- Postcolonial Contraventions: Cultural Readings of Race, Imperialism and Transnationalism
Laura Chrisman's Postcolonial Contraventions represents an incisive critique of the current state of affairs in postcolonial studies in the Western academy, a partial intellectual history of the field, and a partisan argument for a politically informed cultural materialism. The book is an anthology of previously published essays re-framed and re-calibrated here by a new theoretical introduction. These essays provide useful insights on some of the key debates in postcolonial studies during the past decade.
The individual chapters of the book often turn on brilliant readings of specific texts and historical moments. Chrisman presents, for example, a compelling critique of the apparent evacuation of the political in Paul Gilroy's paradigmatic text The Black Atlantic. She argues that Gilroy's powerful critique of Eurocentricism in [End Page 128] canonical empire studies is in the end needlessly undermined by his doctrinaire anti-essentialism and anti-nationalism. Her revisionary reading of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness—a reading that turns critical focus away from Kurtz and "his" Africa back towards the capitalist metropole—is brilliant both in terms of its historical depth and textual acuity. Similarly compelling is Chrisman's revision of Anne McClintock's now classic reading of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines as a gendered allegory of colonial power.
There is a certain ultimately unpersuasive tone of beleagueredness to the overall conceptual framework of the book. Chrisman conceives of postcolonial studies in terms of a binary opposition pitting a still dominant (if no longer uncontested) culturalist/textualist wing against a still dominated (if no longer wholly marginal) materialist/historicist wing. She positions herself on the side of the materialists. She emphasizes that postcolonial studies has "always been a field of divergent orientations" (2). She suggests, however, that the contributions of materialists to the field of postcolonial studies have been undervalued; long hegemonic, the culturalist perspective remains "influential" and continues to "eclipse other kinds of enquiry" (2). Chrisman frames her work as a necessary "contravention," that is, a sustained critique of such canonical postcolonial thinkers as Paul Gilroy, Fredric Jameson, Anne McClintock, Edward Said, and Giyatri Spivak.
It is difficult to see in what sense materialists are (or have ever been) marginal in postcolonial studies. Chrisman herself provides an impressive list of materialist perspectives prominent in the field. It is also not clear in what sense the thinkers listed above can collectively be regarded as "culturalists." Nor is it clear that the binary opposition between culturalists and materialists is ultimately the most productive way of conceiving of the field. In what sense are critics like Jameson and Spivak either one to the exclusion of the other?
At the heart of Postcolonial Contraventions is Chrisman's desire to re-animate the political, a term, she contends, that has been elided in contemporary postcolonial scholarship. She rejects the knee-jerk anti-nationalism as well as the disparagement of oppositional politics characteristic of some contemporary postcolonial studies. She calls for a more complex engagement with the politics of nationalism and opposition in their full history complexity. Harking back to the dialectic of the Enlightenment, she seeks to rehabilitate the notion of the public sphere as possible site of liberation. In so doing, she rejects the unidirectional identification of the Enlightenment and rationality with racial and colonial domination. To the extent that her critique addresses an important tendency in the field, her point is well taken. To the extent that she mistakes a vocal part for the whole field, her views are somewhat overstated.