Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Postcolonial Studies and Atlantic Studies - Interdisciplinary Reflections on Slavery and Empire

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Postcolonial Studies and Atlantic Studies - Interdisciplinary Reflections on Slavery and Empire

Article excerpt

This essay originated as a presentation at the 2011 asnel conference; it has been lightly revised but is still recognizably an exploratory position paper, intended to stimulate discussion rather than deliver answers.1 Asked to speak about the importance of slavery in postcolonial studies, I offer a two-part reflection on transatlantic historical studies and postcolonial literary studies, and on the connections between them. I begin with a brief reflection on the organization that provided the site for this investigation while at the same time embodying in its institutional structure and history some of the very developments I am highlighting.

Founded in 1989, the Gesellschaft fur die neuen englischsprachigen Literaturen (Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English) (gnel/ ASNEL) is one of the oldest and most important organizations in the world for the study of postcolonial literatures in English. Its emergence and flourishing coincide with what we might call the europeanization of Europe after the end of the Cold War; it is tempting to see the rise of asnel as the manifestation of a new interest in German-speaking countries in the literary and cultural history of the aftermath of British colonialism, an intellectual analogue to the weakening of some (though surely not all) internal European borders. When I left the UK to move to the US A in 1990, it was still common to hear British people say that they were going 'to Europe' when they crossed the 'English' Channel or the North Sea; by contrast, at the end of the asnel conference in Hannover in 2011,1 flew on a German airline called Germanwings to an England that is very much in the middle of Europe, despite its non-membership in the Eurozone. On one level, certainly asnel represents the beneficial aspects of post-Cold War European integration: intra-European intellectual and academic cooperation rather than reliance on u S cultural, economic, and educational power; cultural and cross-linguistic cosmopolitanism; and a willingness to examine and leave behind the legacies of European imperialism.

It would be tempting to see asnel this way, but of course it would be an incomplete understanding of the organization, for at least two reasons. First, as I will discuss presently, asnel has from the outset shown an interest in American literature, especially US ethnic literatures; in contrast to much USand UK-based postcolonial studies of the 1990s and early 2000s, asnel has been exploring the intersection of transatlantic studies and postcolonial studies for many years now. Secondly, German studies of what we now call postcolonial literature long predate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the European Union; to some extent, they even precede the academic study of what used to be called Commonwealth literature in the English-speaking world. As Gerhard Stilz pointed out in his keynote address to the conference "Imagination and the Creative Impulse in the New Literatures in English," held at the University of Trento in 1990, German studies of what came to be called Commonwealth literature datefrom the end of the nineteenth century. The new literatures in English, in other words, are actually rather old: he says that "they have [...] been regarded as part of the academic discipline called Englische Philologie for somewhat more than a century."2 And while those early German surveys of the literature of "Greater Britain" emphasized the texts of the white settler colonies, especially Australia and Canada, already by the late 1950s German studies of African, Caribbean, and South Asian literature in English were well under way. For example, the great Caribbean novelist George Lamming reported in i960 in his landmark study The Pleasures of Exile that "there are a few Germans who are working on this 'strange pheno- menon of the British Caribbean novelist.'"3 Lamming is quoting the British novelist Kingsley Amis, who had used the occasion of a review of West Indian literature in the Spectator to attack a fellow reviewer from the Times Literary Supplement - Lamming felt that Amis didn't really care about West Indian literature, only about the parochial literary squabbles of English culture. …

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