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  • The Colonizing Impulse of Postcolonial Theory
  • John C. Hawley (bio)

Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new object, which belongs to no one. The Text, I believe, is one such object.

—Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language

What some see as the ongoing collapse of English as a discrete discipline has been hastened along by postcolonial studies, but many have argued that this deconstruction has been true from the start, that literary studies in general “has speculated continually about the intellectual foundations within which its key questions are framed and which make it possible, and how things might be otherwise” (Moran 46). Robert Miklitsch for example, suggests that “literature . . . was once implicitly interdisciplinary, encompassing, as Hazlitt indicates, science as well as philosophy” (Miklitsch et al. 258). Nonetheless, writes David Glover, “whatever criteria one uses to identify the literary, it is clear that in recent years its semiotic destinations have become ever more uncertain. Enter cultural studies, stage left” (Miklitsch et al. 284). On cue, David Lloyd argues that “cultural studies represents the fulfillment rather than the displacement of literary study, a critical return to its fundamentals rather than its demise” (Miklitsch et al. 281). If we view postcolonial studies as a subset of cultural studies,1 we should not, though, be surprised by a certain level of discomfort as this and other transformative movements massage the body academic, since they change the way members of the discipline understand their proper function as scholars and teachers. As Barthes [End Page 769] writes, “interdisciplinary studies . . . do not merely confront already constituted disciplines . . . [and] it is not enough to take a ‘subject’ (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it” (72), since, according to Joe Moran, their motivating impulses “are characterized not so much by their longing for the authoritativeness of inclusive knowledge as by their uncertainty about how knowledge is formulated and how disciplines fit together” (81). This discomfort, advocates of disciplinary interconnectedness would assert, is a very good thing, since “it is better to be self-questioning than to carry on doing what we have always done for reasons of institutional practicality or intellectual inertia” (113). In any event, let us posit that literary studies in general, and English language literary studies in particular, has never been completely comfortable with itself, and that onslaughts from continental theory, talk of interdisciplinarity, and probings from cultural studies and postcolonial studies (along with identity politics and other social movements) have made English departments look with some trepidation at Classics departments and worry that, like them, they may be teetering on the brink of irrelevance.

Angst, Hubris, and Institutionalization

In such an uncertain climate, if it seems to many that the time of the ascendancy of postcolonial studies to the mountain top may have been short-lived, this should come as no surprise, for postcolonial studies is at least as porous as English or other literary studies. Once an inchoate and revisionist movement on the fringes of the academy, it has been welcomed in to departments of literature and in that process, some have said, been co-opted—or, at the least, tamed. Even before the degree of institutional acceptance that now allows postcolonial emphases to dominate an increasing number of departments of English by their obvious popularity among graduate students—with its somewhat more accessible incorporation of poststructuralist French theory often coupled to a sense of somehow being on the ground floor of an ethical engagement with history’s injustices—the movement had suffered the assaults of those dismayed by its fascination with elements of postmodernism. Tim Brennan, for one, finds much to praise in the work done by postcolonial theorists, but charges that “an elusive and malleable construct like cosmopolitanism has served to limit a necessary confrontation with alternative values implicit in the reception of the ‘third world’” (310). Simon During suggests in 1998 that “postcolonialism came to signify something remote from self-determination and autonomy. By deploying categories such as hybridity, mimicry, ambivalence . . . all of which laced colonized into [End Page 770] colonizing cultures, postcolonialism effectively became a reconciliatory rather than a critical, anti-colonialist category” (31). The strongest internal critiques have always come from the materialists, and Neil Lazarus...


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