restricted access Introduction: Decolonizing Narrative Theory
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Decolonizing Narrative Theory

“Behind the claims and counter-claims, the ‘foreign’ scholar-critics and ‘native’ claimants of ‘natural’ proprietary rights to critical insight lies a vastly displaced play of unequal power relations between the two camps . . . this situation may involve impersonal power relationships on an international, global scale.”

Biodun Jeyifo, “The Nature of Things: Arrested Decolonization and Critical Theory”

This special issue of JNT, “Decolonizing Narrative Theory,” continues the still nascent conversation about the relationship of narrative theory to ethnic and postcolonial studies.1 Narratologists have become increasingly concerned with postcolonial texts, and ethnic studies critics and postcolonialists sometimes use theoretical tools derived from narratology, but there has yet been little theoretically and methodologically sustained engagement in the manner of Robyn Warhol and Susan Lanser on the relationship between feminist theory and narratology, or Dan Shen on the relationship between formalist and contextualist approaches, particularly in the context of Chinese literature.2

While the initial title for this special issue was “historicizing narrative theory,” the term “historicizing” proved insufficient to account for the [End Page 233] particular ideological formations with which this issue seeks to deal. Studies of narrative have seen various forms of historical approaches, ranging from Nancy Armstrong to Edward Said to Franco Moretti. But while history is key, the concerns that distinguish this issue have to do with “race” and “colonialism.” Yet terms such as “race” and “ethnicity” are also inadequate when considered independently of economic and political structures, nationally and globally. On the other hand, the popular (and faintly celebratory) term “minoritarian” is also too inexact to account for the racialized differentiations—both within and between countries—that was necessary for, produced by, and complicatedly interwoven with global capitalism. And by now, the term “culture” is far too broad. The concept of decolonizing—not only the world but also our minds and methods—best describes not only the reconsideration of narratology in relation to ethnic and postcolonial studies, but also the interrogation of imperial discourses that shape the metropol as much as the periphery.

While it may seem far afield, the work of Frantz Fanon can be illustrative in several key ways. First, his work serves an example of exposing the specific, historical nature of the presumably universal theories of the colonizer. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon historicizes psychoanalysis by pointing out that the Oedipal complex is not an unproblematically universal psychic process; it is fundamentally different for the colonized. Whereas for the Viennese family, the Father’s power correlates with that of the state, Fanon discusses the psychic schism that occurs within the colonized child; the discourse of the colonizer (within which the child searches for subjectivity) categorizes the child’s father as evil, depraved, subhuman, and as Fanon writes, “The family structure is cast back into the id” (149). Fanon provides an instructive model in a number of ways. He demonstrates how everything is situated in history, the raced or “particular” term as well as the unmarked “universal” term. Second, Fanon constructively engages a field (psychoanalysis) to creatively re-imagine the entire enterprise; in some ways, Fanon reinvigorates and even legitimates psychoanalysis while also exposing its historicity. Third, the legacy of writing and thinking after Fanon serves as a model for sustained engagement with multiple historical, cultural, and ideological contexts and exigencies.3

Before proceeding, the terms of this conversation call for some parsing. “Ethnic studies” and “postcolonial studies” are not only two distinct [End Page 234] fields with different but related genealogies, but each consists of several heterogeneous fields within them, which then again have multiple conversations, approaches, methods. For instance, while the notion of racial formations is widely used in Latino and Asian American studies, some in American Indian studies would argue that the paradigm of nationalism is more appropriate.4 Furthermore, in Britain, the ethnic category “black” has different connotations. Similarly, colonial and postcolonial histories not only differ between African nations, for examples, but between African and Asian, Francophone and Anglophone nations. Nevertheless, the argument can be made about linked global political and economic situations arising from the conjoining of the ideologies of white supremacy to the development of global capitalism. “White supremacy,” despite its...