Monday, November 22, 2010

"Commonwealth" and "Postcolonial" Studies Journals: Some History

A few years ago, when I was going up for tenure at Lehigh, I did a blog post compiling links to several postcolonial studies journals I was looking at as possible venues for publication. At that time I was not in the habit of regularly reading academic journals; like a lot of people, I tended to focus more on academic books. For various reasons, I've been both reading academic journals more regularly and closely in recent years, and publishing in them more frequently since 2007.

I also don't think I mentioned here that this past summer I joined the Editorial Board of the Northampton, UK-based Journal of Postcolonial Writing as an Associate Editor. And as I've grown more involved with the inner workings of a busy academic journal, I've gotten interested in the complicated 'career arc' of this particualr journal (formerly World Literatures Written in English) as well as others like it -- journals founded in the 1960s and 70s, often with an approach quite different from what they currently print.

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Another quick prefatory comment: I have been helping out a colleague at another university with an article she's working on, on the institutional history of the field -- specifically, the interaction between "Postcolonial" literary studies and "Commonwealth"  literary studies, and the goal of this blog post to put together some of my own thoughts related to the different journals.

"Commonwealth" refers, of course, to literature of the British Commonwealth of Nations, an organization with 54 member nations, all but two of which were former British colonies. The Commonwealth idea was conceived in the 1880s, as a way to grant semi-autonomy to settler colonies like New Zealand and Australia, and it rapidly expanded after Indian and Pakistani independence (since both new nations joined the Commonwealth). Beginning with the Harare Declaration (1971), the Commonwealth has been 'post-colonially correct' -- which is to say, it has clearly indicated that member countries are a group of sovereign states on an equal footing. It has also focused on alleviating poverty and fostering development in poorer countries.

And clearly, the Commonwealth concept was not really in question this past summer, when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, which was according to some observers an astounding success and to others a total catastrophe. (The fact that many Commonwealth nations are also cricket-playing nations probably doesn't hurt the popular and mass-cultural recognition of the term.) All in all, the Commonwealth of Nations organization seems to be alive and well; indeed, there are several pending applications for membership from countries that were never British colonies -- Algeria and Sudan, for instance. As to what precisely the organization actually does, that might be the subject of another post.

Despite the change in the status of the Commonwealth of Nations, the term "Commonwealth Literature," as most people know, has largely gone out of fashion in recent years. The most famous critique of the idea of Commonwealth Literature is probably Salman Rushdie's 1983 essay "Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist" (republished in Imaginary Homelands, 1990). And following Rushdie, the most significant event marking the decline of Commonwealth Lit. might be Amitav Ghosh's famous decision, in 2001, not to accept the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia) for his book, The Glass Palace. Ghosh objected to the idea and term "Commonwealth," but he also had a problem with the English-only requirement for the prize. (Other Commonwealth Literature institutions, such as the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, do not have an Anglophone literature-only policy.) The core of Ghosh's complaint, however, was evident in the following sentences:

So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book's merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive. That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country's history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of "the Commonwealth". I therefore ask that I be permitted to withdraw The Glass Palace from your competition. 

Ghosh's comments (the full letter is reproduced here, along with further comments in support from Amitava Kumar) remain at a somewhat abstract level. I interpret him to mean something like this: yes, we have to acknowledge the history and legacy of colonialism (indeed, The Glass Palace is largely about that history). But we should have the right to redefine our present selves separately from that legacy. The larger point seems to be that the term "Commonwealth writers" or "Commonwealth Literature" cannot help but be a kind of celebration of British colonialism.

The British Journal of Commonwealth Literature is still going strong despite the critiques of the word Commonwealth such as Ghosh's and Rushdie's. In 2005, two editors of the journal wrote an introduction on the fortieth anniversary of the journal, defending their decision not to update the title despite the changing fortunes of "Commonwealth":
Nevertheless, more than a dozen years on, the decision to keep the Journal’s original title seems right. Although post-colonial studies have come to occupy a central position in the metropolitan academy’s curricula, the term has frequently been rejected by writers and readers, who see it as a strait-jacket that encloses them within a limited and predictable range of political agendas. “Post-colonialism”, particularly when used in the singular, offers a curious mirror-image of the “one-world” discourse of globalization, which it supposedly contests. At its worst it is an exclusive term, which homogenizes the “rest of the world” in a counter-image of the older European imperialisms or US neo-imperialism. Meanwhile multinational publishers commodify and disseminate the work of cosmopolitan writers who interpret “other” societies for a Western or “global” readership. Arguably “Commonwealth literature”, with its emphasis on inclusivity, continues to be more genuinely eclectic and to invite approaches that can be related to a broader-based set of non-Western humanisms. (John Thieme. Editorial: "JCL Forty Years On," JCL 40:1, 2005)
There's a valid point here, though it's too bad John Thieme doesn't respond directly to the critique made by Ghosh, which we quoted above. Instead, his approach is to suggest that Commonwealth continues to work as a pragmatic signifier, in large part because "Postcolonial" is, as he sees it, worse. It's also unfortunate that he doesn't cite any specific scholars or theorists whose definition matches the "post-colonialism" he doesn't like.

The person cited by Thieme and Alistair Niven as instrumental in the founding of JCL (and the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies -- ACLALS) is A. N. Jeffares. Jeffares, who was Irish (and a scholar of Yeats), was responsible for the first ever conference devoted to Commonwealth Literature at the University of Leeds, in 1964. The proceedings of that conference were published in book form by Heinemann, as Commonwealth Literature: Unity and Diversity in a Common Culture. Jeffares' introduction to the conference (and the volume that it provoked) are widely cited by scholars who have thought about the status of Commonwealth literature since then, including especially Tim Watson (2000).

Interestingly, though he's credited as the driving force behind the advent of Commonwealth literary studies, Jeffares was not the first editor of JCL, though he did go on to serve as the first editor of the Canadian journal Ariel: A Review of International Literature (founded in 1970 at the University of Calgary, where it remains). Ariel bypassed the terminological morass by always defining itself as focused on "international" literature -- which means its first issues could comfortably and without contradiction contain essays on all sorts of topics, from George Herbert, to Canadian authors, to the Caribbean writer Wilson Harris. Over time, and with subsequent editorships, Ariel has come to be seen as primarily (though not exclusively), a "postcolonial" journal. The journal published a pair of special issues in 1995 debating the pros and cons of the postcolonial turn in literary studies, and then returned to the subject in another special issue in 2000.

Another journal that was founded in the 1960s/70s was World Literature in English. WLWE was first based at the University of Texas for several years, before moving to University of Guelph (where it was edited by Diana Bryden for several years). The journal had a brief stint based in Singapore (under the editorship of Kirpal Singh), before finding its current home at the University of Northampton, UK.

Importantly, in 2005, WLWE deviated from the path set by JCL when it did change names, becoming, under Janet Wilson's editorship, the Journal of Postcolonial Writing (JPW). In her brief editorial announcing the change, Wilson did not say much about the debates over terms such as "world literature," "Commonwealth literature" or "postcolonial literature"; she simply suggested that the move from WLWE to JPW was a way of moving towards "theoretical respectability."

Even as these journals were either changing (or, in JCL's case, not changing), several new postcolonial literature and theory journals came into being in the 1980s and 1990s, including especially Wasafiri (University of Kent), Interventions (whose first editor was Robert JC Young, then at Oxford), Journal of Postcolonial Studies (Melbourne), Jouvert (a U.S.-based online journal, now defunct), Kunapipi (another Australian journal, which I think is also defunct), Diaspora (a cultural studies and anthropology journal, by and large), The Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies (based at George Southern University), and Postcolonial Text (also based in Australia). Of these newer journals (and I may be missing some), the most influential have perhaps been Wasafiri and Interventions. 

One major journal that I haven't mentioned is Transition, which was started in Uganda in 1961, with a pan-Africanist focus (publishing essays by writers like Ngugi, Achebe... and Skip Gates!). Transition was famously edited by Wole Soyinka until it was disbanded in 1976. The journal was then revived in the 1990s, though it was published in the U.S. (it's now housed at Indiana University Press), and in its reincarnation it seems to be quite a different beast. There are also "Area Studies" literature journals, specifically South Asian Review (with which I have been involved, in the past), as well as the solidly established Research in African Literatures. But these journals, as important as they may be in their respective fields, are still not as widely circulating or as influential as their more 'transnational' (postcolonial, commonwealth) peers. Area studies is, in short, still an academic ghetto: it's still much better for you if you say you teach and write on "Postcolonial literature" than "Indian literature" or "Nigerian literature." That's unfortunate, but it seems to be a fact of life in the British and North American academies. (I wrote about this a bit in the second half of an essay in the South Asian Review issue I guest-edited with Kavita Daiya a few years ago: see here).

So where does that leave us? On the one hand, the proliferation of the new Postcolonial journals, alongside the continued vibrancy (and frequent self-reinvention) of the older Commonwealth and World Literature journals, suggests the field is bigger and more established than it's ever been. Even so, certain critiques of the term "postcolonial" seem to have struck a chord (Aijaz Ahmed, Arif Dirlik, Ella Shohat, and more recently David Scott) -- and they haven't gone away. In the inaugural essay to Interventions, Robert Young seemed to acknowledge as much when he wrote:

Whatever one might say about the troubled term 'postcolonial' -- and we take the discussions of that on board, but as read -- one characteristic aspect of postcolonial writing, be it creative or critical, involves its historical and political agenda, which in broad terms give it common objectives. This is the reason why, just as with feminism, postcolonialism offers a politics rather than a coherent theoretical methodology. Indeed you could go so far as to argue that strictly speaking there is no such thing as postcolonial theory as such -- rather  there are shared political perceptions and agenda which employ an eclectic range of theories in their service. Moreover, as with some feminisms, a substantial constituency of postcolonial writing is radically anti-theoretical, giving a primacy to the value of individual consciousness and experience. Postcolonialism's curious combination of heterogeneous theories with a sometimes problematic or even condescending counter-affirmation of the truth of experiential knowledge, is an articulation too easily characterized either as the postcolonial predicament or as a disjunction between the western academy and 'Third World' conditions of existence. (Robert JC Young, 1998. Full essay available on the author's website here)
I thought this was an interesting way of putting things: there may not be a theoretical commonality, but there is a shared political praxis. What's surprising about this claim is of course that so many critics of postcolonial theory have questioned precisely that -- for Left (Marxist) critics of Postcolonial studies, the problem has always been that much Postcolonial theory has distanced itself from Marxism or from a concrete political agenda. Someone like Arundhati Roy may be admired by many Postcolonial intellectuals, but almost no one is actually standing up and agreeing with her on, say, the Maoist insurgency in eastern and southern India. It sometimes seems that being 'postcolonial' is a way of positioning oneself as generally aligned with the plight of poor, non-western societies -- without having to make hard ideological choices regarding how to alleviate the suffering of people in those societies.

The debates that follow Young's opening volley in the first few issues of Interventions are quite fascinating, though it would make this blog post too long to actually engage that material substantively (perhaps in a subsequent post).

One big issue I have been thinking about is the status of the American academy in particular vis a vis the advent and institutionalization of Postcolonial Studies. Some critics have argued that Postcolonial Studies was really initiated in the American academy, and that the various and proliferating institutional appearances of postcolonial studies groups and journals are nothing more than attempts to copy an intellectual model initiated in the U.S. The best support for this way of seeing things comes from the fact that so many key figures have taught in American universities, including especially the theory 'triumvirate' of Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said. But one could also question this reading of American dominance, since the U.S. still does not have a regular "postcolonial studies" national association or conference (by contrast, the UK has a Postcolonial Studies Association). Moreover, of the journals I've named here, the vast majority are in fact based at institutions or with publishers outside of the U.S. -- the UK, Canada, and Australia -- suggesting that the supposed dominance of American academic institutions may be overstated.

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So here are my discussion questions for readers -- feel free to write in at Facebook or in comments here, as you wish, if you have any thoughts.

First, is postcolonial literary studies and theory primarily an 'American' academic institution in your perception?

Second, does "postcolonial studies" mean something different in the different places where it is institutionally (academically) practiced (i.e., can we compare its status in the UK with its status in Canada, its status in India, or its status in Australia)?

Third, is the field rising or falling? Has it been superseded by "globalization studies"?

Fourth, what is the status of the literary in current postcolonial theory? While many of the initial concepts in postcolonial theory came from literary theorists, it has sometimes seemed to me more recently that the momentum for postcolonial studies in recent years has shifted to the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology.


SD said...


Your critical engagement with the history and trajectory of Postcolonial studies is interesting. As a doctoral candidate in English, I've often been advised to move away from Postcolonial studies because it's either "boring" or full of abstraction and jargon. Apparently, even being a "transnationalist" is a better option.

I think that while Postcolonial literary studies and theory has acquired a certain amount of fame in academia, there is still a lot of resistance to it. There is an unhealthy antagonism between Asian American studies and Postcolonial studies, for example, that situates one as more relevant to the American space (Asian) while racializing the other (Postcolonial) to the British space. Strangely enough, this tension also seems to occur between Postcolonial and African studies where Africanists refuse to acknowledge any value that Postcolonial studies might have to their particular space. Of course, I understand that South Asia and Africa have different histories of colonization and imperialism, however, there are also overlaps that can be understood through the postcolonial lens.

Because American academe continues to see "Postcolonial" as synonymous with "South Asian", the term/concept/politics seems to lack relevance to many other academics who refuse to go beyond the politics of the word and into what new areas of research can be made possible through this particular theory or literature.

My hope is that Postcolonial studies will survive and that critics like Bhabha and Spivak will be followed by many others who will continue to reinvent the field in new ways.

Anonymous said...

Dear Amardeep Singh,
I have a few comments which are intended to further your preoccupations.
I must admit that you are doing commendable work on your blog with regard to the controversies on Commonwealth and Postcolonial studies. The debates on these radically semantic unstable terms will remain unsettling and unending; permanently in becoming.
Your question “is postcolonial literary studies and theory primarily an ‘American’ academic institution in your perception?” is complex and looks like a marker of political correctness. The debate is as dizzying as defining who an American is without existentialist unease. If we refer to Said’s poetics on Travel Theory America is just one of the sites of entry and perpetuity of postcolonial literary studies and theory. It could be curious to give tribute to America as primary space for the Academic institutionalization of postcolonial literary studies and theory. But America will usually make such claims in its supremacist culture irrespective of being just part of the entire global space.
The US is a location of many dislocations and relocations with regard to diasporic spaces, transcultural and transnational identities. Edward Said, Chinua Achebe, Homi Bhabha, Ngugi wa Thiongo’o, Robert Young, Gayatri Spivak, Arif Dirlik etc. are seminal postcolonial theorists and critics whose transnational and intellectual trajectories and identities neutralize American-ness as distinct and unique.
When one carefully considers different temporalities, historiographies and agencies in Africa, Asia, Canada, Australia, South America and the Middle East, one realizes the broad and complex nature of the debate of academic institutionalization. Each location has its story that may be compatible or deconstructive/reconstructive to the American version. Just like Britain, America is a heterogeneous and cosmopolitan postcolonial literary space which has roots and tentacles all over the globe.

Charles N Teke