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Research in African Literatures 34.4 (2003) 57-82

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The Postcolonial Constellation:
Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition

Okwui Enwezor
University of Pittsburgh

The Proper task of a history of thought is: to define the conditions in which human beings 'problematize' what they are, what they do, and the world in which they live.
—Michel Foucault (History of Sexuality 2: 10)
This flood of convergences, publishing itself in the guise of the commonplace. No longer is the latter an accepted generality, suitable and dull—no longer is it deceptively obvious, exploiting common sense—it is, rather, all that is relentlessly and endlessly reiterated by these encounters.
—Édouard Glissant (Poetics of Relation 45)


It is a commonplace of the current historical thinking about globalization to say: There are no vantage points from which to observe any culture since the very processes of globalization have effectively abolished the temporal and spatial distance that previously separated cultures. 1 Another way this thinking has been expressed is in the idea of globalization as the mode and ultimate structure of singularization, standardization, and homogenization of culture in service of instruments of advanced capitalism and neoliberalism. After such totalization, what remains of the critical forces of production that throughout the modern era have placed a strong check on the submergence of all subjective protocols to the orders of a singular organizing ideology, be it the state or the market? What may immediately follow this spatial and temporal reordering is to ask: If globalization has established, categorically, the proximity of cultures, can the same be said about globalization and art? Here, what marks the critical division between culture and art is that for centuries art as such has waged a fierce battle of independence from all cultural, social, economic, and political influences.

Unlike the apotropaic device of containment and desublimation through which the modern Western imagination perceived other cultures, so as to feed off their strange aura and hence displace their power, the nearness today of those cultures formerly separated by their distance to the objectifying conditions of modernist history calls for new critical appraisals of our contemporary present and its relationship to artistic production. I start with these observations in order to place in proper context the current [End Page 57] conditions of production, dissemination, and reception of contemporary art. Contemporary art today is refracted, not just from the specific site of culture and history but in a more critical sense, from the standpoint of a complex geopolitical configuration that defines all systems of production and relations of exchange as a consequence of globalization after imperialism. It is this geopolitical configuration and its postimperial transformations that situate what I call here "the postcolonial constellation." The changes wrought by transitions to new forms of governmentality and institutions, new domains of living and belonging as people and citizens, cultures, and communities, define the postcolonial matrix that shapes the ethics of subjectivity and creativity today. Whereas classical European thought formulated the realm of subjectivity and creativity as two domains of activity each informed by its own internal cohesion, without an outside, such thought today is consistently questioned by the constant tessellation of the outside and inside, each folding into and opening out to complex communicative tremors and upheavals. Perhaps, then, bringing contemporary art into the context of the geopolitical framework that define global relations—between the so-called local and the global, center and margin, nation-state and the individual, transnational and diasporic communities, audiences and institutions—offers a perspicacious view of the postcolonial constellation. The constellation, however, is not made up solely of the dichotomies named above, but can be understood as a set of arrangements of deeply entangled relations and forces that are founded by discourses of power. Such discourses of power are geopolitical in nature and by extension can be civilizational in their reliance on binary oppositions between cultures, which in a sense are inimical to any transcultural understanding of the present context of cultural production. Geopolitical power arrangements are defined along much the same ligne Maginot in the artistic...


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