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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 87-116

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On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Postcolonial Theory for Pan-American Study

Jeff Karem
Cleveland State University


Beginning in the 1990s, a number of scholars have attempted to ground the nascent field of pan-American studies in postcolonial theory. Drawing upon the works of Homi Bhabha and Edward Said in particular, pan-American postcolonialists have elaborated an interdependent relationship of colonizer and colonized within the Americas. José David Saldívar's The Dialectics of Our America (1991) and Border Matters (1997), for example, posit an imperial/subaltern dialectic for apprehending American literatures. Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt, editors of a new collection entitled Postcolonial Theory and the United States (2000), have argued for the value of using a postcolonial model in the Americas to understand power relations not only between nations but also within them—"not just the lines dividing one country from another, but also the ways in which difference is deployed across societies and cultures to mark distinctions of power." 1 A brief exploration of the paradigms erected by these accounts forms the point of departure for my inquiry into the advantages and disadvantages of postcolonialism for pan-American study. [End Page 87]

The attractions of postcolonial models for the pan-Americanist are numerous. First of all, the methodology fits pan-American study into a larger and now widely disseminated theoretical agenda, which, as internally complex as it may be, bears a group of terms and concepts that facilitate professional communication. 2 Second, as Singh and Schmidt point out, the imperial/subaltern axis provides a model for understanding power gradients both internal to and external to a national literature and culture, thus bringing together both local and global lenses of literary analysis. Third, and more importantly, pan-American postcolonial models ground the possibility of a necessary connection between North and South American literary texts on common discourses of empire and subalternity. Saldívar argues in Border Matters, for example, that certain cultures, such as the borderlands, "cannot be reduced to any nationally based 'tradition.'" 3

I argue in this essay, however, that the advantages of applying postcolonial theory to the American hemisphere are overshadowed by the limitations it imposes on the field. First, the postulate that authors' works are best understood according to their subject position in the colonizer/colonized dialectic has produced a very narrow brand of comparativism, one that typically compares colonialist writing to colonialist writing, and resistance writing to resistance writing. This comparative structure obscures the fact that American authors are often influenced by and respond to writers from very different subject positions, signifying across the very borders of class, culture, and ethnicity that ground these postcolonial models. Second, postcolonial study of the Americas has often minimized important differences among writers occupying ostensibly similar subject positions, collapsing their varied writings into two basic camps: literature of oppression and literature of resistance. Third, the resolute binarism promoted by pan-American postcolonialism risks further ghettoization of minority discourses, and, most disturbingly, may reify the very borders that postcolonial pan-Americanists aim to bridge. Said himself has cautioned against reifying borders in cultural studies, for "all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic. 4

The binarism animating pan-American postcolonial study may be due, [End Page 88] in part, to a fear that comparative study without such a rigid lens will lead to a disingenuous "unification" that collapses vital cultural differences. Saldívar, for example, positions his work as opposed to the assimilative rhetoric of "consensus" that has circulated in American studies for the better part of the twentieth century (Border Matters,40). David Palumbo-Liu, in his reflections on the institutionalization of North American multicultural study, warns that the "incorpora[tion] of minority discourses into the liberal paradigm [such as a "common core of human values"]... erase[s] the complex material specificities of these texts." 5 Publication lines such as Ballantine's "Many Cultures—One World" series, whose very...


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