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Colonial figures and postcolonial reading

From: Diacritics
Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 1996
pp. 74-89 | 10.1353/dia.1996.0005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Colonial Figures and Postcolonial Reading
Jenny Sharpe. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
Sara Suleri. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Biologists tell us that racialism is a myth and there is no such thing as a master race. But we in India have known racialism in all its forms ever since the commencement of British rule. The whole ideology of this rule was that of the herrenvolk and the master race, and the structure of government was based upon it; indeed the idea of a master race is inherent in imperialism. There was no subterfuge about it; it was proclaimed in unambiguous language by those in authority. More powerful than words was the practice that accompanied them. . . .

—Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1946)

Sara Suleri begins The Rhetoric of English India with a critique of “some of the governing assumptions” of the field of colonial cultural studies, which she sees as subject to a debilitating “concept-function”: “While the representation of otherness has long been acknowledged as one of the must [sic] culturally vexing idioms to read, contemporary interpretations of alterity are increasingly victims of their own apprehension of such vexation. Even as the other is privileged in all its pluralities, in all its alternative histories, its concept-function remains too embedded in a theoretical duality of margin to center ultimately to allow the cultural decentering that such critical attention surely desires” [1]. Suleri enumerates some of the problems attendant upon “alteritist” methods of reading: “While alteritism begins as a critical and theoretical revision of a Eurocentric or Orientalist study of the literatures of colonialism, its indiscriminate reliance on the centrality of otherness tends to replicate what in the context of imperialist discourse was the familiar category of the exotic.” In its single-minded devotion to the analysis of difference, alteritism runs the risk of “representing ‘difference’ with no attention to the cultural nuances that differentiation implies. Instead, alteritism reads to reify questions of cultural misapprehension until ‘otherness’ becomes a conceptual blockage that signifies a repetitive monumentalization of the academy’s continuing fear of its own cultural ignorance” [12].

In her account of academic processes, Suleri is surely right in claiming that, “in contravention of the astounding specificity of each colonial encounter . . . contemporary critical theory names the other in order that it need not be further known” [13], thus providing theoretical models and vocabularies whose easy portability and schematic applicability become the reasons for their institutional success. Now that a loose affiliation of texts, revisionary reading practices, and literary histories are being institutionalized (particularly in departments of English) under the disciplinary rubric of colonial and postcolonial discourse studies, such a questioning of the protean versatility [End Page 74] and analytical usefulness of notions of “otherness” or alterity is timely. 1 In much academic writing, the critique of colonial discourses ends where perhaps it should begin, by positing the many forms of alterity that are invoked in the writing of the imperial, nationalist, or even subaltern subject. Particularly in the work of literary theorists, this dynamic of self and other proves entirely compelling when charted in and through textual representation, and the metropolitan archive, both literally and figuratively open in our moment of decolonization, provides ample opportunity to think about the reiterated motifs of “civilization” and “barbarism,” modernity and its antecedents, trade and empire, warfare and conquest.

Yet what is to make such intellectual work “postcolonial” in any significant sense? Today, “postcolonial studies” in the Anglo-US academy often suggests simply the opening up of a new archive or a bringing together, in different ways, of various interpretative or reading techniques developed by poststructuralist theorists. There is little evidence that such intellectual work derives any of its critical functions and polemical urgencies from the present-day cultural and intellectual life of the “postcolonial” nation or nations whose historical legacy is under study. Metropolitan concerns and agendas dictate the nature and process of inquiry, rather than a more appropriate sense of the pressing issues that have priority in the national debates of once-colonized countries. What is required is a different...