A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Thought in English (review)
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Reviewed by
Poddar, Prem and David Johnson, eds. 2005. A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Thought in English. New York: Columbia University Press. $95.00 hc. xxxiii + 574pp.

One of the most important intellectual developments in the West over the past twenty years has been the emergence within the academic mainstream of an intellectual enterprise and an area of study known as the "postcolonial." In contrast to the ostensibly innocent but deeply ideological discipline of Commonwealth literature, postcolonial studies has insisted on the persistence of the legacy of colonialism, so interrupting (at least at the intellectual level) the smooth progression from empire to the new world order of "free" trade and the WTO—precisely the progression that the Commonwealth was designed to facilitate. It could no longer simply be business as usual, whereby "up and coming" literatures and "unusual" histories would find (or be allotted) their proper place in the established edifice of academic inquiry; for rather than simply supplying new raw material, the postcolonial questions the very disciplinary definitions and arrangement that organize and parcel out historical experience and cultural meaning as units of knowledge or objects of aesthetic apprehension.

However, the emergence of postcolonial studies within the metropolitan mainstream always involved a significant risk, a danger that has been identified in terms of "traveling theory." If each distinct instance of postcolonial history, culture, or experience is able to be cast in the same uniform theoretical co-ordinates, then despite the apparent diversity offered by the postcolonial [End Page 220] world, the very otherness it promises would be erased. Historically, an important part of the problem has been that for many academic readers in the West, involvement with postcolonial studies has largely been facilitated through a set of theoretical positions shorn of their historical contexts of articulation, positions which nevertheless seemed to make a variety of unfamiliar literary texts transparent and fertile to those who lacked the kind of specialist knowledge once associated with the discipline of Commonwealth literature. Without a sense of the dynamic and multi-dimensional positioning within which reader, theoretical frame, and literary text are situated within collective histories of tradition, innovation, conflict, and struggle, the application of such frames threatens to become an inert and repetitive gesture, however sophisticated the critical position might be.

Prem Poddar and David Johnson's Companion comes as a welcome and long overdue response to this predicament, and it is without a doubt a major achievement. Bringing together an impressive range of scholars drawn from across the postcolonial world as well as from the metropolitan academy, the Companion provides a remarkably rich overview of many of the key historical trajectories that inform postcolonial literature in the English-speaking world. It is worth pointing out that the original title of the British edition—A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Literatures in English—best describes what it has to offer, and sets out (at least for this reviewer) a more valuable project than that announced by the title of the American edition. According to the Preface, the aim is not to provide a historical context for a fixed canon of postcolonial thought, but to renovate theoretical approaches by "encourag[ing] critical reflection on the relation between postcolonial literary works and their historical contexts" (vi).

This ambition underpins the historical scope of the Companion, which while focusing on postcolonial debates and contestations, spans the colonial and postcolonial chronological divide, including historical events, traditions, organizations, or people from earlier periods that remain culturally significant for the contemporary world. Exemplary in this respect is Ananya Jahanara Kabir's entry on Islam, which provides a historical, doctrinal, sociological, and ethno-cultural overview that reaches back to the origins of the faith in the seventh century of the Common Era, but in terms which clearly illuminate contemporary developments within the Islamic world (for example, the role of women and the relationship between Shi'as and Sunnis) and its relationship to the West. Geographically, the Companion is primarily concerned with the former colonies of the British Empire, and as such concentrates on eastern, western and southern Africa; Australia; Canada; the Caribbean; South Asia; and parts of the Middle East and South East Asia. It includes longer surveys...