BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 3, Number 1 (Fall 2001)
 
E. San Juan, Beyond Postcolonial Theory

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
 x+325 pp. ISBN 0312224788 (paper). 

Reviewed by Waïl S. Hassan 
Illinois State University

It is useful, even at the risk of simplifying, to identify two broad and contentious currents within the field of postcolonial studies.  The one studies imperialism and its discursive and material practices from a Marxist perspective (Césaire, Fanon), while the other, more recent current frames its critique within the poststructuralist interrogation of Enlightenment ideology, logocentrism, the Subject, and what Lyotard calls “grand narratives” (postcolonial theory).  While the poststructuralist current prioritizes discourse analysis, the Marxist reads colonialism as a phase in the history of capitalism, which in no way ends with formal independence.  In this account, the world-wide expansion of capitalism, and the attendant mechanisms of globalization, are the latest phase of imperialism, whose “cultural logic,” in Fredric Jameson’s phrase, is postmodernism.  From this perspective, postcolonial theory--the name given to varieties of poststructuralist propositions about colonial discourse advocated by influential critics like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha--becomes at best oblivious to the historical evolution of imperialism, or at worst, a complicitous propagation of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism.

Epifanio San Juan’s Beyond Postcolonial Theory is the latest elaboration of this view, coming as it does on the heels of Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992) and Arif Dirlik’s The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997).  San Juan shares an ideological affinity with Ahamd and Dirlik--as well as a tendency to dismissive oversimplification and homogenization of opponents’ complex positions--that may add up as follows: “Despite its prima facie radicalism . . . postcolonial discourse mystifies the political/ideological effects of Western postmodernist hegemony and prevents change.  It does so by espousing a metaphysics of textualism, as in Gayatri Spivak’s . . . ‘fetishism of the archives of imperialist governance,’ or in Bhabha’s . . . analogous cult of linguistic/psychological ambivalence.  Such idealist frameworks of cognition void the history of people’s resistance to imperialism, liquidate popular memory, and renounce responsibility for any ethical consequence of thought” (San Juan 22).  Since these arguments have already been made by others, the book is in one respect not so original; however, the explicit aim of the group of essays collected in it, which, as the author submits, enjoy “an ethicopolitical if not organic consistency,” is to convey a “spirit of solidarity” (18) that brings intellectual labor closer to the real-time experience of anti-imperialist activists, whose day-to-day struggles become the touchstone for theory’s validity.  In other words, in San Juan’s work, postcolonial theory stands accused of ivory-tower intellectualism and poststructuralist sublimation in the name of the oppressed, instead of emanating out of, and being guided by, their experience (56-7).  Postcolonial theory thus becomes a symptom of capitalism’s alienation of (intellectual) labor, and an unwitting enforcer of such alienation: “Postcolonial theory generated in ‘First World’ academies turns out to be one product of flexible, post-Fordist capitalism, not its antithesis” (30).

The alternative, according to San Juan, is a materialist analysis of the conditions and resistance strategies of the “Third World”--a term he prefers to “postcolonial” and uses not so much as the analytic category posited by the now defunct Three Worlds Theory, but as a militant trope for all the wretched of the earth wherever they may be, including those in the “belly of the beast” (81).  Such practices grounded in dialectical materiality cannot be “postalized,” as evidenced, San Juan contends in Chapter 1, in the life work of Rigoberta Menchu, C.L.R. James (to whom San Juan devotes a good part of this chapter and the entirety of Chapter 7), and Maria Lorena Barros.  The materialist approach San Juan recommends is grounded, contra poststructuralist dogma, in universalist ideals of common humanity, revolution, and emancipation.  Of course, this position does not simply endorse Enlightenment universalism, with its pervasive Eurocentrism; rather, San Juan’s endeavor points to the need for a reformulated humanism that discards the idealist hierarchization of cultures and races which was the pitfall of European Enlightenment: the activists, intellectuals, and freedom fighters mentioned above illustrate “modes of inventing autochthonous traditions that defy postmodernist skepticism or irony and offer materials for articulating hopes and dreams not found in the classic European Enlightenment and its mirror-opposite, postcolonial relativism and pragmatic nominalism” (52).  However, the project of theorizing a new universalist ethics is only alluded to (as it is, incidentally, in some of Edward Said’s latest writings, despite San Juan’s hasty lumping of Said with the poststructuralist hordes), not undertaken in a book the pressing task of which is to hammer the last nail in the coffin of poststructuralist-inspired postcolonial theory.

Given that postcolonial theory has focused almost exclusively on the South Asian model (despite the fact that Said’s decisive contribution focused on the Arab Middle East), it is without a doubt one of the great merits of this book that it gives extensive treatment to the Philippines (Chapter 2 and elsewhere), a post/neo-colony of the United States that has been virtually invisible to postcolonial theory, even as the authors of the influential textbook, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989) (in)famously pontificate that canonical U.S. literature “is paradigmatic for post-colonial literatures everywhere” (2).  In one respect, “Filipino writers (excluded from the horizon of Commonwealth postcolonial scholarship) . . . implicitly problematize the possibility, in late capitalism, of composing a U.S. ‘national’ literary history in a space constituted by multiple nationalities and racialized diasporic communities--all internal colonies of a still hegemonic nation-state.”  In another respect, the case of the Philippines and “the resistant, emergent Filipino imagination” reveals the pitfall of postcolonial theory’s blithe celebration of the “hybrid nomad” and unquestioning stance toward postmodern valorization of multiculturalism, which is a function of “the ‘power/knowledge’ constellation of the dominant U.S. polity” (59).

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 elaborate this argument.  For San Juan, the result of the valorization of multiculturalism has been the undue emphasis placed on the politics of representation and the obsession with the question of who speaks for whom (Chapters 1 and 3).  Gayatri Spivak’s intervention in this field, as well as the work of the Indian Subaltern Studies Group, prompts San Juan to revisit Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the “subaltern” in order to demonstrate that “[i]n contrast to conventional usage [in postcolonial theory], the ‘subaltern’ is not so much an empirical fact as a theoretical element in understanding order and change in society” (87), and “a condition of disintegration, heteronomy, subjection to contingency and brute matter” (91).  As such, the question of whether or not the subaltern can be represented within the dominant structures of power/knowledge circumvents the revolutionary role of subalternity vis-á-vis those structures.  For San Juan, this role is discernible in the insurgent work of Nawal El-Saadawi, Paolo Freire, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

The multicultural imaginary (Chapter 4) which informs postcolonial and postmodern theory is itself structured around commodity fetishism and is, therefore, incapable of conceiving of revolutionary alternatives.  According to San Juan, “U.S. racial politics today is no longer chiefly mediated by biological and naturalistic ascriptions of value, but rather by symbolic cultural interpellations . . . pivoting around the affirmation of ‘a common culture,’ around the question of ‘What is America? What is an American?’” (131).  An extended detour into Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism leads San Juan to conclude that “the multiculturalist Imaginary at first glance remains in the stage of the expanded form of value.  Believing in the unrepeatable authenticity of use values embodied in art and other cultural practices, the multiculturalist nonetheless submits to a process of endless substitutions in the hope that this will do away with hierarchy, with domination and subordination.”  These substitutions replicate the process of commodification, whereby use value is reduced to abstract value (money).  All cultures become commodifiable in the sense that such substitutions among them become conceivable in the event of their reduction to a universal equivalent.  “Unfortunately, this search for a universal equivalent form of value can lead only into the complete reign of commodity fetishism--the money form of value--which equalizes everything in abstraction: the liberal banalities that all cultural groups share common concerns, dreams, anxieties, ideals, etc.” (143).  Once again, this phony, We-Are-the-World egalitarianism achieved in the domain of the Symbolic mystifies the unequal relations of production which constitute the Real.

This leads San Juan to reintroduce the forgotten paradigm of the “internal colony” proposed by Robert Blauner (in Racial Oppression in America, New York: Harper and Row, 1972) and Michael Hechter (in Internal Colonialism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), as an alternative to multiculturalism, with special reference to U.S. Asian cultural formations (Chapter 5).  Endorsing Blauner’s argument that “communities of color in America share essential conditions with third world nations abroad: economic underdevelopment, a heritage of colonialism and neocolonialism, and a lack of real political economy and power” (Blauner 72, San Juan 156), San Juan argues that postmodern valorization of “hybridity,” “fragmentation,” and “the alleged dispersal of power into shifting and arbitrary sites of the social field . . . disables any long range collective project” and does not address “the racializing agencies of ‘whiteness’ in a settler society, the political economy of ‘internal colonialism,’ and the continuing injustices and oppression fomented by institutional racism” (165).  He goes on to examine the implications of postmodernism and multiculturalism for Asian American Studies programs in U.S. universities and suggests a remapping of that field.

Beyond U.S. borders, the multicultural imaginary finds its realization in “the multinational capitalist world-system” (193) and its utopian vision of globalization (Chapter 6).  Postmodern and postcolonial rejection of nationalism, for San Juan, plays into the hands of global capitalism, which seeks--through agencies like the World Bank/IMF and the World Trade Organization--to weaken the nation-state’s control over national economies in the Third World, for the benefit of multinational corporations.  By contrast, nation-states in the First World are under no such pressure, and postcolonial theory “has nothing to say on the role of these national states as instruments of exploitation.  It is blind to state machinery as a means of accelerating monopoly capital concentration” (201), and takes no account of the fact that “[t]he unequal division of international labor and the abundant supply of such cheap ‘Third World’ labor in the world market, as well as the hegemonic pressures of the centers of finance capital, all converge to reverse the equalizing and liberating power of abstract exchange value” (223).  In order to salvage the validity of national liberation struggles from the wreckage of poststructuralism and postcolonialism, San Juan proposes a “Bakhtinian approach to the nation as a mode of collective interpellation,” premised on “Bakhtin’s communicative process as dialogical exchange among interlocutors in specific historic conjunctures” (201).  This model hearkens back to Fanon’s rejection, in “Concerning Violence,” of “Senghor’s hybrid African socialism with its easy mix of carnivalesque tropes, cannibalism, and transnational metaphysics of ‘confederation with France,’” and of “postcolonial symbiosis of Self and Other (the postmodern version is Homi Bhabha’s ‘in-betweenness’) for a more dialectical narrative of self-emergence” (210).

Such narrative emerges in the work of the Marxist diasporic thinker C.L.R. James (Chapter 7), who provides San Juan with an example of “how the political and artistic engagements of a decolonizing subject can refunction the master discourse of ‘dialectical materialism’ without being complicit in restoring or recuperating domination.”  In an implicit reference to Said’s influential reading of Marx in Orientalism (and which provoked Aijaz Ahmad’s venomous attack on Said in In Theory), San Juan finds in James a dialectical materialist discourse which is “remodeled to speak to/about circumstances and protagonists beyond those addressed by its originary theoreticians,” but which remains universalist--in so far as it is heir to “the legacy of European Enlightenment from Spinoza and Hegel to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky” (228)--and therefore useful both to revolutionary practice and to narratives of emancipation.  It allows San Juan to “imagine the end of empire” (Chapter 8), “[b]efore the waning of third worldism into the eclectic cosmopolitanism of postcoloniality” (254). 

Against this threat, San Juan is willing to defend even Fredric Jameson’s thesis about Third World literature and the national allegory (also pulverized by Ahmad): the “unashamedly totalizing (but not essentializing) framework” (257) from which it springs has the merit of “displacing the empiricist hybridity ascribed to ‘postcolonial’ texts” and bolsters a “liberatory hermeneutic . . . [that] goes beyond the prejudiced horizon of readers/audiences and ludic zones of indeterminacy, passing critical judgment on transitory social arrangements from the perspective of mankind’s struggle for freedom, justice, and happiness for all” (258).  Allegory allows for solidarity since it allows the Third World to present itself “as a complex of narratives juxtaposing movements of disenfranchisement and of empowerment, of ruptures and convergences” (259).  Far from ambivalent and undecidable, such texts constitute “emergency writing” in the tradition of “Fanon, Mao, Che Guevarra, Malcom X . . . Aimé Césaire . . . Rigoberta Menchu . . . Ngugi, [Mahmoud] Darwish, [Roque] Dalton, and others in their besieged positions” (265).  Thus for San Juan the alternative to deconstructive postcolonialism is a “dialectical method of allegorizing the resistance of the subjugated” (268) which, far from being essentialist, monolithic, or reductive, highlights “the solidarity of peoples of color, their history of creativity and resourcefulness, their heterogeneous cultures of resistance, their commitment to the dignity and freedom of specific communities as the best hope for humankind’s survival and regeneration in the . . . [new] millennium” (273).

Immensely learned and passionately argued, Beyond Postcolonial Theory is an important intervention in the fields of postcolonial and cultural studies which has, unfortunately, not received sufficient attention since its publication.  This may in part be attributed to the diffuseness of the central arguments of the book, its repetitiveness and overall poor editorial work, and the sometimes lengthy and cumbersome detours into the foundational texts of Marx and Gramsci, which are nonetheless instructive for those unfamiliar with them, but which strikingly contrast with the author’s impatience with, and reductive treatment of the texts of his avowed adversaries.  For example, there is no acknowledgment whatsoever that San Juan’s essentially humanistic position (insofar as it remains faithful to universalist ideals of emancipation, justice, and equality) is rather similar to Said’s, a critic whose intellectual project is inconceivable without his exemplary political activism.  One of the few truly public intellectuals, Said can hardly be described as ludically scholastic or utopically textualist, as San Juan likes to characterize all postcolonialists.  Likewise, Spivak’s unquestionable commitment to Marxism merits not even a passing mention in a book which aims at displacing postcolonial theory with Marxist critique.  Such flaws, however, do not blunt the force of the book’s ethical commitment and its powerful advocacy of a more responsible, vigilant, and historically informed critical practice.  The book is a powerful reminder of the truly important issues for imperialized societies and their cultures of resistance, as well as a sobering catalogue of the excesses of poststructuralism and postcolonialism.


URL: SanJuan.html; Last updated: Fall, 2001; mail to: Complitreview@brynmawr.edu
Return to Table of Contents; Return to Issue List; Return to Front Page