An Introduction to E. San Juan: What is Postcolonial Theory?

Alan Wald

THE SPECTACULAR PROLIFERATION of Postcolonial Theory during the past decade has produced a stimulating yet vexing controversy in Marxist circles. This fractious school of cultural criticism evolved from earlier left-wing concerns with cultures of peoples of color in the internal and external colonies of the West, usually treated under the rubrics of “Third World Literature,” “Minority Discourse,” and “Resistance Literature.”

Yet the consolidation of the field of Postcolonial Theory as a force in the universities was inflected by the domination in the 1980s of the cultural scene by a host of “posts”—post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-Marxism. This was accompanied by the creation of a new academic elite in the West now called “The Star System,” whose radical participants were often remote from socialist organizations and struggles of ordinary working people.

The new generation of influential academics now reinterpreted and extended the writings of earlier anti- colonial cultural theorists who were active militants, such as Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1963) and Amilcar Cabral in Return to the Source (1973). This was often in the fom of essays and interviews that were later collected, such as those of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in The Post-Colonial Critic (1990) and Homi K. Bhabha in The Location of Culture (1994), with the result that students of Postcolonial Theory began to speak an esoteric language accessible mainly to their privileged peers.

The appearance of Bill Ashcroft et al, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (1995) and Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (1994), allowed a wide range of key texts to become a staple of seminar readings for the current cohort of students. With universities still providing many key activists in today’s social movements, revolutionaries seeking to rebuild the socialist movement can no longer ignore the phenomenon, nor can we afford to denounce it through ill-informed caricatures.

The significance of Postcolonial Theory is difficult to assess, especially when scholars can not even agree on whether there should be a hyphen between “post” and “colonial”! On the one hand, this new field has enabled cultural work outside the Imperial Canon to obtain a status previously unheard of in the academic community; the door is open wider than ever to the recognition of writings often produced by revolutionary activists, women, workers, and members of hitherto despised minority groups.

Questions of cultural difference, “race,” “ethnicity,” “gender” and even “class” are the subjects of national literary conferences and courses taught in the leading universities. Literatures of many groups and subcultures ignored for decades in the United States are now seen as legitimate areas of inquiry.

Of course, this new inclusion of what was once marginalized is sometimes trivialized by liberal administrators under the rubric of “diversity;” but it is arguable that, compared to what existed before, the prestige of Postcolonial Theory has had a positive effect on affirmative action, the quality of life for faculty and students of color, and the internationalization of undergraduate education.

Is Reality Real?

At the same time, much of Postcolonial Theory, even when employing Marxist terminology, seems explicitly or implicitly to promote the more dubious wing of the post-modernist movement—that which, although occasionally engaging in double-talk to avoid looking ridiculous, denies the possibility of language communicating objective reality due to its view of language as a self-referential system. One also finds an obsessive “anti-essentialism,” combined with dogmatic versions of “social constructionism.”

These philosophic trends treat skeptically any potential sign of belief that a quality might inhere in a culture or a being, rather than produced as a function of social structure. While the argument seems materialist, it is too often aimed at dismantling hypothetical categories and analytical tools without proposing more effective ones for interpreting, and therefore working to change, the social formation and its culture.

A similar impulse drives postcolonialism’s war against “master narratives” on behalf of a “decentered subject.” While it is plausible to treat aspects of historical discourse through narrative theory, the critics are weak in presenting compelling alternatives to Marxist concepts of working-class agency and of ideology to enable social activists to get a grip on the forces shaping our lives and consciousness.

Against the Current is fortunate to be able to publish a left-wing critique of Postcolonial Theory by E. San Juan, Jr., a major scholar in Third World cultural studies, most recently author of Beyond Postcolonial Theory (St. Martin’s Press, 1998), and an advisory editor of ATC.

As a pioneer of scholarship about the Philippine literary Left, and a longtime advocate of revolutionary Marxist practice, San Juan takes a skeptical and reserved view of the development of the mainstream of Postcolonial Theory.

In particular, he joins Aijaz Ahmad whose well-known 1992 book In Theory takes a sharply critical view of the role of the scholarship of Columbia University professor and Palestinian activist Edward Said in adapting Marxist thinkers like Antonio Gramsci to post-modernist agendas, and in allegedly serving as a cultural middleman between the targets of imperialism and the Western academy.

Needless to say, this view is not in any sense the official assessment of ATC, although we are anxious to host a full and multisided discussion of this complex debate. For an alternative Marxist perspective on the work of Said, we recommend At Home in the World (Harvard University Press, 1997) by Timothy Brennan, an authority on novelist Salman Rushdie and an occasional contributor to ATC. To obtain an additional sampling of a range of scholarly views of Said, we recommend Michael Sprinker, editor, Edward Said: A Critical Reader (1992) and “Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism: A Symposium,” in Social Text 39 (1994).

For those ATC readers who have not followed earlier debates about postcolonialism, jumping into the discussion at this point may seem like trying to read Marx’s Grundrisse without first reading Value, Price and Profit or Wage Labor and Capital. For definitions of key terms and a description of the work of many theorists who are cited, we recommend Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994). For a recent survey of the careers of Spivak, Said and Bhabha, we suggest Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (1997).

ATC 77, November-December 1998