Whatever happened to postcolonial theory?

Apparently, my doctoral thesis might soon be digitalized, and therefore made much more readily available to all and sundry [UPDATE: it’s here!]. I’m vain enough to accept the offer, and insecure enough to worry about what the enhanced accessibility might do for my reputation should anyone ever go off and download it. It is, or was, about postcolonial theory, amongst other things (occasionally, I remember that I got my current job on the basis of claims to be a postcolonial geographer). And it is, of course, oddly, my main professional credential, as both a researcher and a teacher.

I sometimes wonder what ever happened to postcolonial theory, which seemed very important once upon time – but has now become the basis for a fairly standard paradigm of geopolitical power, ‘imperialism’ with a smarter theory of culture attached. And I was reminded of this question by a recent, perhaps ongoing debate in the pages of New Literary History, on ‘the state of postcolonial studies’. Kicked off by a couple of contributions by Dipesh Chakrabarty and Robert Young, it has been continued through responses by the likes of Simon During and Benita Parry. It’s interesting that this debate revolves around topics such as climate change, and land, and settler colonialism – nothing ‘anaemic’ about those things. But the terms of the debate also acknowledge that ‘the postcolonial’ has lost some of its fizz in theory-land.

For a while now, I have been surprised and a little perplexed about the degree to which, certainly in geography, Edward Said’s model of colonial discourse in Orientalism has become the basic reference point for an understanding of the relevance of postcolonial theory. This odd resurgence seems to have taken place somewhere between the publication of Derek Gregory’s Geographical Imaginations and his The Colonial Present. I say that it’s odd because the re-centering of ‘Orientalism’ as the paradigm of power-inflected knowledge seems to have erased from view the debates that I remember being important twenty years ago, which were all about the inadequacy, conceptually and empirically, of the ‘projection’ model of ‘discourse’ that Said originally articulated in Orientalism, and of the associated claims about ‘power’ (Said’s own post-Orientalism work evidences the force of these criticisms in its move towards more pragmatic models of cultural representation).

You can still see the residue of these debates in the constant worry that ‘discourse’ must always be connected to ‘materiality’, or assertions that ‘representations’ have ‘performative’ effects. But these have become empty slogans that close-down the fundamental questions about the adequacy of concepts of representation, meaning, and subjectivity inherited from a canon of ‘French Theory’ (and they tend to authorise vague, unsubstantiated claims about the continuities between historical colonialisms and contemporary geopolitics). Above all, what these slogans do is protect the central idea tying together post-structuralist thought – the idea that ‘subjectivity’ is made and re-made through mediums of knowledge and representation, certainly; but more fundamentally, the very idea that social formations and political regimes are made to hang together by bringing off subject-effects, however these are conceptualised – ‘representationally’ or ‘affectively’.

The continued attachment to this model of power, and of the centrality of ‘the cultural’ to it, might have something to do with the way in which it underwrites models of research (it helps to make historical work, embedded in documentary analysis, as well as the analysis of lots of cultural practices, seem very important); but especially, perhaps, the degree to which it underwrites models of critical pedagogy.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a little recently is the idea that we should all be seeking ‘synergies’ between research and teaching – almost always, this means finding ways to plug in more or less specialised research findings into teaching programmes. As such, it betrays a horribly ‘academic’ model of what teaching is good for – a kind of dissemination of findings, a medium for inducting people into proper understanding. I have never heard anyone seriously argue that teaching should inform research, other perhaps than in terms of certain models of dialogue or collaboration (of course, postcolonial theory is one of the sources for the idea that ‘the classroom’ is a site of engaged scholarship; but higher education teaching doesn’t, of course, go on in ‘classrooms’, with all the associated baggage that term implies. HE students are grown ups, not well thought of as impressionable or naïve youngsters; most student learning goes on in the gaps and interstices and loops between ‘contact’ hours, not in the presence of the academic oracle).

A constant, and growing, worry I have is about the idea that the sorts of cutting-edge research that circulates in a great deal of ‘critical’ social science, certainly in human geography, but more broadly in any field touched by cultural theory, should be allowed anywhere near teaching programmes. Cutting-edge theory, and the sorts of empirical projects informed and confirmed by it, is all about unpicking, disrupting, and revealing – across different theoretical traditions, being ‘critical’ is primarily understood as an epistemological operation which combines exposure and correction. For as long as I have been an academic, twenty-five years plus now (aagh…), ‘theory’ in these fields has primarily focussed on the enabling us to tell stories about the construction of things – whether under the heading ‘constructionism’, or one or other of its variants – making, composing, enacting, performing, assembling, and so on. And there are a set of pedagogic assumptions built in to this range of theory, whether or not it is ever concerned with teaching per se. The critical edge, the political frisson, of successive paradigms of work rests on the idea that showing how things are made, showing that things are performed, showing that things are contingent, has a potentially transformative effect on people’s most deeply held beliefs, ways of thinking, or ways of feeling their way around the world.

The pedagogic pay-off of this type of research knowledge, then, revolves around the idea that the purpose of critical scholarship is to interrupt the understandings and interests that students, or other audiences, might already have, and which might have animated them to arrive at your door in the first place – and to replace them with improved understandings and thought. Thinking of teaching in terms of ‘subjectivity’ (really as a scene of dis-identification, of counter-interpellation, or even of de-subjectification), underwrites the idea that the primary purpose of teaching is to challenge common sense, interrupt taken for granted assumptions, and disrupt received ways of seeing.

Apart from presupposing an almost impossibly flexible model of ‘subjectivity’, there seems to me something almost self-defeating, certainly from the perspective of geographical education, in assuming that the primary function of research and teaching should be to basically de-legitimise the structures of curiosity that attract students in the first place.

Anyway, I think the re-centering of Orientalism and ‘Orientalism’ as the universal critical paradigm for postcolonial theory is one example of this broader formation of critical pedagogy, stretching across research and teaching. Amongst other things, this re-centering marginalises, again, a set of alternative ‘postcolonial’ intellectual traditions arising from different places – for example, I think here of the arguments of writers such as Robert Young or Christopher Miller that African colonialism and postcolonialism did not fit the model of ‘geographical imaginations’ inherited from Said. Nor, one might suppose, would the experience of the Americas. One thing that emerges from debates focussed on colonialism and anti-colonialism in these places is a much more ‘pragmatic’ model of colonial discourse, for example. If you don’t take Literature, or aesthetic fields more generally, as exemplars for the politics of knowledge, you end up with different models of the use of knowledge in the world. And, in turn, it might be possible to find different models of what critical pedagogy might involve – models which are less hampered by ‘postcolonial scruples’, and prepared to take the risk of positively affirming some old-fashioned geographical curiosity as the very condition of ‘learning from other regions’. I think this is one of the lessons, for example, of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, which pivots around Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’, or the Comaroff’s more recent Theory from the South.

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3 thoughts on “Whatever happened to postcolonial theory?

  1. Pingback: Postcolonial theory is dead! Long live postcolonial theory? « The Semaphore Line

  2. Pingback: Whatever happened to postcolonial theory? | Pop Theory | Museum Educator as Cultural Worker

  3. Hallo Prof,

    I stumbled across this post in my quest for PhD opportunities in the area of urbanisation. My readings in the area on Southern theory drew me to this post. Having a political background, I find that actually perhaps not in the urban space (because I know so little) but in the political space, the events in the UK during the last election mirror (yes, mirror) some of the events that have happened in an African country. If I mention the country, my statement will be quite inflammatory! Still, regards the area of political compromise and the notion of choice, more developed democracies can learn from Africa, I believe.
    On post colonial theory or versions of it are making a come back. I cannot purport to be an expert or even knowledgeable enough to make a ‘factual’ assertion given that I am only in the preliminary stages of my reading process. However, it seems that in the pursuit of theory that fits African urbanisms and urbanisations, there are offshoots of sorts from post colonial theories in the form of urban political ecology and some of the work by Roy and Robinson which (from my textualisation in the African context), start from there whilst others such as Pieterse almost reject the ‘obsession’ with this theory based on the assertion that African urbanisation needs to be more nuanced at best.

    These are just my observations and comments.

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