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  • Rethinking Postcolonialism: Colonialist Discourse in Modern Literatures and the Legacy of Classical Writers by Amar Acheraïou
  • Christopher Gogwilt (bio)
Amar Acheraïou . Rethinking Postcolonialism: Colonialist Discourse in Modern Literatures and the Legacy of Classical Writers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 264 pp, ISBN: 13: 9780230552050

Amar Acheraïou joins an already crowded field of scholars intent on rethinking postcolonialism, an enterprise usefully outlined and illustrated by the volume of essays Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (2005). Acheraïou's book is all at once a critique and a symptom of this recent development within literary and cultural studies. Although it may not offer an easily accessible guide to postcolonial theory, it does provide two important interventions of special interest to readers and critics of Conrad. It seeks to challenge the colonial frame of reference within which literary modernism is now being reconceived; and it places Conrad's work at the center of that endeavor. If this hardly sounds original (the same thing might have been said about Edward Said's work in the 1960s and 1970s), Acheraïou's argument nonetheless offers unique and important contributions that deserve critical attention.

Acheraïou's book is divided into two parts. In the first part, he seeks to broaden historical accounts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European "colonial discourse" by arguing for the continuity between ancient Greek and Roman models of colonialism and racism (or "proto-racism") and modern French and British ideologies of imperialism. This first, more theoretical part argues against the dominant model of postcolonial theory, premised on Homi Bhabha's concepts of "hybridity" and the "third space of enunciation." This "middle ground theory," as Acheraïou calls it (2, 47), creates a model of analysis whose valorizing of "dialogism"—or "contest and negotiation, resistance and complicity" (47)—underestimates the enduring violence and deep-seated inequalities of a long history of colonialism preceding modern times. Acheraïou does not discount this model entirely, but the "trans-epochal dialogue" (4) he proposes between classical and modernist formations seeks to correct for the tendency to "study colonialism as a synchronic phenomenon and mere product of modernity" (3). The "horizontal" (or synchronic) axis of colonial contest and negotiation needs to analyzed, according to Acheraïou, in relation [End Page 161] to the "vertical axis" (or transhistorical continuum) of imperial discourse since classical antiquity, which shapes the "ideological and rhetorical palimpsest" of modern colonialist discourse: "Part of the insufficiency of the postcolonial theoretical models derives . . . from a scholarly habit of seeing colonialism as a purely horizontal manifestation and mere product of modernity. We lose sight of the fact that colonialism is a continuum that also obeys, at least on the level of discourse and representation, a vertical axis" (53).

In many ways this effort to balance macro- and micro-historical perspectives has been, from the start, the challenge postcolonial theory has brought to the work of "rethinking" colonial history. Linking this problem of historical balance to the contending models of the old "core-periphery dichotomy" and newer "circulatory" models of colonial contest and negotiation, Acheraïou usefully identifies a key feature of many ongoing efforts to rethink postcolonialism. Acheraïou cites two recent studies that provide revealing points of comparison for his own Rethinking Postcolonialism: Elleke Boehmer's Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920 (2002) and David Adams's Colonial Odysseys: Empire and Epic in the Modernist Novel (2003). Boehmer aims to "swivel the conventional axis" of postcolonial theories away from the core-periphery, colonizer-colonized dichotomy, in order to re-envision the "imperial framework" as "a network . . . of interrelating margins" (Boehmer, 1; 6). An important example of works designed, in Acheraïou's words, to "uncover the neglected colonial narrative of exchange and negotiation" (53)—and a work to which Acheraïou repeatedly refers—its cross-national and cross-nationalist perspective remains focused entirely on the moment of literary modernism (1890-1920) that Acheraïou seeks to set in "trans-epochal dialogue" with classical antiquity. David Adams's Colonial Odysseys, on the other hand, provides a study of just such a "trans-epochal dialogue" between classical models and literary modernism, but without probing, as Acheraïou aims to do...


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