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Postcolonialisms Ethical (Re)Turn: An Interview with Simon Gikandi

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Simon Gikandi is a Professor of English at Princeton University. His books include Reading the African Novel (1987), Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction (1991), Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature (1992), Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism (1996), and Ngugi wa Thiongo (2001). In this interview, Dr. Gikandi speaks about the idea of the postcolonial paradigm, the relationship between postcolonialism and globalization, the work of literature and the literary critic, and decolonization as an ongoing ethical project.


DJ
: In Maps of Englishness (1996) you describe postcolonialism as a code for the state of undecidability in which the culture of colonialism continues to resonate in what was supposed to be its negation. Postcoloniality, you write, is thus the term for a state of transition and cultural instability. How has your understanding of postcolonialism, perhaps, changed since then, or how do you conceive of postcoloniality now?


SG: When I made those definitions, or distinctions, I was trying to differentiate postcolonialism from what used to be called neo-colonialism, because I wanted to argue that postcoloniality was not just the continuation of colonial structures of power, economics, relationships that had been defined in the 70s by people doing work in neo-colonialism.

I wanted to argue that postcolonialism represents both a change and a lack of change. The lack of change was the fact that the institutions of colonial rule and power, of course, had been inherited by the postcolonial elite and continued to define what the postcolonial landscape was, but at the same time I wanted to call attention to certain important changes which had taken place - changes especially on the level of cultural expression. Because I had noted that even the people who were most involved in perpetuating colonial structures would be offended by the suggestion that their project was a colonial project. So I wanted to think a little about how questions of culture, of even feelings - what Raymond Williams calls structures of feeling - become important sites of change and transformation. So I was interested in that tension, and the fact that on one level there were very obvious continuous colonial structures but on another level there was a kind of change in peoples epistemological attitudes and so on. I called it a site of transition, in fact, because I wanted to see that play between the continuation of colonial structures and the transformation of structures of feeling as something that would lead to something else - that inevitably there would be a resolution.


In terms of where my thinking has changed: it has changed in a number of ways. The most obvious of course is that postcolonialism or a postcolonial paradigm has become quite dominant within institutions of interpretation, so that no longer can it be seen as a tentative attempt to understand a condition in transition. In North American and European institutions there is something now called postcolonial. Im not exactly sure that thats the kind of postcolonial phenomena most of us were thinking about ten years ago. In that sense, the institutions of interpretation have appropriated postcolonialism as a code word for something else. What that something else is we can talk about. But quite often, in having conversations with outsiders to postcolonial studies, you do have a sense that postcolonialism has become a mark of difference, whether its another word for the Third World or the Commonwealth, its still now a descriptive figure of the other in ways which we were trying to challenge ten or fifteen years ago.

DJ: How does this fit with the emergence of global literary studies or globalization? What is the utility of a term like postcolonialism or the idea of a field of postcolonial studies? If it isnt what you had thought or hoped it would be, how does it fit within these discourses of globalization? Are the issues that you conceived as being central to postcolonialism being marginalized further, or is this a space in which these issues can actually be dealt with?

SG: I would say that terms such as globalization are inevitably going to lead us to possibilities, but also some problems. The possibility, which is quite important, is that one of the things that has happened in maybe the last fifteen or twenty years in really powerful ways, and it kind of surprises me, is the emergence, at a cultural level, of something one could call a global cultural phenomenon, especially in terms of the traffic in cultural objects, whether it is music or cinema. When I travel in Africa, the shock these days is how a certain kind of idiom has been appropriated or borrowed, and occasionally transformed. Rap music, for example, hip hop: youll find it in the major urban centres in Africa. So in that sense you could say that the young people in Africa are involved in the same modes of cultural production and consumption as the young people in the West.
Having said that, that possibility is one which brings us back to the terms of cultural exchange: its Stuart Hall, I think, who defined postmodernism at one point as the Americanization of the world; this Americanization of the world continues to take place under the cover of globalization. So the question is to what extent is what we are calling a global culture actually the infiltration of western cultural institutions into these other spaces, or postcolonial spaces? And that is an important question, because almost without exception if you ask cultural producers in Africa what are the consequences of globalization, they will tell you that what globalization has also done is marginalize their own cultural production. Television stations, like other institutions of cultural production, now find it much cheaper to buy, lets say, television programming from abroad, and they can do so because sometimes, in fact, they are subsidiaries of the same companies in America or Britain producing these programmes. So it is not unusual to see soap operas from America dominate programming in Africa. So, cultural producers feel marginalized in that sense.
The other aspect of globalization that is a mixed blessing is, of course, that in many cases globalization has created a space where postcolonial experiences can circulate and move in interesting ways. I am intrigued by the success of Vassanji, for example, whose novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003), is set in Kenya in the 1950s during the Mau Mau conflict in the same terrain as Ngugis novels. Now, what makes this an interesting phenomenon? The fact is, this book has been a bestseller in the United States precisely because its produced by a Canadian novelist, a migrant novelist, a member of the Asian diaspora in Canada, and seems to fit into a certain global idea of fiction. In that sense, globalization enables it to have a force, a resonance that it wouldnt have, if, let's say, it had been produced in Africa. So, globalization creates all of these opportunities for novelists and writers; but at the same time, of course, again the more complex issue revolves around the terms of that globalization. Some people could argue, including myself, that in order for these fictions to become global, they have had to be involved in a fascinating and sometimes disturbing act of cultural translation because their audiences are no longer located in their sites of referent. Let me put it this way: there is a split between the object of representation, and the people who read it. Vassanjis works are set in East Africa but his readers are North American, and in that sense it would be interesting to ask what kinds of transactions have taken place so that these African fictions can succeed in a global scene. So the global scene, and globalization in general, are transforming the terms of cultural contact, but also transforming the forms of fiction, in this case.
So it opens up possibilities, but it also forecloses other possibilities, and one of the things that seems to me to be foreclosed, very powerfully, is a kind of specific, historical engagement with culture, because that kind of historical engagement with a culture in a place that appears to be alien and far away doesnt engage us the same way when it is globalized. Globalization, in that sense, becomes a form of allegorization.

DJ: That brings up some important issues about the role of literature, and the way in which postcolonialism, in a way, has been a literary project. In much of your work, you have analyzed the place of English education and literature in the colonial project and the idea of decolonization. In particular you identify the conflict between social science research and literary criticism and theory. At the university where I did my PhD, the introductory course in postcolonialism has been changed from postcolonial literature to postcolonial cultural studies. How do you see the role of literature and literary criticism in postcolonialism? This question comes, in part, in response to what you have been talking about, but also in response to Spivaks Death of a Discipline (2003), in which she writes about how literature may give us entry into the performativity of cultures as instantiated in narrative and the way in which the literary critic stands as reader with imagination ready for the effort of othering. I want to explore this idea that literature needs to be able to be consumed in the West, and Spivaks contention that it is the role of the critic to read the other, to read difference through literary expression.

SG
: I think there is a tension between those two ways of understanding the work that literature does. What kind of literature produced in, or about, the postcolonial space seems to be most successful? To answer that question you just need a list of the most successful novelists. Coetzee, for example, has won every literary award you can imagine. Why is it that certain postcolonial literature should appeal to the Booker prize committee? The simplistic answer is, of course, this is the kind of literature that has been able to allegorize those experiences and to turn them into experiences which we, as Western readers, can identify with, and the question then is what is lost in that act of transaction and translation. In that sense, literature could appear to be the process by which those other experiences are transformed into things that are not threatening to us. Hence, the act of reading becomes the act of consumption.
The second part of it, and I think this is where Spivak is coming from, is really not so much about the literature itself but how it is taught and read, hence, the role of the critic. I think Spivak might argue that the role of the critic is to make literature the medium of problematization. It problematizes experiences which might appear to us to be easily accessible and consumable. So, instead of us teaching these texts in analogical terms where we say their experiences of genocide are like our experiences of something else, our task might be to see how the text becomes a site of resisting those kinds of readings. I think both positions - the analogical and the resistant - are plausible; however, my suspicion is that what we do depends not so much on the choices we make but the institutions in which we function. Hence I have tended to emphasize the emergence of literature or English as an institutional practice and to see that institutional practice as tied quite closely not only to colonial power in the past, but also to, perhaps, what one may call the way the First World relates to the Second World, the North relates to the South; because, whether we like it or not, literature is one of the most powerful media by which those other places or localities become accessible to us. Now cynics might say that literature makes other experiences accessible to us in ways that other disciplines dont, partly because of its emphasis on the imagination, and so on; in other words literature is not tied to certain historical specificities, and hence makes that place we name postcolonial something familiar.
In terms of the relationship between literature and social science, my anxieties have come from two directions. One is the discovery that quite often postcolonial literatures thrive most institutionally in the social sciences where they are cited often as evidence of particular places, and I have expressed some strong reservations about the use of literature as evidence. I dont think it is enough to say that all you need to do to understand the history of apartheid in South Africa is to read apartheid novels. I think apartheid novels are engaged with that experience but they are not that experience. So in that sense I would argue that when we use literature as evidence, we have to be aware of its limitations and see writers as just native informants coming from different perspectives. The reason why postcolonial literature appeals to social scientists, perhaps, is because it is easier to access than having to engage with more complicated documentary evidence. Its much easier to talk about those experiences as they are represented in fiction, in a way. So, in that sense I am concerned about the use of literature, not so much with the reading of novels; social scientists should read novels, they are part of that evidence, but just part of it.
Indeed, one of the points I have been arguing in more recent work is the ways in which literature as an imaginary experience sometimes provides postcolonial subjects with models for organizing their own lives. If you look at the idiom of politics in Africa, youd be astounded to discover how often it relies on fictional constructs. One of the most popular idioms in Africa, when it comes to the national redistribution of resources, is the division of the national cake, which is a phrase often used by Chinua Achebe in A Man of the People (1966). So, we have cases quite often where literature has not only enlarged experiences, but also provided a language for mediating them. In that sense, literature is important. But at the same time, it is just one of many things happening in Africa. And sometimes also Im worried that we over-privilege literature, because I think it is fair to say that it is not the dominant mode of cultural production in those places. It just happens to be a mode that is privileged because of where we are institutionally.
This leads me to the part of your question that deals with cultural studies. Your former department has shifted from literary to cultural studies. It would be interesting to find out why thats the case and one way of thinking about it is to reflect about the continuous tension between cultural studies and English. In Britain and the United States, people have retreated into literature as a way of escaping from what they thought cultural studies was. Cultural studies was seen as the site in which literature was being politicized and, if thats the case, for institutions that are interested in the political work of literature, then I think it makes sense to focus on cultural studies. Also it is appropriate to focus on cultural studies because, as I said earlier, it is the reality, especially in relation to postcolonial studies and experiences; literature is just one of many media in which culture is produced. Theres music and popular culture and television, and they are all important, and in some cases I would say quite important. So naming it cultural studies is a way of opening it up to all these other works of art.
But having said that, there is a caveat. I do get worried that the notion of cultural studies has come to be seen in a very specific and limited way. I have noticed that one of the differences between the way cultural studies has been consumed and constructed in North America and Britain is this: in North America, if you go to a book store, the cultural studies section will tend to emphasize the media, and media studies, and sometimes popular culture and exclude, in this case, literary studies. Literature is in its different section. In Britain, I was astounded to discover that in bookstores cultural studies is race studies. In both cases I have reservations, because if you limit cultural studies to race - where cultural studies emerges as a way of questioning constructions of race and class, etc. - then thats limiting. But, by the same token, if you limit cultural studies to the study of popular cultural forms, you are at the same time, perhaps unwittingly, sustaining that old division between high and low culture. So cultural studies becomes the study of low culture, which is concerned with certain marginal experiences; whereas there are other fields like English, or literature, and philosophy and art which deal with higher forms. And since my concern is how to overcome these boundaries, I do worry about that.

DJ: Its interesting that social scientists have been drawn towards literary texts, as evidence, while at the same time literary theorists or literary critics - especially those doing postcolonialism - are more and more moving away from literature. Of course, many people within English departments see that as a problem; the emphasis upon postcolonial theory, and the approach to literature comparatively with film or other forms of cultural production, seems to muddy disciplinary boundaries - specifically, we are losing our understanding of what literature is supposed to do.

SG: I think the first thing we need to interrogate carefully and seriously is the notion of what we think literature is supposed to do. One of the things that the study of the culture of colonialism, and especially, the emergence of the study of literature both in Britain and in the colonial world - one of the major contributions that kind of study can make, and has made - is to show us the work literature did in relation to the institutions of colonial rule. So, thats very important because it will go a long way to demystifying the idea of literature as autonomous, as pure, as doing a kind of humanistic work, which other genres or modes contaminate. I think there is a powerful mythology of literature circulating in the institution, but its a fairly recent phenomenon, because if you look at how literature emerges and the work it does, quite often it was a work that was part of a larger political project. In that sense, literature did emerge sometimes in relation to other disciplines, and sometimes counter to those disciplines. So, the most convincing case to be made for interdisciplinarity, or at least a bringing together of different disciplines, is to recognize the different work the disciplines do, within specific political historical moments.
In colonial culture, in Britain itself, and I suspect even in the United States or in Canada, disciplines have occupied a certain position and were asked to do certain kinds of work. Its not, hence, unusual to see that in different countries different disciplines are privileged in different ways. For example, philosophy in France, sociology in post-war Germany, history in Britain, and English too: these were usually projects which were connected to what one may call, for lack of a better term, a national project. In Britain, continuously there is an obsession not with English but with history and heritage and Britishness, and English, as you know, only became a powerful project in relation to colonialism, because it was seen as part of the program of educating that small elite who were going to be produced as, you know, English men and women who were not quite English. So English studies has a power in the colonies that it doesnt have in Britain, where history and heritage, all the way from the 19th century to Thatcherism, occupied a special position. So my tendency is not to see the literary as this site that is pure, but as part of a larger political project that emerges at a very specific moment.
Now, what I would not want to do is to concede the literary to those who want to use it to retreat from questions of culture. In fact, my feeling at the moment is that the more people want to fall back on the literary, in order to retain a space of autonomy, the more the literary needs to be drawn back to its conditions of possibility. Its not a simple question of politicizing literature which is the way it was seen at one point, but its a question of accepting the fact that literature has a certain kind of power, and that power depends on its connections to peoples lives and experiences. Now, whether those lives and experiences are political or moral or aesthetic, that is okay. But, its again - and this is where Edward Saids work was so important - its that idea of literature in the world; thats where it functions, thats where it was important, and thats where it continues to be important. Now, if we want to retreat to an idea of the literary in order to maintain our distinctiveness from other fields, I think thats okay, because we are trained in the literary field, and I dont want to dismiss disciplinary specializations because they are important. Even when we agree on the terms of a discourse, the first thing we are going to notice is that the way we have been trained does determine the way we go about our business. And thats important. But Im saying, at the same time, that literature functions, takes place in the world and we have to accept that world, or that notion of the world, as a larger category, and not one limited to the text. Texts are connected to other movements in life.

DJ: In Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality (South Atlantic Quarterly 100:3), you identify a disjuncture - that is, I think, particularly prevalent in postcolonial studies, and is indeed a source of great debate about the nature and politics of the field - a disjuncture between the material and identity, or the cultural. For instance, in your treatment of a letter written by two Guinean boys, who died trying to stow away on an airplane to Europe, you identify the way in which the boys hope - their desire to enter into, or share the benefits of, modernity - is inconsistent with postcolonial deconstructions of post-enlightenment thought and postcolonialisms preoccupations with hybridity and difference, with culture and identity. These boys are looking for material change or gains, and its not about identity, in that way, for them. Can you elaborate on this? What are your feelings on this supposed material/cultural divide?

SG: You are absolutely right to recognize that divide, perhaps one of the major points of contention in the field. Its something Ive thought about quite often. And I have often struggled with this question, because what I have been trying to claim is that its not a simple divide between the materiality of culture and a certain textuality in culture - that the only divisions we see are divisions in terms of where the preferences of individual critics are, or theorists are. In reality, what we see quite clearly in the emergence of the moment of postcoloniality is that it is a continuous engagement with both. The texts which we call postcolonial are texts which reflect in their thematic and linguistic interests the materiality of the conditions in which they emerge. What I have resisted is the tendency to privilege one and say it is more important than the other. We have many instances to date - and I can cite African examples here because I am most familiar with them - there are many instances where the collapse of material life, the infrastructure of modernity, has not necessarily - irrespective of what the newspapers say - impoverished life or culture. Indeed we have work coming out at the moment trying to pose this important question: why is it that some of the most dynamic examples of cultural production come from what we are now defining as the collapsed states? The best example is the Congo, which is the heartland of African musical production. The place has not had a state now for at least a decade. Its a basket case by all accounts. And yet that has not stopped the production of culture, and peoples ability to use culture as an infrastructure that enables them to survive, whether in material or spiritual ways. So, in that sense, I dont think one wants to argue that the materiality of experience is more important than the cultural aspects, because sometimes the absence of one demands the production of the other.
Now, having said that, I dont want to seem to be arguing that the global and the postcolonial is primarily a cultural phenomenon. Because the example I used of the boys from Guinea showed the ways in which their desire and their interests were at odds with what we, the analysts, were claiming. We the analysts were claiming that in those places like Guinea, and elsewhere, there were cultural forms that were emerging which were important, and by focusing on these cultural forms, and especially the forms borrowed from elsewhere and transformed, or Africanized in this case, that that was perhaps the essence of postcolonial culture. And we were assuming, then, that what we call postcolonial culture emerged as part of a larger critique of modernity. Yet, every day, we come across groups of refugees from these places, who are engaged in what can be defined as a project of modernity. In essence, they are moving away from these places to go to other places, precisely because they associate the West, as a site where their own modernization, which has failed elsewhere, can perhaps be sustained. The language they adopt, when you speak to them, is quite often the language of modernity itself. So, in that sense, they are people who would appear to be making claims which are at odds with the claims of the intellectuals. So, the distinction I was trying to make was a distinction between the work of the analyst, or the central claims of the analyst, and the lived experiences of the global, because of course, as we all know, globalization is not that neat, nice, redemptive movement from one airport to another a global soul. Thats not the way it is. The reality of globalization is a very painful one, of refugees dying on boats, and ships, and planes, and I was trying to figure out how we connect these experiences, because I am excited by the possibility of the global soul. It enchants. But no sooner has one written about it than one is reminded of the terrible experiences of these migrants. So, I wanted to call attention to the disjuncture in order to open up a space where we can talk about the possibility of thinking about these movements at the same time.
I do not want to collapse these movements. Cultural experiences, material experiences, sometimes need to be sustained at distinct levels because they are doing different work. But we cannot privilege one and not the other. In theories of globalization, there is a very interesting disjuncture between, quite often, the sociological model, which is talking about these very specific movements, and the cultural model, which is looking at the literary texts that celebrate globalization, and [we] forget sometimes that the texts emerge as an imaginary attempt to engage with this world which is idealistic and utopian. So, on one hand we have the dystopic narrative of the refugees, and on the other hand we have the utopian narrative of the elites, the global elite. And Im saying both movements are important, but they cannot be collapsed; the disjuncture, in other words, needs to be sustained. Whether we can sustain the disjuncture and talk about them both at the same time, of course, is a different issue.

DJ: One of the things that comes up, then, is that if you come back to the idea of global identities, or celebrating this globalism, or global soul as you put it - one of the concerns about global literary studies is its emphasis upon, as you just described, the celebration of globalization, the stories of those who have sort of benefited, and often those who are situated in the West, or North. You have referred to the vanishing of the Third World, in a sense, and particularly the absence of African literature and theory in the dominant postmodern varieties of postcolonialism. As a result, other literary texts, other ideas of social change, particularly from Africa, are not being recognized. Can you speak to this?

SG: There are two parts to it. One has to do with the production of literature or culture for primarily Western audiences. That has tremendous implications because it means that the needs and desires of Western audiences, mediated by postcolonial critics or theorists of globalization, become dominant. I think that the evidence shows that the works that are most successful, as I said earlier, are those works that are able to cater to the sentiments and needs of that global audience, because it is this global audience that buys books. So if you dont write for them, if you are a novelist for example, you are not going to do well. So, there is a continuous attempt by novelists themselves - in fact African novelists I know - to try and see how their projects can fit into this global scene of novelistic production. Quite obviously, young novelists in Africa feel that they cannot succeed unless they move to the West and there start producing novels for a Western audience, and evidence shows that that is when they succeed.
The flip side to that story is that the reason why it is a concern now, more than it was in the 1960s or the 1970s, is that there are no longer real alternative spaces for the production of literatures, especially because of the collapse of the cultural infrastructure. Once upon a time there was a thriving industry in book production in Africa, and it was responsible for the publication of those works of literature which Western publishing houses didnt want to touch. And some of these works became very successful and were picked up by Western audiences. There was an African readership that could afford to buy books, so there was a kind of a materiality, a kind of economy involved in that process. The complaints I hear quite often from young writers in Africa these days when I travel is that even when they are producing works for local audiences, they are not recognized until somehow these works can connect with an international authorizing agency. In Kenya, at the moment, there is a lot of bitter debate taking place about the state of literature, because a lot of people are arguing that no new literature is being produced, and young novelists are saying that they produce literature all the time, its just that we dont want to acknowledge it. There is a lot of unhappiness among East African writers who argue that when international institutions show some interest in African literature the people they cite are those who have crossed over and have been recognized by the award-granting institutions. It doesnt matter if you write the best fiction ever produced if it is not acknowledged by the legitimizing institutions. So, the institutions that authorize literature have also shifted and that to me is the real tragedy. That which is being produced sometimes in very difficult circumstances doesnt enter the debate. And thats what I was thinking about when I talked about the vanishing of the Third World itself as a phenomenon, because the reality is that even the canonical texts of the Third World are not thriving within the paradigm of postcolonialism.
So, the question which I was asking, which I want to ask again, is what is it about this paradigm that seems to exclude certain traditions of literature or to be uncomfortable with that literature and prefer another kind of literature that is self-consciously written with that paradigm in mind? Its a very important question because the great postcolonial writers from Africa seem to have been reduced to those who have won international prizes. And yet these writers, Ben Okri for example, belong to a distinctive tradition and draw very strongly from their precursors. You cannot understand Ben Okris work seriously if you have not read Achebe and Soyinka. The question, then, is why is Ben Okri postcolonial, and Chinua Achebe is not postcolonial, in a certain sense? So the paradigm, in that sense, needs to be self-conscious of its own limitations.
Im not saying it is just a question of the way the paradigm has come to be appropriated by the institution. I think that many of the problems we have been discussing are inherent in the paradigm of the postcolonial itself. It was a paradigm that emerged with a powerful goal - to distance itself from a certain set of categories, history and historicism, humanism, nationalism, which, of course, were the key to the production of that earlier literature. So if postcoloniality is at odds with the ethical project of decolonization, then what do you do with those novels that were generated by the desire for that ethical project? I know some people say that postcolonialism, as a paradigm, worked fine until the institutions took it over, but thats absolutely not true. The reason why the institutions took it over is because it worked. And it worked because inherent in the work it was doing in the 1980s were structural, phenomenological, epistemological problems, which made it inevitable that it would not be able to engage with the moment of decolonization but it could mediate experiences of migration and diaspora.

DJ: That ethical project is where I wanted to end this interview. In the work of Achebe, and certainly the work of Fanon, there is the idea that the project of decolonization was an ethical project that went beyond the establishment of the nation-state or pushing the colonists out. In concluding your essay, Theory, Literature, and Moral Considerations (Research in African Literatures 32:4), you state that it is imperative for us to rethink the usefulness of categories such as community, being, and morality. How does this concern relate to the recurring desire in anti-colonial and postcolonial thought for a new humanism of varying forms? So here I am thinking of Fanon, but also Edward Said, and more recently these articulations of a sort of planetarity, for instance, in one way by Paul Gilroy, and in another way by Spivak.

SG: My sense is that all of these people you have cited are trying to go back to that project, that ethical project. And the difficulty they are having is the difficulty of naming that project without being seen to be espousing a kind of western humanistic project. I think thats where the problem is; on the one hand, you want to argue that colonialism emerged out of a Western humanistic project. So in that sense humanism was as much a problem as its categories. At the same time, however, the project of decolonization was very powerfully a humanistic project. Postcolonial theorists of one shade or another are no longer sure how to re-engage with that humanist project, partly because the imperative for the postcolonial paradigm has been an anti-humanistic project. Postcolonialism emerges as a powerful critique of humanism not only in a general European enlightenment sense but even more narrowly, in English, as a critique of Leavis, English, and criticism, which saw itself as this myopic humanistic project in which the human was not human, it was English. So in that sense, if you look at the earliest essays written by the major postcolonial theorists you can see why they wanted to distance their project from humanism.
The dilemma, however, was that whichever way you looked at it, decolonization was an ethical project, and so how can you define it as an ethical project using a paradigm which premises itself on anti-humanism? So I suspect what is happening now, and its going to be quite interesting, is both a return and a beginning, to see two things. One is to see the project of decolonization as not necessarily a narrow project imprisoned by nation and nationalism, because the reason why it has been easy to negate decolonization is because it has been equated as nation, as the end result, and hence to argue that given the consequences of nationalism, decolonization doesnt have any efficacy. If you see decolonization as that search for a new humanism, driven by powerful ethical concerns about the status of the human, and the status of culture, and the status of moral well-being, then perhaps we need to go back to that moment and see how that ethical project could somehow politically and ethically be sustained and indeed, be debated. Because to negate decolonization is to be caught between two unacceptable positions or economies. One is to be caught in the economy of colonialism; hence my complaint that postcolonial theory is eloquent when it comes to postcolonialism, but doesnt know what to do with the consequences of that. Or, to be caught, of course, in the equally complicated and perhaps failed discourse of nation and nationalism. So because I dont want to make a choice between colonialism and nation, because I dont want to see one as a reflection of the other, Ive been calling attention to that middle space, and thats what Im calling, perhaps for lack of a better word, decolonization.
Im trying to see decolonization as an ethical project precisely because I want to see it as something outside the very structures which end up leading to nations, nationalism, and all its issues. I want to see that ethical project as not only a project that produces a literature which is important but, quite importantly in Fanons terms, as the project which justified, as it were, the cause of decolonization; in other words why would we want decolonization unless it promises all these limitless possibilities? Just because the possibilities are not there does not mean that they are not important. They still are. And I think that quite often its another way of saying that postcolonial literature has attracted us sometimes because of its concern with a certain rhetoric of failure and crisis, which is experiential, its there; but what is also interesting is the way in which, even in that literature of crisis, there is a kind of attempt to debate, and think, and imagine, the possibility of an alternative, and that alternative is not necessarily global. So, I dont want to see globalization, again, as the end result of this narrative because Ive already, of course, called attention to the problems of globalization. So thats how I would see it.
And I would say one way of engaging with that ethical moment of decolonization is to read these texts of decolonization - both philosophical and literary texts - much more carefully, because once you look at them more carefully, you will discover that the crisis of postcoloniality was very much part of the narrative of decolonization. Here I agree with Chinua Achebe, who says quite carefully that if you look at his early works written before independence, you are going to see that in his fiction he had already foreseen the crisis of decolonization. No Longer at Ease (1961) is about the crisis of postcoloniality on the eve of decolonization. A Man of the People (1966) pre-figured the political crisis in Nigeria so powerfully that Achebe has often been accused of having known of the first Nigerian coup before it happened! If you go back to Wole Soyinka, one of his great plays, A Dance of the Forest (1963), was written to celebrate Nigerian independence, but it was rejected by the organizing committee because it dramatized the crisis of decolonization. The artist is asked to come and create a totem to celebrate independence and basically all he does is resurrect the past; the past is a ghost that haunts, and quite clearly shadows this celebration. So, its an interesting moment.
Finally, I have noticed that there is a kind of ethical turn in postcolonial fiction, and that is not unique in itself. One could say that there has been a kind of ethical turn in fiction in general. The point I like to make all the time is it is not productive for us to see postcolonial spaces as simply objects of analysis; postcolonial spaces need to be recognized as places that theorize the very objects they produce. So instead of working with this separation of labour between the theory, which comes from the West, and the objects of analysis, which are postcolonial, lets also see if those literary texts, themselves, are theorizing these moments Im talking about, these ethical moments and their possibilities and failures.

DJ: To conclude could you say something about your current and recent work, and particularly how you see it as responding to some of these questions and concerns that weve been discussing?

SG: Currently Im involved in two projects: one indirectly concerned with that issue of the relationship between concepts and experiences; and the other one much more directly.
The project Im almost done with at the moment is on slavery and the culture of taste. What Im trying to show is that when people cite the aesthetic of taste as the space where we are going to escape the contamination of terrible histories or experiences, what they are doing is negating the very specific circumstances in which those categories, in this case the aesthetic as an autonomous domain, were produced. The aesthetic as a category and the culture of taste as it circulates in Europe, especially in the 18th century, were very closely connected to slavery; yet, in many ways, their theoretical claims were intended to establish a radical separation between experience and the categories by falling back on a theory of disinterest. My work in the archives has shown quite clearly that the major theoreticians of disinterest were bank-rolled quite often by West Indian planters; West Indian slave money financed the project of taste, to put it in the most radical way one can. So, in that sense, my goal is to get us to see how categories which we think draw their moral authority from a certain kind of autonomy are enmeshed in the very experiences they want to disavow, because they would challenge the moral authority of the categories themselves. So, in a way that project is indirectly rethinking the ethical project.
The second project does that more directly, though its still in its early stages. Its focus is on the novel as a genre of what one may call the ethics of identity. What Im trying to do there are two things. One, is to go back to that question we were dealing with earlier: what work does literature do? I grew up and was educated in a tradition where literary works were asked to do important political work, or ethical work, or moral work, or religious work. I want to go back and rethink what that work was, because in the postcolonial moment in which I emerged books were not read for pleasure. Pleasure was, perhaps, there, but books were seen as performing very important work and those themes in which books perform work are quite evident in almost all African literature at the moment of writing, and the moment of the word, of the scriptural economy, so as to say. So I am interested in how the novel is asked to perform a kind of social mission and to reform social lives, both during colonialism and after.
The second thing Im trying to do is to think about the novel and the work of social reform. Quite often, as I was telling you, I have noticed cases where fiction is asked to act almost like a guidebook: something that people use to mediate or deal with life experiences, especially in moments of crisis. And so I am asking myself, in what ways does that demand that fiction perform a certain kind of work, create a distinctive kind of fiction, both in formal and structural ways? And I am intending for it to be comparative in the sense that I want to look at both British fiction involved in that project of social reform in the 19th century and the literature of decolonization which quite clearly engages with the ethical project we have been talking about, and perhaps also the works of minority writers in North America, perhaps, mostly the United States, where again fiction was asked to engage with these questions of being and selfhood.



The interview was first published in Postcolonial Text, Vol 2, No 1 (2006), ISSN 1705-9100.

http://postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/viewArticle/464/165

Copyright@David Jefferess







 

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