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  • Decolonizing Universality:Postcolonial Theory and the Quandary of Ethical Agency
  • Esha Niyogi De (bio)

Living in colonial India, the Bengali thinker and creative writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) often meditated on ways that "concord" (milan) and "harmony" (sāmanjasya) could be established between persons and cultures [BIC 450-51]. Noting that "ruptures in balance and harmony" (bhār sāmanjasyer abhāv) that once were more localized now affected the whole world, he maintained that these reinforced the progressive message of the modern age that the local "problems of a people are a part and parcel of humankind's" (swajātir samasyā samasta mānusher samasyār antargata) [RC 279]. In his view, the means to reestablish harmony in this unequal world lay in social practices and ideas conducing "freedom" (mukti) rather than enforcing "power" (shakti) and "coercive discipline" (shāsan) [SaS 408-09]. He argued that such progressive trends of practice and thought would be found not in one culture alone but through traveling across different cultural "seas of knowledge (jnān)" [SwSm 699]. For only through such conceptual journeys would we enkindle in ourselves "arguments with and doubts about" (yukti tarka o sandeher udbhav) our own cultures, and also learn from all the "voyagers in the path of progress" (unnatipather yātri) who emerge in different locations and times [SJ 39-40].

As these comments reveal, Rabindranath maintained that inequalities could be rectified by making individual and collective norms and actions accountable to and measurable in terms of a speculative notion of universal humanity. While alert to the injustices proliferating from European colonization, he insisted that coercive practices and imbalances of power could not be entirely localized, and that in order to correct multiple forms of coercion we must seek across cultures and societies for (partial) achievements of human freedom and harmony. In so viewing transcultural negotiations of a common humane proclivity as the means to decolonize the world, Rabindranath did not stand alone but in a diverse company of anti-imperialist thinkers who adapted modern humanism to their ends: W. E. B. Dubois—who lauded Rabindranath's appropriation of [End Page 42] such liberal notions as democracy and equal opportunity "for greater ends" than were allowed by the "inconsistencies" of a racist European perspective [74]—Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and from Rabindranath's own colonial context, the Bengali Anarchist poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (to name but a few). Reflecting upon worldwide experiences of subjection, these radical modern intellectuals tried above all to avoid reinventing separatism by declaring non-Western cultures to be unilaterally superior to Western imperialist culture. Driven by an activist ethics, they attempted instead to correct the roots of separatism through objectively evaluating, against a common frame of reference, right and wrong, relatively successful or failed practices of human empowerment and community.

In this essay, I consider if and how we could characterize as "postcolonial" these evaluative ethics that rationally seek to correct coercive relations between persons and societies through referring to an affirmative idea of a human nature shared by all. If we take postcolonial agency to rest on a thorough critique of and resistance to all political and epistemic maneuvers that subordinate or exclude people and cultures, might this form of resistant agency reside in the ethical normativity of anti-imperialist humanism? This question elicits conflicting responses from contemporary postcolonial theorists.

The argument, on the one hand, is that if postcolonial theory is to ethically address the multiple and interlocked hierarchies of a postimperial world, it indeed must take into account how people mobilize against separatism by working through critiques of ethnic divisiveness to negotiate a common human ground. Commenting on the universalism of thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore and W. E. B. DuBois, Edward Said, for example, suggests that "vital" critiques of chauvinistic separatism arise only from viewing "local identity as not exhaustive" but as elaborating in reference to "larger, more generous realities of community between cultures, peoples, and societies" [Culture and Imperialism 217, 229]. His implication is that only through evaluating ourselves on the basis of a notion of noncoercive universality are we able to think against the identity politics that pervade our world, stemming at once from a nativist...