'How Newness (Not) Comes into the World': Eva Rask Knudsen's the Circle and the Spiral
Drichel, Simone, Australian Literary Studies
Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of postcolonial criticism is its seemingly endless capacity for self-critique. Matching, if not eclipsing, the charges laid against the field by critics of postcolonialism, postcolonial critics themselves typically display an acute awareness that the very idea of the postcolonial once again privileges the colonial moment; the postcolonial, so the widespread concern goes, thereby involuntarily replicates the centrality of the colonial, if now pushed behind the 'post'. In a review article of three diverse introductions to postcolonial theory dating from the late 1990s (Childs and Williams, Ohandi, and Moore-Gilbert) for example, Ken Gelder observes that, unlike the pioneering The Empire Writes Back, which arrived with a tone of jubilation and celebration of the field in 1989, more recent postcolonial critics are anxious to include disclaimers that clearly signal their critical position vis-a-vis the field they (re)present:
Instead of enchantment and belief, the authors of these three new primers on postcolonial theory are most sceptical of the field they help to constitute. The only relation one can have with postcolonial theory, they suggest, is a critical one. (Gelder 82)
In her study of Aboriginal and Maori writing, The Circle and the Spiral: A Study of Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori Literature, Eva Rask Knudsen displays such a critical relationship to postcolonial theory. Her critique is rooted in a conviction that postcolonial theory not only attempts to 'homogenize the postcolonial world vis-a-vis Europe' (3), but that postcolonial methodologies also obscure the 'firm traditional roots' of indigenous writing practices (36). Thus differentiating her '"indigenised" reading' from a postcolonial reading, Knudsen mobilises an indigenous voice that no longer 'writes back' to the imperial centre, but establishes its own centres and foundations in its narratives. These indigenous centres and foundations, Knudsen suggests, lie in the cultural 'subtexts' of the texts she studies, specifically in the 'corporo-real "subtexts" of the land, and the wharenui and the spiritual "subtexts" of the Dreaming and Maoritanga' (315). The main body of her study (chapters 4-7) is dedicated to unpacking these 'subtexts' for the reader, the very presence of which, she argues, suggests the perseverance of indigenous spirituality and tradition in the aftermath of colonisation.
In her opening chapter ('Beginnings'), Knudsen sets the tone for the volume as a whole. She critiques postcolonial literary criticism for indiscriminately applying a standardised '"writing-back-through-appropriation" interpretation' to indigenous texts (13), and outlines her own 'back to the text' approach as an alternative--culturally sensitive--reading practice (17). The Circle and the Spiral then moves to a discussion of 'the new writing "site" of the indigenous artist' (36) in chapter 2 ('Death of the Author'). This chapter locates an uneasy complicity between indigenous practices and 'postmodern thought' (a phrase that remains extremely nebulous), insofar as the latter offers a welcome deconstruction of the oral-literate binary opposition and, by extension, of the cultural hierarchy associated with that binary opposition. 'In this paradoxical intersection of postmodern and indigenous ways', she writes, 'the "death of the author" invokes the rebirth of the storyteller' (52). Knudsen emphasises, however, that though 'postmodern thought' provides 'a clearing, a space, and a site for the insertion of cultural "difference"', it is only 'tolerated but not embraced by indigenous writers' (52). The complicity therefore remains 'merely formal' (59).
Like the (social realist) literature it analyses, chapter 3 ('Exile and Return') serves as a stepping-stone to the study's centre, the 'real Home-Coming', which Knudsen locates in a 'reawakening of spirituality' in indigenous culture and writing (125). …