The Absent Postcolonial in Postcolonial Discourse
Introduction: Coping with Postcolonialism
This is a paper about ways of (dis)regarding postcolonialism. It attempts to address itself to the the complex and dominating relationship between imperialism and postcolonialism. It describes, analyses, and uncovers the extent to which the discourse of postcolonialism is itself controlled, directed, even created by the very imperial culture which it seeks to resist and replace. This ongoing process of cooptation, collusion, or compromise poses a serious challenge to postcolonial academics in general and to criticism in particular. If so, what is the scope of dissent, of alternatives, of meaningful action? The paper argues that given this unequal relationship, the larger part of our lives, experiences, and subjectivities will always remain outside postcolonial discourse. If so, "real" postcoloniality, paradoxically, may even be defined as that which is not contained in the disourse of postcolonialism.
My basic premise in this endeavour, as indeed in my general theoretical orientation, is that academic issues cannot be understood or resolved in isolation from their larger cultural, political, social, and economic contexts. The question of postcolonialism, thus, is a part of a broader civilizational interaction between India and the West, especially of our recent history of colonialism and neocolonialism. In an unequal world, academic exchanges too are bound to be unequal. I believe that examining this inequality, becoming aware of its various consequences and nuances is the beginning of meaningful action. Yet for such action, one's own affiliations, complicities, and allegiances have to be owned up. Finding our own brand of postcolonialism, therefore, implies accepting our share of responsibility in the unfinished project of national and--if one can go that far--international reconstruction. For postcolonial critics like us who occupy the middle ground between the West and the rest, an active, informed, and critical biculturalism is, perhaps, the best way of facing our our complex and often contradictory cultural imperatives.
Though it might certainly help, I wonder if we need to read the latest book by Edward Said to realize the pervasive impact of imperialism on our lives as Indian intellectuals. 1
The very disciplinary structures within which we function and the content of much of what passes as our academic discourse are almost totally derived from the West. 2 Given this ground reality we must, sooner or later, confront the question of the scope and efficacy of any possible dissent. But am I taking too much for granted already? Is the nature and extent of our subordination really understood? And how many of us really wish to dissent? Moreover, how is dissent to be defined when most of the available means and methods of dissent also, apparantly, come to us from the West? 3
Perhaps, one way of trying to untangle these rather sweeping questions is by applying them to the topic at hand: interrogating postcolonialism. There is an attitude of challenge implied in the title. H[arish] T[rivedi]'s finely written introductory note also underlines the unlikelihood of "postcolonial" being a real improvement over "commonwealth" as far as we are concerned:
For us in India, in particular, does "post-colonialism" represent
any advance or even difference of formulation which could truly
be liberating or enabling, or is it, like pristine colonialism itself,
yet another form of metropolitan imposition?
"From Commonwealth to Post-Colonial?" IACLALS Newsletter , January 1994 Trivedi's note is built upon the fact that the bandwagon of postcolonialism has been rigged up by the West; that is, both the notion of postcolonial literatures and much of the theoretical discourse developed to understand and interpret it is, for us, an importation. 4
As such, postcolonialism may be considered to be the brainchild of an imperialistic cultural system as commonwealth studies before it was. Hence the ostensible agenda of this seminar: to debate the entire workings of this discourse instead of passively accepting its validity. In other words, the very combative tone of the introductory note injects a dissenting tendency into our proceedings.
Laudable as this spirit of implied dissent is, we must not shirk from enquiring into its real scope. For instance, Trivedi's note doesn't quite consider the improbability of any real interrogation taking place. Suppose we were en masse to resolve to boycott "postcolonialism"--absurd as this may sound--would we succeed? Would those who have instituted it agree to withdraw it? Weren't many of us, not only in India, but all over the world, uncomfortable with the idea of "commonwealth" literature for a similar purpose? But the concept and word had a certain run; it was a part of standard academic currency for more than thirty years. The fact is that the decision has already been made, the substitution already affected; postcolonial has replaced commonwealth. The question for us is not whether to accept it or not, but simply to try to get the best possible positioning for ourselves in the new arrangement. Interrogation for us is therefore not a means of rejection but a strategy of assimilation. By questioning its hegemony and challenging its dominance, we are basically sueing for better terms in our transaction with postcolonailism, not opting out of it.
Moreover, if we are really to interrogate postcolonialism, let us reflect upon the banner under which we are posing our challenge. Can IACLALS, which is an Indian branch of precisely that organization which once promoted the study of commonwealth literature and now probably wishes to pursue simliar goals despite the change in nomenclature, truly interrogate what in a sense is its own raison d'tre? Can ACLALS or its Indian branch, which is an imperialisitc creature of sorts, itself interrogate imperialism? Should we not be suspicious of such interrogations? 5
I am not suggesting that no dissent is possible, that we are so compromised that whatever we do is already tainted by our collusion with imperialism. Nor am I suggesting that we should give up thinking about such issues, or worse, become cynical opportunists whose only goal is to further our careers. These and other similarly defeatist attitudes are, of course, all too easy; everyday we see people practising them. However, it is imparative for us to define the real scope of dissent and, more importantly, to indentify who might undertake a transformation of our intellectual life through such meaningful dissent. I would like to arrive at this core group by eliminating those whom we have often turned to but who cannot deliver us out of our present crisis.
For instance, there are those among us to whom this unequal academic relationship with the West is almost god-given or natural. They choose not to question it but merely seek whatever legitimate advancement is possible for within it. Then there are those who are more aware, more conscious of how the world of academics functions. Some of these are what one might call conscientious assenters. They are marked by the alacrity and eagerness with which they cooperate with authority. At one time, several of our well-known English professors exemplified this type. They were the only ones in the university in suits and ties; they were known to think that they spoke the King's (or Queen's) English; they were known to read and occasionally publish in foreign journals; they known to be looked up to in all matters relating to Western culture and thought; in a word, they upheld English and Western values in India. When I was younger, one such teacher explained to me that we need English literature to teach Indians the value of the European renaissance.
Today, these obvious assenters seem like simpletons, misguided old models. In fact, it is delightful to find one of them in some far away place, still swearing by Carlyle and Ruskin, Pater and Arnold, quite untouched by modernism let alone postmodernism. Instead, it is now fashionable to pretend that anyone who is innocent of Foucault and Said, Derrida and Kristeva is irrelevant. We have moved from an age of institutionalised assent to that of institutionalised dissent. In India as in the West, dissenters, riding high on poststructuralism and postmodernism, have all but conquered the establishment. Postcolonialism, thus, is yet another such engine with which to power one's way to academic advantage. Just as the technologies of assent were imported, the technologies of dissent are also largely imported. The slogan of maintaining standards, with which the assenters used to torment those who were less privileged, has now given way to cries of political correctness and social justice, conveniently wielded as weapons in the hands of militant intellectuals. The purveyors of the new jargons are themselves colonialists, seeking converts and followers, promising material rewards to conformists and awarding punishments to transgressors. These professional radicals with their advanced networking techniques have achieved considerable success in recent years. In search of greater legitimation and power, they are often seen in alliances of convenience with underprivileged elites and other brokers of backwardness. 6
Somewhere in between these two camps are the majority of us, who neither wear suits and ties nor carry red flags. We used to be called liberals before that became a term of abuse. Largely middle-class in attitudes and values, cautious but curious, our professed open-mindedness and tolerance somewhat beleagured and battered by circumstances, we are still blundering on in our quest for a more humane, value-based way of life. What is more, regardless of where we might have lived or studied, we are now Indian residents, reasonably committed to trying to improve the present system, however flawed it might be. Surprisingly, our faith in the usefulness of the Indian nation, both as a political entity and as civilizational unit, has not been entirely eroded. We still believe in parliamentary democracy, in secularism of some form or the other, and in certain other principles and freedoms enshrined in our constitution. Those of us who more or less fit this description make up what I believe is the alternative intellectual "core constituency" to the dominance of the Western academic discourse. 7
To understand how this core constituency works, it is useful to see who belongs to it and who doesn't. For instance, some of the "big names" in postcolonial theory, be they of Indian origin or otherwise, would not belong to this or a similar constituency. Let me consider two non-Indians names, for example. Edward Said has written passionately about Palestine, but can he be considered to be the member of a constituency such as the one I have described but centred in Palestine? No. Not only is he an American citizen, but someone who has all his life addressed the West. It is not that his efforts to make the West more sensitive, more aware of its own oppressions, more responsible and responsive in its use of power are to be discounted. On the contrary. It is people like Said who represent the humane face of the West and who enable us even to contemplate the possibility of a more universal, cosmopolitan culture. But Said cannot help us, except indirectly; he can help the West help itself and this is what he is trying to do. Let me consider another, this time subcontinental example, Sara Suleri. Her brilliant book, Meatless Days (Chicago: UCP, 1989) in many ways more moving and useful than her scholarly tome, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: UCP, 1993), is really a farewell to Pakistan. Leaving behind one world, she faces another, wishing however not to lose everything that she's inherited and acquired in the former. Again, Suleri cannot help us nor can she help Pakistan, except indirectly. She enriches the West, making it more multicultural, more open to the joys of appreciating other cultures.
Now let me come even closer home. Do Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak or Homi Bhabha, to name two "Indian" champions of theory, belong to the previously defined constituency? Again, the answer has to be a "no," though it would perhaps be a more qualified, "no." The fact is that their stake in India and in the health of our academic culture, too, is minimal. They speak to the West, seek to modify or alter Western modes of thinking and writing. If they had a real stake in Indian academics, they would publish in India, ensure that their work is readily available here. But I am yet to find a single essay by either of them in an Indian periodical.
The last example, that of the late A. K. Ramanujan, is more complex. To the West, his greatest achievement was in opening the door to Dravidian studies. But often, and mistakenly so, we too praise him for that. How does it matter that he translated medieval Shaivite hymns? Couldn't someone else have done it too? Yes, Ramanujan brought a lot of publicity and attention to things Indian in the West, but, again, is this really important? That would be like accepting the philosophy of the The World This Week which once ranked Indian events in the order of the amount of media attention they received in the USA. Surely, Dravidian studies is important in its own right, not because the University of Chicago thinks so. Things Indian have an existence and significance of their own apart from how they are perceived by the West. Ramanujan's being abroad, of course, had several other collateral benefits. One of these was that he enabled many Indians to visit Chicago. Also, Ramanujan made Indians in India take up the study of folklore. I think this was an significant contribution. However, the point that I wish to make is that interpreting India to the West is not as important as interpreting India to Indians. Yet, there is a crucial distinction between Spivak and Bhabha on the one hand and Ramanujan on the other. Unlike the former, he never left India completely. He continued to write and publish in Kannada; he also continued to write in Indian journals and publications. Certainly, he was a part of the intellectual life of India, even if only as a yearly visitor. He was neither imprisoned by the West, nor was he ever exiled from India. The West was merely a geographical and material location for his plural sensibility, a location which he used, more often than not, to his and to our advantage.
Through these examples I have tried to fracture the imagined continuity that we, especially in English studies in India, have mistakenly assumed with the West. It is not that an international academic system does not exist; evidently, it does, but the fact is that we do not have the status of full members in it. It seems difficult to attain member-status without affecting certain distortions of our subjectivities. I am arguing that instead of asking for a better deal from the West, we should give each other in India a better deal. It is here that a sense of academic community needs to be nurtured, instead of looking for a place in a ready-made community over there. Once we can redefine our priorities, our agenda too will change. We will no longer be obliged to debate their problems; instead, we'll focus on our own, immediate requirements.
Coming back to our present situation, we cannot look to others to help us, whether they are sympathetic Westerners or celebrity NRIs. Instead, we must help ourselves. In other words, the best way to begin interrogating postcolonialism is not by pretending that we are the masters of our own academic destinies but by admitting, paradoxically, how colonized we still are. What is more, we cannot continue to blame only the West for our sorry state of subjection; we must blame ourselves. The dignity of the brown-skinned scholarship depends more than ever before on how we view ourselves, rather than how others view us.
To those who have followed my line of thinking, it will be clear that there are no easy solutions or alternatives. No quick-fixes or impassioned outbursts of radicalism will instantly empower us. Rather, the path to greater sovereignty and selfhood requires great patience, perseverence, hard work, years of planning, concerted action, investments in institutions and systems, constant upgradation of the technologies of knowledge, and a renewed emphasis on recgonizing and rewarding excellence. Perhaps, the years to come may bring may bring greater publishing opportunities, greater scope for a domestic utilization of our enormous reserves of talent. But there will also be greater pressures and distortions, particularly vis a vis English and other Indian languages.
I have so far been concerned with how deeply compromised we are in our efforts to fight academic imperialism. We have become profoundly implicated into this system by a complex web of relationships of dependence and subordination. The question for us is no longer whether we choose to be a part of this system or not, but the extent to which we can coexist and cooperate with it and on what terms. I shall now look at the other side, that is, the limitations of the West's own efforts to understand or incorporate us.
The fact is that just as simple-minded dissent is impossible for us, an easy dismantling of its own oppressive systems is impossible for the West. Try as it might, through all sorts of ideological sumersaults and structural adjustments, the taint of imperialism is hard to wash off. It is not the lack of emancipating theories or philosophies that has kept the West imperialistic; it is a complex and self-sustaining system of economic, political, and military power. Capitalism, as we know only too well, has proved to be so resilient because it has had the capacity to absorb, coopt, and contain its Others. It is not that capitalism does not have contradictions or that these contradictions are not of a serious nature; actually, capitalism has thrived in spite of its contradictions. Counter-culture in the West is hooked to the dominant culture and is totally dependent on it. The dominant culture grants it such a space to provide, as it were, an outlet to all those forces of discontent that it engenders. Those in counter culture use the same technologies of defence and dissemination that the dominant culture does. The same strategies of media manipulation are used to raise money for charity as are used to sell soap and deodourant.
Applying this to academics, postcolonialism is being marketed in a similar but rather more sophisticated manner than commonwealth literature was--and this differs little from the way some other trendy academic products, say, poststructuralism or postmodernism, are also being marketed. Certainly, books on postcolonialism are no cheaper than those in other fields. Imperialism is, thus, built into Western academics. There is no easy way out of it even for those who wish to change things. In fact, Said's greatest contribution is to show the West how deeply imperialistic it still is. Just as the first step towards meaningful dissent lies in recognizing the extent to which we are already compromised, the first step towards a meaningful transfer of academic power lies in the West's recognition and acknowledgment of its unwillingness or inability actually to affect it. Both of us are trapped, though our traps are different.
"Postcolonial" is an omnibus and unwieldy category, which on closer examination, becomes almost meaningless. Yet it has acquired a certain marketability in the West. It allows us better selling opportunities for certain aspects of our culture. As such, we may not reject it entirely. After all, it does have its utility and servicability. By the same token we cannot accept it totally. Even if we wish to, it will not accommodate us. The major portion of our lives and experiences will remain outside its purview. Given the unequal relationship with the West, the larger part of our lives, experiences, and subjectivities will always remain outside postcolonial discourse. If so, "real" postcoloniality, paradoxically, may even be defined as that which is not contained in the disourse of postcolonialism. There are, moreover, millions of those who are more postcolonial, or should I say, more colonized, than us. Their subjectivities have escaped the notice not just of those who have an institutionalized interest in postcolonialism, but also those of us who are supposed to live cheek by jowl with them.
Postcolonialism, then, like most things of Western origin, can be neither rejected or accepted fully. We have each to work out our own adjustment and compromise with it. We may try to use it against the grain, subvert it to our advantage, or to deploy it to our benefit, all the while endeavouring to safeguard ourselves from its distorting tendencies. Postcolonialism, again, like commonwealth studies before it, is a mixed blessing; perhaps, we can even argue that in so far as it foregrounds the central and controlling fact of colonialism, it is actually an advance over commonwealth literature.
Throughout this paper I have tried to expose the hollowness and futility of a simplistic revolt or rejection of the West. I have tried to show our numerous and often unknown ties with it. Willy nilly, we are implicated in an international and imperialistic academic discourse, in varying stages of dependency and subordination. Simultaneously, I have also tried to show that this international discourse is itself incapable of totally subjecting us, that it is inadequate and misguided in its own attempts to disempower itself. Under whatever rubric, it cannot contain its Other. It is itself too limited and mistaken. In other words, there is a lot of cultural life outside the sphere of the West, though not entirely independent of it. National culture, thus, does offer an alternative to the West; however, it is important to realize that it is not autonomous and entirely self-sufficient. The West is not our home; but there is a lot that is Western in our home which is outside the West. Similarly, our national culture is an effective refuge which we inhabit as Indian citizens; yet, perhaps, we are not entirely at home here. For us, it is not a question of the either the West or India, but of both the West and India versus either the West alone or India alone. It is only a truly liberating kind of biculturalism which can genuinely serve our needs. 8
My strategy in this paper has been to try to postulate a catalytic core constitutency which would try to work out alternatives to the hegemonic dominance of the West in our intellectual lives. This constituency would be, primarily, national but not necessarily in a chauvanistic or narrowminded sense. It would also forge alliances with similar linguistic or sub-nationalistic intellectual groups on the one hand and freindly international and metropolitan academics on the other. If this constituency were to be consolidated, the "best" Indian scholarship would not have to be denationalised before it finds a place in the international academic discourse; the two wouldn't be mutually exclusive. Instead, the former would fuse with the latter or clash with the latter as the case might be, but never be subservient to the latter.
I believe that one cannot posit one, universal, international academic discourse; certainly, what passes off for this discourse is, at present, Eurocentric and Western. Sueing for better representation and greater space for India in this discourse will not do. We will only be locked into a relationship of continuing subservience if we adopt this path. We need to strengthen ourselves, our institutions, journals, and publication industries. We need not merely attempt to duplicate or copy metropolitan systems, but develop our own alternative systems according to our own needs. Whether Indian intellectuals will face this challenge or not appears very uncertain at this juncture.
I am referring to Said's Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993).
There is, of course, no satisfactory way of defining the West. For the purposes of this paper, the West is essentially a combination of Europe and North America, especially the USA and the UK; it is not merely a geographical alliance, but an economic, political, military, and cultural conglommeration. In a broader sense, it refers to a multinational, primarily English-speaking academic discourse, with hierarchical and unequal relations between member-communities.
Much of the recent impetus for dissent in Indian academics is derived from various poststructuralist and postmodernist theories such as feminism, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on.
By "postcolonialism" I refer to the emerging Western discourse on texts by writers from countries which were formerly colonies. Among its many disadvantages is that its focus, by definition, is on contemporary literature though some of the richest literature from such societies was produced during colonialism and even before colonialism.
For notes on history of commonwealth studies and ACLALS, see Hena Maes-Jelinek et al. eds, A Shaping of Connections: Commonwealth Literature Studies--Then and Now (Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1989).
It is to the advantage of the latter to create, for instance, a mutually exclusive polarity between social justice and merit. They argue that "merit" is a myth invented by the upper castes to oppress the lower castes; however, they swear by social justice, without defining what they mean by "justice" or swear by "backwardness" without defining how it is constituted except in terms of caste. It is as outrageous to argue that those who advocate merit are against social justice as it is to argue that those who seek social justice are selfish opportunists. The fact is that as a society we cannot afford to ignore either social justice or merit; we need both of them.
Indeed, there are plenty of advantages in such a "constitutional" definition of "Indian."
By biculturalism I do not refer to the anguish of being torn between two cultures and its attendant crises of identity, nor to attempts to reconstitute a national culture by recognizing or encouraging cultural diversity. The former has been a frequent condition of mind of English-educated Indians for over 150 years and the latter is a recent and fairly controvertial proposition, especially debated in countries like USA, Canada, UK, or Australia. Multiculturalism of the latter kind has always existed in India and need not therefore be promoted as a proposed improvement over an existing monoculture. Instead, I consider biculturalism or multiculturalism to be somewhat like bilingualism or multilingualism--they involve the ability to be functional in and familiar with more than one culture or, to use current economic parlance, cultural market. These cultures may be continuous and overlapping, or more distant and dissimilar. In either case, coexistence, extension, accumulation are crucial rather than substitution, rejection, or suppression. One adds on cultures instead of seeking conversion from one to the other.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at a seminar at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. The seminar was on "Interrogating Postcolonialism: Theory, Text, and Context" and was organized by the Indian Association for Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies (IACLALS). When I was writing up the paper, I had entitled it "Postcolonial Discourse and the Absent Postcolonial." The implication behind the title was fairly obvious: while postcolonial discourse was what the metropolitan West and its academic institutions had invented to understand, categorize, and control the literatures and subjectivities of the postcolonial peoples of the world, the latter were more or less excluded from it. In other words, while the discourse belonged to West, the subjectivities were all that the "real" postcolonial people were left with.
Why was I saying this? My point was that most postcolonial people were so colonized, so powerless, so marginalized that they were rendered voiceless, faceless, and powerless within their own societies, let alone in the international world system. If so, then their "postcoloniality" was all that they had, while everything else belonged to those who endowed them with this label in the first place, the intellectuals of the advanced West, with their latest technologies of knowledge and power. I was simply trying to highlight the total incapacity of postcolonial discourse to come to terms with the lived reality of the people it was theorizing about. All culturally dominant groups thus define the realities of a vast number of people who cannot do so themselves.
There was, however, a flaw in my logic, I soon realized. To which group did I belong? To those with the word or those without it? Obviously, to the former group. Though, I too as a living and practicing postcolonial critic would find no place in the rather exclusive and rarefied heaven of international postcolonial discourse, I certainly did have a place in some sort of national, Indian academic community. Therefore, if I considered myself to be a postcolonial too, which I did, I couldn't very well present a paper claiming my own absence from a discourse in which I was at that very moment participating through my paper. My presence at Shimla would, in a certain sense, contradict the point of my paper.
This was all the more obvious when I reached IAAS, housed in the grand environs of the Rashtrapati Niwas, perched atop Summer Hill. Ironically, I was the only participant in the seminar who had flown into Shimla--thanks of course to my emplower's generosity triggered off, no doubt, by some mysterious logic connected with my "basic pay"--a privilege or extravagence which even the foreigners did not indulge in (they drove up in a Contessa from Delhi). At the small airport, getting down from an even smaller aeroplane which seated only fifteen, being driven in the Institute car to my destination, and actually arriving at the magnificent stone edifice overlooking tree-lined valleys, once the seat of Imperial power and the summer residence of of the Viceroy of India, I had to admit that I had never felt so privileged as an intellectual in India. It was wisely fortuitous of me to have changed the title of my paper. How could I, being in perhaps the most elevated and exalted setting of Indian academia, still calim to be "absent" from the discourse-making elites of the world? Though an outsider to metropolitan theory, I was certainly a part of the dominant group so far as India was concerned. All my arguments against the West could be turned against me; it was people like me who kept the "rest of India" out of tbe dialogues of power.
Yet, the opulence of the surroundings filled me with deep unease. Throughout, certain troubling questions that kept occurring to me: do we as Indian intellectuals deserve this? Have we earned it? Or are we merely playing the game of being cynical professionals, interested primarily in furthering our own careers, edging closer and closer to centres of power, through a combination of academic racketeering and public relations? How could Indian academics be made more responsive and responsible? How could we live up to representing not just ourselves and our narrow interests but the interests and welfare of the people of India, most of whom cannot even read and write? When defined thus, our domain is the whole of India and our moral burden as intellectuals all the greater. I thought I could weave such concerns into my discussion of postcolonialism, which I shall turn to shortly. Perhaps, at the end of my paper, I can revert to these concerns once again. ..
|Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape|