Showing posts with label Postcolonial. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Postcolonial. Show all posts

Fall Teaching: "Decolonizing (Digital) Humanities"

[Updated January 2022] 

I'm teaching a grad seminar on Digital Humanities this fall. I'm structuring most of the hands-on work around two Text Corpora I've been developing, one on African American Literature, and the other on Colonial South Asian Literature

If the Canon has been the defining structure of traditional literary studies, in the DH framework the starting point is the Corpus. You can do a lot with a group of texts structured this way -- from Text Analysis, to Natural Language Processing, to thinking about Archives and Editions. As with the Canon, the questions you can ask and the knowledge you can produce are strongly determined by what's included or excluded from the Corpus. 

Course Description (short version): 

This course introduces students to the emerging field of digital humanities scholarship with an emphasis on social justice-oriented projects and practices. The course will begin with a pair of foundational units that aim to define digital humanities as a field, and also to frame what’s at stake. What are the Humanities and why do they matter in the 21st century? How might the advent of digital humanities methods impact how we read and interpret literary texts? Some topics we’ll consider include: Quantifying the Canon, Race, Empire & Gender in Digital Archives, and an introduction to Corpus Text Analysis. Along the way, we’ll explore specific Digital Humanities projects that exemplify those areas, and play and learn with digital tools and do some basic coding. The final weeks of the course will be devoted to collaborative, student-driven projects. No programming or web development experience is necessary, but a willingness to experiment and ‘break things’ is essential to the learning process envisioned in this course.

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English (Updated and Expanded)

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. 

Update from April 2017: I added a new section called "Close Reading Bhabha's 'Signs Taken For Wonders.'" Also, for folks assigning this in a classroom, there is a downloadable PDF version of this essay here

* * *

When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical starting points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from Bhabha's own writings, but also from other sites -- from specific cultural contexts, historical events, and works of literature art that aren't under Bhabha's purview. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion in the classroom than Bhabha's essays tend to do alone.

"I'm Happy to Own All Of It": Teju Cole's "Known and Strange Things"

I have been reading and reveling in Teju Cole's new collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, over the past week. Many of the essays here were published earlier in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and Granta.

And indeed, I had read several of them before, but spread out over years and often sandwiched into lots of other online reading that sometimes diluted their impact. As a result, I did not see the true implications of important essays like "Unnamed Lake" or "A True Picture of Black Skin" in those earlier reads. Seeing them in print and in the context of other essays on overlapping topics helps the author drive the point home. (Another reminder of the limits of our online media + text consumption ecosystem.)

The collection as a whole is divided into three sections, including essays on writers and literature, essays on photography, and travel writings. The travel writings I found particularly engrossing; Cole has visited dozens of countries since he became a literary star after the publication of Open City in 2011. I also see in the travel writings echoes of the voices of other great travel writers, including Conrad, Naipaul and more contemporaneously, Amitava Kumar... There's a very precise balance in these essays of the personal voice and experience with a journalist's eye for broad questions of general interest. I would not be surprised if we were to see more travel writing from Teju Cole in the future.

* * *

James Baldwin, Barack Obama, and Cole's Cosmopolitanism

One essay I had missed outright is the first essay in the collection after Known and Strange Things' prologue. Here it's published as "Black Body"; it was first published in The New Yorker in August 2014 as "Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin's 'Stranger in the Village.'" This essay encapsulates at once Teju Cole's originality -- his distinctive voice and unique way of thinking -- while also underscoring his deep filiation with earlier generations writers and intellectuals, both from the Black Atlantic tradition and from the Postcolonial / Global tradition.

The signature of Cole's outlook to global culture is eclecticism:

There’s no world in which I would surrender the intimidating beauty of Yoruba-language poetry for, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, nor one in which I’d prefer the chamber orchestras of Brandenburg to the koras of Mali. I’m happy to own all of it. This carefree confidence is, in part, the gift of time. It is a dividend of the struggle of people from earlier generations. I feel no alienation in museums. But this question of filiation tormented Baldwin considerably. He was sensitive to what was great in world art, and sensitive to his own sense of exclusion from it. He made a similar list in the title essay of “Notes of a Native Son” (one begins to feel that lists like this had been flung at him during arguments): “In some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the Stones of Paris, to the Cathedral at Chartres, and the Empire State Building a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.” The lines throb with sadness. What he loves does not love him in return.
This is where I part ways with Baldwin. I disagree not with his particular sorrow but with the self-abnegation that pinned him to it. Bach, so profoundly human, is my heritage. I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait. I care for them more than some white people do, just as some white people care more for aspects of African art than I do. (link)
This is a remarkable statement -- and I can't help but see my own evolution on these topics expressed perfectly in these eloquent paragraphs. I had a deep sense of cultural dispossession as a young person -- in which I remember perceiving a sense of exclusion that resembled James Baldwin's -- though more recently (really, as I have grown into my shoes as a literature professor) I have had a growing sense of cultural ownership in the mainstream of Euro-American life that resembles Cole's: "I'm happy to own all of it."

For many postcolonial academics based in the West, the dilemma of whether to embrace a European cultural heritage or to develop a sense of identity based on the recovery of a sense of lineage to Africanness or Asianness has been a long-term preoccupation with no easy answer. But it doesn't have to be either-or. A Nigerian writer in New York can have a world-class knowledge of Euro-American photography and modern classical music (Mahler!) and also make and share playlists of contemporary Nigerian dance songs. For my own part, I can teach and write about everything from Bollywood movies to Milton without embarrassment. I can own all of it too. (As a side note, Cole also recently made up a playlist for Known and Strange Things. You can see it here.)

To be clear, eclecticism and cosmopolitanism should not be confused with loyalty to dominant cultural institutions. Nor would Cole allow that his passion for "serious" photography, writing, and music means he is more interested in "aesthetics" than "politics." If anything, Cole's voice -- as embodied in the essays contained in this collection -- seems to suggest that what makes certain works of art powerful is in fact often precisely their embrace of an urgent politics (and this is as true of W.G. Sebald's novels as it is of Derek Walcott's poems). In other words, aesthetics need not be seen as separate from politics; our preoccupations with the latter can be what drives us to strive to make something beautiful and meaningful in response to terrible exigencies in the world around us. Or: Out of passionate politics can come great art.

Another essay that beautifully encapsulates Cole's unique status as a hybrid figure is his essay, "The Reprint" (it does not appear to be available online) recounting the night Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the Presidential elections of 2008. Cole was on-hand in Harlem to witness the crowd's reaction as the news was announced late in the evening.

One reason Obama is an important figure in understanding where Cole is coming from might be their shared connection to Africa:
The argument could be made that he wasn't really 'the first African American to be voted into the office, because he was African American only in a special, and technical, sense, the same way I was African American: a black person who held American citizenship. But the history of most blacks in this country--the history of slavery, Reconstruction, systematic disenfranchisement, and the civil rights movement--was not my history. My history was one of emigration, adaptation, and a different flavor of exile. I was only a latter-day sharer in the sorrow and the glory of the African American experience. 
[...] Obama, at the core of his experience, is hybrid. The significant achievement is not that, as a black man, he became president. It is that, as a certain kind of outsider American --of which the Kenyan father, Indonesian school, and biracial origin, not to mention the three non-Anglo names, are markers--he was able to work his way into the very center of American life. [...] His victory, I would think, should resonate even more strongly with these out-of-place characters who have been toiling in the shadows of the American story: the graduate students with funny accents, the pizza-delivery guys with no papers, Americans, regardless of color, who remember a time when they were not Americans. (249-250)
Cole doesn't underline it for us, but it's pretty clear that the link he drew between President Obama nd himself in the first paragraph quoted above also holds for the second. He is very much an "out-of-place" character (as am I) -- though at this point he is no longer "toiling in the shadows of the American story."

* * *

Photography and Blackness

Another essay in the collection that I found quite powerful is "A True Picture of Black Skin" (first published in the New York Times Magazine in February 2015). The jumping off-point for this essay is the Roy DeCarava photograph, "Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington DC, 1963."

Cole's comments on this photograph and on the complex historical legacy of photographing black skin are quite smart. We might begin with the elegant explication of the photo itself:
One such image left me short of breath the first time I saw it. It’s of a young woman whose face is at once relaxed and intense. She is apparently in bright sunshine, but both her face and the rest of the picture give off a feeling of modulated darkness; we can see her beautiful features, but they are underlit somehow. Only later did I learn the picture’s title, “Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963” which helps explain the young woman’s serene and resolute expression. It is an expression suitable for the event she’s attending, the most famous civil rights march of them all. The title also confirms the sense that she’s standing in a great crowd, even though we see only half of one other person’s face (a boy’s, indistinct in the foreground) and, behind the young woman, the barest suggestion of two other bodies.

Cole goes on after this to talk about why the history of photographing African American people (and people of African descent more generally) has been so fraught -- a history that has both ideological and material, technological elements. Camera light meters and developing processes were designed with light skin tones in mind, meaning that even when African and African-American people have been photographed with respect and dignity, the photos have not always "come out" right. Cole argues that DeCarava developed his own emulsion process to produce images like the one above.

* * *

The Ethical Responsibility Not to Turn Away

I'll end this brief review with an account of another essay that left me floored, "Death in the Browser Tab" (New York Times Magazine, May 2015). Again, this is one that I somehow missed when it was printed last year. The theme here is the growing pattern of seeing people getting killed in videos posted online. Often these are black people. The most immediate trigger event for this particular reflection was the shooting of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina -- but the list was long in 2015 and has become, sadly, even longer with a series of further "deaths in the browser tab" we've seen this year.

(Incidentally, here's something I wrote last year that attempted to link the Ferguson event to a police murder that galvanized Malcolm X and other black radicals in 1963.)

Cole shows that there is a long and fraught legacy of thematizing death in photography, which goes back to the 19th century tradition of "postmortem pictures." This was transformed in the twentieth century, as cameras become more portable and faster shutter speeds meant that by the 1960s, still photographers could capture the moment of death in a way that had never been possible earlier. (In this context Cole mentions Eddie Adams' famous photo of the death of a South Vietnamese general in 1969.)

The videographic afterimage of a real event is always peculiar. When the event is a homicide, it can cross over into the uncanny: the sudden, unjust and irrevocable end of the long story of what one person was, whom he loved, all she hoped, all he achieved, all she didn’t, becomes available for viewing and reviewing. A month after I went to North Charleston, back in Brooklyn and writing about the shooting, I find a direct approach difficult. 
I write about Holbein’s “Pictures of Death,” and about Robert Capa’s photograph and Eddie Adams’s. I write about “The Two Drovers,” about Robin tramping through the borderlands intent on murder. I write about my morning in North Charleston, the gloomy drive there and back and the wilted flowers on the chain-link fence on Craig Road. If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself. Finally, I start to watch footage of Scott’s last moments. It’s the third time, and it makes me uneasy and unhappy. The video begins with the man holding the camera racing toward the fence. A few seconds later, Walter Scott breaks away from Michael Slager. Slager plants his feet and raises his gun. There is still time. He shoots once, then thrice in quick succession. Scott continues to run. There is still time. That is when I stop the video and exit the browser.

We are well beyond the ethical dilemma many people discuss regarding the effect of these videos: is it right to watch these images? Is there a kind of pornography of violence at some point? Indeed, I couldn't help but think of some comments from Julius, the protagonist of Cole's Open City, along the lines of: must we watch every act of violence? The fallout of that refusal which, when we first encounter it early in the novel, might even seduce us into agreeing, is pretty stark: people who don't want to engage the pornography of violence might well have an instance of it in their own past they are trying to hide.

I think Cole's reflections here (also expressed in the essay earlier in the collection, "Unnamed Lake") seem to suggest we actually do have an ethical responsibility to witness these deaths. But their impact on us is complex and sometimes hard to read. We are traumatized by them, hurt by them, and (in my case) depressed by our sense of powerlessness to stop this pervasive violence. Insofar as we sometimes see these shootings from the point of view of the shooters (police body cams) we are implicated in the violence in unsettling ways. We do have a right to limit the experience -- to close the browser tab when it becomes too much. But we simply cannot not watch. 

Notes on MLA 2013

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has already put up some stories about MLA 2013, including this article covering the growing attention payed to "Alt Ac" (Alternative academia) career tracks, and this one focusing on the general theme for the conference, "Avenues of Access," which was explored by the MLA's President, Michael Berube in his address, as well as in numerous presidential forums interspersed throughout the conference that focused on facets of "Access" broadly construed. (The panels on that theme were on everything from "Open Access" journals, to questions of access and diversity in the Digital Humanities, to disability studies.)

I would recommend the above Chronicle links (not paywalled, I don't think) for anyone looking for a general sense of the MLA this year. (Update: or check out this link at Inside Higher Ed, on the MLA's Big [Digital] Tent.)

Below are my own particular notes on the panels that I ended up attending, starting with the one I organized. My goal in writing these notes is not to "opinionate" about the papers or evaluate them, but rather to simply give some thumbnail sketches, and maybe offer up a link or two for people interested in these topics who weren't able to attend. The notes and links are also, needless to say, for myself -- there's lots of "further reading" for me to do in the links and references below.

In general, I attended three "Digital Humanities" panels, two panels related to South Asian literature, one panel on modern Anglo-Irish literature, a panel on "Public Poetry," and a panel on Modern British Literature and the State. I also branched out a bit from my core interests and saw a panel on 19th century American literature ("Secularism's Technologies"), which featured both Michael Warner and Amy Hollywood -- two scholars I admire -- talking about secularism.

Click on "Read More" to read my notes on the panels I attended.

Das Racist Splits up

So: Das Racist has split up.

I have mixed feelings about it. As an Indian American kid raised on hip hop in the 1980s and 90s, I was for a while quite taken by the promise of a rap group with two Indian-American members suddenly becoming famous (cover of Spin! K Mart commercials!), even if they were a generation younger than me. But I was also often frustrated with their choices and actual performances (i.e., the terrible performance on Conan), and in some ways I'm not really that surprised they've broken up.  Below I have some thoughts about what I really liked about Das Racist and also some of what I found frustrating.

* * *

I've been aware of Das Racist since Abhi blogged about them on Sepia Mutiny in 2009, though truth be told I didn't actually bother to click on the link and listen until Phillygrrl did her two-part interview (Part 1; Part 2) with Himanshu Suri that September.

I also saw the band perform exactly once, at the Roots Picnic in June 2010 (an event that was photographed and described a little [not by me] here). I meant to write something about my thoughts after that event but didn't. Briefly now: I thought the rise of a rap group with a strong Indian-American presence was kind of amazing, and I wanted to love them -- but the actual live performance was a little disappointing. By that point I had been enthusiastically listening to band's mixtape, "Shut Up, Dude," for a few weeks, and even knew some of the verses to songs like "Ek Shaneesh" by heart.

But at the DR show I went to the sound levels were set so high that it was impossible to hear any actual lyrics. And Heems, Kool A.D., and Dapwell just seemed to be running around the stage like maniacs--not working at all to win over the crowd or draw in potential new fans. DR was followed that afternoon by a Black Thought side project (Money Making Jam Boys), and you could instantly see the difference between Das Racist's self-referential, semi-comic "rap in quotation marks" and the serious posture and delivery style of Black Thought and his peers. Black Thought seemed to care about what he was saying and wanted the audience to hear it and understand it; to my eye, that afternoon, Das Racist did not.

Of course, Das Racist has been, from the beginning, as much interested in commenting on rap music and hip hop culture as they have been in actively participating in it. Even the band's name refers to a famous  MTV meme from 2005 (the band was clearly ahead of the curve in naming themselves after a meme that involved a Gif!). Also, their debut track, "Pizza Hut/Taco Bell," was intended as a kind of clowning version of a rap song, and several of the band's songs on "Shut Up, Dude" seemed to "do" rap more referentially than literally. (The most compelling of these efforts is of course, "Fake Patois," which is beautifully explained and decoded via crowdsourced hypertext links at Rapgenius.)

Still, you can only get so far in rap -- a medium that prizes authenticity and the singularity of the voice (even if those values are present more in the breach than in the observance) -- while performing as a kind of postmodernist simulacrum of a rap group. Either you have to start being real and aim to have an actual career in the music industry, or the joke has to end.

I don't want to suggest that Das Racist didn't write some really amazing lyrics. On their recordings they seem to take their task quite seriously, writing witty and even, sometimes, brilliant verses.

Good vibes PMA
Yeah, believe that
Listening to Three Stacks, reading Gaya spivak
Listening to KMD and feeling weird about Naipaul
Fly or Style Warz, war-style Warsaw
Listening to jams with they pops about dem batty boys
Listening to  Cam while I'm reading Arundhati Roy
Yeah, yeah my pops drove a cab, homes,
Now I drop guap just to bop in the cab home
[Again, see Rapgenius for help decoding some of the obscure references here]

Seeing the references to Gayatri Spivak, V.S. Naipaul, and Arundhati Roy alongside Andre 3000, Cam'ron, and the notorious homophobia of dancehall reggae all in seven short, witty lines is pretty exhilarating. (Not to mention the element of personal biography: Himanshu's father did briefly drive a taxi when he first came to the U.S.)

In a way I am the perfect listener for this sort of song -- as a postcolonial theory scholar and old school hip hop fan, I'm exactly the kind of person who, in college and then graduate school, might have been culturally multitasking on precisely these terms. At some point, I'm pretty sure I've listened to Illmatic or Enter the Wu-Tang while also trying to figure out Homi Bhabha's frequently baffling Location of Culture or Spivak's even more baffling Critique of Postcolonial Reason (interestingly, both hip hop and postcolonial theory can involve readers & listeners hustling to get to the bottom of deeply obscure references).

Despite the exhilarating moments, in the end I often felt a little let down by Das Racist tracks, mainly because the political self-consciousness and desire for critique seemed to lose out to a broader enthusiasm for easier reference points: the banalities of middle-class American consumer culture, and of course the endless references to weed and booze. The booze in particular often troubles me (I'm agnostic on the weed), especially since so many accounts of Das Racist performances in recent years have described the trio as drunk on stage (Google "Das Racist drunk" to see what I mean). From Das Racist I wanted to hear more songs like "Ek Shaneesh" and "Fake Patois" and fewer that contained verses like this one:

Finna spark an L and have myself a Big Mac Attack
Known to rock the flyest shit and and eat the best pizza
Charge that shit to Mastercard, already owe Visa
Catch me drinking lean in Italy like I was Pisa
We could eat the flyest cage-aged cheese for sheez, ma
Pizza, big macs, mastercard, visa, the leaning tower of Pisa... Oy, vey. Can we go back to talking about Arundhati Roy, Gary Soto, and Junot Diaz again? I was feeling that more.

To his credit, Himanshu has taken an approach on his solo mixtapes that seems a little more serious. There were the amazing Punjabi tracks on Nehru Jackets, for one thing (see especially "Chakklo," track 15).  But even more than that I was impressed by the searing condemnation of police brutality and corruption in "NYC Cops" (see Rap Genius again).

Himanshu's second mixtape, Wild Water Kingdom, wasn't quite as strong as Nehru Jackets overall, though I did think the track "Soup Boys," which samples the viral Indian pop hit, "Why this Kolaveri Di?" and nicely mixes the postmodernist randomness of Das Racist with elements of protest and critique (drone warfare, Islamaphobia, Hinduphobia... lyrics at Rapgenius).  

"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.

* * *

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.

* * *
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.

Five Types of Hybridity: Steve Yao in Wasafiri

A little while ago I did a long post on the concept of 'hybridity', hoping to provide a resource useful for people who teach on this topic the classroom (along the lines of my earlier "Introduction to Edward Said & Orientalism"). My intention was to simplify a complex concept in postcolonial theory for a general readership, but I don't think I entirely succeeded -- since the essay I wrote raised three new problems for each conceptual problem it addressed.

Cultural hybridity is simply quite difficult to define, in part because it's a metaphor from biology, and we have to remember that metaphors can fit literary or cultural artifacts well or poorly. Hybridity can also be hard to pin down in part because it's become so widespread (if one takes a look at contemporary American popular music, for example, it's hard to find very much that isn't in some way hybridizing hip hop culture with the conventions of mainstream pop.).

One essay I came across recently, "Towards a Taxonomy of Hybridity" by Steve Yao (Wasafiri, 2003), seems to suggest that it might actually be helpful to embrace, rather than shy away from, the biologism in the idea of hybridity. I cannot post the whole essay for copyright reasons, and unfortunately it is not online as far as I can tell (if readers would like a copy, send me an email and I will send it to you). Here is how Yao sets up his "taxonomy" of hybridity:

Closer consideration of'hybridity's' biologistic foundations can help to delineate a more refined critical 'taxonomy'. As Robert J C Young has usefully pointed out, the English word 'hybrid' stems from the Latin term hybrida, meaning 'the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar', or more generally according to another source, an 'animal whose parents belong to different varieties or to different species'.' Hence the word also meant a 'person whose parents belong to different ethnic groups, probably of non Indo-European origin'. Going back even further, a commonly held etymology relates the term 'hybrid' to the Greek word hubris, or the quality of overweening pride most closely associated with the heroes of classical tragedy. More specifically, hubris implies a going beyond one's proper station, as in presuming to the status of a god or committing rape. Based on its historical development, then, the term 'hybridity' carries with it a sense of sexual, and implicitly violent, transgression of 'natural' categories that produces a new entity with a complex and multiply determined lineage. Hence the notion entails a necessarily biologistic conception of (reproductive interaction between categorically separated 'types'. This inherent biologism finds its clearest expression, moreover, in the strictest current botanical sense of'hybridity', which designates the union of genetic material from parents of two different genotypes that results in the simultaneous expression of traits from both within a single organism. Transposing this idea of generative fusion to the domain of culture implies mutually constitutive and reinforcing signification between different cultures and traditions.

[...] I propose a new 'taxonomy' of hybridisation that explicitly acknowledges and builds upon 'hybridity's' biologistic foundations. Differentiating among various techniques for combining cultural traditions and/or linguistic systems, this taxonomy includes the following categories: 'cross-fertilisation', 'mimicry', 'grafting', 'transplantation', and 'mutation'.'

In subsequent pages, Yao goes on to show that Marilyn Chen's polyglot poetry (she inserts Chinese characters in her English-language poems, and plays on complex etymologies of Mandarin words in English verses) might be seen as "cross-fertilization": "At this moment in the lyric the Chinese language shapes the poetic articulation of English, thereby constituting an instance of productive cultural interaction."

[Examples of Marilyn Chen's poetry -- though without any Mandarin characters -- can be found here.]

Another example of "cross-fertilization" that comes to mind might be Agha Shahid Ali's attempt to encourage the use of the Ghazal form in English, which I talked about here.

SALA Conference Program 2009

For the past few years I've been posting the program of the annual South Asian Literary Association conference here. I won't be at the conference this year, but there are some really interesting features on the program, so I thought I would post the program all the same. People who are in Philadelphia on 12/26 and 12/27 might want to stop by.

As a hint, the events not to miss are at the end -- the plenary with Wendy Doniger and Rupa Viswanath on 12/27, and the special commemorative session on Meenakshi Mukherjee with Gayatri Spivak and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan that follows.

The Sacred and the Secular in South Asian Literature and Culture

Tenth Annual South Asian Literary Association (SALA) Conference Program
December 26-27, 2009
Radisson Plaza—Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia
1701 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

Saturday, December 26

4:00-5:15: Session 1

1A. Sikhism and Religious Signification and Demarcation

Gina Singh, California State University-Long Beach, “Sikh Women: Markers of Insurgency”

Sharanpal Ruprai, York University, “The Top Knot: Sikh Women Weaving Gender into the Turban”

Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University, “Marking History, Tracing Diasporic Sikh Subnationalism and Subjectivity in Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”

1B. Religion and the South Asian Novel

Bina Gogineni, Columbia University, “God and the Novel in India”

Roger McNamara, Loyola University Chicago, “Secular Narratives and Parsi Identity in Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters”

Prasad Bidaye, University of Toronto, “Thus Spake the Brahmin: The Rhetoric of Caste in Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope”

1C. South Asian Protest Discourse

Namrata Mitra, Purdue University, “The Limits of the Secular: Riots and State Violence in Contemporary India”

Simran Chadha, Dyal Singh College, Delhi University, “Of Virgins, Martyrs, and Suicide Bombers”

Amber Fatima Riaz, University of Western Ontario, “The Blasphemy of Protest: Challenging Religiosity and the Zenana in Tehmina Durrani’s Blasphemy”

1D. Enchantments in Theory

Bed Giri, Dartmouth College, “Modernity Re-enchanted? On Postcolonial Modernity”

Ashmita Khasnabish, Boston University, “Reason versus Spirituality: Sri Aurobindao, Amartya Sen, and Mira Nair”

Mary Jo Caruso, St. John’s University, "Building a Community of India: Rabindranath Tagore and the Fusing of the Sacred and the Secular”

5:30-6:45: Session 2

2A. V. S. Naipaul: Diasporic and Transnational Contexts

Jayshree Singh, Bhupal Nobles Girls’ P. G. College, Udaipur, India, “The Context and Construction of Religion and Art vs. Reality: A Critical Study of Selected Travel Writing of V. S. Naipaul”

Bidhan Roy, California State University-Los Angeles, “Encountering Islam: Muslims, Travel Narrative and Globalization in V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief”

Abdollah Zahiri, Seneca College, “A Contrapuntal Reading of Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization: The Bhakti Movement”

2B. Religion, War, Terror, and Violence: The Effects of Trauma on the South Asian Child

Krista Paquin, University of the Fraser Valley, “Children of the Divide: Physical and Psychological Trauma on Children in Cracking India and ‘Pali’”

Mark Balmforth, University of Washington-Seattle, “Struggling to Abide by Sri Lanka: An Attempt to Engage in Responsible International Youth Activism”

Summer Pervez, University of the Fraser Valley, “The Absence of Childhood: Narratives of Kashmir”

2C. Sri Lanka and Gendered Spaces

Nalin Jayasena, Miami University, “Gendered Geopolitics in the Sri Lankan Armed Conflict: Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Mani Ratnam’s A Peck on the Cheek”

Arch Mayfield, Wayland Baptist University, “Cultural Challenges in Sri Lanka: The Gonnoruwa Anicut Project”

Maryse Jayasuriya, University of Texas at El Paso, “Women Writing Religious Difference in Contemporary Sri Lanka”

2D. Diaspora and Postcolonial Writing

Sukanya Gupta, Louisiana State University, “In Search of ‘Destiny’: Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami”

Jaspal K. Singh, Northern Michigan University. “Trauma of Exile and the Muslim Indian Diaspora in South Africa: Dual Ontology in Ahmed Essop’s Fiction”

Sohrab Homi Fracis, Independent, “From Darkness into Light: Zoroastrian Mythology and Secular Awakening in My A Man of the World”

Sunday, December 27

8:45-10:00: Session 3

3A. Partition Narratives

Shumona Dasgupta, St. Cloud State University, “Constructing Community: Negotiating Violence and National Identity in Partition Texts”

Prabhjot Parmar, University of Western Ontario, “Bridging the Communal Divide: Manoj Punj’s Shaheed-e-Mohabbat, Boota Singh”

Amrita Ghosh, Drew University, “Towards Alternative Imaginaries: Subversive Border Crossings in Qurrantulain Hyder’s Sita Betrayed”

3B. Anatomies of Postcolonial Theory

Maya Sharma, Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College/CUNY, “The White Tiger as an Anatomy of Postcoloniality”

Waseem Anwar, Forman Christian College University, “Theorizing the Pakistani Post-Postcolonial Real: Ambivalent, Emerging, Amorphous, or Even Beyond!”

Moumin Quazi, Tarleton State University, “A Post-Structural Study of Binary Oppositions in Vikram Seth’s Two Lives”

3C. Songs and the Subaltern

Ira Raja, La Trobe University/University of Delhi, “Living to Tell: Mirabai and the Challenge of Categories”

Sheshalatha Reddy, University of Mary Washington, “‘In brotherhood of diverse creeds’: Hyderabad/India in the ‘speech and song and struggle’ of Sarojini Naidu

Aparajita De, University of Maryland, “The Caged Bird Sings: The Politics of Subaltern Agency in Pinjar”

3D. Arundhati Roy and the Secular

Rajiv Menon, The George Washington University, “’Whose God’s Own Country?’: Caste and Politics in Guruvayur and Roy’s The God’s of Small Things”

Navneet Kumar, University of Calgary, “Humanism, Secularism, and Universalism: Edward Said and Arundhati Roy”

Nicole Tabor, Moravian College, “Secular International Fantasy and Sacred Kathakali in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”

10:15-11:45: Session 4

4A. Sacred or Secular? History and Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Fiction

Madhuparna Mitra, University of North Texas, “History as Trope: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Narrative Habits”

Farha Shariff, University of Alberta, Canada, “Negotiating Cultural Identities: Second-Generation South Asian Identities and Contemporary Postcolonial Text”

Christine Vogt-William, Emory University, “Reflections on the Sancrosanctity of Names and Naming in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake”

4B. The South Asian Secular Citizen Body

Sukanya Banerjee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Bureaucratic Modernity, Moderate Nationalism, and the Secular Citizen Body”

Sami Ullah Band, Kashmir, India, “Whether the Secularism in Kashmir Has Stood the Test of Time”

Indrani Mitra, Mount St. Mary’s University, “Gendered Spaces, Minority Identities and Secular Formations: A Muslim Woman’s Voice”

Suhaan Mehta, The Ohio State University, “Other Stories: Aesthetics and Ideology in Kashmir Pending”

4C. Religion and Class/Caste

Chinnaiah Jangam, Wagner College, “Sanitizing the Sacred Space: Hinduization of Dalit Identity in Telegu Country, 1900-1935”

Smita Jha, Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, “Crisis of Indian Secularism: A Study of Untouchable, Waiting for the Mahatma, and Train to Pakistan”

George J. Filip, Arcadia University, “What’s in a Name? Hinduism, Christianity, and the Evolution of Dalit Identity”

Deepika Bahri, Emory University, “The Sign of the Cross: Colonialism, Christianity, and Class in South Asian Literature and Film”

4D. Constructions of South Asian Political Identities

Nivedita Majumdar, City University of New York, “Reclaiming the Secular: An Engagement with the Politics of Religious Identity in India”

Chandrima Chakraborty, McMaster University, “Masculine Asceticisms and the Indian Nation”
Nyla Ali Khan, University of Nebraska-Kearney, “Forces of Regionalism and Communalism in South Asia”
Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, “Pandita Ramabai’s Encounter with American Orientalism”

1-2:15: Session 5

5A. Spiritual and Material Imagery in South Asian Poetry

Cynthia A. Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, “Divine Migrations: Religious and Spiritual Imagery in Meena Alexander’s Poetry”

Mahwash Shoaib, Independent, “‘The grief of broken flesh’”: The Dialectic of Desire and Death in Agha Shahid Ali’s Lyrics”

5B. Bollywood and the Representation of Religion

Monia Acciari, University of Manchester, “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: Worshipping the Star”
Karen Remedios, Southern Connecticut State University, “The Depiction of Christians in Indian Cinema: A Study of Essentialism”
Jogamaya Bayer, Independent, “Jodhaa: A Myth or a Fantasy of an Emperor?”

5C. Salman Rushdie and Postcolonial Epistemological Anxiety

Melissa Lam, Chinese University of Hong Kong, “Religious Autonomy and Midnight’s Children”

Umme Al-wazedi, Augustana College, “The Rise of Fundamentalism and the Negotiations of the Islamic Laws in South Asia: (Political) Shari’a, Fatwa, and the Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie Affair”

Pennie Ticen, Virginia Military Institute, “Skeptical Belief and Faithful Questioning: The Satanic Verses 20 Years Later”

2:30-3:30: “A Conversation with Meena Alexander,” winner of the SALA 2009 Distinguished Achievement Award, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York, Teacher in the MFA program at Hunter College and the Ph.D. Program at the Graduate Center, moderated by Cynthia Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, and Lopamudra Basu, University of Wisconsin-Stout, with Parvinder Mehta, The University of Toledo, with an award presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

3:45-4:45: Plenary Keynote Roundtable Discussion: “India: Religion, Politics, and Culture,” with Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago Divinity School; also in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College; and Rupa Viswanath, University of Pennsylvania, with a presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

5:30-6:30: Commemorative Panel: “Remembering Meenakshi Mukherjee: The Teacher and the Scholar,” led by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University, with Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, New York University, Amritjit Singh, Ohio University, and Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, with introductions by Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University

Fall Teaching: "Global English" and "Converts and Rebels"

This post is partly inspired by Tim Burke's recent post, asking why more web-oriented academics don't post drafts of their syllabi on their blogs or websites.

I'm teaching two undergraduate-oriented classes this fall. One is called "Global English," and it's a senior "capstone" course, while the other is a more general, upper-level course called "Converts and Rebels: Debating Religion in Modern British Literature."

1. "Converts and Rebels" (English 395)

Here is the course description for "Converts and Rebels":

Though the modern period was generally a time when religious institutions were in decline, several major British writers from the early twentieth century had intense religious conversion experiences, leaving an impact on the literature of the period as a whole. These conversions, many of which involved Roman Catholicism, were seen as controversial by mainstream English society. Analogously, and just as importantly, several important writers found themselves falling out of religious faith in dramatic fashion, suggesting that the period as a whole was one of intense religious ferment. Is it possible to view religious conversion as a "subversive" activity? How might religious conversion relate to the aesthetics and ideological premises of literary modernism, which is so central to our understanding of this period? Writers whose work and lives will be explored in this course include T.S. Eliot (poems), James Joyce ("Portrait of the Artist"), Oscar Wilde ("Salome"), John Henry Newman ("Loss and Gain"), Salman Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses"), W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh ("Brideshead Revisited"), Graham Greene ("End of the Affair"), and Iris Murdoch ("The Bell").

In this course, I'll be building on ideas related to my first book ("Literary Secularism"), and using James Wood's "Broken Estate" as a conceptual jumping off point.

In terms of period, I decided to start with a little material based in the Victorian period. Though he's not talked about very much outside of Catholic circles, it seems to me like John Henry Newman is a key figure -- someone who had influence on quite a number of writers who converted to Catholicism, or thought about it.

I have been debating whether to bring in people who converted out of minority faith traditions to Christianity. Benjamin Disraeli seems like an obvious figure to consider, though in his case he never appeared to be especially passionate in his Anglicanism. As far as I know, he never directly addressed his personal experience of conversion, though some of his novels are clearly about figures who might be described as "crypto-Jews" (I'm using the term along lines described by Michael Ragussis). I'll also be using Ellis Hanson's "Decadence and Catholicism" to help triangulate some of the interesting questions about sexuality and religious conversion (especially Catholic conversion) circulating in the fin de siecle.

I decided against assigning C.S. Lewis for this course, though I may use a few short passages from "Surprised by Joy," and I will certainly mention his conversion experience as an important one. I haven't found his non-fiction writing related to his conversion interesting enough to have something to say about it in a classroom.

I was strongly tempted to assign The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, but decided against it at the last minute. If I do a version of this course again, I might do both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Golden Compass -- thinking of the latter as a kind of refutation of the former.

This is a new course for me. Though I know a fair amount twentieth-century writers like Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, and Iris Murdoch, Victorian figures like Newman are a bit of a stretch. I'm open to suggestions for biographical and critical sources that might be relevant -- as well as primary texts or authors readers would recommend for a course like this.

2. "Global English" (English 290/Senior Seminar)

Here is the course description for this course:

The English language has traveled, and found a home in many parts of the world that were formerly colonized by Great Britain, especially Ireland, Scotland, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. With the rise of English as a literary language in those areas has come a new slate of anxieties and questions. Some writers have noted the uncomfortable fact that English seems to be tied to the history of colonial domination; it is the 'master's' language, and should be rejected. Others (like Joyce) have expressed their discomfort with English, but have nevertheless written in English with affection. It need not be an either/or proposition, and this course will aim to explore the global embrace, not without its anxieties, of English as a literary language. Along the way, a few critical terms and concepts related to linguistics will be introduced (i.e., slang, dialect, creole, patois, acrolect, and basolect, to name just a few). Authors will include a mix of short and long works by James Joyce, Arundhati Roy ("God of Small Things"), Irvine Welsh ("Trainspotting"), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("Purple Hibiscus"), Amitav Ghosh ("Sea of Poppies"), Brian Friel ("Translations"), G.V. Desani ("All About H. Hatterr"), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, J.M. Synge ("Playboy of the Western World"), and Ken Saro-Wiwa ("Sozaboy").

The reading list could be much longer than it is; indeed, one could easily have a whole semester's worth of material just based on language questions in any of the particular national literatures that will be at issue here -- including Ireland, Anglophone West Africa, the Caribbean, and India, respectively. I decided to make the approach of the course comparative because the overlap between different national experiences of "Englishness" seems like it might be interesting to a broad group of students. I was also tempted by Junot Diaz's "Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," though in the end bringing in the Dominican diasporic experience seemed to a bit too far afield. (Again, perhaps next time.)

We'll be using scholarship by David Crystal ("English as a Global Language"), and also Dohra Ahmed's anthology, "Rotten English." I would be grateful for any suggestions on criticism or theory here as well.

Fareed Zakaria's Latest: "The Post-American World"

Though I've often disagreed with Fareed Zakaria on specific policy questions, I've always been challenged and interested by his way of thinking about big issues. I found Zakaria's earlier book The Future of Freedom stimulating, if imperfect. Zakaria seems to be especially good at synthesizing complex issues under the umbrella of a signature "big idea," without choking off qualifications or complexities. He still may a little too close to the buzzword-philia of Thomas Friedman for some readers, but in my view Zakaria's book-length arguments are a cut above Friedman's "gee whiz" bromides. (Zakaria's weekly Newsweek columns do not always rise to this bar.)

Zakaria's latest big concept is The Post-American World, a just-released book whose argument he summarizes in a substantial essay in this week's Newsweek. The basic idea is, the world is becoming a place where the U.S. is not a solo superpower, but rather a complex competitive environment with multiple sites of power and influence. Even as China and India ("Chindia"?) rise, it's not clear that the U.S. or Europe will fall; rather, everyone can, potentially, rise together -- or at least, compete together. Zakaria argues that despite hysterical anxieties figured in the mass media regarding the threat of terrorism and economic crisis, the world has rarely been more peaceful -- and that relative peace and stability has created the opportunity for the unprecedented emergence of independent and rapidly expanding market economies in formerly impoverished "Chindia."

There's more to it (read the article), but perhaps that is enough summary for now. There are a couple of passages I thought particularly interesting, which I might put out for discussion. First, on India:

During the 1980s, when I would visit India—where I grew up—most Indians were fascinated by the United States. Their interest, I have to confess, was not in the important power players in Washington or the great intellectuals in Cambridge.

People would often ask me about … Donald Trump. He was the very symbol of the United States—brassy, rich, and modern. He symbolized the feeling that if you wanted to find the biggest and largest anything, you had to look to America. Today, outside of entertainment figures, there is no comparable interest in American personalities. If you wonder why, read India's newspapers or watch its television. There are dozens of Indian businessmen who are now wealthier than the Donald. Indians are obsessed by their own vulgar real estate billionaires. And that newfound interest in their own story is being replicated across much of the world. (link)

This last insight seems dead-on to me, and it's the kind of thing I think Zakaria appreciates precisely because he was raised in India (no matter how many times he says "we" when talking about American foreign policy, he still carries that with him). This is one of the spaces where Zakaria's status as an "Indian-American" is a real asset, as it gives him a simultaneous insider-outsider "double consciousness" -- he has the ability to see things from the American/European point of view, but also know (remembers?) how the man on the street in Bombay or Shanghai is likely to see the world. [Note: I did an earlier post on Zakaria's complex perspective here]

(As a side note -- for the academics in the house, isn't the narrative Zakaria is promoting in the passage above a "pop" version of what postcolonial theorists have been talking about for years -- what Ngugi called "The Decolonization of the Mind"?)

Secondly, another passage, which I think addresses what might be the biggest hindrance to the multi-nodal global society Zakaria is interested in:

The rise of China and India is really just the most obvious manifestation of a rising world. In dozens of big countries, one can see the same set of forces at work—a growing economy, a resurgent society, a vibrant culture, and a rising sense of national pride. That pride can morph into something uglier. For me, this was vividly illustrated a few years ago when I was chatting with a young Chinese executive in an Internet café in Shanghai. He wore Western clothes, spoke fluent English, and was immersed in global pop culture. He was a product of globalization and spoke its language of bridge building and cosmopolitan values. At least, he did so until we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and even the United States. (We did not discuss Tibet, but I'm sure had we done so, I could have added it to this list.) His responses were filled with passion, bellicosity, and intolerance. I felt as if I were in Germany in 1910, speaking to a young German professional, who would have been equally modern and yet also a staunch nationalist.

As economic fortunes rise, so inevitably does nationalism. Imagine that your country has been poor and marginal for centuries. Finally, things turn around and it becomes a symbol of economic progress and success. You would be proud, and anxious that your people win recognition and respect throughout the world. (link)

Will resurgent nationalism turn out to be the biggest hindrance to the "smooth" globalization Zakaria is talking about? How might this play out? Will there be a new generation of wars, or will it be expressed in subtler ways (like, for instance, what happened with the nuclear deal within the Indian political system). In the Newsweek article at least, Zakaria doesn't really explore the downside of emergent (insurgent?) Chindian nationalisms in depth; perhaps he explores that further in the book.

A Little on "Rotten English"

I've had Dora Ahmad's anthology, Rotten English on the shelf for some months, but didn't get around to reading the introduction and sampling some of the stories and poems it contains until now. The introduction is in fact posted in its entirety at Amitava Kumar's "Politics & Culture" online journal here. Also, a brief review of the anthology, by Mandakini Dubey, is here.

The introduction is quite strong -- it's a helpful foray into the issues one has to contend with when thinking about "vernacular literatures" from around the post-colonial world. Ahmad brings together everything from Macaulay's "Minute on Education" to the responses by postcolonial writers like Chinua Achebe, who were at first somewhat ambivalent about writing in English (though Achebe more than adequately defended the idea of African fiction in English in his essay "The African Writer and the English Language," also included in this volume).

Ahmad also makes the intriguing choice to include African-American vernacular writers (Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes) as well as writing by Scottish (Robert Burns, Irvine Welsh) and Irish (Roddy Doyle) vernacular writers in the anthology. The great advantage of this is the way it suggests that "Rotten English" is not necessarily a new movement, per se, or strictly limited to "postcolonial" concerns. But such inclusiveness also raises a question of historical relevance: what does it really mean to link a poet like Robert Burns to, say, Louise Bennett?

[UPDATED in DECEMBER 2009: In fact, the historical circumstances that lead Bennett to emphatically proclaim her affinity for Jamaican patois ("Dah language weh yuh proud o’,/Weh yu honour and respeck,” but, at the same time, the truth is “Dat it it spring from dialect!”) are actually similar, even across a significant historical divide, to the aesthetic and political framework that produced Burns.

In fact, one could very well use this anthology while focusing specifically on the strictly "postcolonial" authors -- Oonya Kempadoo, Derek Walcott, and Louise Bennett. Or it could be used with a broader historical lens. Some of the passionate feelings about language experienced felt by today's postcolonial writers were also alive for Irish writers 100 years ago, and for Scottish writers like Burns more than 200 years ago!]


I've been very interested to learn about some of the authors I was previously unfamiliar with in Ahmad's anthology, like the Northern Irish writer Frances Molloy, or the Papaua New Guinean John Kasaipwalova.

Rereading the excerpt of Gautam Malkani's Londonstani Ahmad has included reminded me just why I disliked that novel -- I can't really sympathize with, or even be very interested in, Malkani's Brit-Punjabi thugs. But I'm also not really convinced by the particular vernacular spoken by Malkani's characters; they seem to be trying too hard. One of the worst moments for me is this paragraph:

All a this shit was just academic a course. Firstly, Hardjit's thesis, though it was what Mr Ashwood's call internally coherent, failed to recognize the universality a the word Nigga compared with the word Paki. De-poncified, this means many Hindus an Sikhs'd spit blood if they ever got linked to any thing to do with Pakistan. Indians are just too racist to use the word Paki.

Here, as elsewhere in his novel, Malkani is pursuing some interesting lines of thought regarding problems of self-naming within the Desi diaspora. But it's simply not realistic that Malkani's characters would work through these questions in a vernacular idiom; I would rather expect them to code-switch between academic (sociological) terms in standard English, and their Punjabi and Jamaican patois-inflected street language, when lusting after Nike Air Force Ones and beating up "goras" who use the word "Paki."

Much better than Malkani is Rohinton Mistry, whose "The Ghost of Firozsha Baag" is one of my favorite short stories from Mistry's earlier work:

All the fault is of old bai who died ten years ago. She was in charge till her son brought a wife, the new bai of the house. Old bai took English words and made them from Parsi words. Easy chair was igeechur, French beans was ferach beech and Jacqueline became Jaakaylee. Later I found out that all old Parsis did this, it was like they made their own private language.

So then new bai called me Jaakaylee also, and children do the same. I don't care about it now. If someone asks my name I say Jaakaylee. And I talk Parsi-Gujarati all the time instead of Konkani, even with other ayah.s Sometimes also little bits of English.


While I'm being critical, I might also point readers to Evelyn Ch'ien's "Weird English" (also at "Politics & Culture"), which runs along the same lines as her recent book of the same title. I may have my issues with the rather broad scope of "Rotten English," but at least it has a very strong historical and intellectual justification in Ken Saro-Wiwa's novel (Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English). By contrast, calling the same body of writing (with some variations) "Weird English" doesn't do much for me -- largely because I don't like the word "weird." "Rotten English" can work as a subversive rallying cry for accented and vernacular speakers of English all over the world (though I think "Global English" is more denotatively accurate, if blander). "Weird English," by contrast, really doesn't have the same purchase.

Coolies -- How Britain Re-Invented Slavery

On, the BBC has itself posted a complete one-hour documentary, exposing the 19th-century British practice of Indentured Labour, through which more than 1 million Indian workers were transported all over the world -- only to be told there was no provision to return. They were effectively only slightly better off than the African slave laborers they were brought in to replace. The latter had been emancipated in 1833, when the British government decided to end slavery and the slave trade throughout the Empire.

The documentary is brought to you by... who else? The BBC!

Some of the speakers include Brij Lal, an Indo-Fijian who now teaches in Australia, and David Dabydeen, an Indo-Guyanan novelist who now teaches in Warwick, UK. I've watched about 25 minutes of it so far, and it seems to be pretty well designed -- some historical overview, but not too much. Most of the focus is on the descendents of Indian indentured laborers, who are now trying to work out the implications of their history.

Incidentally, it looks like this video can be downloaded for free to your PC -- in case you're going to be sitting in a train or an airport for an hour sometime this weekend, and wanted a little "light" entertainment. (You will also need to download Google's Video Player application.)

History Lessons: From the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) to Iraq (Today)

I'm sorry I've been a slack blogger of late -- I was finishing up another article for a journal, this time on blogging, anonymity, and the changing concept of "authorship." It would be a shame to neglect this blog just as I'm starting to write professionally about blogging!


At any rate, here's one recommendation: last week's Radio Open Source conversation with William Dalrymple. Many of the points Dalrymple makes will be familiar to people who have been following the reviews of his new book, The Last Mughal. (I blogged about it here)

What is new in this conversation is the attempt to make a direct parallel between the changing behavior of the British in the months and years leading up to the Mutiny, and the attitude of today's neo-conservative Hawks on the policy of "regime change" and "spreading democracy" around the Middle East.

The show was inspired by Ram Manikkalingam's excellent review of the book (along with Imperial Life in the Emerald City) up at 3 Quarks Daily.

Manan Ahmed, ("Sepoy" of Chapati Mystery -- highly appropriate to this topic) also makes an appearance in the last 20 minutes, talking about the work postcolonial historians have been trying to do to bring forward the kinds of stories Dalrymple's book focuses on.

The entire show is available for downloading as an MP3; if you are into downloading podcasts, this might be a good one. Otherwise, if you have 40 minutes, you might just want to listen to it right on the web.

Wizard of the Crow @ LBC

Ngugi's new novel, Wizard of the Crow, is the winter selection at the Lit Blog Co-op, and they have an interview with Ngugi up.

But even better is the post with a chronological list of quotes from Ngugi regarding the status of art in postcolonial Africa. The best one is probably the quote from 2003, where Ngugi talks about the evolution of his own name:

I wrote Weep Not, Child; A River Between; and A Grain of Wheat and published the three novels under the name James Ngugi. James is the name which I acquired when I was baptized into Christianity in primary school, but later I came to reject the name because I Saw it as part of the colonial naming system when Africans were taken as slaves to America and were given the names of the plantation owners. Say, when a slave was bought by Smith, that slave was renamed Smith. This meant that they were the property of Smith or Brown and the same thing was later transferred to the colony. It meant that if an African was baptized, as evidence of his new self or the new identity he was given an English name. Not just a biblical, but a biblical and English name. It was a symbolical replacing of one identity with another. So the person who was once Ngugi is now James Ngugi, the one who was once owned by his people is now owned by the English, the one who was owned by an African naming system is now owned by an English naming system. So when I realized that, I began to reject the name James and to reconnect myself to my African name which was given at birth, and that's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, meaning Ngugi, son of Thiong'o.

I knew that he had been baptized early in his life, but for some reason I was unaware that his first three novels were published under the name, "James Ngugi."

Postcolonial Journals

(This post is mainly for the academics in the audience)

Following is a short list of "Postcolonial" oriented journals. Now that my book is out, I'm planning to focus on writing some articles, which means, to begin with, getting a better sense of what's actually out there.

There is a useful feature in the MLA Bibliography search, where you can search by "Periodical Subject." If you search for "postcolonial," 34 journals show up, and I've been exploring them. (I don't know why I never tried this before; one of my colleagues showed me how). On the individual entries for the journals, MLA actually gives very specific information as to how long articles should be, what the turn-around rate is, and what the submission/acceptance ratio is.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing

Hybridity: Journal of Cultures, Texts, and Identities does not seem to have a website. It is published in Singapore.

Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies. I published a review with them some time ago.

New Literatures Review is published in Australia.

Textual Practice is not a specifically postcolonial journal, though it does list "postcolonial" as one of its keywords.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature

Ariel: A Review of International Literature; it is published in Calgary. This is one of the preeminent postcolonial journals; they are highly selective.

Wasafiri. I've published an essay with them; they are good (also preeminent, if I can say so myself).

Kunapipi. Another Australian poco journal.

Postcolonial Text. It's online-only, but it is peer-reviewed.

Postcolonial Studies.

Jouvert is defunct -- I'm curious to know what happened there.

South Asian Review. I'm editing a special issue for them this year; I'm also on the Advisory Board.

* * *
Paul Brians has a list that includes a few other journals on his site at Washington State University.

And there's another list here.

Can anyone think of other journals they would recommend?

Secondly, do readers have experiences with these journals they would like to share? (feel free to comment anonymously, if you prefer)

In the Washington Post: Vikram Chandra, and a little from me

I'm quoted in an article in this past Monday's Washington Post, on Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games:

The seminal event of Chandra's 45 years, by contrast, has been the transformation, beginning in the early 1990s, of India's sleepy socialist economy into a dynamic engine of internationalization and growth.

"We're living through this precarious time when great changes are happening," Chandra says. The India he grew up in felt like "a little bubble at a far distance from the rest of the world." But in the India his 7-year-old nephew has inherited, "the West as a presence is completely available every day -- and his expectations of his place in the world are very changed."

This new India is a place where the middle class is growing in size and confidence. It's also a place, as Chandra points out, where there's still "this huge mass of people who have nothing" but who can now see what they lack.

And it's a place, according to Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh, where "the stories people want to tell" aren't so much about colonialism anymore.

Singh teaches courses with titles such as "Post-Colonial Literature in English," using texts from regions as diverse as Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He notes that Chandra's first novel was replete with colonial themes, but he sees "Sacred Games" as something quite different.

"I would use the phrase 'novel of globalization,' " Singh says. In "Sacred Games," he points out, the English language Chandra's upwardly mobile gangster struggles to learn is associated less with India's former colonizers than with the broader international economy that dictates its use.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a globalized Indian literature has sparked a backlash. Indian authors writing in English, especially those living overseas, have been charged by some critics with distorting Indian reality to cater to Western audiences. Chandra took some hits on this front himself, even before "Sacred Games," and was irritated enough to lash back in a Boston Review essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity."

His advice to any writer similarly attacked: "Do what it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you."

An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies

REQUEST: If you were assigned this post on Edward Said's "Orientalism" as part of a course, or if you're a teacher who is assigning the below, I would greatly appreciate it if you would leave a comment stating which class and which school below. Or, email me at amardeep [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

It's been about a year since Edward Said passed away.

Recently, there was a panel at Lehigh to talk about his legacy, specifically in the spheres of his contribution to literary studies, the representation of Islam, as well as his political advocacy. I was on the panel to talk about literary studies, especially his books Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993).

Preparing a presentation gave me an opportunity to look at some Said essays on literature I hadn't ever read (see for instance this at LRB; or this at Al-Ahram). I was also particularly impressed by the Said resources at There are dozens and dozens of essays by Said linked there, as well as a great many "tribute" essays written by critics all around the world, immediately after his passing. I highly recommend it.

An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies
(For a very general audience; notes for a presentation given at Lehigh University on 9/23/04)

Basic Bio: "Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 and was for many years America’s foremost spokesman for the Palestinian cause. His writings have been translated into 26 languages, including his most influential book, Orientalism (1978), an examination of the way the West perceives the Islamic world. Much of his writing beyond literary and cultural criticism is inspired by his passionate advocacy of the Palestinian cause, including The Question of Palestine, (1979), Covering Islam (1981), After the Last Sky (1986) and Blaming the Victims (1988). . . . He went to a New England boarding school, undergraduate years at Princeton and graduate study at Harvard." (from the Columbia University website)

Edward Said's signature contribution to academic life is the book Orientalism. It has been influential in about half a dozen established disciplines, especially literary studies (English, comparative literature), history, anthropology, sociology, area studies (especially middle east studies), and comparative religion. However, as big as Orientalism was to academia, Said’s thoughts on literature and art continued to evolve over time, and were encapsulated in Culture and Imperialism (1993), a book which appeared nearly 15 years after Orientalism (1978). Put highly reductively, the development of his thought can be understood as follows: Said’s early work began with a gesture of refusal and rejection, and ended with a kind of ambivalent acceptance. If Orientalism questioned a pattern of misrepresentation of the non-western world, Culture and Imperialism explored with a less confrontational tone the complex and ongoing relationships between east and west, colonizer and colonized, white and black, and metropolitan and colonial societies.

Said directly challenged what Euro-American scholars traditionally referred to as "Orientalism." Orientalism is an entrenched structure of thought, a pattern of making certain generalizations about the part of the world known as the 'East'. As Said puts it:

“Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, "us") and the strange (the Orient, the East, "them").”

Just to be clear, Said didn't invent the term 'Orientalism'; it was a term used especially by middle east specialists, Arabists, as well as many who studied both East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The vastness alone of the part of the world that European and American scholars thought of as the "East" should, one imagines, have caused some one to think twice. But for the most part, that self-criticism didn’t happen, and Said argues that the failure there –- the blind spot of orientalist thinking –- is a structural one.

The stereotypes assigned to Oriental cultures and "Orientals" as individuals are pretty specific: Orientals are despotic and clannish. They are despotic when placed in positions of power, and sly and obsequious when in subservient positions. Orientals, so the stereotype goes, are impossible to trust. They are capable of sophisticated abstractions, but not of concrete, practical organization or rigorous, detail-oriented analysis. Their men are sexually incontinent, while their women are locked up behind bars. Orientals are, by definition, strange. The best summary of the Orientalist mindset would probably be: “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” (Rudyard Kipling).

In his book, Said asks: but where is this sly, devious, despotic, mystical Oriental? Has anyone ever met anyone who meets this description in all particulars? In fact, this idea of the Oriental is a particular kind of myth produced by European thought, especially in and after the 18th century. In some sense his book Orientalism aims to dismantle this myth, but more than that Said's goal is to identify Orientalism as a discourse.

From Myth to Discourse. The oriental is a myth or a stereotype, but Said shows that the myth had, over the course of two centuries of European thought, come to be thought of as a kind of systematic knowledge about the East. Because the myth masqueraded as fact, the results of studies into eastern cultures and literature were often self-fulfilling. It was accepted as a common fact that Asians, Arabs, and Indians were mystical religious devotees incapable of rigorous rationality. It is unsurprising, therefore that so many early European studies into, for instance, Persian poetry, discovered nothing more or less than the terms of their inquiry were able to allow: mystical religious devotion and an absence of rationality.

Political Dominance. Said showed that the myth of the Oriental was possible because of European political dominance of the Middle East and Asia. In this aspect of his thought he was strongly influenced by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. The influence from Foucault is wide-ranging and thorough, but it is perhaps most pronounced when Said argues that Orientalism is a full-fledged discourse, not just a simple idea, and when he suggests that all knowledge is produced in situations of unequal relations of power. In short, a person who dominates another is the only one in a position to write a book about it, to establish it, to define it. It’s not a particular moral failing that the stereotypical failing defined as Orientalism emerged in western thinking, and not somewhere else.

Post-colonial Criticism
Orientalism was a book about a particular pattern in western thought. It was not, in and of itself, an evaluation of the importance of that thought. It was written before the peak of the academic ‘culture wars’, when key words like relativism, pluralism, and multiculturalism would be the order of the day. Said has often been lumped in with relativists and pluralists, but in fact he doesn’t belong there.

In his later literary and cultural work, especially in Culture and Imperialism Said generally avoided the language of confrontation. Where others have angrily rejected the literary heritage of the Western Canon, Said, has instead embraced it, albeit ambivalently. Where others denounced Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling as racist dead white men, Said wrote careful reappraisals of their works, focusing on their representations of India and Africa respectively. Said did not apologize for, for instance, Joseph Conrad’s image of the Congo as an essentially corrupting place inhabited by ruthless cannibals. But Said did acknowledge Conrad’s gift for style, and explored its implications: Conrad was sophisticated enough to sense that he did indeed have a blind spot. Conrad recognized that the idea of imperialism was an illusion, built entirely on a very fragile mythic rhetoric. You see some of this in the famous quote from Heart of Darkness:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . ."

The lines are spoken by the sailor Marlowe, who was in effect an observer-participant to the scene of Kurtz’s fatal breakdown in the upper Congo. He is a veteran, of the colonial system, and this is the first place where his views become apparent. Like many others in his trade, Marlowe was in fact ambivalent about what was, in effect, his job. He knows the violence of it and the potential evil of it, but he still tries to justify it through recourse to the "idea at the back of it." But even more puzzling: that "idea at the back of it" is not an idea of reason, or human rights, or technology (or the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction). The idea is something to "bow down before, offer a sacrifice to..." The desire to conquer the earth, in short, is as irrational a desire as any.

Said refers to this passage a few times in his essays. One such response is as follows, where Said sketches an account of the political conditions that made imperialism possible in England and France, as well as general readings of several works of literature. I quote at length because this is a perfect example of Said’s ability to blend political/historical analysis with literary criticism:

But there's more than that to imperialism. There was a commitment to imperialism over and above profit, a commitment in constant circulation and recirculation which on the one hand allowed decent men and women from England or France, from London or Paris, to accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples should be subjugated and, on the other hand, replenished metropolitan energies so that these decent people could think of the empire as a protracted, almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior or less advanced peoples. We mustn't forget, and this is a very important aspect of my topic, that there was very little domestic resistance inside Britain and France. There was a kind of tremendous unanimity on the question of having an empire. There was very little domestic resistance to imperial expansion during the nineteenth century, although these empires were very frequently established and maintained under adverse and even disadvantageous conditions. Not only were immense hardships in the African wilds or wastes, the "dark continent," as it was called in the latter part of the nineteenth century, endured by the white colonizers, but there was always the tremendously risky physical disparity between a small number of Europeans at a very great distance from home and a much larger number of natives on their home territory. In India, for instance, by the 1930s, a mere 4,000 British civil servants, assisted by 60,000 soldiers and 90,000 civilians, had billeted themselves upon a country of 300,000,000 people. The will, self-confidence, even arrogance necessary to maintain such a state of affairs could only be guessed at. But as one can see in the texts of novels like Forster's Passage to India or Kipling's Kim, these attitudes are at least as significant as the number of people in the army or civil service or the millions of pounds that England derived from India.

For the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire, as Joseph Conrad so powerfully seems to have realized in Heart of Darkness. He says that the difference between us in the modern period, the modern imperialists, and the Romans is that the Romans were there just for the loot. They were just stealing. But we go there with an idea. He was thinking, obviously, of the idea, for instance in Africa, of the French and the Belgians that when you go to these continents you're not just robbing the people of their ivory and slaves and so on. You are improving them in some way. I'm really quite serious. The idea, for example, of the French empire was that France had a "mission civilisatrice," that it was there to civilize the natives. It was a very powerful idea. Obviously, not so many of the natives believed it, but the French believed that that was what they were doing.

The idea of having an empire is very important, and that is the central feature that I am interested in. All kinds of preparations are made for this idea within a culture and then, in turn and in time, imperialism acquires a kind of coherence, a set of experiences and a presence of ruler and ruled alike within the culture. (see

A final point, about postcolonial studies. The development of Said’s ideas about literature and art paralleled those of the field of post-colonial criticism as a whole. It began in anger – Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Malcolm X. And it has ended up in a rather different place, embraced in the very academic settings that once might have laughed at the very notion of a canonical body of, say, African Literature.

Post-colonial criticism, which began under the combative spiritual aegis of [Frantz] Fanon and [Aime] Césaire, went further than either of them in showing the existence of what in Culture and Imperialism I called 'overlapping territories' and 'intertwined histories'. Many of us who grew up in the colonial era were struck by the fact that even though a hard and fast line separated colonizer from colonized in matters of rule and authority (a native could never aspire to the condition of the white man), the experiences of ruler and ruled were not so easily disentangled. (from the London Review of Books:

That means that nativism cannot be an effective answer to western hegemony (later he gets more specific: "Afrocentrism is as flawed as Eurocentrism"). There’s no simple way to achieve decolonization, just as (in the more limited context of the United States), there’s no simple way for anyone to disentangle him or herself from the effects of racism.

But it also means that, in many respects, colonialism is still with us. It was through the colonial system that most of the national borders in Africa and Asia were drawn up, in many cases arbitrarily. But more than that are the effects of colonial language, the colonial state bureaucracy, and especially colonial attitudes to things like economic development.