'm interested that you seem dissatisfied with "the majority of postcolonial readings" and that you think a critique on the grounds I have so roughly sketched out would indeed be "fair"--if there are these problems with what we might call typical applications of this theoretical model, there would still be some value (if primarily polemical) in pointing them out, but I think you are right that the polemical purposes thus served would not be as interesting in terms of my actual project as trying to do better with Soueif. It may be a matter of resisting the temptation to "market" the project as some kind of theoretical revisionism--and, sadly, I think that kind of framing does sell a piece better than just focusing on what I think is intrinsically interesting about Soueiff: I did play that card when drafting the current version of the paper proposal (and the referees seemed to like it).

Unknown said...

The biggest cliche in postcolonial studies, it seems to me, is that There Are Major Problems With Postcolonial Theory (Ato Quayson's Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice or Process opens with that joke, I believe). But while poco people generally seem to now recognize that the earliest claims of postcolonial theorists were the kinds of space clearing gestures that were necessary then (but which lacked subtlety), such gestures still get taken as representative in ways that are unhelpful. A text like Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin is likely to reproduce the sense of the field as static in a way that obscures exactly that dynamic; now more than ever, I think, it's really impossible to say that poco "is" anything at all. I more or less gave up on trying to grok "the field" some time ago; it seemed much more valuable to put my time and energy into understanding area specific arguments and contexts than to try to master an inherently tendentious term like "postcolonial."

Sisyphus said...

It might be helpful to think of "waves" of postcolonial scholarship, similar to the waves of feminist activism, and criticism (if you read early feminist scholarship of the late-70s variety, some of it is very blunt and limited and basically boils down to either "rah rah women!" or "what about the women?" --- not that I am disparaging any of that important space-clearing work done by my foremothers in the academy).

The thing is, with feminist scholarship the general understanding of it recognizes that there have been these waves of development and refinement, whereas postcolonial studies seems to still be defined in terms of its founding, "heroic" moment.

Sadly, I haven't taken a postcolonial studies class in a looong time, so I realize that my all-time favorite, Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather, is no longer new and cutting-edge.

Ooh, and I can tell you from one fellow grad's highly contentious, shouting-filled MLA interviews, that even using the term "postcolonial studies" is highly contested ---- that some people feel there no longer is such a thing as postcolonial studies or that we have Moved Beyond postcolonial studies ---- but more detail than that, I don't really know.

Sisyphus said...

Oh yeah, and for the sausage-grinder criticism comment --- that reminded me of how my students were using "he's crazy!" as a very dismissive, discussion-ending comment about all sorts of different madmen (I teach a lot of madness and literature and it frustrates me when they want to judge it instead of discuss it). Of _course_ he's mad when he strangles his lover with her hair! But that's just the _beginning_ of the discussion --- we need to look at how and why he's crazy, and in what way that craziness plays out in the text, and besides, it's really nifty!

I think that similarly, colonial and postcolonial texts are implicated in imperialism and affected by colonization, but each one will do it in a different, contextually-specific way, and when you start to pull all that apart is when it gets really interesting.

Rohan Maitzen said...


I like your point about thinking in terms of waves or phases of post-colonial criticism. That's one argument for not just starting and sticking with Said, as I have sort of been advised to do by some in the Valve thread. I also agree that you can do a contextually and textually specific reading that arises from points of post-colonial tension (if that makes sense)--but I'm concerned about a cherry-picking approach to criticism, too. Can I use a term like "hybridity," for instance, which is associated with strong, very particular large-scale theoretical views, without taking up those views yourself? That's where I get especially uneasy.

PS I'm glad you comment here sometimes; I always enjoy reading your blog.

R/T said...

I've observed over the years the ways in which the world of literary criticism has exponentially increased its special concepts, labels, and jargon, almost as if the concepts, labels, and jargons work together to justify the field of literary criticism. After all, lawyers have had their jargon. Physicians have had their special concepts, And, of course, engineers have had their unique labels. It gives those fields a special language--a special code--that enhances their exclusivity. The problems arises, however, in just that idea: The code excludes others. In literary studies, I am concerned that we have done much the same thing with all the concepts, labels, and jargon. We may have justified our existence in academia because we too have a special code, but we have also marginalized ourselves by excluding too many others from our conversations.

Well, that is my mini-rant against literary theory and criticism. I hope I have not stepped on too many toes within the exclusive world of academia.

Sisyphus said...

Oh, duh, this is over at the valve too! I should have commented over there. (not all the posts are, uh, my thing, so I let them pile up in my bloglines and only check it occasionally.)

Thanks for reading my posts!

Masood Raja said...

I really enjoyed this lively discussion about the pitfalls of postcolonial theory. Please do also keep in mind that Bill Ashcroft and other;s work itself is heavily contested within the postcolonial field of study as they were basically Commonwealth literature scholars who made a transition into postcolonial studies.
As someone who teaches the subject, I find the methods involved in the field of study ever changing and expanding.
I do hope that your students discuss this fascinating field of study in all its complexity.

You may also point them to my website on the subject that is open to my students and all others interested:
Masood Raja