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  • Imagining Justice: The Politics of Postcolonial Forgiveness and Reconciliation
  • Lincoln Z. Shlensky
Julie McGonegal. Imagining Justice: The Politics of Postcolonial Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Montreal and Kingston, London, and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009. xiv + 234 pp. $75.00 cloth.

Julie McGonegal positions her recent book, Imagining Justice: The Politics of Postcolonial Forgiveness and Reconciliation, as a response to critics on the left and right who have dismissed postcolonial reconciliation projects, such as that of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as naïve, unproductive, and even harmful. The book offers a powerful argument that the continuing violence inherent in postcolonial cultural and economic dispossession, racism, sexism, and other social ills cannot be addressed without such reconciliatory efforts, which, at their best, seek a collective vision of restorative justice, a consensual commitment to the public acknowledgement of loss, and nation-level negotiations toward redress. McGonegal does not disregard the enormous difficulty of creating empathic social contexts in which forgiveness can take place, nor does she minimize the potential of reconciliatory efforts to be conscripted into the service of hegemonic national consolidation movements. She argues compellingly, however, for the view that working to enable public forgiveness and reconciliation offers potential social benefits that can accrue independently [End Page 246] of, and prior to, any achieved outcome. Her claim, moreover, is that literary art—she focuses on fiction—is key to postcolonial reconciliation projects insofar as such literature can produce an experimental laboratory for revisiting history, a hermeneutical analog to the process of rapprochement, and a vital alternative to existing jurisprudential, bureaucratic, and journalistic discourses of forgiveness and reconciliation. By addressing the recent lineage of forgiveness in critical theory and postcolonial criticism, McGonegal is able to speak across a broad range of disciplines to scholars who might concern themselves with the politics of forgiveness and reconciliation, even as she introduces original and provocative readings of an array of literary texts in order to challenge prevailing critical thinking about the usefulness of social reconciliation projects.

What is especially striking about the book’s approach is that McGonegal is able to make the case for reconciliation by effectively negotiating seemingly opposed philosophical and political stances. Chief among these oppositions is the intellectual antagonism between humanism’s universalist tradition and poststructuralism’s concern for difference. She thus presents forgiveness and reconciliation in the therapeutic humanist terms in which the retrieval of history is key to ameliorating and moving beyond present social injustice, while insisting that such a reparative approach to history always must be balanced with a postmodern skepticism towards “grand narratives” of conclusion and re-emergence. Following Stuart Hall and others, she points out that discourses of forgiveness and reconciliation are predicated on such a balance to the extent that they aim to “place a language of common humanity side by side with a vocabulary of redistribution” (5) in response to the disparities imposed on universal subjectivity by colonialism and racism. In related terms, her analysis seeks to maintain an equilibrium between a utopic vision of the future that forgiveness seems to promise and a deconstructive critique of the rhetorical discrepancies and political limitations that can contaminate reparative public discourses. McGonegal points out that such philosophical and practical polarities must be held in productive tension in order to achieve what she views as the ameliorative task of postcolonial discourse: to acknowledge injustice and mourn loss; to envision the possibilities for a more just and peaceable future; and to hasten such a future by engaging with, while recognizing the limits of, the politics of reconciliation.

Just as she aims to integrate critical perspectives and utopic visions, McGonegal similarly resists viewing literary works solely as sociological objects. She draws a connection, instead, between the literary activities of reading and writing, the intellectual and emotional work entailed [End Page 247] in forgiveness, and the political work of reconciliation. Because literary activity involves an intersubjective encounter between reader, writer, and characters, literary interpretation “teaches us something of the posture of openness essential to the forgiveness transaction” (10). Forgiveness itself, correspondingly, entails a kind of hermeneutical activity, and therefore, as Julia Kristeva has suggested, it is akin to the narrative processes of literature because it “enables...


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