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Book review: "The Postcolonial Unconscious", Neil Lazarus.

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Neil Lazarus
The Postcolonial Unconscious
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 310 pp.

One result of the boom in postcolonial studies, Ania Loomba first pointed out in her introduction to Colonialism/Postcolonialism is that "essays by a handful of name-brand critics have become more important than the field itself" [Loomba 1998, 4]. Thirteen years later, her words take on a new relevance in The Postcolonial Unconscious, a recent study by Neil Lazarus. Significantly, Lazarus criticizes a theory dedicated to the world beyond the boundaries of Europe and North America for "mistak[ing] a discrete cultural tendency," or what he describes as pomo-postcolonialist criticism ("pomo" as in "postmodernist"), "for the only game in town" [Lazarus 2011, 34]. For him, it is the task of a postcolonial critic to develop a new approach to postcolonial literature that would account for a number of "alternative traditions" informing the works of writers and thinkers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nayantara Sahgal and Timothy Mo-to contextualize them, to problematize them and to situate them alongside a number of other writers, together with (and not instead of) pomo-postcolonialist writers.

A central assumption of Lazarus's study is that, for historical reasons, postcolonial studies have been "premised on a distinctive and conjuncturally determined set of assumptions, concepts, theories, and methods that have not only not been adequate to their putative object-the ‘postcolonial world'- but have served fairly systematically to mystify it" [Lazarus 2011, 17]. Lazarus sees postcolonialism as grounded, at least in part, in the paradigm-shifting energies of "anti-anti-liberationism," which emerged in relation to the end of the "Bandung era," the period of "Third World" insurgency. With its rationalization of-and pragmatic adaptation to-the general anti-liberationism that expanded its dominance during the 1970s, postcolonial studies nonetheless challenged the dominant assumptions of anti-liberationist discourse and, as such, deserve to be critically examined within these sociopolitical contexts [Lazarus 2011, 9-10]. Meanwhile, contemporary developments like the invasion and occupation of Iraq have "demonstrably rejoined the twenty-first century to a long and as yet unbroken history . . . of capitalist imperialism" [Lazarus 2011, 15]. Ania Loomba et al. recently argued for the need to reassert a "certain historical urgency that may have been leached from postcolonial studies during its period of theoretical refinement and institutional consolidation" [Loomba et al. 2005, 5]. Lazarus sees a similar need for new directions in the postcolonial discussion that test the limits of particular ideas and assumptions predominant in postcolonial studies and open up some of the potential meanings of texts which offer theoretical insights as yet unexplored by postcolonial critics.

The logic of Lazarus's project rests not only on its critique of theoretical categories that have structured the postcolonial field in its dominant discourses but also on its development of other, countervailing categories. In his introduction, Lazarus already seems to have moved away from the critique of postcolonialism's fallacies that informed his previous work and pays more attention to providing a much-needed periodization of postcolonial studies in terms of its investments and theoretical as well as ideological dispositions. This recapitulation of the concerns and methods of postcolonial criticism lays the groundwork for the subsequent discussion of postcolonial literature and allows Lazarus to reference texts that were excluded from the limited body of works typically addressed by postcolonial critics. Building on Raymond Williams's critique of literary modernism in his posthumously published The Politics of Modernism, Lazarus draws attention to a "certain limited optic on the world, a ‘selective tradition,'" which has been proposed as a universal both in postcolonial studies and in modernism according to Williams's reading of it [Lazarus 2011, 32]. Therefore Lazarus proposes a set of interconnected categories under which some themes, optics and situations in postcolonial literature might be organized. He then proceeds to give voice to a number of postcolonial writers and thinkers whose formal innovations and provocative theories would otherwise go unnoticed.

Chapters one and three seem conceived as a unit on the paradoxes of postcolonialism and the way postcolonial critics tend to ask the same questions, use the same methods, mobilize the same concepts and draw the same conclusions with reference to a largely restricted body of works. The chapters examine the gap or rift between postcolonial literature and postcolonial criticism, which Lazarus sees as "telling decisively against the latter, testifying both to its abstraction and to the tenuousness of its grasp of the central realities of life in the ‘postcolonial' world'" [Lazarus 2011, 36]; they consider how postcolonial criticism has tended to ignore what postcolonial literature has essentially been concerned to make visible. The novels and poems by postcolonial authors analyzed in the first chapter show the centrality of the material realities of capitalism to our understanding of the issues of Eurocentrism, imperialism, and modernity. That the writers discussed in the chapter, despite their different backgrounds and training, all engage with the material conditions of existence in the (post-)colonial world suggests, Lazarus seems to be saying, that peripheral forms of postcolonial writing should be absorbed into the discipline. Chapter three explains how struggles over representation in postcolonial studies relate to the "strategic negotiation of representation" in the body of postcolonial literature [Lazarus 2011, 115]. It proposes that the vast majority of postcolonial texts mobilize not the idea of the "fundamental alienness" of the other from the representing subject, but a "deep-seated affinity and community, across and athwart the social division of labour" [Lazarus 2011, 149].

Chapters two, four and five offer distinctive new readings of Fredric Jameson, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. The context for examining Fredric Jameson's controversial argument about "Third World" literature is Aijaz Ahmad's influential and enduring response. More specifically, chapter two shows the contradiction inherent in Ahmad's desire to link Jameson with a "rhetoric of otherness," while simultaneously defending Jameson from charges of "Third-Worldism" on Marxist grounds. Chapter four uses specific details from David Macey's Frantz Fanon: A Life to insist that the illusion of the "postcolonial" Fanon, conjured by Homi Bhabha, can be done away with. Reflecting on the dispositions of power in the contemporary world, Lazarus argues for the continuing potency of Fanon's writings, and explores new approaches to these writings that have emerged over the past decade. Chapter five examines Said's Orientalism in the light of Timothy Brennan's commentary and, in particular, of his contention that the book's "deep commitment to historical understanding and its attempt . . . to offer up the concept of ‘Orientalism' as allegorically resonant to the present . . . have been symptomatically and systematically misconstrued by postcolonialists" [Lazarus 2011, 187]. In the last segment, Lazarus comments on Said's representation of the intellectual, exploring the postcolonial critic's commitment to humanism, secularity and universalism.

Graham Huggan has argued that the most successful postcolonial writers and thinkers are those who are particularly "adept at manipulating the codes of metropolitan realpolitik," like Chinua Achebe, V. S. Naipaul or Salman Rushdie [Huggan 2001, 26]. Needless to say, to write beyond this point, that is, to move beyond the usual suspects is becoming increasingly difficult. Lazarus refuses to follow the path marked out by better-known postcolonial scholars and, by choosing theoretical approaches rarely used in postcolonial studies, greatly expands the corpus of postcolonial literature and casts new light on what he calls the "unremitting actuality . . . of imperialist social relations in the times and spaces of the postcolonial world" [Lazarus 2011, 17]. The Postcolonial Unconscious is a keenly focused and clear-sighted analysis of the material conditions in which postcolonial discourses are circulated and contained. A project conceived as a way of exposing the fictions of postcolonial studies and of reorganizing our thinking about the intersections of postcolonial literature and capitalist class relations worldwide, Lazarus's study offers a fascinating counterpoint to the work of postcolonialism's most iconic and widely acclaimed scholars.

 

References

Lazarus, N., 2011, The Postcolonial Unconscious, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Loomba, A., 1998, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, London and New York: Routledge.
Loomba, A. et al., 2005, "Beyond What? An Introduction", [In:] Ania Loomba et al. (eds.), Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, Durham, MD: Duke University Press, pp. 1-38.
Huggan, G., 2001, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, London and New York: Routledge.

 

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