Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 209-210
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States of Exception:
Everyday Life and Postcolonial Identity
States of Exception: Everyday Life and Postcolonial Identity, by Keya Ganguly. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. xi + 214 pp. ISBN 0-8166-3717-2 paper.
The germ of this ambitious and provocative book was ethnographic research undertaken among a community of Indian immigrants in southern New Jersey. Keya Ganguly considers such practices as communal eating, media consumption, and the gendered uses of memory as "methods of everyday contestation" through which these immigrants manage the contradictions of embourgeoisement (115). Yet the book is not an ethnography per se, but rather a constellation of compelling arguments about the "possibilities for dialectical thinking," particularly within postcolonial studies (171). States of Exception will be of substantial interest to readers who share its impatience with generalized, portable pronouncements on postcoloniality; using the ethnographic experience as an occasion for careful thinking about "the gap between empirical and theoretical questions," Ganguly offers a rigorous consideration of the implications of discipline and method in the study of postcolonial cultures and experiences (xi).
Ganguly maintains that "postcolonial inquiry is marked by a special burden," most immediately because of the gulf between academic discourse and "the everyday experiences of most postcolonial subjects" (3). While she develops a number of arguments about anthropology and ethnography, literature and mass culture, and the disciplinary intersections between them, her consistent concern throughout the book is to confront the "paralysis" of poststructuralism: she insists that "historical and experiential issues are seldom resolved through a logic of the signifier" (155). Acknowledging and moving beyond existing Marxist critiques of poststructuralism's political and historical limitations, Ganguly takes on the fundamental "logical contradiction" of deconstruction, the "circularity" of which offers "no real illumination to the circumstances to which thought might apply itself in the world of objects," a limitation that, for her, has both intellectual and material consequences, particularly given the profound influence of poststructuralism on postcolonial studies (34). She examines interdisciplinarity, identity politics, and critiques of ethnography as inadequate attempts to surmount epistemological problems where dialectical thinking, concerned as it is with the "relay" between concept and object, could better grapple with "discontinuities between identities, experience, and knowledge," particularly those in which the "afterlife" of colonialism shapes both knower and known (30, 9).
Ganguly notes the institutional concentration of postcolonial studies within literature departments, and her attention to the experience of everyday life reorients attention toward the complex relationships between the worldly and the literary. Seeking "to understand postcoloniality as more than a literary predicament" is among Ganguly's particularly valuable interventions, given, as she points out, the still remarkable tendency to read Third World literatures ethnographically (114-16). Demonstrating the significance of the literary within the quotidian experience of postcoloniality, as well as the acuity of a method committed to the [End Page 209] material imbrications of culture, Ganguly's discussion of her subjects' viewing of the PBS broadcast of Peter Brooks's Mahabharata convincingly argues that "global commodity logic makes it impossible to separate the category of aesthetic from other economies of value" or to "distinguish economic from cultural estrangement" (169, 145).
Ganguly's title invokes Walter Benjamin's thesis, "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that 'the state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule" (25). The notion of exception, or "anomalous historical positioning," provides one element of the book's subtle coherence, as such things as ethnographic narrative, the native informant, the author, and her book are in turn considered as "exceptions" (10). Benjamin and Theodor Adorno provide frequent reference points for her consideration of the "experience" of the "everyday" as "exception," but among the most instructive aspects of the book are the wide-ranging genealogies she traces for these terms and others such as adequation, antinomy, and authenticity. Ganguly's ethnographic interest can be described as the "peculiar hold of past distortions on material in the present" (9), but this phrase captures too her commitment to theoretical precision and her conviction that thinking a...