Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique

By Benita Parry | Go to book overview

1

Beginnings, affiliations, disavowals

I have collected these thematically interrelated essays written over some fifteen years in the expectation that they will stand or fall as interventions in the volatile and contested postcolonial discussion. As such some of the chapters advance arguments I would no longer present in their initial form or vocabulary, and contain concessions made out of politesse or diffidence to theoretical positions I now consider unsustainable. Times have changed since the earlier of these pieces appeared and the volume and vigour of work advancing Marxist/Marxisant positions within postcolonial studies has abated the pre-dominance of a textual idealism. All the same it remains important to urge more historically grounded directions and greater discrimination in the enquiries of an ecumenical and proliferating field where the material impulses to colonialism, its appropriation of physical resources, exploitation of human labour and institutional repression, have receded from view. 1

Amongst the many sober definitions of the term are those denoting a historical transition, a cultural location, a discursive stance, an epochal condition distinguished by the entry into metropolitan cultures of other voices, histories and experiences, 2 and an achieved transition. For many participants in the discussion, the plenitude of signification in 'postcolonial' has enabled a diversity of studies - and indeed both the subjects of enquiry and the theoretical positions are bewilderingly various. The verso to the advantages of a wide-open explanatory field is an arbitrary and ill-considered usage of the term within and beyond the academy. So capacious is the ground on which participants in the discussion have chosen to operate that one commentator has detached its sphere of enquiry from both the anterior historical situation and its consequences by contending that postcolonial studies is more concerned 'with the lived condition of unequal power sharing globally and the self-authorization of cultural, economic, and militaristic hegemony' than 'with a particular historical phenomenon such as colonialism, which may be plotted as a stage of capitalist imperialism'. 3 This refusal to engage with the prior terms which the 'postcolonial' is said to displace or supersede 4 serves to occlude both the capitalist trajectory of the imperial project and the capitalist nature of contemporary globalization.

Without underestimating the importance of much work done under the emblem of postcolonial studies, I want to suggest that some influential critical practices have promoted otiose revisions of colonialism and myopic perspectives on the postcolonial. When English and cultural studies departments took the lead in developing what was to become 'a postcolonial critique', the linguistic turn was in the ascendant within literary theory, and cultural studies was in the process of relinquishing its materialist beginnings

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