Open Essay

A Critical Conspiracy Called Post-Colonialism

Makarand R Paranjape, director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, is the author of the forthcoming book Swami Vivekananda: Hinduism and India’s Road to Modernity
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Haunted by the last spectre

TODAY, MOST OBSERVERS would say that post-colonialism is more dead than alive. Yet, by the very logic of academic canonisation and continuity, it continues to be ‘Wanted’. It enjoyed its heyday for over two decades after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), facilitating many an academic career in the Western academy. But after 9/11, it suffered a gradual decline. One reason is that it failed to call out Islamist terror, violence, and intolerance, even as it continued to question and criticise Western power and hegemony. In the backwaters of empire, we suffered its rise and fall with relatively passive if dutiful glee, neither enjoying its spoils nor suffering from its withdrawal symptoms.

But what is post-colonialism? This is subject of much debate, even occasioning a few famous essays with titles echoing this very question. Let us try a different approach. Let us take a metaphor out of the world of criminal investigation to find out. Let us sketch a sort of composite portrait of post-colonialism. That the portrait has necessarily to be composite is because few people seem to have seen the subject so clearly as to be able to identify it accurately or reliably. To begin tracing our portrait, we need to notice the following features.

1. First of all, the inherent contradiction between the idea of post-colonialism and its practice. In other words, post-colonial studies become academically viable only through a series of exclusions that belie its professed inclusiveness.

2. Remember that post-colonialism has a somewhat tainted genealogy, implicated as it is in the whole project of colonialism. Thus, the ‘post’ may actually be a euphemism for ‘neo’, the attempt, first by the UK and then by the US, to extend at least their language if not territorial imperialism. But imperialisms are economic, cultural and hegemonic, whether territorial, economic, or ‘merely’ linguistic and cultural.

3. Because English Studies programmes all over the world have an almost proprietary interest in post-colonial studies, the latter can never free themselves from the stranglehold of the imperial ‘world language’.

4. This exposes yet another contradiction in the attempt of monolingual, largely monocultural disciplines, trying to deal with multilingual and multicultural cultures and societies.

5. Post-colonialism as a concept is mostly incapable of dealing with the totality of the Indian civilisational experience. Indian literature alone, if taken in its entirety, would overrun and overwhelm the limited spaces that post- colonialism offers to it. What, then, to speak of the full range of Indian history, society, and culture, which would be impossible to accommodate, considering how even the past 200 years show a significant colonial influence already too vast to be mapped adequately?

Post-colonialism, when it actually comes to who gets a seat on the wagon, seems to refer to a much smaller group of literary passengers

6. A new way of theorising post-colonial difference might be civilisational, more enduring than racial, ethnic, gender or class divisions. Post-colonial alterities, therefore, need to take these into account.

7. Post-colonialism is, somehow, trapped in modernity; it has no way of dealing with pre-modern, such as Islamic, forms of imperialism, aggression, and colonialism. No post-colonialist of note has even discussed the Ottoman colonisation of Egypt, though it happened after the Napoleonic invasion. Said himself has been silent on this, though he was born in Cairo.

8. Much of what passes for academics in the Third World is at odds or disjointed from the larger social, cultural or economic enterprise of these societies. This is one reason for the persistence of counter-systemic violence or dissent in various parts of the world. Large populations in our world find themselves disconnected and discontented, even if they are not starving or oppressed. That is why, in countries like India, people’s culture, whether folk or popular, is quite at variance from academic culture. If post- colonial studies hold any meaning or relevance in societies such as ours, then they will have to orient themselves much more sincerely and programmatically to the ongoing project of decolonisation. This, or rather swaraj, more than post-colonialism is what we require.

BEFORE WE CONSIDER how post-colonial difference is theorised, it would be desirable to examine how post-colonial similarity is posited. Ostensibly, this similarity is predicated upon the common experience of colonialism which vast sections of the world share. As Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin declare in the very first sentence of their admirable 1989 book, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature: ‘More than three-quarters of the people living in the world today have had their lives shaped by the experience of colonialism.’

Notwithstanding such exclusions and inclusions, the bandwagon of post-colonialism is still rather overloaded and unwieldy, badly in need of jettisoning unwanted cargo. Despite the bold claim of carrying three-quarters of the globe on its back, which arguably is still a trifle modest and self-limiting, post-colonialism, when it actually comes to who gets a seat on the wagon, seems to refer to a much smaller group of literary passengers. Because its lingua franca is English, countries colonised by other imperial powers such as France, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium, are mostly on the periphery. Also marginal, for even more flimsy reasons, are Black, Chicano, Native American and other small literatures. The bulk of what we are left with are ‘the literatures of African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Caribbean countries, India, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Pacific Island countries, and Sri Lanka’ (Ashcroft et al). This mixed roll-call of continents, regions and nations suggests the motley and uncommon lot we post-colonials share. But when it comes to making sense of this vast and diverse area, English once again comes to our rescue. With its aid, we can banish all literatures which are not available originally in English or in English translation. The rather limited and truncated idea of post-colonialism is what remains, nothing as inclusive as the first grand gesture with which The Empire Writes Back opened.

The Commonwealth was a distinctly British invention. Its purpose was to retain a scaled down hegemony over its former colonies and possessions

The term itself is like a bespoke portmanteau made to order for the Western academy. It caters to the West’s need to study its Others, to accommodate them in some academic framework or the other, so that they are accessible without making too many demands on the West’s time and attention. As such, it is an academic suitcase (recalling a similar metaphor used by Stephen Slemon, who in Ariel 26.1 likens post-colonialism to a ‘suitcase blown open on the baggage belt’), which when opened splits into two neat compartments, one occupied by settler colonies, the other by invaded colonies. Stuffed in between, hybridised creole cultures, such as the Caribbean, half spill out at the ill-fitting joint. The metropolitan mind, with its manic urge to encapsulate, condense and contain other cultures has the satisfaction of believing that it carries ‘three-quarters’ of the world in such a portable holdall.

POST-COLONIALISM, WAS not our creation; though we pretend to interrogate it, there was never really a possibility of rejecting it. Our interrogation, as I have already suggested, was a camouflage for our subordination. If we seek better terms of exchange it is only to improve our share of the spoils of this discursive field. This largely sums up the whole agenda of our academics, a token protest to the metropolitan academy to take us into account rather than ignoring us completely. ‘Listen to us, recognise us, don’t take us for granted, don’t speak on our behalf,’ is all we seem to be saying to them. What this really translates into is a plea to be taken in, or, if that is not possible, a demand not to be ignored. Some will succeed in better positioning themselves in the international academic marketplace of jobs, publishing opportunities, invitations to seminars and conferences; the rest must content themselves with permission to dwell in the suburbs of their pleasure as occasional citations in footnotes or references.

For us, subservience and subjection are underwritten into the very discourse of post-colonialism like genetic codes transmitted through the DNA to each cell; the academic world system, of which post- colonialism is a product, is designed to reproduce inequality even as it proclaims equality as its goal. From such a perspective, the change from Commonwealth to post-colonial does not signify a fundamental difference in power relations between us and them, so much as a shift in power relations within the dominant metropolitan structures. The Commonwealth was a distinctly British invention. Its purpose was to retain a scaled- down hegemony over its former colonies and possessions. Commonwealth literature was only a by-product of such an operation. But when this by-product became lucrative, began to have a worldwide market, there was a further tussle over its control. In this tussle, post-colonial was introduced as the superseding enterprise, like a new multinational corporation taking over an old company.

Post-colonial studies is about who takes control not so much of the English empire as of the empire of the English language

That this is spectre cannot easily be exorcised is amply clear in the very title of The Empire Writes Back, a phrase out of Salman Rushdie. The empire, we had presumed, no longer existed; how and why should it write back? Can, should, it not write for itself if it is truly ‘post’-colonial? The decentring that the discourse of post-colonialism implies is thus belied by the title of its most eloquent exposition. Post-colonialism is, after all, not as anti-colonial as it is appears at first.

Across continents, post-colonialism is the site on which is waged the battle of and for english(es). Post-colonial studies, then, is about who takes control not so much of the English empire as of the empire of the English language. Clearly, this is a very high stakes game; language imperialism is very much a part of the global system of imperialism itself. The Empire Writes Back does not disallow the possibility of non-English literatures entering the discursive terrain of post-coloniality; to openly advocate such exclusion would be politically incorrect: ‘Although [post-colonialism] does not specify that the discourse is to be limited to works in english, it does indicate the rationale of the grouping in a common past and hints at the vision of a more liberated and positive future.’

Yet, there is a peculiar opacity in this sentence. The opening conjunction, ‘although’, suggests that the second part of the sentence will give reasons why, as a matter of practice even if not in theory, only works in English get included in the rubric ‘post-colonial’. However, no such reasons are forthcoming. Instead the second half of the sentence begins with a questionable assumption of ‘a common past’ and slides off into a vague postponement or promise of future redemption. The implication is, not now but some day, non-English literatures will be a part of post-colonial studies. Surely, English, spelt deliberately by the authors in lower case, not to speak of the vastly varied cultural constituents of empire, is an area of difference, not of identity as far as the enterprise of post-colonialism is concerned.

This promise, however, is not likely to be honoured—in a sense, it is impossible to honour. The very logic of international English studies makes it insupportable for works in other languages to be included, except in English translation. There is thus a mismatch between the culture studied and the medium of instruction. It is precisely this clash which renders Indian English literature vulnerable to the charge of inadequacy and partiality on the one hand and makes it imperative to suggest alternate models of bilingual creativity to account for its special features on the other. This is also the reason why Indian English literature ends up occupying most of the space given to Indian literature: in effect, because English is a dominant language, whether the original works are in English or not matters little.

Resistance to oppressive structures of power is required if India is to survive as a civilisation. Post-colonialism often blunts the edge of our urgency

In a later section which specifically examines select Indian theories, the authors of The Empire Writes Back address this issue directly: ‘It is frequently asserted that the work produced by contemporary writers in languages as diverse as Marath[i], Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, etc., far outweighs in quantity and quality the work produced in english. This may well be the case, though until much more extensive translations into english from these languages have been produced it is difficult for non-speakers of these languages to judge.’

But isn’t that precisely the point: if such a claim will be considered ‘true’ only when English critics ‘judge’ its validity, then the plurality and richness of Indian literatures will continue to be reduced to Indian English literature and Indian literature in English translation. Such a reduction is unacceptable not only to those who do not write in English but also to some of Indians who do. However unintended, such stray remarks signal the continuing cultural neo-imperialism of the English language. Wouldn’t it have much more accurate for the authors to admit that post-colonialism as they had defined it cannot adequately address the reality of India’s multilingual creativity? Why are such admissions of inadequacy rarely to be found in texts emerging from metropolitan or semi- metropolitan centres?

The incompatibility between monolingual, metropolitan theories and their multilingual post-colonial contexts is just the tip of the iceberg. To try to contain all of Indian culture in the discourse of post-colonialism would be not only to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room, but to take one’s denial to the point of trying to stuff it into a burlap bag. Even if the elephant were to fit in—and that would only happen if it were a very small elephant and a very large bag—it might suffocate to death. Much more likely, the elephant would burst through the bag.

The cultural richness and variety of India, not to speak of its population and size, are so vast that any notion of post-colonialism is insufficient to come to terms with them. India’s population alone would easily exceed that of the rest of post-colonial world put together. If all the literary production in India’s various recognised, not to mention unrecognised, languages were to be allowed entry into post-colonial discourse, it would resemble an overcrowded barracoon, quite unable to support so many residents. Indian literatures would invade, overrun and overwhelm the rest of post- colonial writing. Prominent post-colonial players like Canada or Australia might be dwarfed by the literature of just one Indian language. If, moreover, we were to take into account the historical depth and continuity of these literatures, it would be obvious that India is probably the richest national-cultural territory in the world, comparable to the entire continent of Europe. Can such a vastly rich and diverse cultural area be tagged on or fitted into some all-purpose carry bag? Without quite sounding the call to Indian exceptionalism, I only wish to underscore our need for independent and in-depth study of our culture and civilisation. Post-colonialism does not offer that to us. Instead, it turns a cultural majority into a minority. Some of us may revel in this diminution, but I hope the majority, if they have really come of age, will object to, and reject, it. Fair enough: but isn’t it time to break free now?

I have argued that post-colonialism as a problematic poses an invitation, if not challenge, to the thoroughly colonised intellectual class which directs India’s academic enterprises. Will this class buy into post-colonialism or opt for swaraj? This class, I am afraid, is almost congenitally incapable of questioning the fundamental rubric of post-colonialism as a received category. Like all elites, this class will, we must assume, continue to supplicate for better terms of exchange, contenting itself with various spaces of subservience and subordination in the world system of ideas. In the meanwhile, India’s civilisational enterprise will chug along, diffusing the brunt of neo-colonialism through apparent capitulation, while asserting its independence and resilience through its select mouthpieces. That these chosen spokespersons will be few is obvious; that they will not be negligible or insignificant is not so clear. Because when push comes to shove, India will line up behind them, magnanimously forgiving the not so petty or pretty betrayals of professional intellectuals as contingent and inconsequential in the long run, however powerful and alarming they might seem momentarily.

The more effective way of dealing with the contemporary cultural world system is not through the idea of post- colonialism, but through swaraj. The process of decolonisation, which did reach a certain peak during India’s struggle for freedom, needs to be renewed and redeployed. Resistance to oppressive structures of power is still required if India is to survive as a civilisation. Post-colonialism, I am afraid, often blunts the edge of our urgency. It drags us back into a discursive field in which we will remain secondary players. We may attempt to redefine, modify, expand or adapt its Orientalist designs, but we will not be free until we demonstrate the capacity of thinking of and for ourselves without recourse to the dominant epistemes of metropolitan academics.

But swaraj, as should be clear by now, is not only academic, but material and spiritual. It is not merely technological and economic, but is also cultural and ideological. On the first two fronts, perhaps we have fared better than on the latter two. The Indian economy has grown at least 5 per cent annually for 25 years. The success of Indian techies, not only overseas, but in India too has also changed our way of thinking irrevocably. This is real decolonisation, not just sloganeering.

(This is an edited version of the chapter ‘Alterities’ in Makarand R Paranjape's book Debating the ‘Post’ Condition in India: Critical Vernaculars, Unauthorised Modernities, Post-colonial Contentions | Routledge, 2018)