theories and methodologies


Periods versus Concepts: Space Making and the Question of Postcolonial Literary History
ato quayson

AFTER BEING EXILED FROM NAZI GERMANY AND COMPLETING THE EXTRAORDINARY MIMESIS IN ISTANBUL IN 1946, ERICH AUERBACH WROTE from Princeton University in 1952, “Literary criticism now partici­ pates in a practical seminar on world history. . . . Our philological home is the earth: it can no longer be the nation.” Auerbach, who must be reckoned one of the great synthesists and literary histori­ ans of the twentieth century, was expressing a sentiment that will be familiar to anyone who has thought about world literature from a postcolonial perspective. While postcolonial literary studies may have helped deine the parameters of the practical seminar on world history, its full implications are still somewhat obscured by the ar­ guments about periodicity that are oten taken as a terminological necessity in applications of the term postcolonial. his is the burden imposed by the temporalizing post-. However, closer scrutiny of the postcolonial suggests that it contains mutually reinforcing periodiz­ ing and spatial functions. Many of the most common ideas that circulate in the ield, such as colonial encounter, neocolonialism, nationalism and postnationalism, hegemony, transnationalism, di­ asporas, and globalization, are organized around oten unacknowl­ edged spatial motifs. he concept of space that implicitly structures usages of postcolonialism is far from inert: there is an active dimen­ sion of spatializing in them that helps shape the ield’s distinctive­ ness. his is because even when the term is deployed exclusively for periodizing purposes, as in showing that the medieval period or Russia today is amenable to a postcolonial analysis, the nature of what is highlighted insistently invokes spatial practices. Once the spatial logic of postcolonialism is brought to the foreground, the complexity of its critical diagnostic as applied in the practical semi­ nar on world history becomes clearer. hough it is conventional to say that postcolonial studies was born with the publication of Edward Said’s landmark Orientalism in 1978 and acquired further insights from Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griiths, and Helen Tiin’s classic he Empire Writes Back, of 1989,

ATO QUAYSON is professor of English and inaugural director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. He is editor of the two-volume Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge UP, 2012).



” The word was first mentioned in PMLA articles in 1990 in an introduction to a special issue on African and African American literature by Henry Louis Gates.1 he earliest use of postcolonial in a largely periodizing. provided key parameters for debating the ield. Epochal Dates and the Character of Space Making Certain dates are now viewed as classic loci of the time and contradictory temporalities of the postcolonial: 1492 (Columbus’s arrival in America and the expulsion of Jews from Spain). Elleke Boehmer.2 Because Spivak. Ashcrot. 1791–1804 (the Haitian revolution). or various parts of the world in the mid–twentieth century after empire. R. temporal sense (and with a hyphen) in academic writing appeared in a 1910 essay by T. Her copanelists were Edward Said. M. Bart MooreGilbert. postindependence America. was in 1958 in the journal Comparative Literature in an article by Justus M. dwells on traces of the Finnish language along the Delaware River. Coetzee’s Dusklands. Moyne and published in the journal American Speech. Expanding the reach of the PMLA pieces by Gates and Castillo. J. and Achille Mbembe. Although the field expanded and consolidated in the 1990s. unhyphenated. hat essay. who has since let academia to work in green politics and neurocognitive training.” an MLA convention panel chaired by Gayatri Spivak. The term’s first unhyphenated application was apparently in a 1952 essay in language studies. Griiths. Dunlap and E. Said. 1798–1801 (Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign). whether in the pre-Homeric era. postcolonialism served as a temporal marker for a period ater colonialism. 1810–25 . by A. largely in a temporal sense. and an essay by Debra A. the 1983 panel. coming together halfway between the publications of the late 1970s and what was to become a veritable lood in the 1990s. 1603 (Lord Mountjoy’s colonization of the northern counties of Ireland). followed in 1995 and rapidly became a standard text. in a similar format. By the 1960s and 1970s the term had shited to the ields of African and Paciic area studies. Allen in the Journal of Hellenic Studies with reference to minor poets of the pre-Homeric era.. and William Pietz. Regionalism and Internationalism in Postcolonial Literature. Its irst use in literary studies. Austin. then at the University of Texas. saw a decisive shit of usage from the merely temporal to the more discursive and theoretical when Robert Young. after The Empire Writes Back. Aijaz Ahmad. Up to 1950 it was used in historical journals mainly with reference to the early American and Latin American republics. Bhabha. 2 ] Ato Quayson 343 theories and methodologies the prehistory of the term proves slightly more colorful than is generally supposed. Castillo on J. Gayatri Spivak. the period from the 1990s on. van der Kroef on the Indonesian colonial novel. Postcolonialism entered the comprehensive MLA International Bibliography in 1967. and Tiin’s Post-colonial Studies Reader. acquires special importance. Homi K. Ania Loomba. W. and Bhabha have long been recognized for their significant early theoretical contributions to the ield. then at the University of Sussex. Jr. because of the presentation that year of “Colonialist and Postcolonialist Discourse. and in 1981 the listing Forthcoming Meetings and Conferences in PMLA publicized a meeting of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies on the topic “Nationalism. In all the published usages before 1990. among others. Laura Chrisman and Patrick Williams’s 1993 Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial heory: A Reader was the irst collection of essays to present a genealogy of critical orientations in the ield. where the two variant uses (hyphenated and unhyphenated) were deployed interchangeably. Homi Bhabha. 1983 must be taken as the totemic date for the use of postcolonialism in an exclusively nontemporal sense in public academic debate.1 2 7.

which entailed the mass displacement of populations. its partition. “Postcolonial Literature” 16–20). Colonial space making is not merely the constitution of a geographically demarcated reality. and by 1526 Brazil was shipping sugar to Lisbon in commercial quantities (32–34). It would not be hyperbolic to suggest that the instrumentalization of population dispersal was a key component of colonial governmentality. 1492 and 1947 may be taken as useful bookends for the discussion here. some of which coalesced into diasporas. 1955–75 (the Vietnam War). such as the labor policies of indenturing. Guyana and Trinidad. In 1516 Santo Domingo was the irst Spanish settlement to ship sugar to Europe.3 The precise features of space making may difer. 1947 (the independence of India. and demographic makeup in places as diverse as Malaysia and Singapore. marking the independence and partition of India. Colonial space making is first and foremost the projection of a series of sociopolitical dimensions onto geographic space. colonial governmentality involved the creation of conditions for the dispersal of populations. 1857 (the bloody Sepoy uprising in Kanpur). but its inluence on the political. but they share features of historical violence and the processes of space making during and ater the colonial period. or in colonialism in postplantation economies (as in Sri Lanka. and Southeast Asia). and a wide range of symbolic and discursive practices. and Malaysia). set up to bring Indians to East Africa to help build the Uganda railway linking the interiors of Uganda and Tanzania with the Indian Ocean at the Kenyan port of Mombasa. or Sierra Leone and Mauritius has had a fundamental efect on the postcolonial. 1994 (the end of apartheid). Colonial space making is thus to be understood in terms of the relations that were structurally generated and contested across interrelated vectors throughout the colonial encounter (Quayson. 1954–62 (Algeria’s war of independence).344 theories and methodologies Periods versus Concepts [ PM L A (the independence of Brazil and Spanish America). Latin America. hese dates appear nonequivalent on irst look. Equally dramatic is 1947. 1884 (the Berlin Conference and the scrambling of Africa). Of the inaugural dates just listed. Canada. Whether through the direct establishment of colonial administrative and bureaucratic arrangements in the conversion of what were initially trade outposts (as in much of Africa. 1833 (the abolition of slavery in the British Empire). India. While some revisionist historians with an eye to identifying positive efects of empire have argued that colonial policy was often confused and unsystematic. though that is important. Jamaica. 1955 (the Bandung Conference). And in several instances. in 1493. And in each case . population dispersal was systematic and designed to meet particular economic needs (Bhachu. If postcolonialism is necessarily tied to the colonial owing to the simultaneous temporal and discursive framing of the ield. culture. Ghai and Ghai). hese dates are as emblematic of the spatial dynamics generated by the events they mark as they are of period demarcation. Sidney Mintz points out that sugar cane was irst carried to the New World by Columbus on his second voyage. it is the entire domain of colonial space making and its aterefects in the contemporary world that gives postcolonialism its significance today. and the birth of Pakistan). and arguably Ireland). it is still true that the British created and executed conditions for the relocation of major chunks of population during the colonial period throughout the empire. hese sociopolitical dimensions involve not just society and politics but also economy. or in settler colonialism (as in Australia. social. the resultant inequalities of which are being worked through to this day. he explorer’s notorious “discovery” of America was to trigger a wide range of spatializing processes. Columbus’s sugar cane signaled the progressive incorporation of the West Indies into the world capitalist economy through a particular spatial arrangement of centers and peripheries.

which was an implicit assumption undergirding Commonwealth literature. raising comparative questions and ones touching on world literature. Rushdie also maintained a long- standing interest in moments of epochality as a creative inspiration for some of his best writing. While this is largely true. ater the infamous fatwa of 1989 Rushdie turned decisively away from the trope of the epochal. However.1 2 7. Independence in the postcolonial world brought about the reconiguration of the dynamics of space making. Luka and the Fire of Life. Karin Barber also has shown that the vitality of Yoruba literature seems linked not to concerns about the Nigerian nationstate as such but to the internal dimensions of what it is to be a Yoruba in rapidly changing concentric worlds. As a general rule. Spivak. but his latest. and this has to be accounted for in its implications for the kinds of postcolonial literary history that might be adduced. their imagining of the Yoruba nation was marked by analogies with the biblical nation epic. Despite its significance for literaryhistorical purposes. etc. if nothing else. he point to be taken from Ahmad. Jamaica. Salman Rushdie’s writing career is especially instructive in this respect. Australia. nation-state-inflected or not. Shalimar the Clown. Fury. as Aijaz Ahmad did regarding Indian-language literatures. and he Enchantress of Florence have nothing epochal in them. the earliest anthologies of Commonwealth literature consolidated this national principle. who are credited with others for having discursively projected the disparate tribal Yorubas as one nation. of Pakistan in Shame. Crucially.4 There is no escaping the relevance of the nation-state to discussions of postcolonial literary history. Barber. whether this was the birth of India in Midnight’s Children. it was readily adopted as the default organizing principle for analyses of literary history. the Caribbean. Yoruba identity is historically tied to the imagining of nationhood. He deploys a somewhat attenuated form of it in he Moor’s Last Sigh and by he Ground beneath Her Feet has abandoned the trope altogether. with entries appearing irst under regional headers (such as Africa. but not because the nation-state somehow encapsulates the Herderian racial and cultural spirit of a people. even though the postcolonial nation-state sufers from an unnatural belatedness. Despite this shit. the epochality of the nation-state persists in the literary output of key writers in the ield. which is a classic genre of space making. While the centrality of the nation-state continues to organize literary history in the ield. the concept of nationstate epochality has to be qualified with reference to non-Europhone literatures. reprises the terrific storytelling for young adults he showed himself a master of twenty years earlier in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 2 ] Ato Quayson 345 theories and methodologies the postcolonial literary history of a speciic group or location has to take account of the problematic consonance of periodization with space making that constitutes the literary and aesthetic objects of study.). at least in the terms set up by Yoruba cultural brokers of the nineteenth century such as Bishop Ajayi Crowther and the Reverend Samuel Johnson. Starting in the 1960s. and Asia) and then under subrubrics of nation-states (Nigeria. it does so under a more problematized guise. Postcolonial literature came to directly refract these new spatial dynamics. and others who have ref lected on the question of local-language literatures is that the predominant attention to Europhone literatures in postcolonial studies distorts the multiple reconigurations of the narrations of identity that take place in the postcolonial world. independence placed in view modes of epochality that afected the spatial practices internal to the new nation-states and restructured the political relations of these nation-states with their erstwhile metropolitan colonial overlords. As Dipesh Chakrabarty has pointed out. .5 In elaborating a complex transnational aesthetic in the course of his career. or of Islam in he Satanic Verses.

when economic hardship and rationing are realities to be dealt with in Egypt. An example of a particularity that is also a threshold of various relations is the inexplicable anger of the characters in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Midaq Alley. postcolonial or otherwise. to adopt the terms of M. one that is never made directly manifest in the text but is repeatedly referred to as the narrative progresses. particularly in the literary engagement with the sublime. and the Reading of Literature What does an understanding of the spatial performativity of postcolonialism imply for the reading of literature? First a prior question needs to be addressed: what is the literary for postcolonial studies? Despite our distance from the commentator who opined enthusiastically that a page of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People was “worth a ton of documentary journalism” (qtd. from Hussain Kirsha’s marching of to work with the soldiers and returning with a small fortune. More important. Calibrations 22–37). while the placid and otherwise unlappable Abbas expresses a molten anger at the end of the novel that costs him his life. in Larson 16). Even the holy man Radwan Hussainy and the absentminded Sheik Darwish are described as having had an angry past. violence. the novel shows that all economic opportunities are ultimately tied to the British army. The novel is set in the Second World War. must be viewed irst and foremost as a textual tapestry of particularities and thresholds. to Hamida’s discovering on her walks that the Jewish girls work in a factory supplying clothes to the army. Furthermore. he relations between particularities and thresholds is genre-speciic: thus. As I have argued elsewhere with regard to disability. 22–24. Abrams’s insightful discussion of the critical tradition. they difer in. the encounter with the disabled character generates aesthetic nervousness in the literary text that can only be understood when the text is read as an interaction between particularities and thresholds (Aesthetic Nervousness 15–19.6 his risk is particularly pressing given postcolonialism’s correct insistence on placing an ethical dimension to the fore of literary analysis. and the dark and evil-minded Zaita. where their businesses and households are found and which lends a veneer of quaintness in the face of the rapidly changing social and political landscape of Cairo? he answer must be more than that. Social Imaginaries. sometimes with little or no preparation? Is this to be explained by the famous Midaq Alley. the relations between particularities and thresholds are also rendered unpredictable. It is the British army camp located elsewhere in Cairo. or short-circuited. we must not conclude that postcolonial literature is either mirror or lamp. H. Other characters express themselves angrily and for no defensible reason: Husniya the bakeress. Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea or in Derek Walcott’s poetry and that of Nissim Ezekiel. expressed at various points in the novel. to Salim Alwan’s making a killing from the commercial prospects opened up by the shortage of goods. In my opinion literature. say. Salim Alwan the merchant. lord of the underworld in the novel. heir explosions of rage are not limited to constitutively angry characters such as the cynical Husain Kirsha and the beautiful and unpredictable Hamida. and disability. Why this incredible and ferocious anger. to the pimp Ibrahim Faraj’s training prostitutes in the proper “English” comportment for servicing the British . there are still ample opportunities for misapprehending postcolonial literature as being a simple relection of conditions in postcolonial societies. And yet whatever our critical interests. Particularities inhere in cultural or sociohistorical details but may also open under pressure onto thresholds of literary signiication.346 theories and methodologies Periods versus Concepts [ PM L A Spatial Logics. for the social relations that unfold in Midaq Alley are actually overdetermined by another space.

For a fuller discussion of the genealogies of the term postcolonialism. Auerbach. Print. V. This is a problem of the social imaginary. New York: Oxford UP.1 (1969): 1–17. he Post-colonial Studies Reader. I wish to say a special thanks to David Chioni Moore and Elizabeth DeLoughrey.colonial heory: A Reader. London: Tavistock. Athol Fugard. since the dates automatically imply historical. Tsitsi Danga rembga. “Coetzee’s Dusklands: The Mythic Punctum.. . Desani. Vol. this was brought to me dramatically some years ago when I was invited to make a presentation on hings Fall Apart to a composition class at a prestigious university in the United States. T. see Quayson. Bhachu. Raja Rao. for sharing so generously the research they and earlier members of the committee had done on the etymology of postcolonialism while they were gaining division status for the ield. and Patrick Williams. he reasons for the characters’ variant anger may be that they have no avenue out of their narrow everyday lives except through the occupying army.oriented tendency can be productively discussed under a nation.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 30 (1910): 292–322. 1971. Print. which in this novel is tied to the spatially layered dimensions of social relations. “Philology and Weltliteratur. 1993. Print. with whom I served on the executive committee of the Division on Postcolonial Studies in Literature and Culture in 2007. 1. Chakrabarty. Anton Shammas. London: Routledge. A thorough postcolonial literary historical account of anger and its relation to a spatial constriction would require us to start with an examination of the oeuvre of one writer and then to compare it with other writers’ work showing a similar dynamic. E. Naguib Mahfouz. who dug up all the relevant pieces tracing the etymology of the term.” PMLA 105.5 (1990): 1108–22. London: Verso.” Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature. Castillo. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial hought and Historical Diference. In heory: Classes. Ater an hour of what I thought was a detailed examination of the novel. 357–78. Print. This nation. and the spatial all at once. Literatures. he Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic heory and the Critical Tradition. Nayantara Saghal. eds. 1985. M. Ed. cannot restrict itself to dates or periods. Print. Print. 1953. Barber. 1995. Print. Gareth Griffiths. Dipesh. Princeton: Princeton UP. 3. WORKS CITED Abrams. 2011. the people in the alley always mention the British army and the war. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2 ] Ato Quayson 347 theories and methodologies troops. Nations. Erich. Aijaz. “he Homeric Catalogue. And throughout their conversations in the infernal blackouts that mark their nights. Print. Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi. Ashcroft. then. W. he pitfalls of unmediated readings of postcolonial literary writing as a form of testimonial are still real. Edward Said and Marie Said.” Trans.” 2. whether in the same national domain or not. 1994.” A special thanks must also go to Mohamad Awad. epoch-making events and the inauguration of various spatial relations. the historical. For a contrast to the East African example. “Literature in Yoruba. G. Michael Ondaatje. hieme and Walder are two anthologies governed by the same essential nation orientation. NOTES 1. Bill. Allen. Print. Debra A. eds. Laura. Chrisman. Periodization in postcolonial literary studies. Ahmad. H. Chinua Achebe.1 2 7. Centennial Review 13.and-narration rubric and would typically include some or all of the output of writers like Wole Soyinka. London: Harvester. see Patke’s discussion of the language policy in Southeast Asia and its roots as the historical by-product of migrant populations brought to the region. 4. and many others. Moore suggested 1983 as a totemic date in his introductory remarks at the 2007 MLA convention panel “Postcolonial Studies since 1983: Ref lective Assessments. and Helen Tiffin. Print. Isabel Allende. Twice Migrants: East African Sikh Settlers in Britain. Karin. “Postcolonial Literature.g. he social imaginary is also the product of particularities and thresholds and reveals the interactions of space with time and space as time and as story. the irst question I was asked was. 5. 6. 2000. he challenge remains how to assemble reading practices that allow us to read the rhetorical. Colonial Discourse and Post. “Do you subscribe to wife beating?” he implications of this astounding question for understanding the assumed relation between literature and society in the postcolonial world are not as easy to overcome as they might irst appear. Parminder. my intrepid research assistant.

Print. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2011. Gates. New York: Columbia UP.colonial Literatures in English. 2011. Post-colonial Literatures in English: History.1 (1990): 11–22. Walder. he Arnold Anthology of Post. 1985. Trevor Le Gassick. Sidney. Print. Spivak. Print. J. Print. Ghai. 2 vols. Midaq Alley. hieme. Nairobi: Oxford UP. Print. Dennis. . A. Naguib. “he Finnish Language on the Delaware. Dharam P. Trans.3 (1958): 215–31. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation. Sir. New York: Columbia UP. Washington: hree Continents. 2003. 352–84. 1989.” he Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature. Language. heory. R.” Comparative Literature 10. 2003. Quayson.348 theories and methodologies Periods versus Concepts [ PM L A Dunlap. 2007. “Postcolonial Literature in Southeast Asia. Print.” Introduction. Portrait of a Minority: Asians in East Africa. Rajeev. 1988.” American Speech 27. Calibrations: Reading for the Social. Vol. and Yash P. Print. John. Print. he Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature. “he Colonial Novel in Indonesia. Ghai. Oxford: Blackwell. Charles. “Postcolonial Literature in a Changing Historical Frame. Justus M. . Patke. Jr. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. Print. eds. Sweetness and Power: he Place of Sugar in Modern History. Print. Ato. van der Kroef. New York: Penguin. “Tell Me.. 1978. . 1. Larson.2 (1952): 81– 90. London: Macmillan. Vol 1. London: Arnold. Moyne. Print. 1970. Print. ———. and E. Print. . Cambridge: Cambridge UP. Mintz. 1996. What Is ‘Black’ Literature?” PMLA 105. Henry Louis.. ———. he Emergence of African Fiction. Gayatri. Mahfouz. 1–29. ed. Death of a Discipline. Print.

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