Emancipatory Theory?

  • Shu-mei Shih (Editor) and Françoise Lionnet (Editor)
    The Creolization of Theory. Duke University Press
Reviewed by Rachel Gardner

In The Creolization of Theory, Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih excavate the possibility of “achieving a truly democratic understanding of intellectual, scholarly, and political work in a planetary context.” Taking up Édouard Glissant’s concept of creolization, Lionnet and Shih advocate situating theories relationally within geohistorical contexts. The framework emerging from interdisciplinary entanglements, they maintain, will move scholarship beyond available methodologies inextricably linked to oppressive thought regimes. Their double aim is to map these entanglements in academics and politics as well as resurrect theory from its current melancholic stagnancy. The essays, collected in two parts along with two appendices, successfully execute the first of these aims and make a compelling effort at the second.

The book’s first part, titled “Creolizing Methodologies,” challenges dominant theories through its interdisciplinary approach and insists on academia’s ethical mandate. Its five essays embrace multiple disciplines, ranging from economic theory to music. Barnor Hesse reads the Haitian revolution as a creolized political movement that entangled anti-monarchist, anti-colonial, and antislavery strands, while Pheng Cheah brings trauma theory to Asian financial crises to challenge dominant interpretations of both. Anne Donadey and Liz Constable conduct close analyses of literature and film, respectively, discussing several disciplinary approaches to localized oppression. Ping-hui Liao studies David Henry Hwang’s canon to unveil the paradox of cultural identity, simultaneously flexible and bounded in the transnational world. In this eclectic mix of material and method is a common and persuasive insistence on conducting equitable, non-oppressive scholarship through creolized approaches.

Part 2, “Epistemological Locations,” collects four essays that parse the political and ethical effects of knowledge production on identity. Walter Mignolo and Étienne Balibar take a macro view to map international trends. Mignolo outlines the developments of “global linear thinking”: a universalized historical narrative that empowers asymmetrically. Balibar, meanwhile, considers globalization’s effects on the concept and experience of citizenship. Leo Ching and Fatima El-Tayeb apply similar frameworks to local situations. While Ching analyzes Taiwan’s role in global politics, El-Tayeb exposes the fractured experience of transnational existence in contemporary Europe. All essays locate political imbalances and agree that the theoretical act of opening postcolonial comparisons will work toward remedying injustices.

In an appendix, Dominique Chancé criticizes Glissant’s optimism, shared by Lionnet and Shih, that creolized theory can maintain the endless entanglements it needs to avoid reproducing hegemonic discourses. If Creole languages form under inequitable, rather than open, interactions, perhaps creolized methodologies are similarly implicated in undiscovered power relations. Chancé suggests that entanglements may be merely unpredicted and uncomprehended, rather than unpredictable and incomprehensible. Lionnet and Shih, however, draw on enormous intellectual resources that will only grow as academic conversation continues. Limiting this emergent theory to its linguistic origins or attempting to totalize its effects works against creolization’s own mandate for diffuse and ever-morphing methodology. The Creolization of Theory persuasively revives theory through entanglement. Ultimately, however, creolization will have to be measured by its own ethical standards as it continues to develop in academic discourse.

This review “Emancipatory Theory?” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 183-84.

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