Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Postcolonial Unconscious

There is so much good to write about The Postcolonial Unconscious that it is hard to know where to begin. Neil Lazarus’ book comes like answered prayers; it’s the kind of text I have been hoping to see appear for many years now, and yet never quite believed I’d be able to read. A full-blown assault on the complacency and political and moral exhaustion of so much of what passes for ‘postcolonial criticism’ in the academy today, Lazarus’ is a very important – and thought-provoking – intervention into anti-Eurocentric literary studies. Geopolitical shifts have made possible what Lazarus calls the “reconstructive thrust” of his work.

He aims to recreate a counter-canon, re-examining important political interventions from moments past – Fanon most significantly – in order to set out a politically engaged criticism useful for today. “Developments in the first decade of the new century – above all the US-led and –sponsored invasion of Iraq and the sorry misadventure in Afghanistan – have exposed the contradictions of this established postcolonialist understanding to stark and unforgiving light. For, conjoining violence and military conquest with expropriation, pillage, and undisguised grabbing for resources, these developments have demonstrably rejoined the twenty-first century to a long and as yet unbroken history, wrongly supposed by postcolonial theory to have come to a close circa 1975. This is the history of capitalist imperialism.” (15) The individualist and arresting obsessions of a textualist postcolonialism – and its hostility to third-world nationalisms – have, Lazarus argues, become fetters from an era of defeats unsuited to the challenges confronting us.

 If Lazarus calls for a newly political criticism, though, it is one that appears in a guise some might find unexpected. Part of his impatience with current postcolonialism is to do with its heavy-handedness, its ponderous insistence on a few set-piece confrontations. “One the one hand, so many works that ought – by the most orthodox criteria, such as representativeness or literary value – to have been taken into consideration, have been ignored entirely; on the other hand, the relatively few works that have been taken into consideration have often, and characteristically, been read in the most leadenly reductive of ways.” (22) Instead of yet another boring article on Otherness, or on how text X or Y at once critiques and endorses imperialism, or on the perils of representation, Lazarus challenges us to read across writing from the oppressed world, and to approach these texts with eyes and ears alert to the complexities of issues they might confront, and strategies they might use. Enough reading novels as theses! Lazarus’ book made me think of all the articles I’ve read that announce a particular novel “argues” a set case, and to shudder at the time wasted. The quickest path to a politicised criticism, then, might again be through the garden of Formalism.

The canon? Yes, please!

The evident joy Lazarus takes in the texts he studies, and his fearless use of the terms of literary value, is another of The Postcolonial Unconscious’ virtues. His argument here proves itself in delivery, as the piling of example upon example, and close reading on close reading, is essential to establish two, interconnected, points. Firstly, against Fredric Jameson, Lazarus locates in literary writing all across the oppressed world evidence that there is a “modernist writing after the canonisation of modernism”, a writing “that resists the accommodation of what has been canonised as modernism and that does what at least some modernist work has done from the outset: namely, says ‘no’; refuses integration, resolution, consolation, comfort; protests and criticises.” (31)

As well as following in the tracks of this critical modernism of ‘disconsolation’, Lazarus insists that we at least consider – in front of the body of actual texts – the fate of realism as it has developed in the literary field. “Inasmuch as the dominant aesthetic dispositions in postcolonial literary studies have from the outset reflected those in post-structuralist theory generally, the categorical disparagement of realism in the latter field has tended to receive a dutiful – if wholly unjustified and unjustifiable – echo in the former.” (82) ‘Postcolonial’ theory, Lazarus illustrates, has been sneeringly dismiss of realism for all manner of poorly articulated reasons while, at the same time, critical and anti-colonial literary production in the postcolonial world has led to a revival and re-imagining of realism.

Who can speak as Other?

One sign of postcolonial theory’s political decay is the ascendency of J.M. Coetzee. Coetzee – and the insistence on ‘ethics’ against ‘politics’ that goes along with so many discussions of his work – is, in many a primer and textbook, set up as something of a postcolonial exemplary, a writer whose abiding concerns – with the relationship between representation and power, with speech and silence, with narrative and colonialism – are seen as more serious, and more self-reflexively aware of the writer’s own implication in power, than earlier, bad realists. Express a preference for Nadine Gordimer or Andre Brink over Coetzee and, in many an academic circle, you condemn yourself as hopelessly passé. What’s missed in this thinking, though, are some of the implications of Coetzee’s own development: towards ever shorter, sparser, emptier novels, in which an ever-more scrupulous meanness pulls away from the possibilities of any sort of ethical engagement, let alone a more collective political intervention or appeal for justice.

Lazarus has a more positive view of Coetzee than me, but insists on a very salutary suspicion towards self-denying ordinances around ‘speaking for the Other.’ He traces the – very real – dilemmas of speaking of, for, and about others as they appear in concrete political-literary situations, arguing that “we do not have to choose between attention to truth – as propositional correspondence with reality – and attention to rhetoric – as the discursive shaping and mobilisation of ideas, including about what is true.” (125) A sensitivity towards issues of appropriation should be accompanied by a sense of urgency that certain matters are brought up, discussed, known more widely. The question is not so much is this appropriation, as appropriation for what, of whom, for what end?

Most controversially, Lazarus links this to his defence of Fredric Jameson’s reading of ‘Third World literature’ as ‘national allegory.’ Jameson’s argument – deeply unpopular in postcolonial orthodoxy, and accused of all manner of reductionisms and Eurocentrisms – has, Lazarus contends, been misread by most of his critics. Locating Jameson’s claims within their context – as an appeal, and as part of a public lecture in the United States – Lazarus argues that they are an intervention in pedagogy and curriculum, a recognition of the unread status of most ‘Third World’ texts in ‘the West’. When Jameson talks about how these texts appear to ‘us’ (i.e. the reader in the oppressor or ‘developed’ world), he is not, contra Aijaz Ahmad, acting to exclude ‘Third World’ leftists from the discussion but, rather, recognising the need to fight to change and expand the English-language literature curriculum for anti-imperialist ends.

This section of the book was particularly interesting for me because, in miniature, I saw the situation Lazarus describes play out in my own classroom. Having set Jameson’s essay as a reading in my Postcolonial Literature paper, almost all my best students wrote responses to him castigating him – usually along the empiricist line that he couldn’t have read every ‘Third World’ text – for reductiveness, narrow-mindedness, Eurocentrism, etc. These same students, though, were later less severe on texts making blanket points on particular ‘cultures’, indicating that the hostility Jameson produced had a quite specific energy.

While postcolonial criticism has spent decades repeating much the same lines about ‘speaking as Other’ and the violence of representation, the percentage of literature in translation consumed in English-speaking countries has fallen. The plea Jameson made twenty-five years ago – that we take the political and critical tasks involved in constructing a non-Eurocentric literary criticism seriously – is as relevant as ever in a social formation where many leftist Anglophone readers will be unaware of Mulk Raj Anand, Bei Dao, Aime Cesaire, Mahmoud Darwish, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nuruddin Farah or Elias Khoury.

 How reductive, and how self-sustaining, most postcolonial literature curriculums remain!

For national allegory

Lazarus’ defence of Jameson reminds me of the provocative power of that 1986 essay too. So much of the individualist focus of postcolonialist criticism, ironically, downplays the national question itself, and, as Lazarus shows, Homi Bhabha, Spivak and others have performed feats of distortion to transform revolutionary nationalist thinkers like Fanon into poststructuralists avant la letter, suspicious of and hostile to nationalisms of oppressor and oppressed equally. (The use of the term ‘colonial encounter’ is symptomatic here, as if the wider forces of imperialism are secondary to interpersonal relations.) Talk of national allegory reminds us that, for many parts of the world, the project of national liberation remains an urgent and pressing one, and that nationalist energies – as the ongoing controversy around Rosa Luxemburg for socialists illustrates – are a complex and far from simple thing. In this setting, Jameson’s suggestion that we read texts as ‘national allegories’ forces the ‘Western’ reader into rather more complexity than less.

Take four examples, all bestselling, from Korean literature in the last twenty years. Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest examines the damage the ‘guests’ – Christianity and Stalinist Marxism – have done to Korean society, and plays out a family story as a national history. Kim Young-Ha’s Your Republic is Calling You treats the issue of national division explicitly, making a DPRK agent in deep cover its protagonist. Park Wan-Suh’s Who Ate Up All the Shinga? (1992) makes only fleeting reference to the war, and yet many Korean readers locate significance in all sorts of details – starting with the mysterious shinga in the title – that give its nostalgia and memory work a significance beyond a personal story.

What, even, if Yang Gui-Ja’s Contradictions (1998) can be read as national allegory? Contradictions' heroine An Jin-Jin attempts to choose between lovers, and is torn also between her own mother and her aunt, her mother’s identical twin. The lovers suggest different lives; the mother and aunt, although ‘identical’, couldn’t be more different figures. Don’t these doublings and choosings – these contradictions – have a different symbolic and metaphorical resonance in a country divided and at war than they would in a country undamaged by imperialism? The question seems sensible at least to pose.

 Kim Yun-Sok, writing in 1995, argued of the colonial period that

  When Korea lost its sovereignty as a result of its annexation by Japan, the formidable task of assuring the return of this sovereignty fell to literature alone. In a sense, this mission was its point of departure.

Historians will challenge that “alone”, no doubt; there was a rather busy resistance movement. But that this task could be formidable, and desirable, and, in many countries – Palestine most obviously – urgent, passes by contemporary postcolonial criticism.

Neil Lazarus’ book, in restoring the products, both historical and contemporary, of revolutionary nationalism to both serious critical attention, and to properly literary evaluation, performs a very valuable task. I’m enormously grateful to him for it.


 Neil Lazarus, The Postcolonial Unconscious (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

 Park Wan-Suh, Who Ate Up All the Shinga? has been translated by Yu Young-Nan and Stephen J Epstein; Yang Gui Ja, Contradictions, by Stephen J Epstein and Kim Mi-Young; Kim Young-Ha, Your Republic is Calling You, by Chi-Young Kim.

Kim Yun-Sok’s comment I’ve taken from Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, p. 191.

 I first found out about Lazarus’ book from Gary Pearce, whose PhD thesis on Irish modernism is also one of Lazarus' citations.


  1. In the glorious tradition of redundant comments, thank you Dougal, this is excellent.

  2. Here here, this is something that you should aim to reprint somewhere. Maybe Jacobin magazine or even somewhere like NLR (in expanded form) might even be worth a query.