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  • Postcolonialism for Political Theorists:Kohn and McBride's Political Theories of Decolonization
  • Farah Godrej (bio)
Margaret Kohn and Keally McBride. Political Theories of Decolonization: Postcolonialism and the Problem of Foundations. Oxford University Press: 2011. US $27.95 (paper). 244 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-539958-5

In this collection of essays, Margaret Kohn and Keally McBride identify—and attempt to fill—an important gap in political theory. Political theorists, they rightly remind us, have not attended sufficiently to the intellectual histories of decolonization and postcolonialism. Thinkers writing from the experience of being colonized, along with the texts and ideas that emerge from their struggles with decolonization, have much to add to our understanding of political life. Yet political theorists have been slow to recognize that analyses of the experience of colonialism and the struggle against it may radically reconfigure important categories central to the very enterprise of political theory itself.

Kohn and McBride do well to begin by clarifying that their volume is not to be taken as yet another iteration of what is known as "postcolonial thought." They rightly distinguish their own project from postcolonial thought, which analyzes literary production from the former colonies, while focusing mostly on the representation of non-European societies, and the relationship between knowledge and power embedded in such questions of representation. Instead, Kohn and McBride are interested in asking and answering the question of how central questions in political theory are imaginatively explored, and what interventions into the discourse of political theory are produced, by turning to the questions, ideas, and conceptual reformulations that emerge from the experience of being colonized. To quote from their clear and cogent introduction: "What ideas and assumptions have informed the process of founding a new regime out of the remnants of colonialism and reinvented traditions? What views of civilization have been advanced as alternatives to the "civilizing mission" of the colonial powers? How have critical, counterhegemonic ideas been institutionalized, or have they been?" (7). Indeed, their project is a rethinking of the conventional understanding of what constitutes postcolonial theory. Such a rethinking is best evidenced when the authors cast the unlikely figure of Khomeini as a postcolonial theorist, because his strategy is postcolonial in every sense: he "offers an explanation for imperial subordination, provides a call to arms, establishes the terms of independence, and lays out a blueprint for the future" (50). At the heart of the enterprise, then, is the centrality of colonial domination, both formal and informal, in its political, economic, material, cultural and ideational forms. How this form of power structures the worlds and lives of the colonized, and the variety of responses to such domination, constitute the proper domain of postcolonial theory for McBride and Kohn.

The thinkers and texts that shed light on these questions emerge from a variety of traditions. Yet, Kohn and McBride are careful to aver that they do not see them as "representatives" of such traditions or their systems of political thought. Rather, they present their works primarily as developing in reaction to the hegemony of colonial power, in critiquing such power and in offering alternatives. For this reason, the book proceeds thematically rather than geographically, addressing a particular problem or theme in each chapter, and elaborating on the work of several thinkers who address the problem. Perhaps the most important contribution of the book, then, is the explicit articulation of problems and questions pertaining to decolonization and postcolonial political life for consideration specifically by political theorists (rather than simply area studies scholars, literary theorists, or cultural studies). Among these are: the importance of foundational stories in the postcolonial context; the reimagination of traditional sources as alternatives to colonial institutions and practices; the difficulties of establishing a postcolonial form of politics based on self-determination; the problems of founding a legitimate state out of the violent vestiges of the colonial order with which the very concept of "law" is implicated; the relationship between people and the physical territory of the "land" the inhabit; the problem of liberation in the context of economic, rather than simply political, domination and exploitation; and the demystification of colonial ideology.

Each chapter brings forth provocative and novel insights. Leopold Senghor and Aimé C...

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