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Postcolonial encounters

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RUMINA SETHI

Neither East Nor West looks at the ways in which colonial imperialism continues to function today through new forms of globalisation.

Neither East Nor West: Postcolonial Essays on Literature, Culture and Religion, edited by Kerstin W. Shands, Sweden: Sodertorns Hogskola, 2008, p. 186, price not stated.

Edward Said’s Orientalism squarely established that the world inhabited by academics certainly knew of its two-fold division into East and West. Whereas the West was propped up by its innovativeness, advancement, adulthood and scientific temper, its other, by default, acquired connotations of imitativeness, sluggishness, childhood and sorcery. The West led and the East lagged. Unfortunately, this view has endured. Needless to say, the West is the centre to the rest of the world because the belief systems it engendered during the Enlightenment phase created permanent divisions between the West and the rest.

Such a view was built up and aided by an industry of unselfconscious writing and representation, some sympathetic, some vitriolic. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe teaches Friday to call him Master and in one stroke, polarises the world into civilised and primitive. Crusoe’s imaginings of the savagery of the inhabitants of the place he finds himself shipwrecked have continued to date in the cinematic representation of Tom Hanks in “The Castaway” or much earlier in “The Blue Lagoon” and many other films. More seriously, Marx’s infamous papers on British rule in India consider colonialism to be the “unconscious tool of history in bringing about . . . revolution”. Said’s Culture and Imperialism, in fact, gives us a veritable list of novels, opera, and other cultural artefacts which define the pattern of relationships between the Western world and its overseas territories. Connecting Conrad and Jane Austen with this enterprise, Said holds them culpable of depicting native peoples as “marginally visible” and “people without History”.

Cultural negotiations

This kind of geographical diversity provides the matrix for cross-cultural exchange both at the mundane and the sublime levels, which is what Neither East nor West intends to uncover through a series of conference essays on the subject. At a juncture when the world can no longer be encapsulated into Said’s water tight contexts, the contributors explore the ways in which postcolonialism has been “developing and diversifying in several ways”. Postcolonial subversion has taken many forms: either its literary manifestation includes overt resistance through an emphasis on nativism or it charts an ambiguous terrain where the contributions of colonialism cannot be overstated. Postcolonialism has acquired a whole new range of meanings today and moved from its focus on imperial control to neo-colonialism. Colonialism is really an anachronistic term for capital expansion, and so it comes as no surprise that capital expansion in global terms is often conflated with globalisation. Among its many connotations as highlighted by several contributors, one interpretation stands out in the contemporary milieu — that postcolonialism has less significance in connoting “after colonialism” than in emphasising the persistence of it in terms of a continuing imperialism. With the new imperialism of the superpowers, it seems that colonialism has never been done away with. Postcolonial Studies thus becomes an ever bigger discipline than originally envisaged as colonialism had never been a metaphor for oppression in such a gargantuan manner.

Kerstin Shands’ Introduction charts the theoretical trajectory of the marginalised, peppering it with names of dozens of postcolonial commentators from Helen Tiffin, John McLeod and Moore-Gilbert to Aijaz Ahmad, Dirlik, Loomba, Appiah and Graham Huggan. Even the views of Hardt and Negri on the borderlessness of contemporary nations are roped in. In short, the editor sweeps in the many facets of postcolonialism — language, nation, translation, globality — in the effort to make the book comprehensive.

Postcolonial Studies is placed in a particular predicament today: it purports to be a liberatory practice but it is complicit with new hegemonies. Part of the problem arises from the inability of this discipline to step outside its textual parameters. Postcolonial theory, by addressing representation and the relations between centre and periphery, loses its historical-material reality and begins to exist in theory only. The significance of the Third World is thus well-nigh lost in service to “high theory”. Postcolonialism and postcoloniality are themselves not unproblematic terms any longer, as the editor points out, because they originated in the Western academy even as they purport to give a voice to the underprivileged non-Western people. So it is that postcolonial studies, postcolonial intellectuals and postcolonial identity have become global in their conceptualisation. Yet postcolonialism is a necessary intervention in the dominant discourse of European humanism which continues into contemporary globalism.

Diverse perspectives

Within such a terrain, the various articles here present perspectives ranging from the space of the marginalised in both the South African Andre Brink and the Bengali Mahasweta Devi to the 19 century Oriya novel and its counterpart in England; from the significance of the Man Booker Prize and the “disproportionate emphasis on India” to a rather oft-trodden analysis of identity crisis in the figure of Naipaul’s Mohun Biswas; from a caricature of the “Mohammed cartoons” by the Western media and the unexplained hostility towards Muslims to a celebration of Arabo-Islamic literature and culture, especially among women scholars who are sidelined in similar ways as alien and inferior. Though wide-ranging in its formulation, the compilation is limited in its originality and insights.


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