New Dehli: Oxford University Press, 2014, 256pp. ISBN 9780198075561
Reading a book about Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999) is a strange experience, these days. To be sure, Spivak’s pursuit of the itineraries of the gendered subaltern’s foreclosure both within patriarchal, imperialist capitalism and within leftist idioms opposed to this order remains as important and exemplary as ever. But the present-tense occasion for Spivak’s masterwork—a migrant class’s inhabiting of the position of native informant via the institutionalization of postcolonial studies in the global north—might now itself be a thing of a vanished past. Postcolonial studies, we are told, and indeed told by erstwhile postcolonialists, is dead (Agnani et al. 2007). Such locutions are performative, so it would not do to point to the wealth of scholarship produced under the sign of, or in dialogue with the texts of, postcolonialism. Anyhow, institutional practice bears out this narrative of decline. In terms of hiring, postcolonial studies has more or less been abandoned by English departments, the field’s erst-while academic home; it has been replaced with lines in “global Anglophone [End Page 279] literatures,” “world literature,” “transnational literature,” and the like. It’s something of a tragedy, really, to read Spivak describe her project as charting her “progress from colonial discourse studies to transnational cultural studies,” for this is a move that the anti-political machine of the neoliberal university travesties incessantly (Spivak 1999, x). It is thus unclear, at least at the level of institutionalized epistemes, what the referent of “postcolonial reason” is today, and so how it might function as an object of immanent critique. It is possible that all that “remains” of postcolonial studies, to borrow Robert Young’s figure, are traces that disclose its effacement (Young 2012).
All of this might be a way of saying that Postcolonial Reason and Its Critique: Deliberations on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Thoughts, edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Dina Al-Kassim, might strike readers located in the United States, like myself, as untimely. Indeed, the volume is largely composed of material first published more than a decade ago. The first half of the book draws on articles published as a special symposium in Interventions from 2002; the articles themselves had their origins in a conference from 1999. Other chapters in the book originally appeared in Diacritics, Radical Philosophy, Childhood, and Drucilla Cornell’s Between Women and Generations: Legacies of Dignity (2002). In an academic context suffused with desire for the new, newest thing, it is wonderfully refreshing to witness the recirculation of almost occasional work, and Bilimoria and Al-Kassim have put together a nice, teachable dossier of responses to and movements with Spivak’s difficult “thoughts.” But what are we to make of the chunk of time separating the publication of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, as well as the publication of the bulk of Postcolonial Reason and Its Critique, from our own quickly vanishing present? At first blush, a decade does not seem like a long time, particularly when viewed beside the “immensely slow temporizing” that Spivak associates with “those who have stayed in place for more than thirty thousand years,” the indigenous (Spivak 1999, 402). But time has been rather syncopated lately—financial crises, anti-systemic movements, the threat of the imminent collapse of the planet. Far less dramatically, the academic field of postcolonial studies has itself come to crisis, all but vanished. How then do we think this publication, which is in many ways a republication, at a moment when ruptures in capitalism (on one hand) and academic epistemes (on the other) problematize the adequacy of any gesture or repetition or restoration?
Dina Al-Kassim’s introduction approaches one half of this problem directly, reading Spivak’s work as anticipating the political bumpiness of the global present: “In the intervening time [between 2002 and 2014] much has happened that echoes the suggestive warnings and hopes of CPR” (xii). Al-Kassim primarily hears these “echoes...