This book usefully articulates contemporary postcolonial theory through Theodor Adorno’s project of rethinking dialectics from the perspective of the object rather than the subject. Varadharajan’s argument is that Adorno provides a better framework for conceptualizing the relationship between colonizer and colonized, “First” and “Third” worlds, than do the modes of poststructuralist theory favored by Spivak (Derrida) or Said (Foucault). For Varadharajan, Adorno’s value lies in his insistence on a “negative dialectics” that acknowledges the “recalcitrance” of the object and its resistance to being subsumed by the subject, as well as his equal insistence on the way that both subject and object mediate one another immanently (that is, the effects of the object can be read in the subject, and vice-versa). The result is a critique of “identity thinking” that rejects the Hegelianism of Marxist theorists like Georg Lukács, who emphasize the dialectical identity of subject and object; at the same time, Adorno’s negative dialectics [End Page 562] retains an analysis of the subject-object relationship as “determinate negation,” which translates politically into clear oppositional categories. Adorno’s rethinking of dialectics thereby retains the most valuable element of poststructuralist thought, the critique of identity, while avoiding what Varadharajan sees as poststructuralism’s nihilistic focus on indeterminacy and “cognitive failure.”
This rereading of postcolonial theory through the framework of negative dialectics yields valuable results. Most suggestively, Varadharajan argues that negative dialectics provides a model for analyzing the resistance of colonized peoples to Western institutions and modes of thought, but without having recourse to nativist rhetorics of authenticity—that is, Adorno offers a way out of the double bind of modernization and tradition. As Varadharajan puts it, in the context of her critique of Spivak, “the object’s capacity to elude the instrumental rationality of the knowing subject” is not necessarily “to be construed as the ‘native’s’ tantalizing mockery of epistemological desire.”
The chapters rereading Spivak and Said through the lens of negative dialectics are also intriguing. Varadharajan compares Spivak’s treatment of the “subaltern” as a figure for negativity, especially in the essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” to Adorno’s treatment of the figure of the “object.” Similarly, the chapter on Said situates his arguments about the necessity of “secular criticism” and “worldliness” and his treatment of the figure of the migrant intellectual in relation to Adorno’s critique of identity thinking.
Varadharajan’s book then participates not only in postcolonial debates but also in the project of rethinking the significance of the Frankfurt School, like Ben Agger in Fast Capitalism. Adorno’s privileging of the role of the “object” in dialectical relationships also suggests a more materialist intervention in what Slavoj calls the postmodern fascination with the Real, understood as that which resists symbolization.
The investment in Adorno as a theoretical touchstone, however, produces some limitations, even apart from Adorno’s well-known rejection of “mass” culture, which Varadharajan refers to only in passing when she acknowledges how Adorno is regarded as a “modernist mandarin.” But in the context of postcolonial theory, Adorno’s work might be read as demonstrating the limits of possibility for usefully reconceptualizing dialectical methods, which even in the form of negative [End Page 563] dialectics still emphasize the paired categories of subject and object. This emphasis starts to seem limiting in relation to Said and Spivak’s work on the position of the postcolonial intellectual, who cannot be easily or simply situated either in the “First” or “Third” worlds. Varadharajan critiques Said in particular for introducing the postcolonial intellectual as a “third term” or “shape-shifter” in the relation between colonizer and colonized, but it is unclear whether this is to be attributed to Said or whether the forms of diasporic and hybrid cultures produced by colonialism do not require a different and less dualistic conceptual framework, which poststructuralism might well provide.
As Varadharajan notes, it can be difficult to distinguish negative dialectics from the more traditional speculative dialectics that subsumes alterity as a moment in the subject’s own narrative of becoming self-reflexive, and...