It’s in every paper, on CNN, and on Murdoch’s compromised satellite news: the condition of our world, in one place or another, is dire. And that is the condition postcolonial studies are meant, however partially, to address seriously. Do they not merit, then, our unillusioned scrutiny? I can only make a start, sketching a line of interrogations, mindful of my recent experience as visiting professor at the University of Mohamed V in Rabat, Morocco, mindful as well of my own Egyptian, colonial background.
Certainly, the field of postcolonial studies is not a unified field—witness the diverse essays in a mammoth collection like The Postcolonial Studies Reader. 1 But writers in it tend to share certain traits, which they also share with writers in cultural studies: a political attitude, a moral stance, a kind of vocabulary. Still, though my own assumptions differ from theirs—I hold liberally independent and literary values—I will endeavor to put my questions in a larger, collegial frame.
My first question concerns the partisanships that now rule the humanities: How can postcolonial studies recover moral authority, beyond self-serving biases and the protocols of indignation? They can hardly do so, I think, as long as their absolute horizon remains political, a horizon to which all issues are referred. An author, a work, an idea, must be adjudicated, a priori, as Left or Right, and if the latter, dismissed by fiat on simple nomination. It becomes irrelevant to invoke any other criteria of truth, usefulness, interest, goodness, or beauty. The political imperative—often quasi-Marxist, crypto-Marxist, neo-Marxist, post-Marxist—preempts the field. One wonders, can there be no other theory, no [End Page 328] eclectic body of ideas, no new vocabulary to bring contemporary realities into sharper focus?
It is not only postcolonial intellectuals, of course, who posture with ideology. Deep in the unconscious of the academic humanities there is a story, and it goes something like this. “Once upon a time, a long, dark time ago, there was a tribe of writers in the American South, terribly misnamed the New Critics. They paid inordinate attention to the forms of literary works, and to special devices like irony and paradox. For an unconscionable time, they dominated the reading scene. But when the sixties finally arrived, thank God, the New Critics were exposed for their literary exclusiveness and political conservatism. The air was cleared, and adventurous young critics began to turn to Continental Europe for inspiration: to existentialism and phenomenology, to the philosophy of consciousness and reception theory, to critical philosophy, to structuralism. These critics gestured in the right direction, but they had to wait for the advent of poststructuralism to discover the full possibilities of their deconstructive art. Deconstruction, alas, soon became tedious, hollow, almost nihilistic. Feminist, ethnic, postcolonial, and cultural studies came to the rescue, saving deconstruction from its innate sterility, and enriching their own socio-political ‘agenda’—yes, that’s the word—with all kinds of subtle demystifications and demythifications. It may be safely said that with the current prevalence of cultural studies, in their varied forms, criticism has reached its apogee. It only remains for us to stand our ground against sundry humanists, reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and proto-fascists still skulking in the corridors of academe.”
Parody, you cry, caricature! Caricatures have a disconcerting habit of coming to life in academe, especially in American academe. But let that pass: the point is that a self-congratulatory myth of progress informs criticism in the era of cultural wars. Progress? Culture is a wrinkled palimpsest, and the arrow of time moves like a swallow, if not a boomerang. As Thomas Kuhn has argued, the sciences and the humanities develop with disparate logics. There are no Ptolemaists or Nostrodamists in reputable science departments; there are, however, Platonists, Aristotelians, Thomists, Kantians, Hegelians, Marxists, Nietzscheans, Freudians, Heideggerians, Lacanians . . . in reputable departments of the humanities. This is not to say that the paradigms of science are “better”; it is only to say that they respond to different criteria of confirmation and disconfirmation. The paradigms of the humanities—Kuhn would say “schools”—respond to fashion, true, but also to...