- Continents Adrift?Suturing the Cultural and Political Divide in Assia Djebar's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, L'amour, la fantasia, and Vaste est la prison1
The present article considers the conceptual and theoretical issues that have (re)emerged in postcolonial discourse during the past decade and explores how literature can define possible strategies of reading, interpretation, and method for the postcolonial critic. It first establishes a framework for the general, but still relevant question of East-West relations before proceeding to the specific dyad constituted by France and Algeria. It then considers three texts by the Algerian writer Assia Djebar in order to sketch a preliminary response to the argument over the divide between politics and culture, or more precisely, over the inherent "politicity" or "apoliticity" of culture. This essay argues that the postulate that nothing in culture renders it naturally or tendentially political should not lead us to derive the radical apoliticity of culture as a logical consequence. The corollary that culture is empty of any political (understood in the sense of liberatory or emancipatory) possibility or potential for engagement merits greater critical attention.
The Divide between Culture and Politics, or the Continued Relevance of Said's Orientalism
In an article entitled "'Hyperculturalization' after September 11: The Arab-Muslim World and the West," published in 2008, Algerian literary scholar Hafid Gafaïti points to the absence of any meaningful change in the representation of the Arab-Muslim world within Western political circles, where it continues to be cast as an "Orient" that is absolute in its otherness to the Occident. Samuel Huntington's infamous piece, "The Clash of Civilizations" (1993), does little to remedy the notion of an inherently intractable difference between cultures, crudely (and persistently) configured through the monolithic divisions of "West" and "non-West." Gafaïti calls for an urgent reevaluation of Edward Said's groundbreaking work on East-West relations, [End Page 221] Orientalism, in order to formulate an intellectually rigorous response to the political obfuscation of an insurmountable ontological divide between civilizations. Attentive historical contextualization is necessary to create a counter-discourse that would take into account the more complex reality of mutual interpenetration and inventive collaboration among cultures. Gafaïti concludes by proposing the permeable, transcultural space of the Mediterranean as a real, historically grounded, and viable counter-model to the hyperculturalization of the Arab-Muslim world and the West (98-117).
Gafaïti's article foregrounds the major problem that postcolonial theory and criticism continue to confront today: that of finding an operational middle ground between the polarized alternatives of cultural essentialism and cultural hybridity, between a calcified determinism and the evacuation of historicity or specificity of location in favor of an indeterminate, indifferent, and ultimately meaningless conception of difference. Such is how Peter Hallward's Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing between the Singular and the Specific formulates the intellectual challenge facing postcolonial critics today. Quoting Masao Miyoshi, he writes: "We need to attempt an ambitious and systematic answer to the rhetorical question so often asked in recent theory: how to situate oneself in the global 'configuration of transnational power and culture without being trapped by a deadened nativism?' . . . [W]e must move beyond an insufficiently specific notion of hybridity or pure difference on the one hand, and an excessively specified notion of community or essence on the other" (xix). Hallward responds to the task at hand through highly inventive reconfigurations of the terms of the debate: the concepts of the singular and the specific. The mode of the specific is relational, while that of the singular is non-relational. The singular mode operates in the absence of criteria external to itself, through procedures that are self-constituting, self-regulating, and solitary. Postcoloniality is a discourse that neither refers to nor requires anything outside the field of its articulation. It functions in the absence of others (xii), and is a world without others. The specific, on the other hand, is a situated and mediated articulation of relationality different from both the singular and the specified, from "the singular transcendence of relation on the one hand and a specified reification of relation on the other" (xix). Opposed to the notion...