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Review: Reflections on Postcolonialism

By Bryant Scott
“Above all, postcolonialism remains a heterogenous and eclectic body of thought that has proven widely adaptable in providing new angles on all sorts of phenomena, from the origins of modernity to neoliberalism and globalization.”

After Said: Postcolonial Literary Studies in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Bashir Abu-Manneh. Cambridge UP, 2019. 209 pp. 

Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and the Postcolonial Lens. Hosam Aboul-Ela. Northwestern UP, 2018. 195 pp. 

By Bryant Scott

“And the day oppression ceases, the new man is supposed to emerge before our eyes immediately. Now, I do not like to say so, but I must, since decolonization has demonstrated it: this is not the way it happens. The colonized live for a long time before we see that really new man.” 

—Albert Memmi, Decolonization and the Decolonized

Many stories have been told about postcolonialism—about its beginnings, about its ends, and about where, and to whom, it belongs. Some scholars trace postcolonialism’s roots to the national liberation movements and “Third Worldist” struggles for decolonization and independence that took place in the mid-20th century; others see postcolonialism as a body of thought originating in the late 1970s and early 1980s as cosmopolitan intellectuals from the Global South gained greater access to privileged positions in the U.S. academy. As is often the case, stark binaries obfuscate more complicated and overlapping lineages: postcolonialism is at once a continuation of decolonization movements, seeking to trace and understand the psychological, social, and cultural impacts of colonialism, and a way of thinking that incorporates psychoanalysis, cultural studies, and novel theories of subjectivity and power that mark a departure from previous anti-colonial thought. 

Postcolonialism is regularly (and often interchangeably) referred to as an “-ism,” a “theory,” a “studies,” a “historical condition,” a “politics,” and a way of thinking. Generally, it does not refer to a historical period unless, often in older usages, it is hyphenated, as in “post-colonial.” Postcolonialism is generally understood as the attempt to understand how colonialism happens, specifically the processes and ideologies that allow one group of people to colonize, subjugate, or eliminate another; how colonialism has shaped the lived experiences of the colonized; and how colonialism continues to shape the world we live in today. Postcolonialism also carries an ethical and activist dimension, with practitioners believing firmly that attempting to understand the roots, causes, and conditions of global inequality can promote global equity. As a field grounded in the humanities, postcolonialism is interested in the ways that power is facilitated, reproduced, or questioned through culture. Above all, postcolonialism remains a heterogenous and eclectic body of thought that has proven widely adaptable in providing new angles on all sorts of phenomena, from the origins of modernity to neoliberalism and globalization. Two new books, Hosam Aboul-Ela’s Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and the Postcolonial Lens and Bashir Abu-Manneh’s edited collection After Said: Postcolonial Studies in the Twenty First Century, demonstrate the continued importance of postcolonial thinking, and why its ability to reinvent, challenge, and call itself into question remains central to its ability to continue to be relevant and useful to those of us thinking about power, interpretation, and culture in the twenty-first century. 

After Said

In 1978, Edward Said, a Palestinian professor of comparative literature, published a study that irrevocably altered how we think about the foundational role culture played in building and maintaining European colonial empires. The subject of Orientalism was, essentially, the cultural mechanisms by which Europeans were able to justify and naturalize subjugation and colonization. The book gave birth to a field that transformed how the relationship between culture and imperialism is understood by demonstrating the centrality of culture to political, social, and economic power. Further, Said’s methodology laid the foundation for a broad alliance of international scholars, theorists, and activists working toward understanding the relationships of power between groups, particularly when those relationships are uneven and/or guided by stereotype, racial ideology, or (mis-) representation. Said meticulously outlined that what the West refers to as “the Orient” is a self-referential and systemic creation of the Western imagination—an “imaginative geography” overlaid with tropes, discourses, and representational practices. 

By putting culture at the center of geopolitical relationships, Said proposed that Orientalism was not just an apparatus that justified colonialism, but that it created and reinforced ways of seeing and being. As a cultural discourse—a “language” through which ideas about the Orient could be expressed—writers, intellectuals, and politicians circulated and reiterated images of “the Orient” that reflected the colonizer’s need to create spaces of otherness rather than any reality found in the heterogenous spaces referred to as Oriental. (1) Europeans created a cultural economy of tropes and stereotypes that allowed colonization to be envisioned as a moral endeavor. and as colonial power increased, these ways of seeing transformed the physical, social, and economic lives of the colonized. (2)

While this seminal work made Said one of the most globally celebrated public intellectuals of the last half century, it was not without its critics. The book inspired decades of debate and provided kindling for the “culture wars” of the 80s and early 90s, which coincided with an intensifying American involvement in the Middle East. In the forty years since its publication Said’s theories have been applied, questioned, extended, and revised by scholars, writers, and activists. After Said: Postcolonial Literary Studies in the Twenty-First Century demonstrates the rigorous work done in the attempt to understand the continued critical importance of postcolonial studies, and what Said has to offer us nearly half a century after Orientalism was published. 

After Said has three goals: to clarify Said’s key contributions and their most potent critiques; to outline Said’s wide-ranging applicability to fields as diverse as world literary studies, political theory, and international relations; and to consider “Said’s afterlives” within contemporary debates about literature, culture, war, imperialism, and Islamophobia. The introduction focuses on two important aspects of Said’s thinking:  his formation as a thinker and his struggle to define a “political humanism.” By focusing on his formation, Abu-Manneh offers insight preoccupations and theoretical tools of both Said and postcolonialism more generally; by focusing on his political humanism, Abu-Manneh demonstrates the complexity of Said’s thinking, never at home in any academic current, including postcolonialism, which he distanced himself from, and especially the “high theory” of poststructuralist thought and its anti-humanist tendencies, which Said lamented and ridiculed even as he employed the methods in his most seminal work. Rather, Said was always trying to resolve the contradictions between positivism and empiricism on the one hand, which often underwrote imperialism, and his unshakeable humanistic belief that progress toward peace, reason, and social justice was possible. 

Said’s formation as a political activist parallels the emergence of postcolonial theory and the historical climate it sought to address. Prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, as Said himself writes in The Politics of Dispossession, he was “caught up in the life of a young professor of English and comparative literature”.(3) He had, at that point,written little on Middle Eastern politics or Arab/Palestinian identity. The crushing defeat of Egypt, which had the strongest military of the Arab world, inspired a kind of political awakening for Said and many other Arab intellectuals. As Said writes, “I was emotionally reclaimed by the Arab world generally and by Palestine in particular. This was a direct result of the war—which I experienced in New York—and of the severely damaged political, cultural, and, of course, military and geographical situation that it had created.”(4) Abdel Nasser had made Egypt a center “for the Non-Aligned movement, the Afro-Asian movement, and a center of worldwide anti-imperialist liberation struggle.” “In six days,” he continues, “everything that Nasser and his followers had created came apart.”(5) For Said’s intellectual formation, and because postcolonial theory is both a continuation of anti-colonial thought as well as a complete reorientation of its methods, this context highlights the frustration felt by those attempting to overcome the geopolitical hierarchies still largely unchanged decades after colonialism had explicitly ended in most places. It was at this moment, when post-colonial nations were reeling from the continued interference by two competing superpowers, that many felt compelled to revise how colonialism and its legacies were theorized and understood.  

Historicizing this way allows for a nuanced understanding of postcolonial thought and its demand  for new ways of understanding power and resistance, oppression and liberation. As Abu-Manneh puts it in the introduction, the 1970s and the decline of pan-nationalist movements was also significant in that it presented a moment of “the defeat of the grand narratives of global emancipation (including decolonization and socialism)”. (6) Said “emerged as a new species of radical intellectual: anti-imperialist but not socialist; materialist but oblivious to political economy; political but inflating culture in human affairs…embodying [an] anxious critical energy: in search of anchoring foundations yet profoundly skeptical about their permanence and value.” (7)

Marxist intellectuals have waged the most protracted campaign against postcolonialism’s “preoccupation” with literature and the arts, and in After Said this perspective is represented by one of the most potent and controversial critics of postcolonial theory working today: the Marxist sociologist Vivek Chibber.(8) Chibber’s 2013 book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, mainly critiques the Subaltern Studies Collective—a group of revisionist, mostly Indian, historians—who Chibber grossly overgeneralizes as representative of decades of heterogeneous “postcolonial theory.” Despite his preference for polemical hand grenades, Chibber’s contribution to After Said offers a concise summary of some problematic areas in Orientalism. 

Chibber focuses on two contradictory claims about Orientalism in Said’s writing. In the first claim, Said argues that Orientalism is the cultural apparatus that facilitated colonial domination. The historical and material conditions that drove Western Europe outward resulted in the need to create the cultural mechanisms by which economic and material exploitation can be rationalized and justified. If culture is the means by which we tell stories—in the broadest sense of the word—about ourselves, Orientalism fulfilled the ideological necessity of creating an image of the world, its peoples, and its history by which material exploitation is transformed into a moral mission to help or save others by bringing them into modernity. 

This first position highlights Orientalism as a way of seeing the East that allows colonizers to feel good about colonization. Said traces this strain of Orientalism to the late eighteenth century, around the time of the “Second” British Empire, which began when Britain lost the American colonies and, as a result, turned towards Asia and the Pacific. In this version of Orientalism, specific, historically-situated geopolitical power relations led to a cultural discourse that made colonization seem natural, even necessary. For Chibber, this line of reasoning is materialist and, thus, relatively unproblematic. However, Said develops another, seemingly contradictory argument, which stems from what he calls latent Orientalism. Said reconfigures his first argument so that modern Orientalism is a manifest phenomenon that stems from a timeless, latent Orientalism that has always existed in Western culture, all the way back to Dante and Homer. While Said’s first position claims that power relations create the need for the cultural ideology, his second position seems to suggest the opposite: that an ahistorical cultural attitude held by the West led to colonialism, rendering Western culture inherently imperialistic. For Chibber, the problems begin here. Contradicting the first claim, this line of argumentation suggests that cultural ideology created specific power relations. Said seems to want to suggest that colonialism created Orientalism and that Orientalism created colonialism. While Said does try to make these two positions logically coherent by leaning on Freudian interpretative language, this “culturalist” argument nevertheless turns Marxist theory on its head, suggesting that an ahistorical superstructure defines a historically specific base. It also, for critics like Sadiq al-Azm and Aijaz Ahmad (from whom Chibber gets most of the criticisms he summarizes), creates a kind of Occidentalism by turning “the West” into an essentialized monolith. Chibber spends the rest of the essay working through possible ways of saving Said’s second argument, ultimately deciding the exercise useless. While leaving the first position intact, his critique of the second position—ideology leading to colonialism—takes him into his familiar mantra against “the cultural turn,” which, for him, has done irreparable damage to cultural analysis’s ability to understand and inspire real change because it forgets the material, historical conditions from which culture stems. 

Chibber’s summary of the core Marxist critiques of Orientalism segues nicely to subsequent chapters that clarify, extend, and revise some of the claims in Orientalism, as well as complicate Chibber’s own somewhat dogmatic positions. For example, the Irish novelist, poet, and historian Seamus Deane offers a more nuanced reading of Said’s language and theoretical affinities by highlighting the historical contexts and personal investments within his scholarship, which echo points made by Abu-Manneh in the introduction. While Chibber sees the departure from Marxism as the original sin of postcolonial studies, Deane demonstrates that this departure was both deeply personal and strategically pragmatic for Said. By removing socialist buzzwords and avant-garde theory, Deane argues that Said made a pragmatic attempt to attract a wider readership, which might, in turn, garner support for the Palestinian cause. Said, according to Deane, desired above all to transform the left’s lip service of anti-imperialism into something more than often empty moral posturing. This first section of the book, by pointing to the complexities and contradictions in Said’s thought, demonstrates Said’s struggles to incorporate useful theoretical tools from a diverse range of thinkers, while always resistant to any form of orthodoxy or totalizing claims within those bodies of thought.

While the collection does offer many insightful contributions for those interested in literary and cultural theory, including an impressive essay on Said and nineteenth-century fiction, a body of work central to postcolonial theory as it reflects both a moment of “high imperialism” and the rise of cultural nationalism, there are also a number of essays that focus on Said’s political offerings. In “Orientalism Today,” Saree Makdisi offers a reading of the important, yet still largely unlearned, lessons of Said’s legacy. Saree focuses on two public intellectuals and foreign policy experts often referred to as Said’s nemeses: historian and proud Orientalist Bernard Lewis and political scientist Samuel Huntington, both of whom played central roles in post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Their work generally promotes an ahistorical “clash of civilization” narrative, relying on timeless binaries of East and West, and envisioning the simplistic, “hermetically-sealed” and internally homogenous civilizations that Said’s work sought to undermine. By doing so, the influential work of Lewis and Huntington continues to provide invaluable fodder for war-hawks on the left and right who require easy-to-swallow soundbites about good and evil, modernity and backwardness, free democracies and violent fanatics. They provide models for the kinds of vulgar and lazy thinking that can justify just about any act of barbarity as long as it is couched in the language of freedom, development, or democracy. By focusing on how Said challenges and deconstructs these simplifications, Saree demonstrates the wide range of applicability in Said’s work far beyond postcolonial or literary studies. 

Domestication

While After Said examines the impacts, currency, and afterlives of Said’s thought, it also demonstrates postcolonialism’s continued importance in debates about social relationships and cultural representation. An important criticism of postcolonialism argues that although as a body of thought it aligns itself with early anti-imperialist movements in the Global South, its practitioners often spend too little time engaging with the intellectual work produced in these locations. While postcolonialism has made important contributions in understanding how Western political, social, and artistic movements have buttressed, negotiated, or resisted imperialism, the employment of Western methods—Said himself relies heavily on Freud, Foucault, and others—has been used as evidence of postcolonialism’s participation in the maintenance of Western hegemony. This tendency has rendered postcolonialism, at times, both insular and inattentive to anti-colonial thought that originates in areas once subject to colonial rule. 

With his first book, Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariategui Tradition, Hosam Aboul-Ela emerged as someone uniquely capable of tracing the subtleties of empire by providing new models that address these specific shortcomings. Written by a scholar intimately familiar with both US and Arabic cultures,  Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and The Postcolonial Lens, demonstrates the potential of reimagining a postcolonialism that places more emphasis on non-Anglophone intellectual and literary traditions, and exemplifies the fruit that comparative studies can bear when space is given to bodies of knowledge that reflect an alternative image of American empire largely hidden from American life. The “domesticating” effect central to Aboul-Ela’s critique refers to the widespread “tendency toward self-denial in American culture” that runs through both the cultural mainstream and academia. “In its academic, media, cultural, political, and literary discourses,” he writes,” the United States has a powerful ability to erase its own international implications and to express itself as an autonomous domestic space.” (9) “Domestications” also refers to the ways in which writers, filmmakers, and artists misread the Global South by mapping social realities specific to the U.S.—specifically those around race, gender, class, and civil rights—onto disparate locations and cultures. 

Aboul-Ela organizes Domestications around five keywords—novel, idea, perspective, gender, and space—offering, effectively, a new vocabulary for literary and postcolonial studies. He also extends and develops core Saidian practices, particularly what Said called “contrapuntal reading,” explained in Culture and Imperialism as reading with an “awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts.” (10) For Aboul-Ela this means being attentive to the contradictory discourses within a work of art, particularly the frequent disunion between explicit artistic intention and the attitudes, assumptions, themes, or beliefs demonstrated by that work. Like Said, Aboul-Ela demonstrates the ways in which cultural discourses can obscure or unwittingly incorporate imperialist attitudes, but he also takes the method a step further by using perspectives from intellectual traditions from the Global South to read against the grain of American culture’s engagement with these locations. 

The first two (and part of the third) chapters of Domestications are dedicated to the fiction of Paul Bowles, particularly his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, and here Aboul-Ela demonstrates the force of his methods. An accomplished musician turned novelist, Bowles was a central figure in the post-World War II counterculture movement, which grappled with a widespread disenchantment with an increasingly conformist, mechanized, and consumerist culture, while also dealing with the global realities of the global Cold War and the United States’ new status as a superpower and global hegemon. Bowles lived most of his life in Tangier, moving there with his wife in 1947, turning the city into a site of artistic pilgrimage and alternative living for Beat writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg, for whom Bowles was a central inspiration, as well as Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs (Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in a hotel room there). Bowles not only drew major countercultural figures to Tangiers with his fiction, but he also translated major works of experimental and existential fiction like Sartre’s No Exit and championed and translated some of Morocco’s most well-known writers, most notably Mohamed Choukri. 

Aboul-Ela cites Bowles’ work as representative of a cultural turn toward the Global South as artists and intellectuals sought to work through the rapidly increasing geopolitical dominance of the United States. As European empires collapsed and their metropoles struggled with postwar economic devastation, the U.S. experienced an economic boom and increasing global cultural prestige. However, financial excess wasn’t without its social pitfalls: middle-class norms, the rise of cookie-cutter suburbia, mechanized labor and automation, generic consumerism. For countercultural icons like Bowles, the Global South offered more than an alternative lifestyle untainted by the suffocating realities of American life—it also offered intellectual, personal, and financial freedom. 

However, with previous cultural centers like London and Paris crushed by the war, and as artists and intellectuals embarked for the Global South to cope with a lost faith in Western modernity, they produced a complicated body of work that not only circulated a new iteration of Orientalist tropes, but also “domesticated” landscapes and peoples by writing into them social issues specific to the United States. Aboul-Ela shows the ambivalences in Bowles’ most famous work, The Sheltering Sky, toward the locals and focuses on the consequences of creating landscapes and peoples as foils to Western explorations of culture, identity, or existential dread. Reading contrapuntally, Aboul-Ela focuses on the ways in which The Sheltering Sky can be critical of “American bourgeois Cold War values” while also “domesticating” American social tensions by (mis-)aligning them with the particular social realities of North Africa. (11)  In Chapter Two of Domestications Aboul-Ela deepens his analysis of the “American Global South novel” by turning to debates and tensions within the Moroccan reception itself of Bowles’ work; in doing so, he also outlines important counter-hegemonic intellectual traditions from the Global South that offer important correctives to the ways in which American hegemony in understood and represented in the US. 

Over the subsequent chapters, Aboul-Ela traces the evolution of the “domesticating” discourses in American culture as it has sought to come to terms with the increasing scope of U.S. geopolitical dominance. The final two chapters bring us into the present, tracing the central symbols and axioms that provide a “morality of empire.” Chapter Four applies and extends the work of postcolonial feminists—like Gayatri Spivak and Jasbir Puar—who have long noted the privileged position of the symbolic “Third World woman” as justification for domination, interference, and war in the Global South. Aboul-Ela traces Spivak’s famous aphorism—“white men saving brown women from brown men”—into the world of globalizing capitalism, noting the particular cultural obsession with stories about women as central in transforming war, occupation, and social upheaval into cultural stories about “liberation,” “development,” or American benevolence. His focus is the particular obsession in the West to find, promote, and circulate specific types of narratives about others that powerfully reinforce stereotypes and dehumanization. In this chapter he surveys the centrality of the female body within the evolution of U.S. imperialism, and feminism’s role in creating universalizing, uncritical narratives that vilify, dehumanize, and justify violence against peoples or followers of a specific religion. “Saving women” by envisioning all women through the domesticating lens of the normative “U.S. woman”—middle class, secular, Westernized (a fiction of course even in the U.S.)—has been centrally employed in the “morality” of American violence abroad. In Chapter Five, Aboul-Ela looks closely at the post-Cold War euphoria in notions like Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history” and Thomas Friedman’s “flattening of the earth” in which global capitalism was viewed (by think-tank neocons, at least) as the final phase in human life, ready to provide “freedom” via industrialization, globally integrated and standardized labor, consumerism, and openness to socio-economic restructuring. Aboul-Ela documents, rather, an emergent tradition located in the global novel—from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to Korean novelist Hwang Sok-yong’s The Guest—that offers correctives to mythologized notions of borders and autonomous nation states (through the “Mexican western” in McCarthy and the partition of the Korean peninsula in Sok-yong) as well as the “flattening” benevolence of American-sponsored multinational capitalism and the way it produces knowledge about the world. 

Overall, Aboul-Ela provides a wide-ranging study of the cultural negotiations at work in the construction and maintenance of American imperialism, offering insightful and relevant readings of American culture—particularly the American “Third World Novel” but also mass media and film—for anyone interested in the representational and discursive mechanisms of modern imperialism. Aboul-Ela shows the force of postcolonialism’s theoretical tools in understanding the complexities and paradoxes within cultural narratives, symbols, and themes and how they organize attitudes toward peoples and places in ways that buttress and naturalize empire-building. In demonstrating the often-overlooked cultural economy of specific narratives and tropes, Aboul-Ela provides ways of seeing the symbols that lend morality and heroism to devastating American violence. Finally, by including critical perspectives and intellectual engagement from outside of most postcolonial theorists’ purview, Aboul-Ela provides an important, meticulously researched model for postcolonial and comparative cultural/literary studies. 


About the author: Dr. Bryant Scott is an instructor in the English Department at Valencia College. In Spring 2021 he will be joining the faculty at Texas A & M University at Qatar (TAMUQ) as an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts Program. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Miami and specializes in postcolonial literature and theory, world literature, and critical and cultural theory. His work has been published in The Goose: A Journal of Arts, Environment, and Culture in Canada, The Helix Literary Magazine, the essay collection Uniting Regions and Nations through the Looking Glass of Literature, and elsewhere. 


[1] This moral endeavor, which Kipling famously referred to as the “White Man’s Burden,” mirrors the contemporary “civilizing missions,” now mostly secularized, of human rights, “development,” and humanitarianism, which have been used, in part, as the rallying cries of perpetual war, regime change, aggression and interference, extrajudicial killing, and crushing debt economies in the Global South. 

[2] In many instances, as outlined by later postcolonial theorists, colonial subjects challenged, resisted, and ruptured the expectations colonizers had of their “known” subjects. 

 [3] Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 6. Despite Said’s own story of “political awakening,” Timothy Brennan’s recently published intellectual biography of Said, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) paints a much more nuanced picture of Said than is typically offered in postcolonial scholarship. 

[4] Ibid., 7. 

[5] Ibid., 7. 

[6] Bashir Abu-Manneh (Ed.), After Said: Postcolonial Literary Studies in the Twenty-First Century. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2019), 2. 

[7] Ibid., 2. Here Timothy Brennan’s recent intellectual biography again provides a more nuanced overview of Said’s relationship to Marxism, particularly in highlighting the fact that no two thinkers were as central to Said’s thinking throughout his life and work as the Marxist philosophers Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs. 

[8] See the introduction to Robert Young’s Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Blackwell Publishing, 2001) for a clear and persuasive defense of the study of cultural politics. 

[9] Hosam Aboul-Ela. Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and the Postcolonial Lens. (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 2018), 9. 

[10] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism. (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 51. 

[11] Hosam Aboul-Ela. Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and the Postcolonial Lens. (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 2018), 31. 

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