MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 398-400
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David Punter. Postcolonial Imaginings: Fictions of a New World Order. Lanham, MD: Rowman, 2000. vi + 238 pp.
David Punter's Postcolonial Imaginings is the second in his series on modern and contemporary writing.The book has two main objectives: the first is to analyze a wide range of canonical and noncanonical texts that are connected to the "postcolonial" and the second is to move postcolonial criticism in the direction of the "literary." Punter also notes that his book is only a "shadow" of a larger project, which "would be able lucidly and accurately to compare different postcolonial writings across a variety of societal formations, and, more importantly, across the many languages—the languages of the colonizers, the 'native' languages—concerned." Although he admits that it would be impossible to carry out such an ambitious enterprise, it might be argued that this latent desire "to effect a wide sweep and judgement" of postcolonial literature defines the strengths and limitations of his own book.
While the reader is introduced to a number of interesting, noncanonical texts, like Scottish exile Elspeth Barker's O'Caledonia (1991), the breadth of Punter's project makes it impossible for him to do sufficient justice to the differences between individual texts. What, in effect, happens is a leveling out of the specificities of different postcolonial locations and texts as very divergent works—among them Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), Keri Hulme's The Bone People (1985), and William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984)—get "equal time" under a common psychoanalytic denominator of mourning and loss. This leveling out is particularly ironic given Punter's [End Page 398] sensitivity to the neocolonialism of contemporary politics and his criticism of the globalizing impulse of different postcolonial anthologies.
Punter's desire to direct postcolonial criticism toward the literary hinges upon an interesting, if arbitrary, paragraph-long description of the literary "as the uncanny, as the haunting and the haunted; as that which resists pinning down, that which will always squirm away and produce 'other', 'unauthorised' meanings [. . .] and thus as the distorted mirroring, the per-version, of the worlds in which it functions." Like his definition of the literary, Punter's description of the postcolonial is contingent upon a psychoanalytic mode of discourse, and he emphasizes a pattern of "loss and reversal" as its single defining characteristic. While these definitions of the "literary" and the "postcolonial" allow Punter to develop interesting psychoanalytic readings of a variety of literary works, they run the risk of eliding the complexities of different texts and contexts.
Punter's project also runs into certain stylistic and theoretical limitations. The book contains several references that need to be further expanded upon. For instance, in his preface, Punter refers to Dipesh Chakraborty's article "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History" (1992), but he does not elaborate on the applicability of Chakraborty's comments to his own project. Additionally, in chapter 12, Punter contrasts a contemporary neocolonial US world order manifested by the World Bank and the IMF with Derek Walcott's and Wilson Harris's literary critiques of global politics, but he does not adequately develop his ideas about "a wider international movement" toward an alternative world order.
Punter's provocative comments about the ways in which postcolonial theorists fall into the trap of a problematic Enlightenment model of seeing theory "as the next 'stage' on the path to truth" are unfortunately marred by occasional misrepresentations of the work of specific postcolonial critics. For instance, he ignores over a decade's worth of critical debate on Gayatri Spivak's controversial essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1985), including Spivak's own responses to her critics, only to dismiss the essay as a "disavowal [. . . a] wishing away of the complexities of voice, of the defiles of the literary [. . . a] move designed to silence." Punter's (mis)reading of the essay elides the fact that by alerting the reader to the impossibility of subaltern speech outside of the parameters of dominant discourses, Spivak is, in fact, affirming rather than negating...