Perspectives on Postcolonial Theory

Review by

H. K. Kalkat

University of Sussex

Copyright (c) 1998 by H. R. Kalkat, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Bart Moore-Gilbert. Postcolonial Theory. London and New York: Verso, 1997.

    Such has been the elasticity of the concept 'postcolonial' that in recent years some commentators have begun to express anxiety that there may be a danger of it imploding as an analytic construct with any real cutting edge. --Bart Moore-Gilbert, p. 11

  1. The astonishing growth and frenetic energy of postcolonial studies has led to speculations about its sustainability. In particular the pliancy of the definition 'postcolonial' claimed by an extraordinarily large and disparate variety of people has led to conjectures about its redundancy as a term. Consequently Moore-Gilbert's book -- which assesses the current difficulties facing postcolonial studies, namely criticism from outside the discipline and dissent from within it -- is astute and timely.

  2. The book is structured via an explicit recognition that there is a radical split in postcolonial discourse between 'postcolonial theory' and 'postcolonial criticism'. Moore-Gilbert employs the former term to refer to the 'high' theory applied by academics from a metropolitan perspective, specifically Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, and the latter term to denote practices by writers, critics and artists as diverse as Derek Walcott, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe and which has antecedents in commonwealth studies. Although this rupture has been conspicuous for some time in the discipline, Moore-Gilbert's volume is singular in that it explicitly articulates the divide and works from this premise. Structuring the book around the radical split between postcolonial theory and criticism does risk overdetermining the split; however, Moore-Gilbert tempers this rupture by assuring the reader that he is aware of the interconnectedness and dialogism of these two distinct practices of postcolonial studies.

  3. In seeking to give an account of the rise and development of postcolonial studies he gives coherence to a field which is otherwise characterised by expeditious growth, ruptures, splits and fissures. One of the ways that he facilitates this cogence is by re-inserting less well cited theorists, such as Abdul JanMohamed, in the debate and emphasising points of interconnection and departure between the main postcolonial theorists in ways, as he demonstrates, they rarely do themselves.

  4. Postcolonial Theory is often entertaining, particularly when it presents some of the outrageous criticisms made by academics external to the discipline. For example Moore-Gilbert quotes Russell Jacoby:
    As they move out from traditional literature into political economy, sociology, history and anthropology, do the postcolonial theorists master these fields or just poke about? Are they serious students of colonial history and culture or do they just pepper their writings with references to Gramsci and hegemony? (14)

    Moore-Gilbert dismisses most of the criticisms of the discipline which are external to it and concentrates on examining criticisms from within the field. Postcolonial Theory is divided into five chapters: 1. Postcolonial Criticism or Postcolonial Theory; 2. Edward Said: Orientalism; 3. Gayatri Spivak: the deconstructive twist; 4. Homi Bhabha: 'The Babelian Performance'; and 5. Postcolonial criticism and Postcolonial Theory. Chapter 1 articulates the criticism/theory divide and examines the main criticisms held against postcolonial studies external and internal to the discipline. Chapters 2, 3 and 4, which present some of the major arguments of the volume, consist of a detailed analysis of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, the 'holy trinity' of postcolonial theory. The final chapter assesses whether the criticisms of postcolonial studies are sustained and whether the discipline is on the edge of imploding.

  5. Each chapter is subdivided into pithy and stimulating sub-sections, for example: Spivak's "Repetitions-In-Rupture" and in the chapter on Bhabha: "'Stupendous Frauds': Postcolonial Theory and The Politics of Psychoanalyses." The strength of Moore-Gilbert's project is that while he acknowledges the significance of each theorist's contribution, he also sharply presents their weaknesses. For example he takes issue with the circularity of Bhabha's work stating: "Meanwhile some might argue that Bhabha seems to have been treading a fine line between what Wilson Harris would call 're-vision' of his arguments and straightforward recycling. . . "(186-187). He also argues that Bhabha's methodological ecclecticism and textual density can ironically engender uniformity; he writes:
    [H]omogenisation is precisely what sometimes results from the way that Bhabha interrogates complex and multiform realities such as (neo-) colonialism through the narrow and ahistorical analytic models of affective ambivalence and the discursive disturbance that comes with it. (151)

  6. Moore-Gilbert credits Spivak for scrupulously marking her own subjectivity in her writing yet examines the active and explicit contradictions in her work suggesting that it is in fact the internal paradoxes in Spivak's work which make it compelling and revealing:
    The most productive approach in an evolution of Spivak's work is not necessarily, in any case, to search out in a punitive spirit the paradoxes in the arguments of a critic who, true to the spirit of deconstruction, declares: 'As for contradictions . . . I'm not afraid of them.' (99)

  7. In sumation, he addresses many of the main criticisms of postcolonial theory, one of the most immediate being inaccessibility of style and language of many of the theorists, in particular Spivak and Bhabha. He describes Bhabha's writing as 'dense' and 'clotted' and writes: "At times, indeed, his characteristically teasing, evasive, even quasi-mystical (or mystifactory) mode of expression seems designed to appeal primarily to the reader's intuition" (115). Similarly he describes how reading Spivak's work can be a challenging and difficult experience. His engagement with the enigmatic, if frustrating, experience of reading Spivak and Bhabha raises concerns which frequently emerge in the discipline, and his engagement with it in Postcolonial Theory is acute and pressing.

  8. Perhaps Moore-Gilbert's perspective on the subject is expressed most revealingly through his own assiduously clear use of language. In seeking to give a contextual account of postcolonial theory and its main players, he manages to his credit to write lucidly yet avoid flattening the theory or making it reductive.

  9. My only major reservation about the volume is that Moore-Gilbert fails to explore the implications of his strikingly binary reading of postcolonial studies and the divide between postcolonial theory and criticism as an organising principle to his work. However, taken as a whole, Postcolonial Theory is a fascinating and stimulating book important for pedagogy and in defining and shaping the postcolonial field.

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