- Where is Africa? When is the West's Other?Literary Postcoloniality in a Comparative Anthropology
This essay brings into a critical dialogue two contemporary cultural-intellectual projects, one Western, the other African. The two are commonly and broadly informed by questions of ethics, epistemology, and the politics of representation as they bear on how, in the here and now, we are to conceive anew the relations between Self and Other, subject and object, similarity and alterity, universality and relativity, normativity and difference. The concerns and questions that commonly characterize the two projects, Western and African, arise within a globally enfolding spatiotemporal and cultural horizon, a horizon I identify in this essay by the designation "postcolonial(ity)."
The notion that the era we live in is a "postcolonial" one is not universally accepted: the designation "postcolonial(ity)" has attracted heated opposition from critics who question its conceptual, historical, and political adequacy.1 Mindful of the shortcomings that critics of the term have demonstrated, I hasten to point out that by prefixing "post-" to the substantive "colonial(ity)," I do not mean to point to a stage or phase of history, a state of being, or a mode of cognition that mark a clean break with the substantive. I do not mean, in other words, to imply in any way that the historical processes, the existential conditions, and the epistemological-cum-conceptual presuppositions that are captured in the substantive are definitively over, superseded, behind us. Rather, I deploy the designation in this essay in three senses: (a) temporal, (b) spatial, and (c) ethico-cultural. The first two, postcolonial time and space, are meant as descriptions of the general outlines of a past and present global condition and configuration. The third, postcolonial(ity) in the ethico-cultural sense, designates an assortment of future-oriented projects that have taken shape within the confines of this global condition and configuration. In their variety these projects of critique and revision attempt to get beyond questionable past (colonial) legacies that are sedimented in present international and intranational relations and exchanges.2
In the temporal sense, "postcolonial(ity)" is the historical period after the variegated encounters—inaugurated in the fifteenth century and continuing long thereafter—between societies of the European West (the encountering societies) and those of the non-European/non-Western world (the encountered societies, usually referred to as "the Rest"). The encountering West's imperial and colonial dominance, as well [End Page 38] as cultural hegemony, over the encountered non-West, has more or less been, in the past as in the present, a salient world-historical, geopolitical, and geocultural feature of the encounters' aftermath (hence the reference, in historical usage, to "the colonial encounter[s]"). "Postcolonial(ity)," as a periodizing designation in this essay, is thus synonymous with "postencounter time" or "postencounter world."
In the spatial sense, "postcolonial(ity)" refers to the configuration of the postencounter world after its more or less successful restructuring along the lines of a hierarchy determined by the West's material, political, and cultural power. Hence the world after the encounters discloses a spatial relationship between superordinate Western (imperial) centers and (their) subordinate (colonial and/or neocolonial) peripheries; between dominating (First World) metropoles and dominated (Third World) margins. In metropolitan space is to be found the Western Self, while the periphery is occupied by those that this Self, through its compelling institutional and discursive power, has determined, and relates to, as its Others.3
What critics have recognized as a globally hegemonic culture of imperialism has, by and large, provided the epistemic, cognitive, and thematic principles that undergird the framework of discursive exchanges between center and periphery, metropole and margin, in the postencounter configuration.4 The language of the dominant West and that of the Rest it dominates share, in large measure, the same rationalist principles and thought categories of (Western) Enlightenment modernity. It should be pointed out, though, that those dominated, in their deployment of these modernist categories and principles, have aspired toward the production of ideological effects, cultural affects, and political solidarities different from those of the dominant. From the colonial and neocolonial peripheries have emerged Enlightenment-inflected knowledges and practices of resistance in...