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McDonagh E (1999) Review of English and the Discourses of Colonialism (1)

McDonagh E (1999) Review of English and the Discourses of Colonialism (1)

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world's other scienti®c and linguistic communities and, therefore, by languagecentre policy makers.As I remarked earlier, I have discussed only a limited number of the topics dealtwith in the two collections under review. Although this was inevitable given thesheer volume of the material they contain, it does risk giving a somewhat misleadingpicture of their overall contents. I have not mentioned, for example, the variousarticles on testing or certi®cation, or languages for speci®c purposes.One last thought: the spread of university language centres continues apace,especially in southeast AsiaÐHong Kong probably has the greatest number in theworld per head of student population. Why has nobody thought of a
Confe de rationMondiale
Riley, P, 1991. ``There's nothing as practical as a good theory'': research, teaching and learning functionsin language centres. In: Prat Zagrebelsky, M.T. (Ed.), The Study of English in Italian Universities.Edizioni dell' Orso, Alessandria, Italy, pp. ± 
P. Riley
Centre de Recherches et d'Applications Pe dagogiques en LanguesUniversite de NancyII Place Godefroi de BouillonF-54015 Nancy Ce dex, France
Pennycook, Alastair,
English and the Discourses of Colonialism
. London: Routledge,1998, 239 pp., US $75.00, UK £50.00 hb/US $22.99, UK $15.99 pb.
It has long been the central conceit of Alastair Pennycook's work that there can beno universal knowledge, no facts or truth, but rather the `facts' and `truth eects'produced by the vortex of Foucauldian discourses that de®nes our world for us.With the fervour of an evangelist he has sought to rescue applied linguistics from itssilent servitude to the Enlightenment and have it walk instead down the hetero-geneous and contingent byways of postmodernism. Once freed from the tyranny of fact and reason, applied linguistics can, perhaps, play a part in the racial and sexualemancipation of those whose lives it aects. At the very least its practitioners, par-ticularly in the area of ELT, can be held accountable for their actions.This present volume is an extension of this project. It seeks to expand uponthemes ®rst touched on in Pennycook's previous (Pennycook, 1994) book, namely,
0346-251X/99/$ - see front matter
1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.PII: S0346-251X(99)00038-X
Book reviews/System 27 (1999) 577±600
the complex role played by the English language in British colonialism and the partplayed by that colonialism in the formation of the discourse of ELT. Pennycookalso wishes to show that, ``The practice of colonialism produced ways of thinking,saying and doing that permeated back into the cultures and discourses of thecolonial nations'' (p. 2), In general terms this is all to the good. Citizens of nationsthat once had large overseas colonies cannot be reminded often enough of the degreeto which their present economic and cultural circumstances have been formed bytheir colonial past. It is also true that there is a certain strand of inward-lookingtechnicism present in applied linguistics and ELT, and any attempt to makepractitionersÐin the latter area in particularÐthink of their activities in broaderterms than the promotion of eective second language acquisition must bewelcome. However, in spite of the many telling points that are made, the credi-bility of Pennycook's central arguments is fatally undermined by his reliance on atotalising Foucauldian critique, the epistemological basis of which contradicts itsown performance. It is to a brief exposition of this contradiction that I will nowturn.It is only a small exaggeration to say that for Pennycook discourse is all. Discoursehere is not to be understood in the usual applied linguistics sense of language used atthe suprasentential level. It refers rather to organisations of knowledge that de®neand limit how we look at and understand the world. The word ``knowledge'' in theprevious sentence does not refer to any, objective or independent phenomenon. Asdiscourses shift and change over time, what is taken to be knowledge does likewise.As there is no Archimedean point from which to view the world, all knowledge, allnotions of truth, are held to be of strictly local validity and relevance.Examples abound in this book of Pennycook's continued adherence to a strongform of this idea: ``there is no reality outside the discourses that construct our rea-lities, only the possibility of critically analysing the truth eects of these discourses''(p. 164). This relativistic view, which sees knowledge as rooted solely in the situationand condition from which it springs and denies it any degree of universality, cannotbe advanced without a performative self-contradiction. If it is impossible to stepoutside local and particular circumstances to make statements of universal validity,then it must be impossible for Pennycook too, even if that is exactly the point hewishes to make. In eect, he is saying to his readers that all claims to universalvalidity are groundless with the exception of his own: while everyone else is stuck inthe quagmire of particularity, he jumps up to make his claim for universality. Theviewpoint of Olympian detachment implicitly claimed by the statement quotedabove cannot, by its own account, exist.Some serious consequences ¯ow from this contradiction. It is not possiblesimultaneously to be concerned with the state of the world and to believe that anobjective description of that state (however tentative) is impossible. The wholethrust of this book indicates that Pennycook does believe that an objective descrip-tion of the world is possible. If that is not so, then it is dicult to understandРto take one example from many possibleÐhis deployment of household incomestatistics to support his argument that colonial education policy has helped tofoster economic inequality in Hong Kong (p. 197). While he explicitly rejects facts
Book reviews/System 27 (1999) 577±600
and reason as part of the enslaving discourse of the Enlightenment, he repeatedlyresorts to a combination of them to convince his readers of the veracity of hisargument.There is anotherÐperhaps deeperÐproblem with Pennycook's brand of episte-mological relativism. If the notion of truth is wholly relativised to particular discoursesor social practices, then it must be open to very grave doubt whether any notion of  justice or injustice is tenable. The consequences of this for Pennycook's critique arenot dicult to see. To take one example, he makes a convincing attack on the pri-vileges enjoyed by foreign educational sta in Hong Kong. However, if we are totake him at his epistemological word, the authors of that system of privilege wouldhave a ready response to his criticisms. They would only have to claim that withintheir discourse of education and development the privileges enjoyed by overseas sta are entirely justi®ed. It is dicult to see how he could respond to such a retort. If heheld to his stated beliefs, then he would be obliged to accept an equally valid per-ception of the situationÐmerely an alternative `truth eect' to his ownÐand fallsilent. The only other option for him would be to oer a rejoinder based on someuniversally valid notion of truth and knowledge complete with a supporting array of facts and reasons.For this reader at least, the performative contradiction at the heart of this bookrenders it incoherent and a failure. In spite of this, though, it is to Pennycook'scredit that he manages to make a few useful points along the way. For me some thebest parts of the book come in Chapter 6. Here he takes issue with the tendency, stillcommon in ELT, to regard learners as no more than ciphers for whatever the pre-valent notion of their culture is. A kind of poor man's Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, thisstyle of thought tends to view `them' as vague and ambiguous, depersonalisedembodiments of their culture, without a voice and history of their own. `We' on theother hand, are rational and direct. We communicate clearly, without ambiguity andwith appropriate supporting evidence. We speak our language, their languagespeaks them.Pennycook's attack on this kind of thinking is well merited and cogent. It also hasits ironic aspects as there is a fair element of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Penny-cook's own notion that certain discourses adhere to certain languages (p. 5, 7f). Thecogency dissolves, however, when he gets to the end of the chapter. After extendinghis critique with an equally worthwhile attack on colonialist tropes in travel writing,he is undone by his allegiance to the contradictory Foucauldian views outlinedabove: ``it is not the truth or falsity of discourse that is the interestingÐor even thepossibleÐquestion here'' (p. 181). The profound wrong-headedness of this view ishard to fathom. How is the lazy stereotyping of learners that he so rightly condemnsto be combated if not by exposing its falsity? Indeed with regard to Chinese learners,a group obviously close to Pennycook's heart, a start in this direction was mademore than a decade ago. Mohan and Au-Yeung Lo's work led them to concludethat ``we might expect accomplished Chinese writers to have a positive advantage inEnglish composition. In other words positive transfer is likely to be important''(Mohan and Au-Yeung Lo, 1985, p. 521). Nothing could more sharply contradictthe usual stereotype of the Chinese learner of English. Serious studies such as this,
Book reviews/System 27 (1999) 577±600

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