- 'Gaging the Postcolonial Hegemonic:Three Contributions to Rethinking the Norms at Play
The three texts that make up this review—Eli Park Sorensen's Postcolonial Studies and the Literary, Sten Pultz Moslund's Migration Literature and Hybridity, and Timothy Bewes's The Event of Postcolonial Shame—explicitly intervene in postcolonial reading practices. Each book agrees that there is a theoretico-critical hegemony at play in the field of postcolonial literary studies. However, this consensus does not effect any simple overlap in approach and content as the three books stage their interventions from different positions and around different sets of concerns. While Sorensen seeks to overturn the ruling verities of postcolonial criticism in order to re-garner attention for the "literary," especially, for the realist narratives traduced by what he [End Page 231] calls postcolonialism's "modernist ethos," Moslund strives to moderate and dynamize the hypostasizing polarities that typify and impair postcolonial discursivity on migration literature and hybridity. Bewes, on the other hand, does not so much take issue with the theoretical predilections of postcolonial studies as work through them to inaugurate a heuristic that reorients the structure of postcolonial studies by reading literary texts as so many "event[s] of postcolonial shame."
The central thesis of Sorensen's Postcolonial Studies and the Literary is pretty straightforward: postcolonial studies promotes a skewed perspective on the literatures it theorizes and needs rethinking. Sorensen's point of departure is the apparent turn away from questions of literary form in postcolonial studies. Given the by now well-documented instrumentality of western aesthetic paradigms in furthering colonial-imperial dominion, postcolonialism's disinclination for old-style "formalist" inquiries, of course, is understandable. This much and more Sorensen concedes as he notes postcolonialism's important role in recoding literary worth by subordinating aesthetic criteria to ideological and political considerations (x). The thrust of Sorensen's argument, though, is different.
Postcolonial Studies contends that while the repudiation of the literary as a worthwhile exegetical concern is a commonplace of postcolonial studies, "a tacit set of aesthetic values and norms" remain "at work in readings of postcolonial texts that legitimise ways in which postcolonial critics use literary texts" (x). Sorensen terms this self-authorizing subtext of postcolonialism "the modernist ethos," which "designates the formulaic acceptance of a 'correspondence' between a vocabulary of political concepts and modernist aesthetic techniques, such as, for example, excessive formal disruptions, meta-fictive strategies and complex language games" (x). Largely uncritical of its own assumptions, the postcolonial modernist ethos is also, according to Sorensen, legislative and pedagogic. In fact, it has been a key factor in the homogenization and institutionalization of a schizophrenic postcolonial discourse that usually adopts "a textual approach to allegedly 'experimental' works" and "a thematic, content-based approach to so-called 'conventional' texts" (10).
Postcolonialism's move from the margin to the center of academe, however, has problematized its soi-disant presentation as the radical discourse par excellence and induced "a melancholic awareness of the loss of an identity that is genuinely critical and radical" (xi) among contemporary postcolonial critics. While intensifying (and not always usefully) the self-reflexivity that, for instance a Bhabhaian "postcolonial perspective" claims as its raison d'être, this melancholia is not merely symptomatic of the discourse's consolidation as a teachable discipline. Sorensen makes the case via Freud that the somewhat ritualistic enactments of postcolonial melancholia equally follow from the highly selective, self-confirming use of literary texts orchestrated by the discourse's [End Page 232] governing logic, i.e., its modernist ethos. Postcolonial melancholia, in other words, is also a "pre-emptive response to the danger that the literary poses." It is a "strategy of containing the danger of the uncanny otherness of the literary, as well as a way of reclaiming and reconstructing a phantasmagorical notion of the literary that responds to the particular...