- Decolonizing Culture:Toward a Theory for Postcolonial Women's Texts
What is the critic's society? For whom does the critic write? For Mr. Dele Bus-Stop of Idi-Oro? Or for the Appointments and Promotions Committee and Learned Journals? Unquestionably there is an intellectual cop-out in the career of any critics who cover reams of paper with unceasing lament over the failure of this or that writer to write for the masses of the people, when they see themselves assiduously engage—with a remorseless exclusivity—only with the incestuous productivity of their own academic, bourgeois-situated literature.—Wole Soyinka
I begin with this quotation from Wole Soyinka's essay, "The Critic and Society; Barthes, Leftocracy, and Other Mythologies," because the concept of social responsibility, not only for postcolonial writers but also for critics/theorists, is central to my concern. Social responsibility must be the basis of any theorizing on postcolonial literature as well as the root of the creative work of the writers themselves. Whereas writers commonly respond seriously to the many urgent issues of their societies, critics/ theorists of this literature often do not.
What theoretical models will be appropriate for this task? How can theory be an integral part of the struggle of these writers as presented in their novels, poems, dramas, essays, letters, and testimonies? How can [End Page 157] we make our theory and interpretation of postcolonial texts challenge the hegemony of the Western canon? How can we, within a dominant Eurocentric discourse, make our study of postcolonial texts itself a mode of resistance? And, most significantly, what theoretical models will be most constructive for the development of this literature?
It is useful within a postcolonial context to think of theory, as Barbara Harlow suggests, as strategy, to consider certain integral and dialectical relationships between theory and practice. I wish to propose certain theoretical models for a study of women writers that will expand a narrow academic conceptualization of theory and that can be expressed in a language lucid enough to inspire people to struggle and to achieve social change.
I. Decolonizing Postcolonial Theory
I would like first to examine several disconcerting trends in the recent production and consumption of postcolonial theory in general in order to decolonize this terrain and then to propose a historically situated method of approaching the work of women writers. One finds 1) little theoretical production of postcolonial writers given the serious attention it deserves, or that it is dismissed as not theoretical enough by Western standards; 2) the increasing phenomenon of using postcolonial texts as raw material for the theory producers and consumers of Western academia; 3) theoretical production as an end in itself, confined to the consumption of other theorists who speak the same privileged language in which obscurity is regularly mistaken for profundity. A new hegemony is being established in contemporary theory that can with impunity ignore or exclude postcolonial writers' essays, interviews, and other cultural productions while endlessly discussing concepts of the "Other," of "difference," and so on. Soyinka's words in his Preface to Myth, Literature and the African World still ring true:
We black Africans have been blandly invited to submit ourselves to a second epoch of colonialism—this time by a universal-humanoid abstraction defined and conducted by individuals whose theories and prescriptions are derived from the apprehension of their world and their history, their social neuroses and their value systems.
Another more subtly insidious trend in recent postcolonial theory is the critic's attempt to engage with certain fashionable theoretical models in order 1) to validate postcolonial literature, even to prove its value through the use of complicated Eurocentric models or 2) to succumb to the lure of engaging in a hegemonic discourse of Western theory given that it is "difficult" or "challenging," often for the sole purpose of demonstrating its shortcomings for an interpretation of postcolonial texts. [End Page 158] The intellectual traps in such theoretical gymnastics are many: for instance, a questioning of the canon and a simultaneous appropriating and tokenizing of postcolonial literary texts or an attempt to get away from narrowly anthropological readings of these texts and thereby interpreting them primarily as "acts...