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Social Text 18.3 (2000) 87-103

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The Aura of Authenticity * - [PDF]

Aamir R. Mufti

Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: "In reality, who am I?"

--Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Whenever I read or hear the words colonial India, it hurts me. It hurts like an injury that has healed and yet has retained somehow a trace of the original pain linked to many different things--memories, values, sentiments.

--Ranajit Guha, "A Conquest Foretold"

Colonialism is a form of human suffering, one of the historically determinate forms of suffering specific to the modern age. Frantz Fanon is one of the best-known cartographers of this experience of suffering and has left us a vocabulary, as much a revised psychoanalysis as it is a "stretched" Marxism, for tracing out its contours in the culture and politics of the colonial world. 1 In a remarkable recent essay on the phenomenology of colonial conquest, Ranajit Guha has reopened this question for the postcolonial moment, exploring its links to the narrative traditions in which the ascendancy of Europe and its encounters with non-European cultures and peoples continue to be told and retold. 2 Guha produces a gestalt shift in our understanding of anticolonial nationalism by pointing out that its principal affect is a desire to tell and retell this same painful story, though from the perspective not of the colonizers' victory as such, but rather of the defeat and subjugation of the colonized. I shall take Guha's reopening as my own point of entry into the question of colonial dislocation and suffering and will attempt briefly to indicate some of the directions a renewed discussion of it might take. I am concerned in particular with the thematics of authenticity and recovery of self as they have appeared repeatedly, at many times and in many places, in the midst of the struggles that we speak of collectively as decolonization. My concern here is to identify a pervasive language and mood in the contemporary critical scene that is concerned with the inauthenticity of postcolonial culture, community, and politics, and in which authenticity comes to attach itself to the concepts of certain cultural practices as a kind of aura, as the practices themselves come to be seen as resources for the overcoming of the forms of alienation [End Page 87] that are the result, and the subjective dimension, of the colonial encounter. Thus singled out as the site for resistance to what comes to be viewed as an imperialist and increasingly universal liberalism, these practices collectively come to acquire the auratic name of religion. It is religion--as belief, ritual, institution, worldview, or identity--that becomes the unsubsumable Other to the dominant culture of the modern West, the authentic embodiment of difference that the great equalizing engine of modern culture would annihilate, and the means of restoring to itself the shattered totality of life in modernity.

It is my intention here to begin to produce a critique of the particular modes of the critique of colonialism that share such a move, which I refer to collectively as auratic criticism. I shall explore two such contexts from recent decades--the first being a series of critical interventions in Anglophone "postcolonial" debates since the mid-1980s and the other the curious trajectory of jadidiyat--usually translated as "modernism"--in Urdu literary criticism since the 1960s. My goal in bringing together these two contexts and the distinct critical voices within them, widely separated by locale, language, and historical moment, is precisely to suggest an affinity, not quite the connectedness of historical precedence and causality, but the inhabiting of a common problematic, produced under the pressures of the desire described with utter clarity by Ngugi wa Thiong'o as "decolonizing the mind." 3 In sum, I wish to explore the contours of authenticity not as it has come to be formulated in the philosophical history of the modern West, but from the other...


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pp. 87-103
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