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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Postcolonial Dialectics

  • Michael Gorra (Author)
    After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie. University of Chicago Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Asha Varadharajan (Author)
    Exotic Parodies: Subjectivity in Adorno, Said, and Spivak. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Neil ten Kortenaar

Michael Gorra and Asha Varadharajan both address the postcolonial field as a whole by juxtaposing three authors: two postcolonial writers from distant corners of the world and a European who helps us to read them. Gorra assumes that because Paul Scott, VS. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie write fiction in English and write it well and because all have written about India, they constitute three points in a single field. Gorra’s inspi ration here is clearly Sara Suleri’s The Rhetoric of English India, which also stresses the continuities between English writing about India and Indo-Anglian writing (and accords Naipaul a position therein). Asha Varadharajan uses Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said to represent postcolonial theory and argues that their insights and their failures are best appreciated when viewed through the lens of Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectics.

Gorra writes that the great English novel of imperialism could only have been written "after empire," and that that title belongs to Scott’s Raj Quartet. Scott’s rivals for the title, Kipling and Forster, however opposed their moral judgements of empire, both assumed that empire was outside and above history. Only in the postcolonial moment, when it is no longer necessary to defend or attack, can Scott write about the corruption of racism that characterized empire—the imperialists claimed to be bringing order to the uncivilized, but at the same time refused to admit that Indians could ever be like them—and about the moral dilemmas occasioned by liberal ideology: because the English had an empire they had a duty to govern it well; because they had an empire they had a duty to get rid of it. In particular, Scott is the first English writer fully to understand that identity is constructed and not a racial essence. Naipaul writes about the contradictions that afflict societies after the retreat of empire and the impossibility of escaping the terms by which the colonizer has defined the colonized. Naipaul’s great subject is the inevitable pain caused by the postcolonial nostalgia for an irretrievable (and non-existent) time of wholeness and by the desire for a whole and autonomous self forever deferred. Salman Rushdie shows us a way forward out of Naipaul’s impasse by making of duality and contradiction a virtue: he celebrates the something new that can arise through postmodern hybridity.

Corra is aware of the shortcomings of the dialectic he lays out: Naipaul fills all too neatly the negative role of antithesis, and Rushdie’s synthesis is too easy. Gorra is careful to stress that there are ways in which Naipaul reaches beyond Rushdie, especially when it comes to emotional range. Historical metafiction such as Rushdie’s maintains a tyrannical relation to its own characters and a great distance from them. Gorra’s reading of postcolonial literature is sound and enabling. I do think that he does not give enough attention to Naipaul’s own self-definition as first and foremost a writer. Naipaul sees writing as promoting a particular consciousness, as much of mortality and cyclical repetition as of rationality and history. The contrast with Rushdie who patterns his style on orality, who loves to play with anachronism, and who draws attention to the constructedness of texts could not be greater. For Naipaul writing is a way of being in the world; for Rushdie, writing is a way of dissolving inherited worlds and imagining new ones.

Gorra draws attention to the aesthetic qualities of both writers, but his analysis of Rushdie’s gushing, non-periodic sentences is more complete than his analysis of Naipaul’s periods. Rushdie’s style, through repetition, wordplay, and the literalization of metaphor, draws attention to its own construction and invites analysis. For all their much-vaunted rationality and precision, Naipaul’s sentences involve a deep, unstable irony, something of which there is very little in Rushdie. Rushdie’s writing is filled with fantasy, energy, and celebration, but not mystery. The best thing in Gorra is his description of the painful, unresolvable irony in A Bend in the River, which is "half case-study of hysteria and half objective statement of the way of the world," in which it is necessary but impossible to distinguish absolutely between Salim, Naipaul, and ourselves. To see around Salim the narrator in that novel, as we struggle to do, is still to see with Salim and to feel his despair.

Asha Varadharajan wants to restore the revolutionary potential of postcolonial studies. What stands in the way of the revolution she desires is the influence of post-structuralism: the deconstruction of the patriarchal and imperialist subject has made it impossible to recover the object of oppression. The dissolution of the Cartesian subject in indeterminacy and differance brings the feminine and ethnic other no closer to the subjectivity they have never been allowed. To counter the baleful influence of poststucturalism, Varadharajan looks to Adorno. She claims that her choice of Adorno is a surprising one because the pessimistic cultural mandarin never paid any attention to questions of empire, but Varadharajan is being disingenuous here: Fredric Jameson has already claimed for Adorno the status of the dominant figure of the last decade of the twentieth century.

Postcolonial criticism has difficulty thinking its way out of the split between colonizer and colonized. Either the colonizer has shaped the entire world, including the colonized, and there is no outside from which to mount resistance, or the colonized remains at some level outside the world of the colonizer and is therefore unknowable. This impossible choice is what limits the revolutionary potential of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which leaves no outside space for the colonized to occupy, and of Gayatri Spivak’s notion that the subaltern cannot speak, which derives from poststructuralist notions of the flux of difference which cannot be seized or named or fixed. Varadharajan finds a way out of the impossible binary (and out of the quietism it implies) in Adorno’s dialectical shuttling between the concept and the real, between totality and the particular, between self and other. Modernity, also called Enlightenment, or "the brutal trajectory of reason in the service of power," unifies all in the subject. Postmodernity dissolves all into heterogeneous particularity. Rather than allow the self to subsume the other or the particular to escape all knowledge, Adorno stresses the mutual relationship between the two halves of the dialectic. The real cannot be perceived except through the concept which inevitably betrays it, but the resistance of the real is registered by the concept and allows us to hold the two in tension. Oppression is never complete; the colonized is not without resources for resistance.

The Cartesian subject may have been an illusion, but the power wielded by that subject was real and so was the pain suffered by all those othered by patriarchy and colonialism. Adorno’s dialectic recognizes that there is a reality larger than the meaning invested in it by human subjects. Truth is not a matter of intersubjectivity, as post-structuralism would have it, but involves a relation between subjectivity and the world. The world may not be finally known, but it is not unknowable. Some notion of subjectivity, both individual and collective, needs to be retained if theory is to do more than meditate on its own limits (what Varadharajan accuses Spivak of doing) and to envision a future different from the present.

If this sounds abstract, it is. Varadharajan writes a kind of meta-criticism, which deploys the names of critics as metonyms for networks of ideas. Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Althusser, and Fanon all make appearances. While we may understand how Adorno helps us read Spivak, the reader is left wondering how we should narrate the resistance to imperialism. Of this there are only hints. Instead of seeing, as Spivak does, the Rani of Sirmur as an example of the subaltern who remains irretrievable and unknowable in spite of her inscription in the historical archive, Varadharajan urges us to see in the female regent of a British client-state who threat ened to commit sati an example of "resistance to epistemic violence." However, this reading itself remains unrealized.

Varadharajan, who claims the authority of a "native informant," raises valuable issues about the subjectivity of the colonized, but does not pay enough attention to issues of identity, which she declares must be relational and strategic but which she also takes for granted. Varadharajan’s explicit concern in recovering the subjectivity of the female or ethnic other is with the "redemption" of the nation. Said is notoriously critical of nationalism, and Spivak has written that India is but a creation of imperialist discourse. Varadharajan is prepared to admit that India awoke to self-consciousness in the face of a common enemy, but for that very reason she reaffirms the possibility of a resistance based on the nation. In her "desire for national allegiance," she leaves Adorno behind and borrows from Ranajit Guha to argue that the nation need not belong to the elite and need not be complicitous with imperialism, but may be the vehicle of peasant resistance to imperialism. However, the argument that the colonized is best represented by the nation-state requires a much fuller and more historicized discussion of the range of identities open to the colonized than Varadharajan gives us. Adorno cannot help her here.

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MLA: ten Kortenaar, Neil. Postcolonial Dialectics. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 156 - 158)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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