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  • The Criticism of Culture and the Culture of Criticism:At the Intersection of Postcolonialism and Globalization Theory
  • Revathi Krishnaswamy (bio)

Why have culture in general and literature in particular emerged as key terms in critical theory today? Are we witnessing a dissolution of these categories similar to the earlier dissolution of the category of history, or are we witnessing an entirely novel consolidation of these categories? Has materialism essentially changed the semiotic such that culture is now simply another commodity available for consumption on the world market, or has the semiotic radically subsumed the social such that cultural representation has become one with material reality itself? Has the relationship between the cultural and the economic altered in ways yet untheorized? Finally, what exactly does the culturalist turn in critical theory mean for the practice of postcolonial cultural/literary studies? And precisely what does it portend for the ongoing politics of decolonization?1 I shall attempt to engage these questions by focusing on two dominant theoretical discourses that regulate contemporary knowledge production in the humanities and social sciences: postcolonialism and globalization. While the "culturalist turn" in contemporary criticism has infected many disciplines, these two theoretical fields have been most influential in asserting the primacy or the constitutive role of the cultural in history, economics, and politics. Yet there has so far been relatively little explicit or systematic scrutiny of the links between postcolonialism and globalization theory.2

The links are at once considerable and complicated. Despite differences in disciplinary origin (globalization theory in the social sciences, particularly sociology, and postcolonial theory in the humanities, particularly literary criticism), both discourses emerge at the intersection of imperialism, capitalism, and modernity. Both are concerned with the effects of unequal power relations between different geopolitical locations on the globe: postcolonial theory focuses primarily on a (Eurocentric) colonial past and studies how subaltern practices and productions in the non-Western peripheries respond to Western domination, while globalization theory concentrates mainly on [End Page 106] an (Americocentric) post/neocolonial present and examines how contemporary Western practices and productions affect the rest of the world. Furthermore, both theoretical paradigms have sought to question the universality attributed to Western modernity in metropolitan developmental theory by drawing attention to premodern, nonmodern, or alternatively modern formations in the margins. This attempt to dislocate Western modernity (from the theoretical center) has typically taken the form of dismantling those categories deemed to be central to the narrative of Western modernity—categories such as "nation," "nation-state," "culture" and so on. Consequently, both postcolonial and globalization studies have frequently focused on various forms of economic, political, social, and cultural flows that exceed the boundaries of the nation-state and operate in a deterritorialized or transnational fashion. Through these accounts, postcolonial theory has emphasized the cultural basis of history (the cultural constructedness of history as well as the archival value of cultural productions)3 while globalization theory, in turn, has highlighted the cultural basis of the economic (the economic value of cultural productions as well as the cultural production of economic value).

But "besides their shared cultural grammar," the relationship between globalization and postcolonialism "is not very clear," notes Simon Gikandi in "Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality," a provocative essay that represents one of few attempts to explicitly articulate the relationship between the two discourses [628]. It is indeed unclear whether contemporary globalization theory has been made possible by the postcolonial challenge to older Eurocentric forms of globalization premised on the centrality of the nation and narrated in terms of modernization or whether postcoloniality itself is a consequence of a globalization premised on the marginalization of the nation, especially in the domain of the cultural and the imaginary. It is unclear whether the postcolonial and the global are one and the same, whether the postcolonial precedes and provides the foundations for global or transnational cultural studies [Eng and Stratton], or whether globalization created the historical and material conditions that both enabled the production of postcolonial theory and eroded its political purchase through incorporation into the Western academy [Ahmad]. What is clear, however, as Gikandi recognizes, is that the cultural and the literary have risen to new levels of prominence in both theoretical fields.