The Event of Postcolonial Shame

The Event of Postcolonial Shame

The Event of Postcolonial Shame

The Event of Postcolonial Shame


In a postcolonial world, where structures of power, hierarchy, and domination operate on a global scale, writers face an ethical and aesthetic dilemma: How to write without contributing to the inscription of inequality? How to process the colonial past without reverting to a pathology of self-disgust? Can literature ever be free of the shame of the postcolonial epoch--ever be truly postcolonial? As disparities of power seem only to be increasing, such questions are more urgent than ever. In this book, Timothy Bewes argues that shame is a dominant temperament in twentieth-century literature, and the key to understanding the ethics and aesthetics of the contemporary world.

Drawing on thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Theodor Adorno, and Gilles Deleuze, Bewes argues that in literature there is an "event" of shame that brings together these ethical and aesthetic tensions. Reading works by J. M. Coetzee, Joseph Conrad, Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul, Caryl Phillips, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and Zoë Wicomb, Bewes presents a startling theory: the practices of postcolonial literature depend upon and repeat the same structures of thought and perception that made colonialism possible in the first place. As long as those structures remain in place, literature and critical thinking will remain steeped in shame.

Offering a new mode of postcolonial reading, The Event of Postcolonial Shame demands a literature and a criticism that acknowledge their own ethical deficiency without seeking absolution from it.


In a global conjuncture in which the very expression of ethical solidarity displays and enacts unprecedented disparities of power, writers of literature are in an ethical and aesthetic quandary: How to write without thereby contributing to the material inscription of inequality? Even to pose such a question can appear as romanticizing, or worse, of the position of the “subaltern” or “Third World” subject, who seems thereby reduced to the status of an object that is merely written about. This quandary is inextricable from literary criticism and from the production of literature whenever the problematic of those formations is articulated in ethical terms. Neil Lazarus has written of Gayatri Spivak’s work—too often emblematized, perhaps, by the title of her most famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”—as implicated in “an austere construction of the subaltern as a discursive figure that is by definition incapable of selfrepresentation.” in a certain strain of postcolonial scholarship informed by Spivak’s conceptualization of the subaltern—and one can imagine the same charge being leveled at the notion of a constitutive and unresolvable shame underlying the practice of postcolonial literature—the real histories of national liberation in Third World countries disappear into an abyss of epistemological méconnaissance, while political interventions in the West on behalf of such struggles are discountable as so many attempts to ventriloquize the other. For Spivak, in Lazarus’s words, “the actual contents of the social practice of ‘the people’ are always, indeed definitionally, inaccessible to members of the elite classes” (114), a formulation that, for Lazarus, also implies its obverse: a permanently disempowered and silenced subaltern class. Spivak’s conceptualization of the subaltern itself, Lazarus suggests further, comes close to “fetishizing difference under the rubric of incommensurability” (115).

Nicholas Brown has referred in the same vein to “the paradoxically Eurocentric refusal of Eurocentrism.” This phrase, describing a perceived tendency among metropolitan postcolonial critics to disparage the movements towards liberation in Africa on the grounds of their residual empiricism, exhibits the problem at hand. According to Brown and Lazarus, for Western writers and critics to reject narratives of selfdetermination and nationalism on the grounds of their Western origin, or . . .

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