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  • Theoretical Confrontations in the Study of Postcolonial Literatures
  • Kanishka Chowdhury (bio)
Abiola Irele. The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 217 pp. pb. $12.95.
Neil Lazarus. Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. 262 pp. $27.50.

During the last decade, literary studies in the United States has been revitalized by an extension of "minority" writing beyond African-American literature into other national contexts. The influx of these specifically nonwestern texts into the American university curriculum and the emergence of Western critical discourse on the subject provide examples of effective challenges to the canon. The acceptance of these vast and diverse literatures, now studied under the somewhat generalized title "postcolonial texts," has been aided by the exemplary work done by current theorists of marginalized literature such as Homi Bhabha, Henry Louis Gates, Abdul JanMohamed, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak. These critics have written important texts, guest-edited volumes, and contributed articles to major journals in the United States. Moreover, their work has been supplemented in the last four years by major journals, [End Page 609] many of which have dedicated special issues to topics such as "Third World Theorizing," "Race," and "Colonial Discourse."1 Finally, Routledge, which has specialized in providing scholars and students with introductory studies of theoretical issues, acknowledged the importance of postcolonial literature and theory when, in 1989, they published The Empire Strikes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, authored by three Australian scholars.

Despite these positive developments in this emergent area, the proliferation of critical discourse on postcolonial literature has had its negative features. One example is the premise under which Routledge published their text. It was advertized as the "first major theoretical account of a wide range of postcolonial texts and their relation to the larger issues of postcolonial culture." The Routledge publication is, of course, by no means the first of its kind in the West; also, the implicit assumption behind such a statement is that unless a study is published in the West, addressing issues important to Western academics, it does not qualify as a "major" work.

Given such ethnocentric declarations and the sudden proliferation of critical discourse on postcolonial literature, it becomes necessary to inquire into appropriate directions and methodologies of such theorizing. One of the unfortunate implications of the current situation is that it anticipates a gradual institutionalization of postcolonial culture. Such an institutionalization and/or a development of a universalist/Eurocentric theoretical paradigm would effectively neutralize the historical specificity of postcolonial texts. Validating minority discourse through the establishment of such a theoretical paradigm can effectively deradicalize what are potentially radical texts. As Edward Said has pointed out, when theory is "appropriated to schools and institutions, it quickly acquires the status of authority within the cultural group, guild, or affiliative family" (66). Also, critical discourses in the West, be it poststructuralism(s), marxism(s), or poststructuralist marxism(s), ultimately must remain Eurocentric because their critical foundations are rooted within systems of western philosophy and western political economy.2 [End Page 610]

Another salient example of the limitation of Western critical discourse on the subject of postcolonial literatures is the postmodern narrativization and subsequent (re)appropriation of the "other." Critics, both in the East and in the West, have recently articulated their concern over the dominance of western theorizing over the "other," a category neutralized by its frequent use in poststructuralist discourse. According to Helen Tiffin, "western historicizing consciousness has operated . . . to dominate the 'other,' while ostensibly performing some kind of major cultural redemption" (170). Colonial encounters, for instance, have been recounted too simply and too often as "a struggle between a monolithic, near-deliberate colonial power and an undifferentiated oppressed mass" (Parry 36). Such stark binary thinking is probably as negative as the complete absence of the colonized figure in the postmodern narrative.

But although these scholarly views on the homogenized "other" are undoubtedly problematic, what is even more damaging is western capital's control over marketing techniques precluding the "normal" circulation of any postcolonial text in the western world. The postcolonial writer is faced with the metropolitan centers' attempts to control her discourse and regulate her production. The writer and...


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