Book Review: “Deconstructing Europe. Postcolonial Perspectives”.

Paulina Gąsior 15 lutego 2012
Deconstructing Europe. Postcolonial Perspectives.
Ed. by Sandra Ponzanesi and Bolette B. Blaagaard.
London and New York: Routledge, 2012.169 pp.


The idea of Europe with various layers that constitute the ‘European' identity has grown over a long period of time. It has never been an easily defined concept. From the geographical perspective, in the north, west and south the peninsula is bounded by the sea but the eastern border has always been questionable and Europeans themselves have been in doubt as to where Europe ends in the east. The notion of Europe has never been unified either. From the point of view of the society and culture, the shadows of internal divisions have persisted throughout various periods: the Renaissance polarization between the South and the North followed by the dichotomy of East and West. Thirdly, as Norman Davies [2007, 7] points out, "for many centuries the idea of political Europe was no more than a utopia, an unrealised ideal". Yet, towards the end of the 20th century, with the expansion of the European Union and creation of supranational political, legal and financial institutions, the concept of ‘one' Europe has become a living reality

Deconstructing Europe brings to light the forces within contemporary Europe that not only challenge the idealised vision of Europe as "the cradle of the Enlightenment and of scientific revolutions and therefore of modernity and democracy" [Ponzanesi and Blaagaard 2012, 1], but also question its ability to engage with its past. The authors highlight the need for revaluation of where Europe is at this particular moment in time, and the reflection on its present status becomes in fact a question about the future of European identity: "Is Europe a bulwark, an exclusionary and discriminatory fortress, or the last romantic ideal of a supra-national organization based on ideas of peace, justice and emancipation?" [Ponzanesi and Blaagaard 2012, 1]. Europe - as envisaged in the collection - appears to be a strongly contested project, trapped between the illusionary ideal of unity and cosmopolitism, and past legacies followed by current multicultural frictions that challenge it. The great value of this book lies in its ability to lay bare the limits of a globalist outlook and overoptimistic celebration of a welcoming Europe without borders, where coexistence is based on principles of respect and justice. It also uproots and redefines the idea of ‘borders'. With the proliferation of ethnic, religious and cultural differences, Europe has turned from physical borders seen as gates to Europe to new internal borders that signify "new forms of inclusion and exclusion based on linguistic, racial, ethnic and religious divisions" [Ponzanesi and Blaagaard 2012, 3]. As more and more migrants, refugees and asylum seekers come to Europe, these divisions become evident and bring to light issues of otherness, foreignness and alienation.

As the economic crisis develops, accompanied by rightwing extremism, anti-immigration sentiments, islamophobia, populist backlash and general scepticism towards further European integration, the idea of cosmopolitism is currently facing serious criticism. Deconstructing Europe becomes an important voice in a debate on the meaning and future of cosmopolitism as a recipe for Europe's cultural profile. The book, which includes a variety of theoretical discussions by contributors coming from various backgrounds, addresses the problems of contemporary Europe from the postcolonial perspective. The editors (and authors of the introduction to the volume) argue that reading Europe through a postcolonial lens draws attention to the fact that the imperialist past is not yet over and that it is "still struggling the continuing hold of colonialist and imperialist attitudes" [Ponzanesi and Blaagaard 2012, 4]. By invoking the voice of Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, who accuses the European Union of the lack of readiness to take responsibility for the colonial past that now brings migrants to Europe, Deconstructing Europe highlights the fact that it is Europe's critical task to deal with its historic legacies and their contemporary impact. The aim of the volume - as envisaged by the editors - is to account for a number of (post)colonial histories that so far have been "forgotten or silenced" [Ponzanesi and Blaagaard 2012, 4] and to bring to light peripheral colonialisms, such as Austrian, Scandinavian or Italian, that have been omitted or ignored. The authors of the Introduction see the reason for the absence of these ‘minor' colonial histories in the domination of the Anglo-Saxon paradigm in the field of postcolonial studies, which focus on the discourse involving the British empire and its former colonies. Even though Ponzanesi and Blaagaard's efforts to compensate for this absence cannot be underestimated, Deconstructing Europe would have benefited from an even broader spectrum of research that cuts across Europe's another internal division, i.e. West and the East, which, due to the legacy of the cold war, continues to be underrepresented in academic discourses.

Nevertheless, Deconstructing Europe constitutes a successful effort to account for the past legacies resulting from colonial European presence, as well as for the present frictions stemming from new global dynamics and various forms of internal colonialism (Roma people or indigenous groups). It foregrounds the issues of power relations within minor empires and in the geographical margins of Europe, and shows how various ethnic, religious and racial tensions arising out of migration and global market forces lead to practices of exclusion and discrimination.

Particularly noteworthy is the scope of cultural backgrounds, languages and genres examined in this special issue. They have been divided into two major sections. The first part focuses of the less explored colonial legacies in marginal locations throughout Europe, but also on the construction of whiteness in the context of European identity. Two articles are devoted to patterns of Nordic postcolonial relations. Kristin Loftsdóttir analyses gendered, racial and nationalistic ideologies that shaped the ‘white' Icelandic identity in the 19th and early 20th century. Her article also juxtaposes the historic material (journal debates) with contemporary discourses (blog sites), which reflect the complex manifestations of racism and prejudice against Muslims. An article by Bolette B. Blaagaard engages in the problem of journalistic bias in the discussion of archival representations of a reenactment in the United States's Virgin Islands commemorating the emancipation of the Danish slaves on three islands (former colonies of Denmark). Two other articles in this section deal with the presence of colonial heritage in contemporary Austria and Italy. By analysing a statement by Austrian province governor Jörg Haider against Chechen refugees, Brigitte Hipfl and Daniela Gronold argue that the imperial past and colonial model of thinking is still present in political practices and narratives in Austria and prevents the country from defining itself as a multicultural space. Claudia Buonaiuto and Marie-Hélène Laforest portray different forms of racism and exclusion faced by Sri Lankan, Nigerian and Ukrainian women in the city of Naples, which in turn challenges the construction of a South Italian multicultural society.

The second part of the collection gives voice to the ‘strangers within' and focuses on the ways in which Europe has been "revisioned, resignified and remoulded" [Ponzanesi and Blaagaard 2012, 7] by postcolonial migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, who reformulate the notion of "Europeanness' and the understanding of cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism and citizenship. The contributions in the volume encompass a diverse range of examples of cultural and social productions, including cinema, fiction, press publications and music. Sandra Ponzanesi explores the politics of encounter in three films that feature women characters (British-Pakistani, Iranian refugee and an Eastern European immigrant prostitute) who struggle to negotiate their identities in Europe. The status of women in postcolonial Europe is also the subject of Manuela Coppola's article, which employs the concept of ‘rented space' as a metaphor depicting the ambiguous space occupied by migrant women writers in Italy and their strategies of cohabitation. Lourdes López Ropero and Alejandra Moreno Álvarez discuss discourses of multiculturalism in British films and fiction by juxtaposing them with the model of multiculturalism in Spain. The authors included in the issue also tackle the problem of race relations, which is one of the key areas that highlights older and recent colonial attitudes and prejudices. Esther Sánchez-Pardo looks at the ways in which identity is reconstructed in diasporic situations by analysing the work of black African migrant writers, while Sonia Sabelli analyses gender representations in reggae music, a genre identified with black community, and its appropriation by white musicians in postcolonial Europe.

As an epilogue to the collection, the editors included an original interview with Vron Ware, an activist and scholar, who explores questions of race and gender, whiteness, as well as history and politics of antiracism.

Deconstructing Europe is a truly cross disciplinary anthology which takes up an important debate about the future development of Europe as a multicultural project. It confronts the myth of Europe as a promised land, and an open society with accusations that the European Union is a sophisticated form of an empire, which maintains the exclusionary and discriminatory practices and policies. The collection shows that Europe is yet to learn the lesson of integrating otherness and accepting diversity. Yet, it is aware of the necessity to face the past legacy and redefine its identity: "One of the best lessons of postcolonial thinking was precisely not the analysis of dichotomous relationships but the explorations of intertwinements, contaminations and condition of dependencies that allow for the undermining of the priority of one signifier above the other" [Ponzanesi and Blaagaard 2012, 3]. And it seems that only this new model of perceiving difference may be able to map out new routes for Europe and point to ways of ‘re-branding' it as a multicultural space.




Ponzanesi, S., Blaagard, B., ed., 2012, Deconstructing Europe.

Postcolonial Perspectives, London and New York: Routledge.

Davies, N., 2007, Europe East and West, London: Pimlico.