Theory's Empire: postcolonial theory

My post on Theory's Empire is now up at the Valve. It's kind of a draft of something that might turn into something else (publishable in a legit journal? maybe).

I'm responding to four challenges to postcolonial theory, from Erin O'Connor, Meera Nanda, Arif Dirlik, and Priya Joshi. O'Connor and Nanda are criticizing the field from 'outside.' Dirlik started outside the field (and still may consider himself opposed to it on principle, though he is now widely read by 'postcolonialists,' and is even anthologized. And Joshi is definitely within the field, though her book In Another Country challenges several of the big generalizations (or formulas) about books, publishing, and colonialism that are often bandied about in the jargon of postcolonial theory.


ModelMinority said...


Just a real basic observation - probably wrong since I dont follow too much about postcolonialism etc.

It seems to me that you guys are all doing literary criticism, right? But the field full of shoddy political science - trying to "interpret" literature in terms of loose metaphors of power realtions that really belong in the realm of political science/history. Is this the fundamental problem here?

I mean - your essay on Ulysses, thats literary criticism. But Homi Bhabha/Spivak essays - are they about literature at all?

electrostani said...

Model Minority,

That's a good observation. But actually most of literary studies has been preoccuped by questions of power and 'social construction' starting since the late 1980s -- mostly under the influence of Michel Foucault. I don't think literary scholars are wrong (or out of their league) to get into this kind of analysis (my own book manuscript gets into the issue of secularism -- from a non-Foucauldian angle), but I do think it's led to certain problems.

Books like Theory's Empire suggest that the trend is starting to change.

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

So is it generally true that right wingers are anti Gayatri Spivak? Nearly all scientists I know are leftists, and yet have trouble with her variety of literary criticism. Nearly all scientists I know are leftists, and yet they'd probably agree with Erin O Connor on most of her thoughts on Spivak's writings. Everything else in her blog would sound totally alien to most scientists. I wonder where this huge divide is coming from.

I remember discussing women in science with a journalism student. For the longest time I thought we were discussing the problem of there being too few women in science, when she was talking about science being a male enterprise. And then she didn't understand how I couldn't understand what those words even meant.

Anonymous said...

I was particularly struck by your comment about Bhabha and Spivak's style of writing having little "pedagogical usefulness." One line of argument I've heard: there is something to be said about a value-chain of new ideas? That seemingly muddled and incomprehensible thoughts and ideas get worked out over the years - by doctoral students, by academics who will never write so badly but who also find something useful in these works, and eventually, after perhaps a *long* period of time, the idea percolates down to the level of everyday thought and action. I had raised this in another blog (where folks had a good laugh with examples from the bad writing contest!) but never got any response. I'm curious to hear your thoughts given that you deal with this literature on a regular basis and use these materials in coursework.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit concerned about this notion of 'usefulness' regarding Spivak and Bhabha's critical output, because at its core it's based on racist assumptions.

I was speaking to a good friend of Bhabha's the other day, and he raised some very interesting points about the very act of writing criticism.

He told me that there always be people who will be required to write criticism that may not be readily accessible to the general public, since its utility will be geared towards a certain class of intellectuals. Why can't these theorists work within that domain without fear of being called 'elitist'?

Why are Bhabha and Spivak oftentimes derided for not being 'accessible' whilst Derrida and Foucault (particularly, the latter's initial critical writings) whose writings are at times just as abstruse, aren't chastised at all!