restricted access The Event of Postcolonial Shame (review)
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Reviewed by
Timothy Bewes. The Event of Postcolonial Shame. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2011. x + 226 pp.

In this important and appealing contribution to literary theory, Timothy Bewes explores a question that hovers in the background of postcolonial criticism: what is the significance of shame for a literature defined by its engagement with histories of imperial domination, violence, and exclusion? Bewes' approach is innovative and remarkably productive of critical insight. He addresses shame not, as we might expect, as an affect or emotional result of some morally-compromising experience, but as a structural effect of writing itself. Shame should be seen, he argues, neither as a "subjective emotion" (23) nor an "ethical response" (28) to particular experiences. Rather, it is a manifestation of the structural inadequacy of writing to communicate traumatic histories; it is, in other words, "the experience of a prolonged incommensurability between a form and a substance" (2). In reformulating shame in this way, Bewes draws inspiration from Lukács' famous account in The Theory of the Novel of how modern literature is defined by aesthetic incompleteness, making shame intrinsic not only to the representation of certain historical events, but to the very attempt to write at all. "Shame is a quality of writing," Bewes argues, "it cannot exist outside writing or, more accurately, outside the relations of incommensurability that writing emblematizes; nor can shame be adequately encoded or conveyed within a literary apparatus. There is no shame without form; moreover, in a [End Page 386] world of 'absolute sinfulness' there is no form without shame. Form materializes shame by its inadequacy" (46). As the book's title suggests, postcolonial shame is neither an emotion nor an affect; it is an "event," one that no writing can avoid.

Bewes elaborates this refreshingly ambitious theoretical claim through readings of Primo Levi, Gilles Deleuze, Lukács, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The bulk of the study focuses on a group of writers who form the core of what we might call a postcolonial literary canon: Caryl Phillips, V. S. Naipaul, Joseph Conrad, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and J. M. Coetzee (though he does include some less well-known figures like Zoë Wicomb, Michel Leiris, and, in the fascinating final section, Louis Malle, director of the quasi-ethnographic film L'Inde fantôme). Bewes' analyses generate surprising and sometimes counterintuitive insights. For example, rethinking shame allows him to challenge interpretations that see Caryl Phillips as a brilliant ventriloquist of subaltern subjectivities. On the contrary, he argues, Phillips' work registers shame most strongly in its infelicities of tone, its reliance on cliché and banality, and those instances where the failure of representation registers the impossibility of grasping the truths of slavery and racism. When we see shame not as an affect but as an event of formal incommensurability, we can recognize histories of displacement and homelessness not as themes of Phillips' work, but as materially-embodied in a language permanently inadequate to represent them. In the same vein, Bewes invites us to reread Naipaul's notorious willingness to cause offence in conjunction with his oft-praised "crystalline" prose (94). In their different ways both manifest, he argues, the "shame of belatedness" (89) a temporal caesura experienced by the colonial writer who is estranged from the very literary devices upon which his claim to contemporaneity rests. The same belatedness permeates Ngugi's shame-suffused A Grain of Wheat; but the betrayal of anticolonial revolution the novel depicts is no more of a cause for shame than "the betrayal of experience by naming, by conceptualization"—the betrayal of literary form itself (119). In these and other reflections, Bewes' book provokes new insights into well-known authors and texts, and should stimulate further research inspired by his combination of theoretical rigor and textual sensitivity.

In fact, The Event of Postcolonial Shame lays claim to a much broader theoretical territory that its apparent postcolonial focus would suggest. In making shame an effect of formal incommensurability—a product of writing per se, rather than a phenomenon represented in writing—Bewes' theory is really applicable to literature in general, regardless of its place of origin or thematic concerns. As John Marx points out in a review that graces...