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The Concept of Colonial and Postcolonial Discourse: A Perspective from Literary Criticism

Author(s): Hernan Vidal

Source: Latin American Research Review, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1993), pp. 113-119
Published by: The Latin American Studies Association
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Copyright1993by LatinAmericanResearchReview



A PerspectivefromLiteraryCriticism*


LatinAmericanliterarycriticismdiscusses new themes
that,on reachingsome degree of generalization,indicatepossible direc-
tionsforlonger-term research.For example,a concernhas emergedlately
about definingand applying the termpostmodernism to Latin American
symbolicproduction.In essence, promotingthesediscussionsmeans creat-
ing intellectualevents that tacitlypromise to introducenew theoretical
and methodologicaldimensions to our field,perhaps generatingstudies
thatmay enrichit. Hence, reflectingon the way in which these labels are
adopted ought to be a matterof professionalresponsibility.Years ago we
saw the effortsand resources spent on transferring the termmagicalreal-
ismfrompaintingto literarycriticismand its meager legacy.Today seems
to be the turnofcolonialand postcolonialdiscourse.Discussing this concept
takes on special importancein the currentcircumstances,when we as
intellectualsfindourselves caught up in a double crisis. On one hand is
the crisisaffectingthe status of literatureas an institutionand academic
literarycriticismas a profession.On the otherhand, we must face up
withoutexcuses to the extremeviolence generatedby neoliberalcapital-
ism and the political vacuum leftby the collapse of the socialist bloc.
Hence the acknowledged eclipse or waning of the narrativesof human

*TranslationfromSpanish by Sharon Kellum was fundedby theTinkerFoundation.


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redemption,which not long ago lent a utopian sense to Latin American

politicalstruggles.These two factorsshould be a partofcriticalreflection
on theconcept of "colonial and postcolonialdiscourse."
ThankingPatriciaSeed forthe platformof discussion thatshe has
offeredus, my own reflectionwill take as a point of departurea review
essay entitled"Colonial and PostcolonialDiscourse," published by LARR
in 1991 (in volume 26, number3). In her essay,Seed elevates the group of
works reviewed to the category of noteworthyintellectualaccomplish-
ment.Given theprestigeofthispublicationoftheLatinAmericanStudies
Association,it is possible thatSeed's review essay may thus contributeto
institutionalizingwhat she considers a new "intellectualmovement." I
will point out the implicationsof this constructby placing it within an
outlineof what, in my judgment,has been the recentevolutionof Latin
American literarycriticism.I will begin my argumentwith this outline
and close by discussing the need to study the symbolicproduction of
marginalizedgroups. What I hope to accomplishhere is to profilemore
clearlythe problems raised by introducingthe criticalcategoryof "colo-
nial and postcolonialdiscourse."
The currentcrisisin Latin Americanliteratureas an institutionand
literarycriticismas a professionmustbe seen in the contextofits origins.
In Latin America,both the institutionand the professionarose out of a
long process thatbegan soon afterthenineteenth-century revolutionsfor
independence, in which literatureacquired the rank of officialhigh cul-
turewiththe task ofshaping masternarrativesofnational identity.These
works were graduallydisseminatedvia the educational system,with the
aim ofconsolidatingtheloyaltyofthepeople to thenew nation-states.The
use of various literarygenres as components of these master national
narrativeswas closely related to a process thatis stillaffectingus today:
theliberalstrugglesover thelinkingofthelocal economies to the interna-
tional capitalistmarketthat had been formingover the past century.A
symbolicuniversewas thus founded thathas continuedto articulatethe
changes and permutationsof elementsthroughouthistory.These changes
and permutationshave givena distinctiveprofileto theliteraryprojectsof
different social sectorsthathave sought to become dominantin our coun-
tries.Throughoutthis process, certainworks were favoredby academic
literarycriticismand were exhibitedas monuments of Latin American
culturaldevelopment.This canon has been the raw materialand the pro-
fessionalraisond'etreofour literarycriticism.Its originis thereforefound
in a conceptionofliterature as a tool forsocial constructionand an indirect
weapon in politicalstruggles.In contrastto thisolder function,it is quite
evidentthatliteraturetoday is a narrowand irrelevantfringewithinoffi-
cial culture. With its limitedcirculation,literaturecannot compete with
the mass media in the symbolicconstitutingof social identitiesthatseek
to modifythe culturalmodels of each nation. As proof,let us note that


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afterthe narrativeof the Boom, we as a professionhave had problems in

continuingto canonize literarytextswiththe same organicclarity.
We musttake into accountneverthelessthatthisunderstandingof
literatureas a social instrumenthas witnessed "technocraticdeviations"
since the mid-1960s.They were the consequence of the attemptsto mod-
ernizeLatinAmericancapitalism,an effortintensifiedby the Alliance for
Progress.ThatprogramrepresentedtheU. S. response to thechallengeof
the Cuban Revolution. Literarycriticismwas affectedas a field by the
scholarshipsforstudy abroad made available to Latin American univer-
sitypersonnel. Thus the theoreticaland methodologicalbaggage ofLatin
American literarycriticismwas enriched by the importationof North
AmericanNew Criticism,Russian formalism,German phenomenology,
and Frenchstructuralism.Later came archetypalcriticismbased on psy-
choanalysis,various semiotictrends,and the theoryof readerreception.
Thus cyclesof renewal of Latin Americanliterarycriticismwere initiated
based not on the social problemsof the culturesbeing studied but rather
on the new criticaltheoriesperiodicallyintroducedinto the publishing
market.This kind of literarycriticismhas eithertended to reinforcethe
studyof the monumentsof the literarycanon by applying the new ap-
proachesor soughtto canonize new works thatresponded best to them.
Beginningin the 1970s, however,effortswere takinghold and ex-
panding towarda returnto the social understandingofliterature.All this
was a consequence of the culturalproblems introducedby the Cuban
Revolution,the militarizedpopulism in Peru in 1968, the fascistdictator-
ships in the SouthernCone, the Nicaraguan Revolution,and the civilwar
in El Salvador. The theoreticalbases of this literarycriticismexpressed
variousmodalitiesofhistoricalmaterialismsuch as the Frankfurt School,
Georg Lukacs, BertoltBrecht,Jean-PaulSartre,Louis Althusser,Fredric
Jameson,and especially the implicationsof Latin American dependency
theoryforanalyzingculture.In myjudgment,the mostimportantcontri-
butionofthiskindofliterary was settingas itsgoal directcontribu-
tionsto the culturesfromwhich its materialforstudycomes, addressing
itselfto theacademicestablishmentonly as a verysecondaryinterlocutor,
which in extremecases did not matterat all. Accordingto this view, the
literarycriticwas supposed to abandon theidentityoftechnicalanalystof
privilegedtextsin orderto takeon theidentityofproducerofculturefrom
a consciouslydefinedpoliticalposition. In anotherdirection,highlighting
the culturalproblemsof these societies graduallywent beyond the study
ofliteratureas theexclusivedomain ofliterarycriticism.This criticaltrend
createdconditionsforexpandingthe professionalfieldin the directionof
the ideological study of the mass media, music, ritualsof daily life,the
logic of culturaldiscourses, intellectualhistory,and the administrative
institutionsof culturalproduction.In yetanotherdirection,it appears to
me thatthisunderstandingof the artifactsof cultureas human construc-


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tioncreatedthe originalconditionsfordefiningmore preciselya feminist

literarycriticismfocused on the problemof sexual genders as social pro-
duction.This literarycriticismfinallyevolved intoa "culturology,"under-
stood here as the studyof the ways in which symbolicproductionin gen-
eral empowers social agencies of historical transformation.Literary
criticismthus moved closer to symbolic anthropology,sociology, and
During the last few decades, these two modalitiesof development
of Latin American literarycriticism-theone technocraticand the other
culture-oriented-havetended toward a frankenmity.One indicationis
the factthat the literarycriticaltechnocracytends to congregateat the
meetingsoftheModernLanguage Association,whiletheculturalistsgravi-
tate toward the Latin American Studies Association. To my mind, this
enmityis symptomaticof the factthatliterarycriticismhas not managed
to becomea paradigmaticdiscipline,in thesense definedby ThomasKuhn.
In otherwords, we as a professionhave notbeen characterizedby orient-
ing our work accordingto analyticand interpretative paradigms thatset
research tasks for the longer term. In paradigmaticdisciplines like the
naturaland social sciences, researchtends towardcontinuityand an accu-
mulationof topics and knowledge thateitherauthenticateor discard the
basic hypotheses. It is obvious thatin comparisonwith the sciences, no
basis existsforthinkingthatliterarycriticismcan or should turnitselfinto
a paradigmaticdiscipline. I am sure that many academic literarycritics
would considerthatthe mere idea of thinkingabout a paradigmaticcon-
tinuityin theprofessionwould implya dangerous limitationon academic
freedomand freedomofthought.This understandingoffreedomfindsits
optimumexpressionin a technocraticapproach thatkeeps going by em-
phasizing technicalnoveltyand not Latin Americansocial needs. Justas
in the past we had theoreticalmodels like those of Roman Ingarden and
Claude Levi-Strauss,todaythereare themodels ofRoland Barthes,Jacques
Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jean-Francois
Lyotard,and Michel Foucault. On the contrary,the closest impetus to a
paradigmaticcontinuityhas been the culturallyorientedliterarycriticism
because ofitspreoccupationwiththemeaningofthegreathistoricaljunc-
turesin LatinAmericaforsymbolicproductionin general.
Now to returnto thequestionofcolonialand postcolonialdiscourse
and PatriciaSeed's review essay. Withinthe historicalparametersjust
outlined, creationof this categoryas an area of research can be under-
stood as an effortto unifyterms that, whetherconsciously or uncon-
sciously,endow technocraticcriticismand culturallyoriented criticism
with some degree of affinity thattheyhave not previouslyhad. Actually,
Seed attributesthe formulationof this research area to a basically tech-
nical concernthatstems fromrecognizingthe implicationsof the workof
Lyotard,Barthes,Derrida,Deleuse, Guattari,Foucault,and RichardRorty:


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In reflecting
on thelinguistic
framework inwhichthepoliticsofcolonialrulehave
beenelaborated, writers haveobservedthelimitations ofEuropeanpoliticaldis-
coursesas well as the way in whichthe polysemiccharacterof languagehas
enablednativesof colonizedterritories to appropriateand transformthecolo-
nizers'discourses.A relatedcritique
ofthelanguageofindependence movements
and postcolonialnationalism, referredto as postcolonialdiscourse,has been
examining howpopulardiscourses, highliterature,
and politicalpamphleteering
haveallconstructed anticolonialand nationalist
(P. 183)

Startingwiththetechnicalconcerns,Seed establishesthepoliticalagenda
of these works that deconstructcolonial discourse: "The aim of the cri-
tique in each of these disciplines is different-economicrelationsof au-
thority,culturalrelationsof authority(the canon), conventionalpolitical
relationsof authority.But the basic targetof critiqueremains the same-
therelationsofauthorityin colonial and postcolonialstates-and itis thus
an enterpriseofculturaland politicalcriticismbeing carriedout in a reso-
lutelypostcolonialera" (p. 200).
The unificationoftermsI referto can be seen when thetrajectoryof
technicallyoriented renovationfinallyresults in a political concern, as
describedby Seed. Yet it would be necessary to dispel many doubts on
this score. For example, Seed names only one literarycriticwithin the
groupofworksthatshe examines. Certainlyone case alone is notenough
to founda "movement"in thisdiscipline.Nevertheless,ifher description
is correctand reallyinvolvesa more significantnumberofliterarycritics,
perhaps the categoryof "colonial and postcolonial discourse" signals the
entranceinto culturalcriticismof a sectorof researcherswho previously
were characterizedby excludingthe political.The rapprochementofboth
groups could contributepositivelyto a certaincontinuityofeffortswitha
paradigmaticsemblance. Nevertheless,it is necessary to raise two objec-
tionsto themannerin which Seed argues thisseeminglynew category.
The firstobjection has to do with the perspective in which this
unificationis visualized. Given thatit is being conceived of as a technical
innovation,such unificationconveys the image characteristicof techno-
craticliterarycriticism:the presumptionthat when a new analyticand
interpretiveapproach is being introduced,the accumulation of similar
effortsin thepast is leftsuperseded and nullified.The past as inescapable
factseems to riseup again, supposedly out ofnothingnessand disguised
in a new jargon. This idea of the obsolescence of the past is suggested in
two keypassages in theconclusionof Seed's review essay:

Boththecolonialand postcolonial discoursemovements signifya revivalofpol-

iticsand its returnto the centerof intellectual
debateafterdecades of being
relegatedto a secondarypositionin thepredominantlysocialand culturalrealms
of history,anthropology,and literarytheory ... But the concernwith language
theethicsand strategies
and rhetoric, ofrepresenting anthropologicalothers,or
thoseofrepresenting distantculturalothersarecrucialand unprece-


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dentedquestionswithwhichthisnew workon politicsmustcontend.Wedo not

repeatthepast,as Santayanaclaimed,we onlyreinvent

Leaving aside thequestionable separationofthesocial, cultural,and polit-

ical dimensions,my firstobjectionis thatin the effortto call attentionto
the new label of "colonial and postcolonial discourse," which originated
in Hindu culturalstudiesfollowingindependence afterWorldWarII, cate-
gories cannotbe ignoredthathave been firmlyestablishedformore than
twentyyears in historiographyand Latin Americanliterarycriticismre-
garding specificsocial conditions.I referhere to the concepts of depen-
dencyand ideologicalanalysis.In fact,BeatrizPastor,theonlyLatinAmeri-
can literarycriticmentionedby Seed, had alreadymade earlierforaysinto
theideologicalanalysis ofliterature.Furthermore, Pastoris farfromasso-
ciatingherworkwiththeideas ofLyotard,Barthes,and Derrida.
My second objectionis thatan awareness ofthepoliticaldimension
in culturalanalysis and interpretationcannot be reduced to the textual
deconstructionof authorityunder the guise of a crisis in the notion of
social subjectivitySeed takesthispositionin pointingout two ofpoststruc-
turalism'sattractions forcriticsof colonialism.The firstis the "questioning
of traditionalhumanism 'by exposing its hero-the sovereignsubject as
author,thesubjectofauthority, legitimacy, and power.'" The second attrac-
tionshe describesis poststructuralism's "dislodgingtheauthor's'intention'
or 'originalmeaning' froma centralrole, allowingliterarycriticsand oth-
ers to consider the ways in which the textis appropriated and used by
different textualcommunities"(p. 184). The absolutismof this judgment
ignores the fact that the most importantadvances of recent studies of
Latin Americanliteratureas a social phenomenonhave been achieved by
stressingthe ways in which literaryrepresentationhas contributedto
constructingmassive agents of social transformation.In this regard, I
want to make it clear thatit is not a matterof favoringconstructionover
deconstruction because both are keymomentsin recognizingthe cyclesof
dependency thathave characterizedLatin American history.This point
becomes evidentwhen we focus on the social problemof greatestsignifi-
cance currentlyfacingcontemporaryLatin Americansocieties: the socio-
economic marginalizationof large sectors of national populations as a
consequence ofneoliberaleconomicpolicies imposed militarily duringthe
last fewdecades.
As is well known, socioeconomicmarginalizationis characterized
by chronicunemploymentand underemployment.This outcomeis com-
pounded by the limited political significanceof these sectors. It stems
fromtheirincapacityto createorganizationsthatcan appeal effectively to
the state and the political system in demanding redress. Even so, their
large numbers are a threatto social stability.Hence the governmentsof
neoliberal bent as well as opposition parties and institutionsof social


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welfareare all concernedwith influencingthe organizationsof solidarity

createdby themarginalizedthemselves.This tendencyaffectsthe artistic
and symbolicproductionwith which these sectors organize theirown
public sphere in order to articulatetheireconomic, social, and political
interests.This is the reason why culturalistliterarycriticismhas recently
reorienteditselftoward studyingthe institutionalorganizationand pro-
ductionofworkshopson poetry,theatre,handicrafts,body language, and
religiousand feministconsciousness-raisingassociated withcreatingthis
public sphere forthe marginal.Implicitin these studies is the imperative
of introducingcomparativeparametersthat may exertideological pres-
sure on the meaning of the work of greatcontemporaryauthorsfavored
by theofficialculture.Thus thestudyoftheconstructionofa social subjec-
tivitybecomes a necessary previous step to deconstructingthe canonical
authorityofthe officialculture.By takingsuch a step,we would achieve a
much richerunderstandingof the historicdynamics of the national cul-
turesthan ifwe pay attentiononly to deconstructingthe monumentality
In closing, I thinkwe must be gratefulfor opportunitiesfor an
exchange like this. They help us define our own identityand thought
amidstmultipledivergentvoices. I believe thatpartofthe truthis in each
voice, while the whole truthis in the frameworkof conflictamong all of


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