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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Exploring Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/31/09 at 08:10 AM

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 Tiffin, 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.)


Comments

Do you think any critical method starts without presuppositions about what it seeks to discover? Do you think there’s a recognizable difference between this, if you grant it, and “assuming its conclusions?” It seems to me that method has priority out of necessity. This is a very old, mainly historiographical, debate; and are there practicing positivist historians left?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/31/09 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Do you think any critical method starts without presuppositions about what it seeks to discover?”

Surely there are different ways in which to have “presuppositions about what it seeks to discover?”
and the mere fact that all critical methods have some sort of presuppositions doesn’t imply the sort of easy equivalence you seem to be suggesting.

I don’t think that broad methodological commitments are the same as assuming your conclusions. I’m certainly open to arguments that post-colonial criticism is of a less by-the-numbers procedure than the two definitions above suggest, but I don’t think that a generic assertion that “everyone does it” is enough.

By on 03/31/09 at 12:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If the commitments cause you to find evidence that suits your approach and reject that which doesn’t, isn’t it effectively the same? How would Popperism work in literary criticism? Could we have a journal of negative results?

I see no principled difference between what is described above as “assuming your conclusions” and what most criticism does. Philological fact-gathering might be an exception, and various forms of distant-reading, computer-assisted or other, might be another; but for a methodologically committed formalism to accuse a contextualist approach thus is unwitting hypocrisy.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/31/09 at 01:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since you mention Popper, I’ll try a science analogy.

Suppose a chemist has a device for detecting molecules of type A. Clearly, she will only find evidence that suits her approach. That is, she can’t look at a sample and find molecules of type B, C, etc. Only A.

But that isn’t necessarily the same as assuming her conclusions. She’s not committed to the principle “Every sample I look at will contain molecules of type A”. She’s open to the possibility that she might look for molecules of type A in a sample and not find them.

Maybe that analogy doesn’t carry over well into criticism, but I think it’s a stretch to say that, in general, having a particular methodology = assuming your conclusions.

By on 03/31/09 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The analogy doesn’t carry over into criticism. That is the point.

I also happen to believe that an incomplete theory cannot be falsified by evidence, though this is more of an actual philosophy-of-science question.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/31/09 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I think there is a difference between presuppositions about what is worth investigating and presuppositions or assumptions about the answers you will find. I don’t object to criticism that explores whether a given text “reveals ... colonialist ideologies and processes”; I object to criticism that assumes at the outset that every text will be “implicated” in colonialist or imperialist ideologies. “Rejecting” evidence that doesn’t suit your theory sounds like shoddy scholarship to me.

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/31/09 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you would suggest that “implication” is not a property of every text (to different degrees) within the colonial/imperial discourse network, you are rejecting a key facet of the method and therefore not working within that method at all.

That may sound like an easy and sensible thing to do. But I suspect that the response I mentioned above--that similar assumptions are built within other methods presumed more objective--is a more difficult objection to overcome than you seem to think. All scholarship rejects evidence that doesn’t support the theory, insofar as there is one. Literary criticism is not a science, and I’m far from sure that this would work as a description of science.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/31/09 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your original suspicion is right that these aren’t good definitions.  Do they reference Said?  I’d be surprised for example if he specified “contrapuntal” in such a question-begging way.

Why not just read Said et al.?  Padmini Mongia’s reader is another nice starting point.  I’m not a lit scholar, but my feeling is you learn a crit method by its applications.

By on 03/31/09 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about post-colonial theory - I read Orientalism some years ago, a hand full of articles, chapters, and excerpts in a reader edited by Aschroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, some Fanon, and this and that in/on Afrocentrism - but I’d like to register a protest. Whoever coined the term “hybridity” should be subjected to some appropriately vile discipline for coining a term that does violence to the tongue. Ugh!

I note, however, that a rather large portion of the biological organisms are hybrids. Not so much the megafauna, where hybrids tend to be sterile, but the megaflora and one-celled organisms. There’s a lot of horizontal transfer of genetic material in those organisms.

And then there’s American music. I have occasionally seen jazz categorized as “Western” music, which is silly. But it’s equally silly to think of it as “African.” We could say that it’s “American,” which is true, but not terribly illuminating. It’s a hybrid. And so is rock and roll and hip hop and lots of other stuff. It seems to me that some of the issues that are raised concerning post-colonial literature are very much like those raised by American music (among many musics). There is all this cultural miscegenation and it’s terribly creative. It really is.

Is the English language a hybrid?

By Bill Benzon on 03/31/09 at 05:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder whether a certain line of argument—such as the “Victorians equal imperialists”—isn’t far more a product of battles within the academy over canons and fellowships than it is a useful way of doing criticism. I can’t think of a single interesting postcolonial novel that isn’t far smarter than those definitinons about thinking the ambiguities of colonial and postcolonial relationships. But one can obtain a certain polemic urgency for canon-shaping interventions by simply bypassing the ambiguities.

And I’m with Colin in that I can’t imagine Said being so ham-fisted as that definition of contrapuntal; he had to be quite polemic in Orientalism because his argument was so very novel at the time. But a lot of what he had to work very hard to establish—that empire was a major part of British culture—we now take for granted, leaving the parts we don’t take for granted (the monolithic nature of Orientalism, for example, or the uniformity of british imperial culture or whatever) seeming like the assertions without arguments that they are. But there’s a baby and bathwater character to the problem; an awful lot of postcolonial theory and criticism isn’t very rigorous, but if one takes that as representative of it the whole project, one produces a straw man, which is unlikely to be helpful in reading Soueif.

By on 03/31/09 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The authors certainly do “reference” Said, though they don’t quote him at length (for instance, the entry on contrapuntal reading begins “A term coined by Edward Said to describe a way of reading...” etc.). I have read some Said ‘straight up,’ and will read more as I go along. My sense that, as Aaron describes, a lot has happened since Orientalism was first published was part of what lay behind my turning to what seemed to be a fairly up-to-date primer on the field. While I don’t want to throw out any babies with the bathwater, I also don’t want to struggle to re-invent the wheel....

If you would suggest that “implication” is not a property of every text (to different degrees) within the colonial/imperial discourse network, you are rejecting a key facet of the method and therefore not working within that method at all.

Jonathan, that’s a very helpful formulation for me: is it, then, impossible to raise my objection from within the framework of post-colonial studies? Is it also then improper in some way to use the vocabulary of post-colonial theory to ask the kind of question I proposed (e.g. “does this text reveal colonialist ideologies?")? It sounds from what you’ve said that embracing a fairly specific set of premises (historical, political, and literary) is required to go forward at all as a post-colonial critic.

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/31/09 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan:  I admire you for your patience.  Tom

By on 03/31/09 at 08:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The more I think about this opposition of “respectful” or “textual” approaches (i.e. those that address the singularity of literature) and instrumental approaches (i.e. those that treat a text as a means to revealing some predetermined conclusion) the less I buy it—keeping in reserve the (strong?) possibility that Attridge does not oppose these approaches in this way.

For starters, as with others above, I’m not in the least bit convinced that so-called non-instrumental approaches don’t also operate from a predetermined conclusion: e.g. literary texts say something about human nature and/or about the world of ideas and human experiences. Because humanist approaches (for example) cannot conceive of the possibility that the very figure of “humanity” limits diversity, difference, etc., these approaches cannot but see their operations as transparent—as both identifying and revealing the individual difference of the text as singular representation of some aspect of the limitless diversity of human experience. In other words, such approaches can only claim to be addressing the singularity of literature by presuming that the only form of difference in literature is human difference.

Other so-called “instrumental” approaches challenge this presumption by (1) highlighting the fundamental denial of difference articulated by the figure of humanity (and extended through notions of human nature, etc.) and thereby positing some other order of difference that cannot be captured by the figure of humanity; and (2) identifying textual difference as a text’s difference not simply from other texts but also from itself, i.e. not just difference between texts but also a form of difference within texts which can be described as self-difference.

Secondly, I don’t see how the post-colonial method cited above—“A way of reading and rereading texts . . . to draw deliberate attention to the profound and inescapable effects of colonization on literary production”—necessarily says we don’t really need to read the book to know what it says or does, or that it affirms this idea to any greater extent than an approach that begins from the premise that literary texts say something about humanity and the world of human ideas and experience. To reiterate my first point, I don’t see a huge difference between saying literary texts are essentially products of humanity and saying literary texts are essentially products of colonialism. But if humanist readings of a variety of different texts can proceed from a self-same principle and still see an array of textual difference, then why is it so hard to conceive that postcolonial readings (say) could also proceed from a self-same principle and still see an array of textual difference?

A so-called instrumental post-colonial reading doesn’t necessarily aim to show that a given text reproduces “colonialist ideologies and processes”; it seeks to show how that text “reproduces” such ideologies, etc.. It seeks to show the very individual ways in which this text, through these specific aspects of its form and content, “reproduces” colonialist discourse—or, more accurately, succumbs “often unwittingly” to “the profound and inescapable effects of colonization on literary production”. (Or at least the post-colonialist reading can do these things; there are better and worse postcolonial readings, as much as there are better and worse readings from other perspectives.)

And that is why I reject the opposition of textual singularity to methodological instrumentalism. Literature’s singularity is not the exclusive preserve of any given critical approach. Humanist (and formalist, etc.) approaches can be sausage grinders, too, as much as postcolonialist (and Marxist, feminist, etc.) approaches may respond “accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work”.

But there is the unarticulated aspect of Rohan’s post, the sense that responding to the singularity of the work means keeping in mind the author’s intentions—the sense that “demonstrat[ing] the extent to which the text contradicts its underlying assumptions”, e.g. by succumbing to colonialist discourse despite its insistent anti-colonialist stance, fails to respond to the singularity of the work (presumably by being “inaccurate”?). Am I the only person who would be shocked yet delighted and enlightened by a reading that showed the very unexpected and unintended ways in which colonialist discourse might seep into and through even the most adamantly anti-colonialist text? Am I the only person who would find something valuable in such a reading?

Finally, I have to respond directly to this statement:

The word “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

That is exactly what it implies, and that is exactly why it is anything but weaselish. Indeed, it is the most accurate, honest word that I can think of to describe the phenomenon at hand. If a critic takes as a starting principle the claim that “the effects of colonization on literary production are profound and inescapable” and that “texts will inevitably succumb to colonialist discourse”, then it would be utterly improper and certainly obtuse to blame anyone for thus succumbing and for thus failing to escape the effects of colonisation.

By on 03/31/09 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea that postcolonial readings always share their conclusions in advance is simply wrong. 

If *all* postcolonial criticism means is to locate effects of imperialism in culture, then we clearly have no conclusions to begin with.  We simply have objects of study.  I don’t think it’s a controversial idea to be open to possible connections between a major historical process and the art that emerged during that process.  We’re not surprised when humanist ideals pop up in Renaissance art, so why act like it’s some sort of monomania to believe that imperial ideas might pop up in art in ages of imperialism?

And no, contrapuntal readings are not about reading a work to look for pro-imperial ideas.  They are about considering in what ways imperialism opened up “new territory,” so to speak, for artists.  I actually don’t think Said reads the works against the grain of authorial attention.  To assume that Jane Austen isn’t thinking about colonialism in *Mansfield Park* even though she writes about colonialism is to deny that Jane Austen considered what she wrote.  I’d argue that Said’s readings are a counterpoint to criticism that would read literature like a pick-a-mix of universalisms.

Last, hybridity, for Bhabha, is not the same as cultural mixture.  Jazz is not what Bhabha means by the process of hybridity.  Instead, Bhabha speaks of supposedly “pure” cultural forms as “always already” implicated in processes of hybridity.  Bhabha’s hybridity is simply Derridean supplementarity by another name.  The self can only define itself in relation to an other, so the self is always mixed with the other, etc.  I think Bhabha is entirely wrong, but that’s another story.

In any case, the conflicts within poco studies would seem to tell us that no single set of conclusions are assumed from the outset.

By on 03/31/09 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is one thing to be concerned about texts written by citizens of colonial powers. It is something else to be interested in texts written by the colonized or by citizens of former colonies. This discussion seems to be about the first. Is that the primary emphasis of post-colonial studies?

By Bill Benzon on 04/01/09 at 09:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I feel like the distinction you point out has an awful lot to do with why these kinds of discussions are often so cross-purposed: one part of the argument is about urging re-visions of canonical people like Jane Austen—which as Luther suggests, is not necessarily political at all—and another part is about the literary aesthetics of the literatures not traditionally accorded that status. The two arguments have a common and shared goal, but they definitely don’t have the same critical methodology, which is part of why defining poco as a theory is such a vexed project.

By on 04/01/09 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, thanks for this post. I would underline what someone else said along the lines of, “these definitions are of doubtful quality,” even though the editors are very established scholars. I think they phoned it in on this book, which is unfortunate, since a lot of people use it.

At best, the Key Concepts book has been useful to me as a short-cut to get students jump-started with this type of terminology, but it doesn’t manage jargon (i.e., hybridity) at all well. I have sometimes thought of getting a few friends together and doing a better job with these terms on Wikipedia.

I’ve always understood Said’s “contrapuntal reading” as actually about looking for counterpoints within literary narrative—not as a term specific to postcolonial theory. If a text seems on the surface to be “about” something, a contrapuntal reading might look within, for alternative paths that are present but not dominant (exactly like counterpoint to a dominant melody in music). Not so much “against the grain” as “within the grain,” in other words.

On instrumental reading in general, I agree that it is deadening to read literature to extract an ideological pound of flesh. I sympathize with the general gist of Erin O’Connor’s frustration at the prospect of readings that are mechanistic applications of a predetermined reading.

But I don’t know if this tendency is as dominant as people think. Just as in any sub-discipline, there is intelligent and less intelligent postcolonial scholarship. The more intelligent work aims to get beyond this type of thing.

By Amardeep Singh on 04/01/09 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A so-called instrumental post-colonial reading doesn’t necessarily aim to show that a given text reproduces “colonialist ideologies and processes”; it seeks to show how that text “reproduces” such ideologies, etc.

But in setting out to show how it does, it assumes that it does--which, as Jonathan has clarified for me, is an essential starting premise of the method. This rules out the possibility that it does not, right?

Am I the only person who would be shocked yet delighted and enlightened by a reading that showed the very unexpected and unintended ways in which colonialist discourse might seep into and through even the most adamantly anti-colonialist text?

This is a rhetorical question, of course, because I think there are lots of critics basically this kind of argument. Though I accept that, as several comments have emphasized, there are better and worse ways of doing this, it still smacks of “gotcha”! ... because one of the common connotations of a word like “implicated” is incrimination, that is, it’s not neutral but judgmental. In any case, if you get to a point where there’s no way to express anti-imperialist ideas without being (inadvertently, obliquely, unwittingly) also imperialist, isn’t the important difference what you are purposefully doing?

why act like it’s some sort of monomania to believe that imperial ideas might pop up in art in ages of imperialism

But if I’m understanding what I’m reading (here as well as in my books) the premise is not that they “pop up” but that they are omnipresent--and not just imperial ideas but pro-imperial (imperialistic, colonial) ideas. (Is anybody out there discovering hidden anti-imperialism?)

Bill and Aaron’s exchange @ 9:03 and 10:05 help me see one further way in which my own inquiries need to be made more carefully or specifically. But as I am trying to think through Soueif’s interest in a specific 19th-century text, I think I need to be considering both of those angles.

Aaron’s earlier comment (and his comments here) suggest (I think) that I would be better off focusing on the particular issues that I find in trying to understand the dynamics of In the Eye of the Sun and then looking around for the theoretical apparatus I need to analyze them, rather than muddling through these fairly broad questions. Fair enough, and I think in fact most practising critics are ‘occasional’ users of theory in this way, drawing on different approaches as the occasion arises. But there are risks to treating the array of theoretical approaches and vocabularies as a smorgasboard, and also to using words with complex definitions and fraught histories, without a good sense of how they mean or are used. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to do some of this overview type reading, along with the more particular stuff.

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/01/09 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But in setting out to show how it does, it assumes that it does--which, as Jonathan has clarified for me, is an essential starting premise of the method. This rules out the possibility that it does not, right?”

I think there may be some slippage over the term “reading” here.  I take it that postcolonial theorists don’t take a book they’ve never read, hold it to their forehead à la Carnac, and say that because they are going to read the book in a contrapuntal way they will necessarily find imperialist ideology inside.  Rather, they produce readings of books which have colonialist content in them in such a way as to emphasize that content.  In other words, I take the term to be applied to what postcolonial scholars do professionally with works they study in their published research, not a mindset that they bring in every time they pick up a book.

The kind of postcolonial criticism we’re talking about is actually pretty empirical: you don’t have to take it on faith, you can decide for yourself whether you’re convinced that the ideology being described actually exists in these books.  As Luther says, some of Jane Austen’s novels are about colonialism, at least in part (he mentions Mansfield Park; Persuasion is another good example), and so you can read those books “contrapuntally” (since they are not primarily about colonialism) without defying their sense or content.  I’d agree with Amardeep that, while you can certainly find examples of poco criticism that are forced or unconvincing, the field itself is not based on automatic readings of texts.

By tomemos on 04/01/09 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If “we” are interested in postcolonial issues, then a Victorian novel that is 10% “about” those issues might be a good candidate for a postco reading.  That 10% becomes the true but 90% concealed theme of the work.  The question I would have is who’s to say?  In other words, when is 10% just 10% and when is it 100%?  The way in which factors are weighted depends on our present interests, so by historicizing we are also de-historicizing, in the sense of weighting things differently than a reader of the period might have done.  Where the novel is already mostly and explicitly about colonialist issues this problem doesn’t arise.  Also, in the hypothetical case of a zero percent novel, where the postco critic can find no leverage at all in the text, despite the fact that the novel was written in a colonialist period.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/01/09 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther - Jazz, the music itself, is one thing. But written discourse about it is something else. That discourse certainly does engage thorny issues of identity, in varying degrees of naiveté and sophistication. I touched on these issues in my contribution to the Michaels symposium:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/politics_beyond_the_personal_diversity_identitarian_rhetoric_and_equality/

By Bill Benzon on 04/01/09 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think in fact most practising critics are ‘occasional’ users of theory in this way, drawing on different approaches as the occasion arises. But there are risks to treating the array of theoretical approaches and vocabularies as a smorgasboard

The more I think about all of this, the more I worry that all I was (am) really after in picking out this ‘Key Concepts’ book was (is) “citational authority“--not, perhaps, a good impulse, even though it arises both from a genuine interest in how best to think and talk about a particular novel and from the reasonable expectation that in trying to do so, I will be asked about post-colonialism even if I don’t bring it up myself and so I’d better be primed.

This is not to say that I don’t have a genuine interest in (and some perplexity about) the principles and methods of post-colonial criticism. But perhaps I am mistaken in a couple of ways here as far as my own project or method is concerned.

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/01/09 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t miss Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s critical work in Decolonising the Mind (1986) and his masterpiece novel Wizard of the Crow (2006) that goes hand in glove with it. Wizard of the Crow is the equal of any of the Victorian novel greats.

In the Preface of Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ notes:

“Inevitably, essays of this nature may carry a holier-than-thou attitude or tone. I would like to make it clear that I am writing as much about myself as about anybody else. The present predicaments of Africa are often not a matter of personal choice: they arise from an historical situation. Their solutions are not so much a matter of personal decision as that of fundamental social transformation of the structures of our societies starting with a real break with imperialism and its internal ruling allies. Imperialism and its comprador alliances in Africa can never never develop the continent.”

By Tony Christini on 04/02/09 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, thanks for the reminder that much of the best postcolonial criticism comes from the essays of postcolonial writers.  Derek Walcott’s “The Sea as History” is a brilliant piece, and one that shreds paper-tiger notions of postcolonial criticism.  Likewise, Wilson Harris’s large body of nonfiction gives us one of the most intense, sustained, and original visions of a world literature woven inextricably together, beyond all simplistic oppositions.

By on 04/02/09 at 01:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey Rohan,

Just to say brilliant discussion - fantastic to read JA considered without the ‘OMG she’s a goddess’ factor, ‘she’s just Georgian Mills & Boon’ and/or ‘she doesn’t address “issues of the day”’ - as this proves, she certainly does, especially in MP where the colonial sub-text is the principal informative. It’s her riskiest and most disliked novel - and all the better for that.
Mind you, that movie with Pinter was a bit OTT, wasn’t it?
Anyway, thanks guys!

p.s. Yes, Bill, I think we could safely say English is a hybrid - very dodgy parentage, too!

By on 04/02/09 at 11:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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