- Reviewed by
Anne Gulick's Literature, Law, and Rhetorical Performance in the Anticolonial Atlantic offers an original and valuable framework for understanding the political investments and impacts of anticolonial discourses. Her research belongs to a larger movement within postcolonial studies to supplement poststructuralist attention to language with a materialist concern for the specific historical interventions these texts sought to make. In particular, Gulick's book engages with the contemporary human rights regime, building on work such as Joseph Slaughter's Human Rights, Inc., Elizabeth Anker's Fictions of Dignity, and Angela Naimou's Salvage Work. Gulick thus shows how postcolonial literature and theorizing are influenced by and critique international juridico-political structures.
Literature, Law, and Rhetorical Performance in the Anticolonial Atlantic seeks to trace "a long history of fierce, creative, and distinctly literary responses to a North Atlantic legal imagination in the work of anticolonial African and Caribbean writers" (1). What Gulick finds is significant overlap between these literary and legal interventions: the work she examines is characterized by experimentation as writers and thinkers seek to imagine alternative forms of political belonging and authority to those constructed by an international order defined by imperialism. The book attends carefully to genre not only in the sense of fiction and poetry, but in terms of the distinct notions of authorship and citizenship performed by declarations, manifestoes, and constitutions.
Reading literature and legal discourse together makes possible sharp insight into foundational political texts as not just rhetorical but more accurately literary performances. Gulick therefore demonstrates just how important language and the literary are to understanding politics and law. This methodology enables the book to interrogate the conceptions of authority and audience assumed in postcolonial founding documents that include the Haitian constitution of 1805 (whose "we" and its "people" are bound together by the common experience of revolution), the South African Freedom Charter (which seeks to redefine authorship as collective), and Kenya's 1963 constitution (which positions its authors as a technocratic elite). [End Page 265]
Gulick's approach also provides an opportunity for rereading influential works of postcolonialism, such as Aimé Césaire's Notebook of a Return to My Native Land or Ngũgũ wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat, to demonstrate the modernist stylistics these anticolonial writers shared with postcolonial constitution writers or drafters of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Gulick's analysis of C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins as arguing for Toussaint Louverture as a major political theorist of revolution in the tradition of Paine, Jefferson, Marx, and Engels is typically perceptive and makes a strong case for James's own contribution to the less reductive human rights discourse Gulick pushes us to imagine.
Gulick revisits these earlier texts to argue "for the centrality of anticolonial critique to postcolonial studies" because "our postcolonial present calls for more engagement with the anticolonial past, not less" (6). Rather than dismissing early African constitutions, for example, as failures, understanding the problems they sought to address and the creative solutions they offered can help us imagine new forms of engaging with our seemingly congealed postcolonial present. Similarly, writers like Edouard Glissant and Ng g need not be seen as abandoning anticolonial commitments, but as adapting these concerns to the contemporary moment through "appropriat[ing] and manipulat[ing] the rhetoric of human rights" (218). Through these readings and arguments, Literature, Law, and Rhetorical Performance in the Anticolonial Atlantic shows the continued relevance of the literary analysis of anticolonialism.