Actualité et inactualité de la notion de ‘postcolonial’ ed. by Micéala Symington, Joanny Moulin, Jean Bessière (review)
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Reviewed by
Actualité et inactualité de la notion de ‘postcolonial’. Études réunies par Micéala Symington, Joanny Moulin et Jean Bessière (Colloques, congrès et conférences sur la littérature comparée, 18.) Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013. 168pp.

On first approach this book might appear to be highly promising—at last, perhaps, some serious French-based engagement with postcolonial theory and its contemporary relevance—but the result is hugely disappointing: an unfocused, poorly executed, and intellectually uninspiring volume of actes from a small one-day conference at the Universitéde la Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 in June 2007. Why the editors decided to turn the proceedings into a publication six years later, with almost no quality control or attempt to update the contexts or references, is a mystery. The eight papers collected here are by critics based in France working on mainly anglophone comparative and world literature and coming to postcolonial theory from a very traditional French literary-critical perspective, thereby producing all sorts of strange echo effects, given the very belated translation into French of the major works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha, among others, and the rather indifferent, even wary, relationship France has to what those outside the country have come identify as ‘French Theory’ more generally. The conceptual questions with which postcolonial theory has been grappling for some time are simply ignored, or held at a very safe distance, and what we are offered instead are critical commonplaces, lists of texts, or long quotations from rather derivative critical texts or anthologies. It is perhaps symptomatic of the lack of genuine engagement with the specifically contextualized history and evolution of the postcolonial outside of France that this term is thrown indiscriminately at writers from Ireland, the Caribbean, India, West Africa, North Africa, as well as France, before and after decolonization. To the extent that the occasion of the conference from which this volume emerged may have lent the book a certain historical context [End Page 437] and urgency of its own, many of the articles reflect rather excitedly on the 2007 ‘Littérature-monde’ manifesto (particularly the three papers in the middle section, by Mycéala Symington, Veronica Amadessi, and Anthony Mangeon), only to dismiss its ambitions in a series of rather high-handed and regressive reaffirmations of the French and francophone literary canon. Again, regardless of what one feels about the rather provocative claims made in this manifesto, one might have expected at the very least within the volume’s preface some acknowledgement of the many ensuing critical publications between 2007 and 2013. Two chapters, by Jean Bessière and Joanny Moulin, do begin to sketch out something of an argument around the inherent tensions and paradoxical relationship between literature, history, and imagination that are found in much of the so-called postcolonial fiction under discussion, and the chapter by David Waterman on globalization is at least alive to the recent (that is, up to 2007) debates in this field, but these contributions remain nonetheless fairly rudimentary and introductory. Elsewhere, however, we find little more than the tours d’horizon that would best suit an undergraduate syllabus, and deferential bows to what passes for ‘postcolonial criticism’ in France, suggesting perhaps that the postcolonial still has a long way to go before it achieves any kind of actualité there at all.

Michael Syrotinski
University of Glasgow