Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique

By Benita Parry | Go to book overview

4

Signs of the times

Bhabha's essays, written over more than a decade and in circulation for some time before their publication in a collected edition in 1994, 1 are a strong articulation of the linguistic turn in cultural studies. The book which is distinguished by Bhabha's insistence on the absolute primacy of discourse, appeared at a time when there were already signs of a challenge to critical modes predicated on the autonomy of signifying processes and privileging the means of representation as the sole progenitor of meaning. One symptom of this move away from a practice that had been ascendant for some years, although never uncontested, was the growth of interest in Pierre Bourdieu's work on cultural production, where the textual idealism of transferring the Saussurean language model to social and literary analyses is repudiated. 2 Another was Christopher Norris's censure of 'facile textualist thought' which 'contrives to block the appeal to any kind of real-world knowledge or experience', a criticism made on ethical as well as cognitive grounds by one who has been a prominent exponent of deconstruction. 3 There was also reason to anticipate a more widespread and closer attention to Marxist/ Marxisant theories of culture and history, since, as any competent clairvoyant could have foretold, Derrida's lectures and writings on Marx 4 were destined to persuade susceptible epigoni that their preparations for the burial of an explanatory system they had declared moribund, too often without observing the protocols of scrupulous examination, should at least be deferred.

As regards Bhabha's stipulations of what constitutes 'the colonial condition' and 'the postcolonial experience/perspective/critique' (emphasis added to suggest a totalizing tendency which Bhabha would ordinarily eschew), these have been disputed in discussions which follow other theoretical procedures and are producing different objects of knowledge from the same archival material. 5 Thus when Bhabha buoyantly claims that 'a shift within contemporary critical traditions of postcolonial writing' (p. 241) is heralded by the methodologies which he and like-minded critics have devised, this prediction of a new and unassailable hegemony - whose pre-eminence could already be in the past tense—depends on disregarding alternatives to the methods he espouses; and indeed it is noticeable that while Bhabha militantly combats a putative 'left orthodoxy', he gives scant attention to the often searching questions that have been asked of his own work. 6

Bhabha's evident scorn for his left detractors makes it all the more imperative for his critics to venture an assessment of his confident, ambitious and influential theoretical programme. This seeks to examine the translation of western discourses from the disjunctive and displacing sites of 'postcolonial' perspectives which, Bhabha maintains,

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