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  • Figures of Colonial Resistance
  • Jenny Sharpe (bio)

The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is "knowing thyself" as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.

-Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

As an Ethics of Reading That Began by Excavating the colonial past stratified in Western forms of knowledge, colonial discourse theory is currently contending with the problem of articulating resistance.1 Because Western authority over the representation of its colonies involves the narrative containment of anticolonial insurgency, an attention to native disruptions and restructurings of eurocentric discourses is now recognized as crucial to any critical investigation of colonialism. Edward Said's Orientalism, a pioneering study of the power/knowledge relations in a "disciplining" of the Arab-Islamic world, remains a paradigmatic text for the nascent field of colonial discourse theory. However, Said has also come under criticism for over-estimating the success of Orientalism in confining the whole East to a theatrical staging of "the Orient."2 Are the colonized [End Page 137] indeed passive actors of a Western script? It might well be argued that studies expounding the domination of dominant discourses merely add to their totalizing effects, for they show the colonizers to have a power that even they were incapable of enforcing. Yet the correction of such readings with the simple presentation of native voices can equally impose a Western authority upon non-Western texts.

Benita Parry's recent review of colonial discourse theory, which offers native transgressions of colonial authority as a corrective to discourse analysis, is symptomatic of a tendency to presume the transparency of the intellectual who transmits narratives of resistance.3 Questioning the political efficacy of attempts to displace eurocentric textual systems through the deconstruction of colonial texts alone, Parry takes colonial discourse theory to task for its unwillingness to articulate a more oppositional politics. Hence she criticizes Homi Bhabha for reading resistance as the mere questioning of colonial authority, and she faults Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for restricting the subaltern woman4 to the silent space of her planned disarticulation (Parry 34-35). Parry ultimately favors Bhabha's writings over Spivak's, for "his readings of the colonialist text recover a native voice" and suggest in a way Spivak's cannot that "the subaltern has spoken" (40). By assuming that the native in Bhabha's work is necessarily "the subaltern," Parry collapses the heterogeneous signification of the colonized into the unifying category of "a native voice."

In her eagerness to hear the native speak, Parry ends up effacing the subaltern. For the tropes of "mimicry," "sly civility," and "hybridity" that Bhabha deploys to stage what he identifies as the ambivalence of colonial discourse are all derived from the colonial production of an educated class of natives.5 Spivak's work not only addresses the overdetermination of the colonial scene by race, class, and gender differences, but it also accounts for the subaltern woman as one who cannot be simply reduced to her class or caste position.6 When Parry writes that "it should be possible to locate traces and testimony of women's voice on those sites where women inscribed themselves as healers, ascetics, singers of sacred [End Page 138] songs, artisans, and artists, and by this to modify Spivak's model of the silent subaltern" (35), she fails to consider that Spivak's work charts the difficulty of such a retrieval and, through that difficulty, discloses subalternity itself as a tropological move that threatens to silence the subaltern.7 By claiming that the subaltern has spoken through tropes derived from a discourse on the class-native, Parry in fact reproduces the primary ideological effect of the British civilizing mission-which was to substitute metonymically the educated colonial for the native as such.

In the absence of a critical awareness of colonialism's ideological effects, readings of counter-discourses can all too easily serve an institutional function of securing the dominant narratives. None of us escapes the legacy of a colonial past and its traces in our academic practice. It is perhaps telling that, although Said's Foucauldian excavation of Orientalist discourse...


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pp. 137-155
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