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  • Response to Deepika Bahri’s Essay, “Disembodying the Corpus: Postcolonial Pathology in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’”
  • Timothy Burke

I appreciated both your comments and their sensitive tone. With regard to your reference to the problem that haunts a great deal of analysis, let me begin by invoking the “double bind” in which postcolonial critics typically find themselves. You are right, of course, in identifying the propensity, to seek individuation and differentiation while arguing from essentialized and generalized positions as a “struggle.” Amen. Critics suggest that postcolonial discourse is particularly prone to this trap because it needs simultaneously to define the subject (silent or invisible thus far), represent a situation that has hitherto been inadequately or falsely represented, and engage with the danger of neoorientalism and essentialism. The challenge of managing what are, in fundament, contradictory mandates, as you are aware, is a considerable one.* Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism,” then, is one that a lot of postcolonial critics, including myself, adopt with varying degrees of uneasiness. On the one hand, the need to articulate modes and systems of oppression (certainly they exist and oppression exists) continues to be pressing; on the other, one has learned the dangers of essentializing, said oppression being one manifestation of them. My own response, perhaps woefully inadequate, has been to try to explore a. possibilities for and symptoms of agency b. degrees of complicity and compliance, to upset, in some measure, the oppressor/victim, active/passive, colonizer/colonized dualities. Focusing on Nyasha allowed me to expose a complex of narratives that sometimes fostered a particularly (albeit not exclusively) oppressive subject position for women as well as to look for her own complicity within these narratives; my ultimate goals were to recognize her resistance and her agency as challenges to these narratives and to de-narrativize her as victim and powerless.

As for who racks up the most points on the scorecard of oppression, Nyasha, you may agree, is hardly the most abject available victim—that victim cannot be represented because the means of self-representation are never available to him/her—but she is the most dramatic exponent of these narratives in the novel. This is a function, of course, of Dangarembga’s own objectives as is the centrality of Babamukuru’s role in sustaining both precolonial and colonial modes of domination. I agree that Tambu’s story might have played a more illuminating role in this essay as might the accounts of Schmidt, Barnes, and Jeater, but I had hoped to make clear that commodification, rather than being an unambiguous form of colonial domination, was supported by a complex of precolonial and capitalist practices with which men and women complied in varying degrees.

Timothy Burke
Department of History
Swarthmore College


* The very bases of postcolonialism oblige one to accept this dual charge if one wishes to participate; the ethical and logical challenges implicit here have not escaped too many people—certainly you seem very sensitive to them yourself. The only defensible and sustainable response I have found is one which allows me to test the limits to which I can make claims based on essentialist (and often highly politicized) constructions. There comes a point, of course, when one finds that qualifications begin to paralyze. In an essay on “What is Postcolonialism?” I have engaged this question to some extent (among others) but I cannot say that any particularly felicitous response has suggested itself.


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