Published Winter/Spring 2009
The Global Turn in Postcolonial Literary Studies
(on Revathi Krishnaswamy and John C. Hawley's, The Postcolonial and the Global [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007]; Ashley Dawson's Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain [Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2007]; Sarah Brouillette's Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007]; and Sanjay Krishnan's Reading the Global: Troubling Perspectives on Britain's Empire in Asia [New York: Columbia UP, 2007])
Postcolonial literary studies has taken a decidedly global turn since 2001. In the aftermath of high postcolonial theory (Edward W. Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri C. Spivak), and in the heightened political climate after 9/11, a flurry of debate emerged over the effects of globalization. In 2001 alone PMLA (116.1), South Atlantic Quarterly (100.3), and diacritics (31.3) all dedicated special issues to globalization and literary study. The global also appears prominently in various readers of postcolonial studies, including The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Studies (ed. Neil Lazarus) and Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (ed. Ania Loomba, et al.). The latter opens with four essays under the heading "Globalization and the Postcolonial Eclipse." Consider also books like Pheng Cheah's piercing analysis of globalization and human rights in postcolonial states in Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights.
The global trend in postcolonial studies has undoubtedly revised readings of literary and cultural texts for how they imagine forms of connection beyond the boundaries of the nation and nationalism. But even while propelling the shift to the global, postcolonial studies has been equally resistant to it. Said, for instance, critiques the "'happy' capitalist model" associated with globalization and its tendency to promote "synthesis and the transcendence of opposites" in the face of continuing "social, historical, and epistemological contests over territory" ("Globalizing Literary Study" 66, 68). For Spivak, the "global" and "globalization" are synonymous with "the financialization of the globe" and its attendant "great narrative of Development" ("Cultural Talks" 330, 332). As each text under review here demonstrates, postcolonial criticism intervenes within globalization by indexing the world consequences of imperialism, in all of its ambivalence, from the eighteenth century through the post-9/11 era.
So what is the relation between the postcolonial and the global? Revathi Krishnaswamy and John Hawley's collection The Postcolonial and the Global enters into this debate by gathering together leading theorists and critics in global studies (among them Arjun Appadurai, Timothy Brennan, Pheng Cheah, Inderpal Grewal, Walter Mignolo, R. Radhakrishnan, and Saskia Sassen). In the first essay, Krishnaswamy parses the two terms. Whereas globalization theory, which first developed in the social sciences, focuses on the spread of Western economic policies and culture to the rest of the world, postcolonial studies investigates how subaltern groups respond to and re-imagine imperialism through the cultural work of representation (3). The two fields have of late borrowed widely from one another, to the point that they share a common grammar of "deterritorialization," "hybridity," and "the West." But beyond these points of connection, it becomes much more difficult to determine their relation to one another (4).
The collection is divided into three sections, each of which revolves around a key question concerning how postcolonial studies might approach globalization. The first section, "Disciplinarity and its Discontents," is devoted to the expansion of the boundaries of postcolonial studies by being newly branded as "global." Timothy Brennan, for instance, disputes the assumptions that globalization equates with finance capital, American cultural imperialism, or world citizenship. Instead, debates over globalization and postcoloniality are debates over theory, because they are fundamentally discursive categories oriented around similar critical preoccupations (43-44). In contrast, the second section on "Planetarity and the Postcolonial" queries how and whether postcolonial criticism can reconfigure globalization. For instance, Walter Mignolo and Madina Tlostanova's essay, "The Logic of Coloniality and the Limits of Postcoloniality," advances the idea of "decoloniality"—that is, writings from the border, silenced voices, decentered epistemic positions (121). Inderpal Grewal retrieves precolonial cosmopolitanism in Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land (1992). While cosmopolitanism is understood as European, Ghosh's text re-imagines it as developing across the Indian Ocean along the routes of the spice trade before European imperial ascendancy, suggesting a more plural, and hence truly cosmopolitan, future. The third section, "Imperiality and Globality," probes how postcolonial studies might address the neo-imperial thrust of globalization, particularly after the resurgence of American militarism post-2001. Indeed, this diverse collection is united in its shared commitment to the urgency of the global now.
Another understanding of the relation between the postcolonial and the global is that they are not opposed inasmuch as coloniality was already a global condition in advance of post-1945 finance and migration. Arjun Appadurai notes in an interview that postcolonial visions of freedom were "never restricted to a confrontation between one ruled colony and its rulers. It's always about other colonies and as well as other rulers" (290), for instance the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. Saskia Sassen likewise rethinks the global/nation binary. Too often, she says, the global is conceived as anti- or post-national and the nation is equated with locality and immobility. But by focusing on transnational circuits that become coded as "national," one can expand the range of meanings of "the nation" saturated by external, global forces.
This is the spirit of Ashley Dawson's Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain, which redefines national belonging for an era of mass migration. Dawson's study builds upon previous work on postcoloniality and Englishness, such as Ian Baucom's Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Location of Identity, Simon Gikandi's Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism, and Graham McPhee and Prem Poddar's collection Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective—though oddly none of these titles are cited. Be that as it may, Dawson's study charts the historical trajectory of postcolonial migrants to Britain, beginning with the arrival of Caribbean peoples aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948 up through the Asian hip-hop scene in the post-9/11 climate. Mongrel Nation surveys diasporic writers from Africa (Buchi Emecheta), the Caribbean (Sam Selvon, Stokely Carmichael, Kamau Brathwaite, Linton Kwesi Johnson), South Asia (Salman Rushdie), and multiethnic England (Zadie Smith). For Dawson, they resist exclusionary nationalisms premised on racial and linguistic purity. Instead, postcolonial British artists announce "from below" (as Dawson says) hybrid, national identities made possible by migration and ethnic mixture. Dawson admirably recalibrates recent optimistic talk of the global as automatically postnational (14). His sustained concentration on gender further renders visible the often hidden "Feminization of Globalization Discourse," as John Marx and others have theorized.
The success of Mongrel Nation stems from Dawson's rigorous attention to the depth and richness of contextual frames: how all of the texts he reads are deeply interwoven in social, political, and cultural contexts whose racial and national lines criss-cross and spiral out transnationally. For instance, he juxtaposes two contradictory visions of Caribbean migration as articulated in Lord Kitchner's calypso song, "London Is the Place for Me," and Louise Bennett's "Colonization in Reverse." Whereas Kitchner's song celebrates the movement and assimilation of Caribbeans into the postimperial metropole, Bennett subtly ironizes how Caribbean migrants and members of the host country alike encounter the continuation of colonization at home in England. Dawson links his readings of these individual poems with the "political economy of racism" in Britain, which codified legal citizenship through race in the post-World War II era, especially as it saw increasing waves by formerly colonial peoples who laid claim to being "British" subjects. Policies (from the Nationality Act of 1948 through the Nationality Act of 1981) served to naturalize political exclusion, leading to economic apartheid and hatred towards minorities among the dominant British population. With these contexts in mind, Dawson reads Kitchner and Bennett as agents of "cultural recuperation and expression" (18). Diasporic cultural practices, for Dawson, consequently enact "fresh ways of being British" (73).
In the tendency of Mongrel Nation to interpret cultural texts as vessels of social commentary, it tends to downplay the particularity of the literary. This is a problem. Dawson does not trace the transnational literary genealogies of the texts he considers. For instance, Dawson does remark how Bennett's "Colonization in Reverse" incorporates African-Caribbean oral culture. But he does not notice her appropriation of the British dramatic monologue written in English ballad stanzas and meter that, for Jahan Ramazani, formally reverses the "language of colonisation" (203). The mongrelization of form makes the poem neither written from below nor necessarily in resistance. Rather, the poem expands the domain of world literature. Second, while all of the artists featured in Mongrel Nation do write from the margins, some have become more central (if not dominant) than others. This raises the question of the fundamental role of the marketplace in making these authors available to a global readership. We can find a compelling response to this in Sarah Brouillette's Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace.
There is by now considerable commentary on the economics of literature, with Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen's collection The New Economic Criticism standing as a watershed. Postcolonial studies has only begun to question the complex relation between large, North American publishing houses and the mass distribution of postcolonial texts. Graham Huggan's The Postcolonial Exotic (2001) may have been the inaugural study of global literary economy and postcoloniality. Brouillette responds to Huggan to criticize "The Industry of Postcoloniality" and its "touristic conscience."
Huggan argues that there is a division between postcolonialism and postcoloniality. Postcolonialism refers to the cultural work of artists, writers, and critics that seeks to redress the inequalities of empire and its aftermath, whereas postcoloniality corresponds to the global capitalist institutions responsible for making the texts of postcolonialism available for consumption. Postcolonial writers then knowingly deploy, says Huggan, "strategic exoticism" in order to deconstruct the Northern reader's misperceptions about the postcolonial world (26). In the meantime, the late capitalist institution of postcoloniality profits from these very misperceptions through the marketing of "authenticity" by publishers targeting Western readers who desire difference and the exotic. The role of the critic, however, is to expose the mythologies of postcolonial exoticism to the more learned reader. For Brouillette, Huggan has it right when he characterizes the industry of postcoloniality as fundamentally touristic, but he has it wrong in his assumption that the critic can demystify exoticism to access a truer, more substantial knowledge about the postcolonial condition.
What Brouillette calls the "touristic conscience" of world literature leads postcolonial artists into often highly contradictory postures in terms of their self-representation to both their locales and their Western readership. In comparative case studies, Brouillette considers the figures of the reader-as-censor in J. M. Coetzee's post-Apartheid fiction, including The Master of Petersburg (1994), Disgrace (1999), and Elizabeth Costello (2003); the reader as politico-ideologue in Salman Rushdie's Fury (2001) and The Jaguar Smile (1987); and the reader-as-cosmopolitan in Zulfikar Ghose's The Triple Mirror of the Self (1992). Derek Walcott, for Brouillette, is paradigmatic in his "self-exempting" and "self-implicating" responses towards his global reception as expressed in "The Fortunate Traveler" (27). For Brouillette, self-conscious strategies of authorship constitute "the generative heart of the field's flourishing" (43). They are indeed the mechanism through which authors and readers manage postcolonial literature's "touristic conscience," which is riddled with guilt that the global economy produces and profits from (5).
Brouillette's work masterfully combines textual analysis of economy in individual works with attention to larger economic-political pressures. Too often, economic literary interpretations reduce the author and the text to expressions of impersonal and mechanical forces. Studies of the author may seem banal but postcolonial studies proliferates through the presence of author figures to establish the historical and political contexts necessary for critical interpretation and scholarly publication. This is to say nothing of the branding of names like Rushdie, Walcott, and Coetzee by publishing industries, agents, and artists alike. Brouillette makes the object of her study the very politicization of the literary market and how postcolonial authors "interact with various forms of politicized interpretation and reception that are imbricated with transnational culture and capital" (74). The point is not to recuperate the author figure as the ultimate arbiter of his or her reception but to examine how an author's self-representation gives insight into the production, marketing, and circulation of literature itself.
Rather than contemporary texts, Sanjay Krishnan's Reading the Global examines imperial texts written during the rise and consolidation of the British Empire in Asia. The social sciences, argues Krishnan, proceed by taking the global as an already established reality with a real-world referent, so much so that the global appears to transcend the very frames through which it is produced. For Krishnan, however, the global refers not to a concrete, structural system in the world—such as global capital, mass migration, or cultural flows—but to the way the global is textually constituted. Drawing on Martin Heidegger's "The Age of the World Picture" and invoking Viktor Shklovsky's notion of "defamiliarization," Krishnan argues that literary approaches to the global can "trouble" and "interrupt" the conceptual frame through which it has become naturalized. A group of "troubling perspectives," the global is not a late twentieth-century phenomenon but begins in the late eighteenth century.
From Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776) to Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821), Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir's Hikayat Abdullah (1849), and Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1900), Krishnan investigates how each writer attempts to assert a global perspective on Asia, especially through their references to the Malay Archipelago. This peripheral region is of central significance to the British imperial imagination because it lies at the crossroads of colonial commerce between India and China. Throughout, Krishnan traces how British imaginings of the Malay Archipelago solidify and make transparent dominant perspectives of the global for the sake of economic exploitation and knowledge production.
One example is his discussion of The Wealth of Nations, in which Krishnan describes how Smith idealizes "subsistence economy" as the basis for "free trade" and imperial reform (27). This very language compels Smith to "configure the world as a single, interconnected, and unified entity, developing in common space and time, that is, as global" (27). But Krishnan unhinges Smith's equation of subsistence with nature and the linear narrative of progress. Instead, Krishnan contends that the disparate regions and subsistence economies to which Smith refers, from Egypt to China, "interrupt" his text's coherent vision of the global. As a result, the global-as-subsistence now becomes re-constellated from a single, coherent entity into "troubling perspectives" of global economy that are far more diverse than Smith himself envisioned. Across a series of chapters on global civil society (in de Quincey), on global subjectivity (in Abdul Kadir), and on human ethics in relation to the animal (in Conrad), Krishnan's readings "enable other ways of imagining [the] history" of globalization (14; 21).
Attention to the particularity of the literary dimensions of the global in postcolonial texts, far from evading the material realities, political inequalities, and cultural conditions that make literary production possible, brings these very structures to light. Clearly, the postcolonial and the global are in vexed relation to one another. The "postcolonial," besides designating a historical-geographic category, refers more broadly to critical methodologies that unsettle the transparency of the global. The "global," in contrast, refers both to a discursive site concerning [the] world reach of imperial modernity and to an open space of cross-cultural connection extending beyond the postcolonial horizon. The global turn in postcolonial criticism thus makes manifest divided political fault-lines and theoretical positions in an already contested field undergoing redefinition.
Baucom, Ian. Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
Cheah, Pheng. Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2006.
Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge, 2001.
Lazarus, Neil, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Loomba, Ania, et al. Postcolonial Studies and Beyond. Durham: Duke UP, 2005.
MacPhee, Graham, and Prem Podder. Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.
Marx, John. "The Feminization of Globalization." Cultural Critique 63.1 (2006): 1-32.
Ramazani, Jahan. "Black British Poetry and the Translocal." A Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry. Ed. Neil Corcoran. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 200-14.
Said, Edward W. "Globalizing Literary Study." PMLA 116.1 (2001): 64-68.
Spivak, Gayatri C. "Cultural Talks in the Hot Peace: Revisiting the 'Global Village.'" Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation. Ed. Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998.
Woodmansee, Martha, and Mark Osteen, eds. The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics. London: Routledge, 1999.