In the rest of the world, the “postcolonial turn” in the social sciences and humanities took place nearly a quarter century ago. Since then, the method or style of critique associated with that movement has influenced myriad political, epistemological, institutional, and disciplinary debates in the United States, the United Kingdom, and regions across the Southern Hemisphere (South America, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent, and South Africa).1 From its inception, postcolonial studies has been interpreted in extremely diverse ways; over time, it has spawned robust waves of polemic and controversy, not to mention the many objections, each contradicting the previous, that continue today.2 It has also given rise to an abundance of profoundly rich and tremendously divergent intellectual, political, and aesthetic practices — so much so that one might earnestly ask where the unity of “postcolonial studies” lies.3 But despite this logic of segmentation, one can assert that, at its core, the object of postcolonial critique is best described in terms of the interlacing of histories and the concatenation of distinct worlds. Given that slavery and especially colonization (but also migrations, the ordering of sex and sexuality, and the circulation of forms, imaginaries, goods, ideas, and people) played such decisive roles in this process of human collision and entanglement, it is logical that postcolonial studies has made them the privileged objects of its inquiry.
The most compelling work in postcolonial studies does not take colonization to be an immutable, ahistorical structure or an abstract entity. Instead, colonization is apprehended as a complex process that generates frontiers and intervals, zones of passage, and interstitial spaces. Similarly, it asserts that as a historical and modern force, one of colonization’s functions has been the production of subalternity.
Many imperial powers exercised, in their respective colonial contexts, modes of subordination founded on racial differences and juridical statuses that, while often differentiated, always, at the end of the day, produced inferior rankings. Conversely, in order to articulate their demands for equality, many colonized populations were moved to elaborate a critique of the harm and injustice engendered by both the law of race and racialized law (as well as the law of gender and sexuality). Postcolonial studies thus examines the work accomplished by the categories of race, gender, and sexuality in colonial imaginaries and seeks to evaluate their role in the very process of producing colonial subjects. Such work also is concerned with analyzing the forms of resistance that have marked colonial history, the diverse experiences of emancipation and their limits, and the ways that oppressed people have constituted themselves as historical subjects and thus contributed, of their own right, to the constitution of a transnational and diasporic world. Finally, postcolonial studies also considers the manner in which traces of a colonial past become, in the present moment, the object of symbolic and pragmatic work, as well as the conditions under which these practices give rise to unprecedented hybrid or cosmopolitan forms of life, politics, culture, and modernities.
Disjuncture and Temporal Discordance
Boundaries between academic disciplines, the relatively stark provincialism of the knowledge produced and disseminated in the Hexagon (consistently masked by the exportation of the works of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, or Pierre Bourdieu), and cultural narcissism and conceit have all contributed to the marginal position of France in these global ventures of thought. Until recently, postcolonial studies has been disparaged or, at best, overlooked in French scholarship. Is this cavalier indifference or plain ignorance masking for insolence? Calculated ostracism or mere accident? Whatever the reason, up until the onset of the millennium, postcolonial studies has not been the object of an informed critique or serious, conversant debate within the French academy.4 Aside from a handful of texts by Edward Said, almost no works by scholars claiming affiliation with this intellectual current or its various streams (subaltern studies, for example) were translated into French.5
Indeed, just when postcolonial studies was on the rise in Anglo-Saxon academic and artistic circles, French politics and cultural production was moving on an opposite trajectory, entering what we might call an “imperial winter.” This “winter” can be characterized as a series of disconnections, anathemas, and grand excommunications that culminated in the relative provincialization of French thought and its regression on a planetary scale. Significant from this point of view was the rupture with Marxism and with a conception of the relations between the production of knowledge and political engagement inherited from a long history of engagement with workers’ movements, internationalism, and anticolonialism. The empire having been so deeply entrenched in French identity, its loss (and especially that of Algeria) was tantamount to a veritable amputation in a national imaginary suddenly deprived of one of its greatest sources of pride. Imperial history — one function of which was to sing the praises of the nation, paint a gallery of heroic portraits with images of conquests, epics, and exotic representations — was relegated to a peripheral region of national consciousness.6 At the moment when, bolstered by poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and a tradition of critical Marxism, postcolonial studies takes off in the Anglo-Saxon world, many French scholars who otherwise might have found interest in postcolonial studies — some having been Communist Party activists or sympathizers, others having been associated with radical organizations — are eager to be done with Marxism and its avatars, most notably “Third-Worldism” (le tiers-mondisme).7 Especially on the left — where various struggles for justice had been closely identified with the Communist Party — a new generation of intellectuals sought to escape unconditional adhesion to Marxist dogma as a precondition for a renewed critique of Stalinism and the politics of the Soviet Union in terms that did not simply reiterate the language of ultranationalism. Convinced that socialism could not possibly succeed in the West, others were finding it futile to transfer Western revolutionary and utopian aspirations onto the struggles in Third World countries. Thus Sartre and an entire tradition of anticolonialist thought became awash in sarcasm, soon the subject of a rousing disavowal. Before that time, Frantz Fanon, nearly condemned to ostracism, had started his long purgatory, engaging only marginal voices that were mostly ignored. Likewise, the sanctimonious elite took little interest in Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and even less in his Tragedy of King Christophe or Season in the Congo. Of the poet, the only image they were keen to preserve was of a man who, turning his back on the sirens of independence, chose to make his island one of France’s administrative departments. Neither of the two main movements of the twentieth century aimed at deconstructing race — the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States and the global struggle against apartheid of the 1980s and 1990s — has distinguished or even watermarked the works of the most prominent French intellectuals, aside from Sartre, Beauvoir, and a few residues of Derrida. Toward the end of the 1970s, when Foucault spoke of the racial state, he had not a word for South Africa, the era’s only example of “actually existing” legal segregation.8 In the end, it was in America and not in Paris that Maryse Condé, Valentin Mudimbe, and Édouard Glissant — all great French or francophone figures identified with postcolonial studies, regardless of their own claims to such labels — found refuge and recognition.
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- For an example of this diversity, see Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, eds., Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008). See also Fernando Coronil, “Latin American Postcolonial Studies and Global Decolonization,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies, ed. Neil Lazarus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 221 – 40; and Vinayak Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (New York: Verso, 2000).
- See Simon During, “Postcolonialism and Globalization: Towards a Historicization of Their Inter-relation,” Cultural Studies 14 (2000): 385 – 404; and Harry D. Harootunian, “Postcoloniality’s Unconscious/Area Studies’ Desire,” Postcolonial Studies 2 (1999): 127 – 47. See, more recently, Priyamvada Gopal and Neil Lazarus, eds., “Postcolonial Studies after Iraq,” special issue, New Formations, no. 59 (2006); and PMLA 122, 123 (2007). See also Aijaz Ahmed, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1993); and Arif Dirlik, The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1997).
- Read in particular Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2001); David Ludden, ed., Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning, and the Globalization of South Asia (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001); and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
- Notable exceptions are Jacques Pouchepadass, “Les subaltern studies ou la critique postcoloniale de la modernité,” L’homme, no. 156 (2000): 161 – 86; and Marie-Claude Smouts, ed., La situation postcoloniale: Les “postcolonial studies” dans le débat français (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 2007).
- An exception is Mamadou Diouf, L’historiographie indienne en débat: Colonialisme, nationalisme et sociétés postcoloniales (Paris: Karthala, 1999).
- Sophie Dulucq, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Jean Frémigacci, Emmanuelle Sibeud, and Jean-Louis Triaud, “L’écriture de l’histoire de la colonisation en France depuis 1960,” Afrique et histoire 2 (2006): 235 – 76.
- Gérard Chaliand, Les mythes révolutionnaires du tiers monde: Guérillas et socialismes (Paris: Seuil, 1979); Pascal Bruckner, Le sanglot de l’homme blanc: Tiers-monde, culpabilité, haine de soi (Paris: Seuil, 1982); Carlos Rangel, L’Occident et le tiers monde: De la fausse culpabilité aux vraies responsabilités (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1982); Yves Lacoste, Contre les anti-tiers- mondistes et contre certains tiers-mondistes (Paris: La Découverte, 1985); Claude Liauzu, Aux origines des tiersmondismes: Colonisés et anticolonialistes en France, 1919 – 1939 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1982); Liauzu, Les intellectuels français au miroir algérien: Éléments pour une histoire des tiers-mondismes (Nice: Cahiers de la Méditerranée, 1984).
- Michel Foucault, “Il faut défendre la société”: Cours au Collège de France, 1975 – 1976 (Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 1997).