- Promises, Promises …
BY DEEPIKA BAHRI
"Post" and "after" yank at each other, with colonial and empire as their respective qualifiers dragging them apart in a tug-of-war. And between the two are biology, psyche, and flesh. Before one even breaks open the covers of her monograph, creases its pages, cracks its spine, Deepika Bahri's title holds out serial promissory notes to possible readers: the audiences toward whom the promises are directed, those that are explicitly hailed in the pages, and those such as I who are unexpectedly enticed by the title.
Bahri gives us a possible demarcation of what the title pledges as postcolonial biology: it "is the name we might give to the intersection of power, capital and supremacist thinking expressed through the body-minded cognition, categorization, and manipulation of human life from early modern colonialisms to their newest season in globalization" (Bahri 8). She tracks this invitation to corporeality, the most viable phrase describing it being "the manipulation of human life," through readings of the three novels (Midnight's Children, The Impressionist, and Arthur and George) around which the book spins, rich with densely intricate interleavings drawn primarily from Euro-American philosophical lineages (with Frantz Fanon as an allied foil).
Postcolonial Biology's terrain is South Asia writ large, mapped onto more expansive notions of colonial jurisdictions, from South Asia to Africa to the United Kingdom. But given that at least a smidgen of its territory purports to lodge in and flow outward from South Asia, one might expect that South Asian scholars would be more extensively [End Page 197] covered within its pages. And here it fails to deliver. I don't mean to suggest that Bahri should rustle up legions of thinkers to fill her stable, to parade her own erudition. Rather I am asking for something more rigorous. One of Bahri's final vectors of analysis is the postanimal human—here she has culled and refashioned a term from Theodore Adorno—as in "the animal" is vilified, disclaimed, disenfranchised, to make way for "the human." The very long lineage of South Asian writing on animals and on the nature-politics-economy-culture combine might have given Bahri a great deal of necessary fodder—more especially because tracking the insistent, probing fingers of colonial vivisectionists is one of Bahri's proposed aspirations.
For theorists and historians such as Mahesh Rangarajan, Kavita Phillip, and Minakshi Menon, colonial and postcolonial political economies enable, ride on, and are rejiggered through the confluences that bring together as well as separate nature, human, animal. And their continuing interventions have been picked up by a spate of younger scholars, such as Nayanika Mathur, Radhika Govindarajan, and Naveeda Khan, who narrate humans becoming who they are through their everyday entanglements with animals, insects, and other living beings.
How else might these interventions change the course of Bahri's intellectual forays? Bahri is committed to sporadic engagements with "neoliberal" as an analytic through which bodies and biology transit between South Asia and elsewhere. Neoliberalism makes sense as a form, a formation, or category only if one gets at it through political economies, something Bahri doesn't quite seem to notice. Without a serious incorporation of the historically emplaced and materially grounded research of the scholars I mentioned above, which brings South Asian political economies to biology, Bahri's attentiveness to neoliberalism has no heft. Without this sort of scrutiny, "neoliberal" becomes a partly empty signifier somewhat depleted of history or context.
But something even more pertinent is missing—Bahri's analysis of what Anglicist, anti-Orientalist colonialism decried might have taken an entirely different fillip if she had interrogated the pathways through which stories emerging from the Jataka Tales, the Panchatantra, and Kalila wa Dimna had to be dumped in order to make vantages for colonial narrations that brought "animal" and "human" to comport in the ways that Bahri enunciates. All three compendiums bear the marks [End Page 198] of lingering histories of traffic in and out of Europe and all three pose animal philosophers as the arbiters of didactic sense making that train humans in who they ought to become. It...