You are on page 1of 20

Public Culture

CAN POSTCCLONIALITY

ECOLONIZED?
IMPKIAL MNALITY AND POSTCOLONIAL POWK
@%

fRNANGU COKONlL

The death penalty here seems to have no other purpose than death.
Achille Mbembe
In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion.
They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is
merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to
perceive a contradiction,to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, etc.
Michel Foucault

Those interested in postcolonial societies, just as those interested in the


workings of power anywhere, will undoubtedly find suggestive ideas in
Achille Mbembes The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity
in the Postcolony, for in a few pages he imaginatively casts a wide net that
covers vast historical and theoretical terrains. His article explores issues of
power in relation to postcoloniality as a general phenomenon. The notion of
The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity in the Postcolony, Public
Culture 4/2 (Spring 1992): 1-30. I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to Lessie Jo
Frazier, Jennifer Jenkins, and Julie Skurski, with whom I discussed Mbembes text and
shaped my response to it, to Lemuel Johnson, whose insightful comments refined my
argument, and to Fred Cooper, Bruce Mannheim, and Rafael Siinchez, who helped me
smooth some rough edges. I am responsible for the argument advanced here and for the
roughness that remains.
Public Culture

89

Published by Duke University Press

Vol. 5 , No. 1: Fall 1992

Public Culture

90

yUBLK: @LTUK

postcolony, for him, simply refers to the specific identity of a given historical trajectory, that of societies recently emerging from the experience of
colonization (2). His discussion links a number of separate incidents, presented as a string of brief vignettes and examples, together with a series of
general propositions. While his focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa and most of
the cases come from Cameroon and Togo, his examples are used to illustrate a generic postcolony whose forms of power - or commandement
as an all-embracing regime of authority -constitute the main subject of the
article. His claim is to have caught a new view not only of regimes of power
in postcolonial societies but of power itself.
I recognize that Mbembes essay may be valued precisely for its mode
of vision, for the abandon with which it explores the murky terrain where
desire and power intersect in societies formed by the clash of conflicting designs, and for its ability to illuminate a vast territory through the refractions
of multiple examples and propositions. In my view, however, there is a
connection between its perspective and its vision; the articles image of the
postcolony overshadows its insights and raises questions concerning its
standpoint. Thus, while I find value in his effort to explore the informal
field of relations which binds together rulers and ruled through shared conventions of quotidian vulgarity and ceremonial grandeur, I remain unconvinced by his approach and by his argument.
This discussion of Mbembes article reflects the importance I attach to
its subject matter as well as my concern that this text instantiates a mystifying current of social analysis that draws on certain postmodern theoretical
postulates and stylistic conventions currently in vogue. Thus my response
addresses his argument as much as the intellectual wave it rides on. Paying
respect to Mbembes provocative contribution to the study of postcoloniality
by giving close attention to his text, I have sought to engage our differences
constructively, not polemically, in the spirit celebrated by Foucault with respect to the work of reciprocal elucidation. To facilitate this discussion, I
examine first Mbembes illustrations of postcoloniality; second, his propositions concerning its character; and third, the image of the postcolony that
emerges from his work. I conclude by outlining some propositions for the
study of postcoloniality, vulgarity, and power.

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

91
ILLUSTRATIONS OF ...

Mbembes examples are taken from the media and from scholarly
works, and refer to a variety of situations which in one way or another illustrate the postcolonial commandement: the use of grotesque bodily political
metaphors by the Togolese, Cameroonians and Congolese; an instance in
which the Kenyan police beat a man from Busia for failing to salute the flag;
the public execution of two men in Cameroon accused of petty crimes; the
disciplining of a Kenyan teacher who wore a beard against the
governments strictures; the ceremonial transfer of office in Cameroon; the
lure of Western commodities among Cameroonians; the funeral ceremony of
a public officer in Cameroon, and so forth. The information we are given
about these illustrations does not extend much beyond the quotes cited from
journalistic or scholarly accounts. Although Mbernbe interprets these accounts with remarkable imagination, he treats them as if they were selfcontained and self-evident units, and thus as if we did not need to know
much of anything about their contexts and circumstances or about the societies whose character they purportedly illustrate. Journalistic stories seem to
be treated as sources of accurate information, not as interventions in cultural
and political processes which must themselves be situated and deconstructed. Novels are invoked to lend support to Mbembes view of the postcolony, without respect for the difference between literary and social-science representational conventions and their related, but different, truth
claims. Texts seem to float as transparent representations or sources of
truth, not as elements in a wider discourse of power involving other participants. Abstracted from their social circulation, their significance seems to lie
lacked inside themselves, ready to be unlocked by an authorial gesture from
outside.
The lack of historical density and social specificity is particularly troublesome in the case of examples concerning state violence which take place
within domains marked by terror, symbolic displacement, and deliberate
misinformation. While I assume that Mbembe has additional means to evaluate the fuller significance of his specific sources and examples in the
African context, he does not share his expertise with readers. For instance,
he refers to two men executed by the state in Douala as malefactors (16)
charged with minor crimes (20) on the basis of an account from L a
Gazette. Perhaps this information is accurate, but in light of my knowledge
of Latin America, where the state in collusion with the media often trans-

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

92

mutes political dissidents into petty criminals (as well as petty criminals into
subversives),2 I would want to know more about the execution of these
malefactors before accepting it as an example of the baroque character of
the postcolony in the following terms:
its eccentric and grotesqueart of representation, its taste for the theatrical and its
violent pursuit of wrongdoing to the point of shamelessness. Obscenity here resides in a mode of expression that might seem macabre were it not that it is an
integral part of the stylistics of power. (21)

This example brings to my mind some rather mundane questions. What


is the perspective and social location of La Gazette? What were these mens
crimes and what was their significance for this community and for the state
at this time? Do the events reported reflect a change in the forms and meaning of criminality in the area and/or in the modes of exercising state authority? Who was the audience for this event and why did it celebrate the execution with what Mbembe calls wild applause (21)?How meaningful is his
use of the narrative structure that Foucault employed in his discussion of
regicide, parricide, and Damienss punishment, as if these situations were
similar to those that characterize the punishment of ordinary crimes in postcolonial societies? If the issue is not so much the different reasons of punishment, but the contrasting logics of reasons, why not compare punishment for similar crimes in both societies? I am aware that these are oldfashioned, and in certain circles, rather unfashionable historical and ethnographic questions about context and voice, but without addressing these and
similar concerns I cannot see these violent deaths as examples of the banality of power in the postcolony or accept that they lend support to a conception of postcoloniality as a situation where the death penalty seems to have
no other purpose than death (20).
This example leads to a complementary illustration of postcolonial bodily discipline. In the postcolony, the primary objective of the right to punish (represented here by the execution of the condemned) is however not to
For instance, after the 1988 Amparo massacre in Venezuela, in which fourteen peasants were killed by the government, the two surviving peasants (Wollmer Pinilla and Jose
August0 Arias) have been transmuted from innocent fishermen into dangerous guerrillas
and back again several times over the course of three years by various state agencies and
by the media (Coronil and Skurski 1991; for a recent decision in which they were declared
to be guerrillas once again by a martial court, see Bolivar 1992).

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

93

create useful individuals or to increase their productive efficiency. This is


well illustrated by the misadventures of a teacher ... (18). Yet, from
Mbembes discussion it is not clear to me what the case of the teacher illustrates. We know that this teacher was disciplined in connection with events
whose significance, as Mbembe correctly notes, clearly goes beyond instrumental considerations of utility or productivity. The District
Commissioner visiting the trouble-tom congregation of an independent
Pentecostal church in Gitothua asked for opinions concerning problems
facing the Church. After the teacher in question voiced his opinion, the
Commissioner, fuming in anger, spotted him and called him to the front,
asking him his name and occupation (18). Mbembe concludes the discussion of this case (after mentioning the teachers ongoing trouble with the
authorities on account of his re-grown beard) with the following generalization:
Postcolonial convicts are, then, of a different kind. Authorities can requisition
their bodies and make them join in the displays and ceremonies of the commandement, requiring them to sing or dance or wriggle their bodies about in the sun
(19).

Mbembe uses this example to place postcolonial convicts and state discipline
in a radically separate world from their counterparts in both colonial and
metropolitan contexts, and to present a view of the exercise of power in the
postcolony - by common people as much as by the the state - as selfconsuming and ultimately pointless.
Yet could we surmise that the teachers punishment is related to his
opinions concerning a trouble-tom congregation, and that just as his having a beard may have been part of his larger cultural politics, so was the
states mode of punishment? If this were the case, the significance of this
event could be more adequately ascertained by relating it to a larger field of
political and cultural contestation. Then one could also ask: how different is
this transcoding between political and bodily discipline from similar displacements in other societies, say, from proceedings against bearded or
long-haired men whose opinions or looks also made the powers-that-be
fume with anger in the United States and strike with seemingly arbitrary
force on occasion during the sixties?
This lack of historical specificity casts doubts on the significance
Mbembe attributes to other examples. For instance, the lure of medals and

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

94

decorations, as well as the desire for particular kinds of metropolitan commodities among some postcolonial people, for him illustrates how in the
postcolony, magnificence and the desire to shine are not the prerogative of
only those who command. The people also want to be honoured, to shine,
and to take part in celebrations (26). While Mbembe recognizes that pleasure and fashion are historical phenomena as well as institutions and
sites of power (27), I fail to see how he has historicized them or treated
them as loci of power. It may be true that Cameroonians love slick gaberdine suits, Christian Dior outfits, Yamamoto blouses, shoes of crocodile
skin (quoted by Mbembe: 27). Yet, precisely because desires for these
goods are as much the product of history as the goods themselves, we
ought to be attentive to their historical constitution, lest we explain them as
the result of the idiosyncratic desire for majesty (26)of an entire people.
Thus further questions again come to mind: Where does this desire for
majesty come from, who possesses it, and why does it express itself as a
desire for particular commodities? How is the longing for prestige commodities affected by the social trajectories of different categories of people
in postcolonial as well as in metropolitan societies? How is the
Cameroonians love of Christian Dior outfits different from the desire for
the same object in the metropole or from the longing for a New Look
dress by a working-class woman in England (Steedman 1987)? Why is it
so often assumed that the desire for commodities that authenticate
metropolitan discriminating taste confirms only postcolonial misplaced desire for taste? Since I am concerned with how an imagined structure of desire is often used to stereotype subaltern peoples, and with the role of commodities as markers of distinction and makers of identity in Latin America?

For example, during the 1973-80 Venezuelan oil boom, gold Rolex watches ceased to
be clear markers of elite status, as upper-level managers and bureaucrats came to own
them as a result of commissions or bribes; these watches became a typical gift from
foreign corporations and marked the nouveau riche and the slick intermediary. On the
other hand, during the 1989 riots in Venezuela in response to austerity measures, people
first looted grocery stores, and later clothes and appliance stores; luxury stores were not a
typical target of their attack. The same phenomenon occurred in Los Angeles, where, according to Jen Nessel, it was primarily stores like Payless and not Ferragamo that were
looted. It looks like people hit the places where they resent spending their money every
day: the grocery stores, liquor stores, discount clothing and shoe stores, gas stations and
7-Elevens (1992: 747). One cannot read the structureof everyday desire directly from the
pattern of objects looted during violent confrontations, but perhaps the objects that people

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

I would like to learn why the lure of metropolitan prestige commodities in


Cameroon is an expression of a supposed desire to shine and be honoured
(27).
The discussion of the play of the grotesque and of bodily imagery in the
postcolony raises as well questions of form, positionality, and agency.
From historical and anthropological studies, we know that the body is everywhere a source of symbolic production and that social groups use bodily
imagery to challenge, confirm, or play with existing social hierarchies.
Mbembe acknowledges that the symbolism of the body and of its activities
is a universal and not just an African ingredient in the production of
power. He adds,
That is why I must now insist on another aspect of my argument. I would go
further: the obsession with orifices has to be seen as due to the fact that in the
postcolony the cornmandement is constantly engaged in projecting an image
both of itself and of the world - a fantasy that it presents to its subject as a
truth that is beyond dispute, a truth that has to be instilled into them in order
that they acquire a habit of discipline and obedience (1 1).

Would it be too pedestrian to relate the discussion of this alleged postcolonial obsession with orifices to violent experiences of colonial and
postcolonial domination as an ongoing historical process? (Penetration is
a common image in this context.) Wouldnt the images that postcolonial societies produce of themselves and of the world bring into play memories of
the violence of conquest and colonization with the everyday violence of
neocolonial subjection? If this were the case, decoding bodily and sexual
imagery would involve examining it in relation to specific forms of imperial
domination, reorganization of domestic relations, languages of sexuality,
and idioms of power of particular societies, including metropolitan ones. If
the postcolony is a world of anxious virility - hostile to continence, frugality and sobriety (13), how does this structure of feeling relate to, and
differ from, the apprehensive hyper-masculinization of politics of imperial
powers standing firm, and unwilling to pull out when threatened by
unruly natives? Just think of the sexual and gendered semiotics of the
confrontations between France and Algeria, the U.S. and Vietnam; Bush
and Hussein, Thatcher and Galtieri. And does this conception of the posttake on these occasions may help us think about assumptions concerning what subaltern
people generally desire.

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

96

colony as a world of anxious virility mean that women are subsumed within
or totally engulfed by masculinist ideologies? Dont they too engender history as active subjects, inflect their own accents on the languages of power
and supply imagery of their own? Beyond the domains narrowly identified
with women, what are we to make of their presence in the higher levels of
the state -as ministers, as allies of male figures (Eva Perh), or as national
leaders (Indira Gandhi, Corazh Aquino, Violeta Chamorro)?
The unconstrained flight from fragmentary examples to vast generalizations about the postcolony hinders the understanding of commonalities
among postcolonial societies as well as of differences distinguishing them.
Mbembe offers a brief newspaper quote which refers to the end of Ramadan
in a Muslim community in Cameroon (For thirty days, members of the
community had been deprived of many things from dawn till dusk. They refrained from drinking, eating, smoking, sexual relations, and anything that
goes against the Muslim faith and law) to support his idea that, Because
the postcolony is characterized, above all, by scarcity the metaphor of food
lends itself to the wide angle lens of both imagery and efficacy (26). In
one quick move, from a journalists notion of religious fasting as
deprivation to a scholarly observation concerning food imagery (cited
above), we move to the hypostatization of scarcity as an omnipresent
characteristic of the postcolony. As in other cases, Mbembe approaches an
interesting issue but quickly leaps to sweeping assertions.

.., POSTCOLONIALITY ...


Matching the fragmentary character of Mbembes string of examples,
his theoretical argument brings forth one spectacular topic after another in an
overflowing stream of propositions. The reader moves quickly from the role
of bureaucratic excess to the functions of the grotesque, from the fetish
character of the state to the zombification of rulers and ruled, from the luxuriousness of power to the simulacrum as its specific pragmatics, from the
violence of power to powerlessness as quintessential postcolonial violence.
This stream of suggestive but unelaborated propositions seems to relate
to his central argument: in postcolonial societies the banality of power -its
arbitrariness, predictability, vulgarity - binds rulers and ruled in a convivial web of social relations. While Bahktin located the grotesque among
the plebeian, Mbembe places it within both the rulers and the ruled.
According to him, the real inversion takes place when, in their desire for

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

97

splendour, the masses join in madness and clothe themselves in the flashy
rags of power so as to reproduce its epistemology; and when, too, power,
in its own violent quest for grandeur and prestige, makes vulgarity and
wrongdoing [dklinquance]its main mode of existence (29). This shift, according to Mbembe, allows him not only to understand the specific character and aesthetics of power in the postcolony, but also to break away from
Western binary oppositions and dual conceptions of power itself. While I
am sympathetic to this project, it seems to me that his discussion reproduces
a dichotomy between the masses and power, for the powerless masses have
only flashy rags of power (perhaps the simulacra of power or the simulacra
of a simulacrum), and power is separate from them (perhaps as a synonym
for the state or the rulers). It is also based on the assumption that vulgarity
properly belongs to the masses and that power (the state) instrumentally
makes it its own in its quest for prestige.
After claiming to have overcome dualities, Mbembe offers a reconceptualization of the postcolonial mode of domination. For him, the postcolonial mode of domination is as much a regime of constraints as a practice of conviviality and a stylistic of connivance - marked by innate caution, constant compromises, small tokens of fealty, and a precipitance to
denunciate those who are labelled subversive (21). Still, here constraints/conviviality do not seem very different from coercion/consent, or
regimelpractice from structurefaction. Thus, this mode of domination is defined in terms of polarities, although they are so mixed and internalized that
some of their elements have even become innate. Of course, it could be argued that by being so mixed they cease to be dualities - that in the postcolony, constraints are convivial and conviviality constrains - but this
mixing of underspecified categories is no substitute for theoretical elaboration.
We obtain a better sense of Mbembes notion of the postcolonial mode
of domination when he compares it with colonial domination. Coloniality
was a way of disciplining bodies with the aim of making better use of them
- docility and productivity going hand in hand (18). In contrast, in the
postcolony, the primary objective of the right to punish (represented here by
the excecution of the condemned) is however not to create useful individuals
or to increase their productive efficiency (18). The dramatization of state
power serves to create bonds of intimacy with the people - the intimacy
of tyranny (21).

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

98

In the postcolony, an intimate tyranny links the rulers with the ruled, just as obscenity is only another aspect of munificence and vulgarity the very condition of
state power. If subjection appears more intense than it might be, it is also because the subjects of the commandement have internalized the authoritarianepistemology to the point where they reproduce in themselves in all the minor circumstances of daily life, such as social networks, cults and secret societies, culinary practices, leisure activities, modes of consumption, dress styles, rhetorical
devices, and the political economy of the body (22).

These daily circumstances are also multiple sites or sources of identity


formation which create many possibilities for action, including ludic distancing from the states dramatization of its authority. Mbembe offers interesting comments concerning the role of ambiguity and fluidity in the constitution of postcolonial subjects and in their practice of conviviality. Yet for
him these resources do not potentially expand the field of agency, they cancel each other out. As he puts it, relations of conviviality [are] also of powerlessnesspar excellence - from the point of view either of the masters of
power or of those whom they crush (23). The reason for this, we are told,
is that these processes are essentially magical (23). They in no way disenscribe [disinscrire] the dominated from the epistemological field of
power (23). As he had indicated earlier in the article, rulers and ruled appear caught in a process of zombification in which each robbed the other
of their vitality and [this] has left them both impotent (5).
In Mbembes article dichotomous thinking is programmatically denounced, but only partially opposed in the analysis itself. Thus, polarities
that are rejected in one place end up returning through the back door. In the
final section he recasts a distinction between fonnal/informal and public/intimate dimensions of power, without attending to the mutual constitution of these apparently separate domains. He concludes by urging researchers to focus on the informal and the intimate. As he says, It is here,
within the confines of this intimacy, that the forces of tyranny in SubSaharan Africa have to be studied (29). One would hope that research on
this domain would help unlock the web of informal practices that so entangle rulers and ruled as to render them powerless (29). But, with power so
narrowly located and diffuse, with actors so ill-defined and so impotent,
with historical transformation erased, this hope too is washed away.

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

99

... FROM THE EMPIRE...


I hope it is clear that in asking questions, seeking comparisons, and
making comments about theory and argument, I do not intend to dismiss
Mbembes important concerns, to homogenize phenomena occurring in different societies, or to force us to dive into the black hole of data in search
of a stable ground. Rather, I am suggesting that historical analysis of these
crucial issues should attend to what de Certeau called the poetics of details, and explore their significance in the historical and social contexts in
which they gain their vitality, rather than use underspecified cases as examples that serve to construct postcoloniality as a sweeping type - one that
sharply divides postcolonial from other societies and erases their considerable heterogeneity. Since contexts are obviously not found but constructed,
the practice of constructing the relevant contexts, in my view, is a fundamental part of the work of producing both textured accounts of particular
postcolonial societies and general propositions about postcoloniality. The
fact that contexts are constructed does not mean that they are arbitrary.
Rather, it calls attention to the need, too often denied, to include the critical
examination of the conditions of possibility of social knowledge as an inseparable moment of social analysis.
Attention to the details and to the contexts of the phenomena discussed
in this article would counter two tendencies that emerge, as if returning from
the repressed, through the cracks of Mbembes analysis. First, the proclivity to typify colonial peoples on the basis of a few cases, which leads in this
instance to the conflation of modes of power of the postcolony with
modes of power that may be exclusive to certain societies or populations in
particular historical situations. Second, the inclination to oversimplify and
naturalize the historical attributes of colonized peoples, which threatens to
turn, however unwittingly, historiographic types into imperial stereotypes.
Despite Mbembes claims to historicize phenomena and to overcome
dualities, his article constructs the postcolony by recasting commonplace
distinctions between the empire and its others. It does so, in my view, by
floating atop a particular postmodern wave energized by its extreme opposition to modern cosmologies of history, society, and the subject.
Flowing with this current, the text seems to accept implicitly a polarity between modernity (-) and postmodernity (+), and to stay well on the side of
one of its extreme poles. This current, directed against metanarratives of
history, produces disjointed mininarratives which reinforce dominant

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

worldviews; reacting against deteminisms, it presents free-floating events;


refusing to fix identity in structural categories, it essentializes identity
through difference; resisting the location of power in structures or institutions, it diffuses it throughout society and ultimately dissolves it. Ironically,
this popular trend leaves us facing a world of disjointed elements at a time
when the globalization of space -marked by integrative and exclusionary
processes -makes it intellectually compelling and politically indispensable
to understand how parts and whole hang together.
Given the articles mix of fragmentary examples and propositions, it is
not always easy to disentangle insightful observations from mystifying generalizations. Were I asked to identify the image of the postcolony that I
see emerging from this text, I would have to say that it bears a disturbing
similarity to an old imperial image of the colony, or rather, the
precolony - the view of a place before Civilization arrived, where natives subsisted, laughed, and tussled ceaselessly to no end. Yet there is a
difference. This time there is not even the hope, or threat, of their being
brought into History by Western intervention. Ruled again by themselves
but within the timescape of the modem world, snared in a magical circle,
unable to chart new paths for their societies or to tread along the tracks set
out by others, aimlessly swinging between omnipresent scarcity and ludic
excess, with Western simulacra as their new native tradition, they are
trapped in a historical limbo. It is as if a nostalgic imperial gaze were cast on
ex-colonial societies, as if remembering them as places once ruled with
ruthless excess but with productive zeal and majestic grandeur, it could now
recognize in them only powerless excess and senseless simulacra. Since
their toil and trouble are of no particular significance to themselves or much
use to the rest of the world, their exotic blend of criminality, libidinality,
and conviviality may now serve, at least, as an object of academic interest.
Or,more disturbingly, it is as if this imperial image were authorized, however unwittingly, by an insiders perspective. Though Mbembes text is not
marked by Naipauls bitterness or contempt, it also conjures up a self-enclosed world with no exit which too easily plays into dominant views.
This reading -which supposes the readers active (re/mis)construction
of the text - reveals how postcolonial cultural studies, beyond considerations of intent, are inscribed within semantic and institutional fields saturated by imperial histories and imagery. In a past that now seems remote,
Carpentier, Fanon, CCsaire, to give only a few examples, traveled to the
metropole, struggled with ideas in vogue at the time (surrealism, existential-

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

101

ism, Marxism, psychoanalysis), made them their own, and produced critical
understandings of their native lands and humanity energized by utopian visions. As if mirroring different times, and perhaps reacting to the floundering of modern utopias, this text seems to draw on selected threads of
Bataille, Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, and de Certeau which weave a net
having no place for utopia or engagement; postmodern enlightenment not so
much dispelling Enlightenment illusions as recasting them as neomodern
disillusions. It is as if at this moment of theoretical and historical disenchantment, pessimism at the critical edges of the metropole were transmuted
into nihilism at the heart of the periphery.
Still, I also feel in the text the wish to locate in the people a certain capacity to challenge power, to trip it by laughing at it. But in a world in
which everyone is laughing, this wish dissipates into a nihilistic apprehension of the power of play; laughter, like death, seems to have no purpose
beyond itself. With power so diluted, with no place for emancipatory
agency, it is as if impatience with degrading postcolonial regimes could only
give rise to a disqualifying oration about postcolonial peoples. In the end,
this analysis of the banality of power in the postcolony produces a view of
postcolonial power as banal. In so doing, however, it calls attention to itself, to the standpoint from which its view is cast.

... ANDTHE CONSTRUCTION OF DECOLONIZING STANDPOINTS


I would like to conclude by outlining some suggestions concerning the
study of postcoloniality based on different postulates.
I . PostcoZonialityllYnowZedge.Perhaps more than most analytical categories, postcoloniality, like the domain it addresses, is a fluid, polysemic,
and ambiguous term that derives its power from its ability to condense multiple meanings and refer to different locations. At this point, rather than fix
its significance through formal definitional procedures, I think it is more
productive to circumscribe its meanings by using it within interesting research programs. For the purposes of this discussion, I see the postcolonial
domain in terms of the historical trajectory of societies which have been
subjected to varying forms of both colonial and neocolonial domination.
Whether postcolonial societes emerged recently from the experience of colonization or not (Mbembes rather underspecified criteria), is in my view
less relevant than their continued subjection to metropolitan forces. Thus,
although most of Latin America achieved its political independence early in

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

102

the nineteenth century, it has remained in what many analysts consider to be


a neocolonial condition; its transformation recreates colonial and dependency relations. I understand colonial and neocolonial relations as an organic linking of international and domestic relations, not as an external imposition (for an attempt to bring metropole and colony into a single analytical field, see Cooper and Stoler 1989; for a classic statement of the muchmisunderstood dependency perspective, see Cardoso and Faletto 1979).
When it is applied to ex-colonial nations that occupy a subordinate position in the international system, postcoloniality appears as something of a
euphemism, one that at once reveals and disguises contemporary forms of
imperialism. As a euphemism, it makes it easier to study present forms of
power within ex-colonial societies as if they were the exclusive result of a
colonial past, and not also of a neocolonial present. But as a term associated
with poststructuralism, postcoloniality conjures up a body of theory which
may help overcome teleological narratives and illuminate the workings of
power in social and cultural spaces reorganized by the circulation of ideas,
peoples, and goods throughout an increasingly interconnected globe. This
perspective need not be limited to subordinate nation-states (the so-called
Third World): but could also be applied to sharply marginalized subnational groups, such as native peoples in the Americas (sometimesreferred to
as the Fourth World), or to the metropolitan centers themselves, as they are
increasingly populated and transformed by the presence of postcolonial
peoples (old First World nations are being redefined as multiracial societies; their major urban centers, such as New York, London, and Los
Angeles, are often referred to as Third World cities).
Postcoloniality could thus be seen situationally, in terms of what
Frankenberg and Mani, drawing on Gramscian conjuncturalism and feminist positionality, call a rigorous politics of location (1991). As they say,
There are ... moments and spaces in which subjects are driven to grasp
their positioning and subjecthood as postcolonial; yet there are other contexts in which, to apply the term as the organizing principle of ones analysis is precisely to fail to grasp the specificity of the location or the moment (1 99 1 2 5 ) . The perspective I propose would welcome complementary
undertakings - for instance, the study of ex-colonial nations that have
achieved substantial levels of economic growth and occupy not subordinate,
4For an insightful discussion of the origins and ideological bias of this term, see
Pletch 1981.

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

103

but relatively dominant positions in the international system (of course, the
criteria of relative subordination or dominance would have to be specified).
Thus, the United States (independent since 1776) and Singapore (self-governing since 1959) may be regarded as postcolonial societies whose
national transformation reflects different colonial experiences and linkages
between domestic and international factors.
Definitional discussions of postcoloniality may be productive if we approach them within problem-centered research projects. For example, Klor
de Alva, crediting the influence on his work of poststructuralist perspectives, has recently argued that colonialism and postcolonialism are (Latin)
American mirages, that these terms, as commonly understood today, properly apply in Latin America only to marginal populations of indigenes, not
to the major non-Indian core that has constituted, beginning in the sixteenth
century, the largely European and Christian societies on the American temtory (1992). I differ from him, for I feel his arguments suppose too clear a
separation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in America, too
restricted a conception of colonialism (derived from an idealized image of
the effectiveness of modern northern European colonial experiences), and
an uncritical acceptance of dominant uses of these terms. However, his
historically grounded argument cannot help but advance discussion in this
field.
If poststructural and postmodern approaches promise to cast new light
on a field obscured by the narrow determinisms and dualities associated
with modern historical metanarratives, they also threaten to treat ex-colonial
peoples as bounded units, cut off from their historical contexts. A disconcerting effect of these approaches, despite their claims to have destabilized
imperial histories, is the way they often allow the insidious reproduction of
an imperial viewpoint based on Anglo-American and northern European experiences. At this conjuncture, I suggest we construct a decentered and inclusive perspective that would overcome Occidentalism and permit the study
of a wide range of colonial and postcolonial regimes and situations.5

By OccidentalismI mean not the reverse of Orientalism,but the ensemble of representational strategies engaged in the production of conceptions of the world that, a) separates its components into bounded units; b) disaggregates their relational histories; c )
turns difference into hierarchy; d) naturalizesthese representations;and, therefore, e) intervenes, however unwittingly, in the reproduction of existing asymmetrical power relations (Coronil 1992).

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

104

pUBLC @JLTUK

2. PowerlContext. If it is true that power today cannot be analyzed exclusively within the boundaries of nation-states, this is especially the case in
postcolonial nations, for they are traversed through and through by the tension between their formal sovereignty and their effective subjection. Their
governing states and dominant classes are at once dominant and dominated.
They frequently stand in an ambiguous social position, represented both as
defenders of national tradition from aggressive imperial forces, and as internal agents and emulators of metropolitan civilization, and thus undergo a
doubling of identity that fractures relations of authority (Bhabha 1985;
Chatterjee 1986; Skurski and Coronil 1992). In part because of this tension,
postcolonial nations are torn by the increasing internationalization of markets and communications that characterizes the contemporary period. Along
with the globalization of space, the reconfiguration of national space is being redrawn everywhere, often along lines that polarize domestic classes,
transform the basis of their loyalties and interests, and erode established
regimes of domination. These processes are particularly disruptive in postcolonial societies whose economies are reorganized by the internationalization of the market. The effort to relate domains associated with gender, sexuality, (re)production and politics must take into account the global conditions within which people in postcolonial societies make their history.
3. VuZgarity/Inversion/PoZitics.
In postcolonial societies where unstable
social hierarchies have been formed by a violent history of conquest, colonial domination, and neocolonial subjection, idioms and imagery of the refined and the vulgar, the high and the low, form part of a complex semantic
field characterized by the multivocal and shifting character of elements along
different hierarchical scales. Terms are saturated with hybrid meanings
whose dominant accents depend on circumstance and intentionality. For instance, within postcolonial societies, the local elite is at once high from
the perspective of the postcolonial nation, where it often appears bathed in
the light of metropolitan civilization, and low from the perspective of the
empire, which associates it with the backward and primitive. The subaltern
classes are generally low, but the location and valorization of their lowliness shifts. From the perspective of mass-based nationalism, popular sectors may move upwards, if they are identified as sources of national virtue;
from an imperial perspective, they may move downwards, if they are seen

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

105

as the embodiment of savagery.6 When postcolonial nations are confronted by imperial force, dominant and subaltern sectors may be positioned
at the same level and share idioms of identification and cooperation. Just
think of how descamisados (shirtless ones, common people) and military
leaders in Argentina, adversaries in many contexts during the brutal military
dictatorship, formed a united people during the Malvinas/Falkland war.
Inversions take multiple forms because hierarchies are multiply constituted. As Roberto da Matta has shown in relation to Brazil, carnivals are
more complicated affairs than Bakhtins optimistic view of them; they are at
once a locus of inversion, a licensed release, and a contestatory practice that
models utopian visions (1991).The polarities that Bakhtin attributed to what
he depicted as relatively stable hierarchical systems must be further theorized and seen in operation in more complex social and semantic fields.
There is nothing intrinsic to vulgarity, for vulgarity is a relational phenomenon; the politics and aesthetics of vulgarity cannot be understood outside the historically constituted ensemble of social relations within which
vulgarity gains significance.
4 . Categoriedthe BodylBanality. In postcolonial societies built around
relatively unstable foundations, high and low are subjected to the quotidian
play of social comment, critique, and stabilization, often through recourse to
grotesque bodily imagery. If the body is everywhere good to think with, it
is because it is formed by history and may be used to image it. Thinking
the body is thinking social topography and vice versa (Stallybrass and
White 1986:192).The body, as a battlefield of history, is also its semantic
field; historical aggression bleeds into symbolic transgression. The entanglement between metropole and colony is also a clash between categories.
Historical violence is inseparable from representational violence. Rigidity
and flexibility, excess and lack, originality and banality, are terms that describe intertwined layers of the same unstable postcolonial terrain. Yet, like
An imperial perspective may be assumed by the local elite, or by the popular sectors
themselves. For example, meanings associated with the people (el pueblo) shifted in the
course of the 1989 popular insurrection in Venezuela against the governments austerity
program. During the early phase of looting, many saw el pueblo as the legitimate defender of popular rights; by the end of the riots many of the poor voiced an elite view of
the riots as the expression of popular savagery and of el pueblo as wild (Coronil and
Skurski 1991). A similar shift in public images of the protesters can be seen in the Los
Angeles riots of 1992, as peaceful anger became violent rage (Los Angeles Times,
May 12, 1992: T-4). There too the popular sectors were seen as either emancipatory or destructive during various phases (Kelley 1992; Davis 1992).

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

other evaluative notions often used to describe postcolonial societies, they


are not only relative, but political categories. They imply standards of
normality which often conceal hegemonic assumptions concerning the
proper, the beautiful, and the rational. Decolonization, like
(neo)colonization, is also a struggle over categories.
5 . Practices of PowerlPractices of Academia. If on some postcolonial
terrains practices of conviviality mark daily life and link rulers and ruled, the
meanings and uses of these practices must be found in the larger play of
power taking shape on these terrains, not in essentialized attributes of abstract peoples. Saturated as they are by distinctive histories, idioms of
power can be understood by examining their use in the context of their social topographies, lest we interpret what they mean without listening to what
they say. Perhaps this practice of listening may support practices of decolonization outside and within academia.

Fernando Coronil teaches anthropology and history at the University of Michigan.


He is the author of The Magical State: Oil Money, Democracy and Capitalism in
Venezuela, University of Chicago Press, forthcoming.
REFERENCES
Bhabha, Homi K.
Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and
1985
Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817, Critical Inquiry,
12 (I): 144-165.
Bolivar, Ligia
1992
La masacre de El Amparo, Revista Sic, June, No. 545.
Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, and Faletto, Enzo
Dependency and Development in Latin America. Berkeley: University
1979
of California Press.
Chatterjee,Partha
Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative
1986
Discourse? Avon: zed Books, Ltd.
Cooper, Frederick, and Stoler, Ann L.
Introduction. Tension of Empire: Colonial Control and Visions of
1989
Rule, American Ethnologist 16, (4).

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

CAN POSTCOLONlALITY BE: DE%OLONlZt3J?

107

Coronil, Fernando
Beyond Occidentalism: Towards Post-Imperial Geohistorical
1992
Categories, in Power: Thinking Across the Disciplines. ed. Geoff Eley.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (forthcoming).
Coronil, Fernando, and Skurski, Julie
Dismembering and Remembering the Nation: The Semantics of
1991
Political Violence in Venezuela, Comparative Studies in Society and
History 33:2 (Spring 1991).
Davis, Mike
In Los Angeles, Burning All Illusions, The Nation 254 (21), June 1.
1992
Frankenberg, Ruth, and Mani, Lata
Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, 'Postcoloniality' and the Politics of
1991
Location. Unpublished paper.
Kelley, Robin D. G.
Straight from the Underground. The Nation, 254 (22),June 8.
1992
Klor de Aha, Jorge
Colonialism and Postcolonialism as (Latin) American Mirages,
1992
Colonial Latin American Review, 1 (1 -2).
Matta, Roberto da
Carnivals, Heroes and Rogues. South Bend: University of Notre Dame
1991
Press.
Mbembe, Achille
The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity in the
1992
Postcolony, Public Culture 4 (2).
Nessel, Jen
Fax from L.A.: Images of the Surreal City, The Nation 254 (21),
1992
June 1.
Pletch, Carl
The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labor, circa
1981
1950-1975, Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 (4).
Skurski, Julie, and Coronil, Fernando
Country and City in a Colonial Landscape: Double Discourse
1992
and the Geopolitics of Truth, in Viewsfrom the Border Country:
Essays on Raymond Williams, ed. Dennis Dworkin and Leslie
Roman. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall (forthcoming).
Stallybrass, Peter, and White, Aldon
The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University
1986
Press.

Published by Duke University Press

Public Culture

Steedman, Carolyn Kay


Landscape for a Good Woman. A Story of Two Lives. New
1986
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Published by Duke University Press