Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Postcolonialism versus postmodernism: premature births and premature burials in the latest capitalist environment

David McKie

There are no innocent readings so I speak as a Scottish born, failed Calvinist, ex-socialist, Media Studies lecturer who happily calls West Australia home. In addition I am strongly influenced by having had more life-enhancing experiences in 10 years of intermittent contact with Eastern spiritual traditions and Native American Shamanism than with 35 years pretty full time involvement with Western education. So, for this conference, here are the positions I knowingly adopt: that the narrowness of literature studies seriously limits its scope and strategically misdirects its anti-imperialist tendencies; that postmodernism better configures late capitalism than postcolonialism; and that a paradigm shift is required to institutionally recognise and engage with the crucial contemporary issue of the environment.

In support I offer a number of postcolonial fictions - using fictions in the sense of untruths. Number one is that Australia is postcolonial. The very label casts doubts but more centrally, outside of literary enclaves, the current cultural empire striking back is the U.S.A. Not to incorporate that imperialist struggle as a high priority doesn't make sense to someone teaching outside the literary field. For the conference host association this could foster other changes: acronymically SPACLALS, to sound less like vacuum packed lentils, could transform into SPACE as the final frontier for the South Pacific Association against Cultural Empires; semantically, to drop "Commonwealth" with its connotations of previous colonial dependencies: and politically, to encourage popular front possibilities. These could facilitate common work remaining responsive to distinctive differences internally while empowering joint challenges to externally generated agendas. This move also enables my paper title and the case for Scotland and postmodernism.

Premature birth then, in line with fiction one, refers to both postcolonialism in Australia and also the national insecurity surrounding seemingly always impending nationhood. For the former, the huge U.S. presence in everything from fast food to warships requires different orientations from postcolonialism as nearly-neo-commonwealth literature studies or as historic fragments of former European empires. For the latter, Australia's insecurity can then be taken as a part of the process facing most of the developed and developing world (that is as an ongoing response to the erosion of traditional bases of "nationness" and the increase in, mainly American, global culture).

Here Scottish experiences can help. From the other end of such a continuum Scotland has existed on the edge of symbolic extinction for longer than Australia has been on the point of birth. Support for the view that reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated persist, yet so too do a litany of dates associated with disastrous losses: the 1603 union of the crowns removed cash, patronage and royal abilities out of the country; the 1707 union of the parliaments demolished the polity; the 1745 military debacle triggered cultural genocide and so on. More recently filmmaker Bill Forsyth sees Glasgow as the postindustrial city par excellence because it lacks any industry. Despite these losses Scots maintain some stubborn idea of identity or continue to invent new traditions around the disinterred corpse. They do so alongside further compromising accommodations with powerful outside economies and their homogenising tendencies.

Australia makes a marked contrast with its litany of birthdays or at least days of birth: the 1788 "discovery" by the first European invaders; the 1901 Federation; the 1915 nation forging of Gallipoli; and perhaps the summing up of 1988 in the punctuation mark of Stephen Alomes' bicentenary book title A Nation at Last? [1] These two extremes of prematurity, both birth and burial, represent the way of the postmodern world. It is also fascinating how concerns with identifying such seemingly obvious endpoints mirror distinctively twentieth-century politico-scientific debates over what constitutes the moments of birth and death. To continue in that metaphoric vein for a moment what about a more cyclical process of ongoing births and deaths for both nations? Scotland might be born again as less culturally constipated, racially intolerant, and sexually repressive, whereas Australia could allow its identity as doomed, heroic, white male battler to pass away (Scotland has played that one to death literally and laments really begin to drag after the first few centuries). This would make substantial space: to learn from the original inhabitants; to let women create less destructive legends; and to enlarge ethnic participation.

Undoubtedly postcolonial perspectives have demonstrated considerable strengths in all three areas but they can also limit an appropriate spectrum on which to situate Australia, Scotland and many other countries on points in between. The parallels of both countries with Canada, for example, are also strong, but postcolonialism favours one and excludes the other, while I see a need to configure all three at a number of levels. In the specific area of gains from imperialist connections, for instance, Scotland originally topped the trio economically with income from clerks, engineers, military hit men and PR novelists for the British Empire. Now, however, who gains most from toadying to U.S. expansionism is a moot question, and in a less literary conference I'd illustrate my argument using pop videos. However, since this paper must have already severely stretched, if not torn, the conference's remit, and worse is to follow, I'll apologize for not following my promised outline and continue with postcolonial fictions as untruths.

Fiction two is that postcolonial textual studies, even with all their canon exploding and reloading, are enough by themselves. Consider Anne Cranny-Francis' "postmodern conceptualization of pleasure - located in an interplay of surfaces, intertexts and generic dialogisms ... which involves an interactive practice of recognition and transformation, is also an aesthetic of reception ... whose political counterpart is ... affinity, not identity." [2] Now here my ignorance might be only too clearly revealed but I have not found much stress on non-ethnic based affinity groupings, not least compared with, say, the admittedly extreme Livermore Action Group, "committed to building a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, elders, perverts, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm the state." [3] More confidently I assert, albeit with some trepidation before this conference, that postcolonial criticism neglects production conditions, non-individual reading formations (along the lines of Janice Radway's research on Harlequin romances [4]) and work on actual audiences.

Even after postcolonialism is adopted as a process, even after the U.S. empire is refocussed, even after other non-literary cultural expressions, audience studies, production circumstances and reception work are included, another major postcolonial fiction remains. It is simply that the urgent relationship is only an intra-nation, inter-nation and inter-region political one. At this point in eco-history one central form of decolonization needs to be environmental: humanity in relation to the rest of the planet. Any non-parochial perspective (and, as I hope the preceding argument has made clear, there's value in being both parochial and non-parochial) must recognise that the future of the biosphere needs to be ensured to support future postcolonial processes of whatever kind. Again among my readings from The Empire Writes Back, Passing the Last Post, The Dark Side of the Dream, SPAN and Striking Chords I have not found this to feature much at all.

Where it does feature is in a written genre I'd like to claim, once again argumentatively, as postmodern and as neglected in postcolonialism. That genre is post-cyberpunk speculative fiction. To justify its later-than-postmodern credentials there's Fredric Jameson's 1991 pronouncement on cyberpunk as "the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself." [5] Its neglect in Australian postcolonialist criticism is born out in my not having been able to track down a single reference to the novels by Terry Dowling [6] or short story collections such as the work of Lucy Sussex7 or anthologies such as Glass Reptile Breakout.8 Central to the genre are a range of issues which belong centrally to, and hold great promise for, genuinely postcolonial, in the planetary sense, fictions.

Thematically the work of Terry Dowling in particular, extends the cyberspace of neuromancers Cadogan, Gibson and Sterling to an imaginative future Australia where the human/technology interface fuses Koori psychic technology with communication satellites in a sparse landscape populated by organicised artificial intelligences. In many ways what Dowling achieves in his three novels answers Donna Haraway's call for the collapse of binary categories between nature and humans, and for more "transgressive boundaries" where "people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanent partial identities and contradictory standpoints."9

Additionally, George Turner's short story "Shut the door when you go out," factors Gaian perspectives into the kind of challenge eco-politically relevant postcolonial and postmodern fictions will increasingly have to meet. Imagine humanity's residue hovering in a space ship above the place they called home 3000 years ago. Down below their representative, a man called Smith, dialogues with one of the custodians after they have healed him of his disease:

"You are free of your - no word available - encumbrance in the blood. Nexus saw that the invading organism could not be permitted to proliferate on the planet."

Smith said humbly, "Thank you."

The figure smiled faintly. "One did not confer a favour. Nexus made an ecologically based decision and acted upon it. You should go now."...

"I should talk to someone in authority."

The faint smile flickered. "A ruler?"

"If that is the case, yes, a ruler."

"So talk."

"You are a ruler?"

"There is only Nexus."

Through you, Nexus is aware?"

"I am Nexus. All people--yet the use of the plural in such a fashion is meaningless--are Nexus."

But you are one. How is Nexus aware of one?"

As you are aware of your limbs and their movement. Late English has not the terms."

Smith asked cautiously, "Are you human?"

For once the Person hesitated. "No," it said. "Humans were separate Ones. Now there is only Nexus."

Smith said dispiritedly, "Humanity has been taken over."

"Not so. Humanity has taken over."

Desperately, affronted by monsters, forgetting his instructions, the man blurted, "Without genitals how do you breed?"

"Nexus absorbs and creates as the cycles dictate. This is gossip. You are healed; you should go."

There was no impatience in the tone. Humanity, Smith saw, was gone from its home, supplanted by - "Please bear with me a little. I have returned to a very strange Earth."

"Strange? Did you expect otherwise?"

Remembering at last why he was here, Smith said desperately, "We want to come home." The Person was impassive. "Our ship is up there."

"Nexus is aware of it."

"This is our home."

"It is not. You deserted Earth. This is Gaia, if you must have a name for the habitation of Nexus. There is no place here for you." It said with sudden authority, "That is an ecological decision."10

My final conference heresy is to turn to a popular and commercial U.S. blockbuster for a partial model of what a planetary postcolonial fiction might look like and do. Or, to respond to Jameson's hope and terminology, David Brin's novel Earth represents the beginnings of a postmodern response to the latest capitalist environment. For, if Jameson's cultural cartography for the age is to be achieved, then I contend that significant bearings have to be taken from ecological features and something akin to Gaia has to form part of the map-making process.

Brin's novel is at one and the same time: a former professional scientist's response to our current plight; a novelistic remake of Stagecoach on a mega scale; the near ultimate in catastrophe genres (whose black holes would miniaturise towering infernos to nano-matchsticks); a devouring monster horror story; a technically inventive accommodation with an interfaced media and computer age; a mythopoeic-scientific history of the planet and a conventional page turner. It is also frequently tongue in cheek.

Dedicated to "our common mother" it situates the planet's birth modestly as "a condensed stone, radiating at about three hundred degrees, insignificant on the scale of stars."11 Brin's next set of parameters involve a New Zealand statue of "the incised cheeks and outthrust tongue of Great Tu, Maori god of war" (3). Then after some standard science fiction speculation around black holes an innovative post enters the story in the over-ninety-year-old fictional personage of Jen Wolling who, after, "Two husbands, three children, eight grandchildren, and one Nobel Prize" (12), is suffering from PNS or Post-Nobel Syndrome.

At this stage I want to adapt Gail Jones' helpful list of five "issues fundamental to post-colonial literary studies"12 to suggest how they register differently on the new "ecoculturalist terrain."13 Jones' first issue of "cross-cultural comprehension or incomprehension" emerges via Earth's various perspectives on the rights to survival for animals, humans and "the very guts of the planet - its complex mantle and layered cone." For, to quote Brin's own words, "What book could claim to about the entire Earth if it left out over ninety-nine percent of the planet's volume and mass?" (728) Some flavour can be gathered from this sample of the planet's own autobiography.

World Ocean rolled, stroked by driving winds and tugged by barren Sister Moon.

For millions of years, twin tidal humps of churning water swept round and round, meeting little resistance but the sea floor itself.


The day's length altered imperceptibly as Earth exchanged momentum with her moon. Eon by eon, the seas grew saltier and then stabilized. The sun brightened, also gradually. Sometimes the rolling waters changed color as some innovative microbe gained a sudden temporary advantage, burgeoned, outstripped its food supply, and died back again.

Then one organism consumed another, but failed to devour its prey instead, the two coexisted and a deal was struck. An accidental sharing of responsibilities. A symbiosis.

One from many, and metazoa-multicellular life- was born.

That innovation, cooperation, changed everything. (281-282)

Still later Brin interweaves this with recent neurological findings on the nature of consciousness and even argues for Gaia as more than metaphor or experimental hypothesis. While his presentation is too complex to detail here it is congruent with Ilya Prigogine's work with chaos, Charles Birch's on biology, self-organizing non-human organisms and philosophical developments concerning "life's ability to encapsulate itself" (734).14 Brin's artistic and intellectual blend encourages readers towards reconceptualising our anthropocentric view of the planet, the nature of our relationships with other sentient forms and the currently dominant cosmological outlook.

In addition Earth intensifies Jones' metaphor of postcolonialism as "disintegrating cage" by expanding her second postcolonial issue, "the role of ethnography in cultural understanding," to include the role of zoology with extended considerations of conservation arks, genetic engineering and late Darwinianism debates on cooperation verses competition. Similarly enlarged is her third issue on "the nature and exercise of colonial authority." Earth encompasses the lords of humankind's power to dispose of other species, the fabric of the planet itself and even outer space as an imperial right as well as the variety of ways their power destroys biodiversity.

Her fourth, "the linguistic specificity of dialect and pigeon" lacks the radical challenge of cross-species encounters in another Brin novel, [15] which features haiku-speaking dolphins and a neo-chimpanzee planetologist. Where it does surface is in the new creole configuration of imagined future youth subcultures such as the Ra boys and human/computer/media interfaces.16 Scientific discourse and form, as the examples demonstrate, are incorporated along with media re-representations. These also touch on Jones' final issue, "questions of relativism and incommensurability," although I suspect this conference might be more concerned with the novel's representations of Pacific cultures and people. Certainly Brin lays himself open to charges of "Pacificism" and his acknowledgment to the "fine listeners of the New Zealand SF society" who "were most helpful in getting some of the kiwi stuff right" (748) might not be enough to get him off that particular hook, especially since contributors from other cultures in the region seem to be denied any input.

Incommensurability in the novel covers a wider range than most contemporary literary fiction. Earth opens out ideas around paradigm shifts which undermine The Western Intellectual Tradition, or TWIT as psychologist Robert Ornstein terms it. At the same time Brin's work celebrates, popularises and plays with ideas at the cutting edge of science, that tradition's main justification in the modern world. Such incommensurable encounters receive a relatively open coverage (since few categories can be detected as what they are by textual evidence alone) via imaginary internal fictions and futuristic long range forecast groups as well as actual scientific data and theoretical positions. Take, for example, this inserted section which interrupts the story for no discernible narrative function:

Net Vol. A69802-11 04/06/38 14:34L12UT. User G-654-11-7257-Aab 12 APP News Alert+ 7+:Key-select: "Conservation," "animal rights," "conflict":

In the ongoing, sometimes violent confrontation between the International Fish and Fowl Association and the animal rights group known as No-Flesh, a surprise development today. To the amazement of many, the Hearth Conclave of the North American Church of Gaia has intervened in favor of the world's largest organization of duck hunters.

According to the Most Reverend Elaine Greenspan ... this month's spokesperson for the enclave:


"Our campaign has been waged because great herds of grazing cattle and sheep were destroying much of the Earth. Vast quantities of needed grain were being wasted as fodder. And finally, modified food animals such as beef steers are abominations robbed of the ultimate dignity of wild creatures, to have a chance to fight or flee, to struggle to survive."


"Contrary to our initial expectations, we have determined that IFFA duck hunters have been among the most ardent supporters of conservation, spending millions to buy up and preserve wetlands, pursuing polluters and poachers, and regulation their own activities admirably. Any complete ban on hunting would, we estimate, lead to catastrophic loss of remaining migratory routes ..." (368-369)

Equally wide ranging is relativism. Despite some clear pro-space exploration loadings by ex-NASA astrophysicist Brin, other aspects point in quite other directions. Representations of indigenous myths and peoples associated with pointed critiques of U.S. power and Western environmental idiocies combine forcefully with the sections of earth history. Similarly linked in vastly different interpretative invitations to those of TWIT, are the partial personification of Jen Wolling as the mother of the Gaian movement, a subvocal materialisation of her totem animal and her transformation into an actual Gaian to resolve the narrative conclusion. These clearly offer congenial perspectives to this reader, and similar others who are into shamanism and a variety of belief systems more attuned to indigenous people and postwestern paradigms than "rational" modernisation. There's a distinctly Zen playfulness as Jen Wolling assumes Goddess stature: "I never imagined that to be a deity, a world would mean finding so many things ... amusing" (709).

And yet in the novel's very fabric, Brin's own afterword would deny these readings with a defence of Western ways. He also offers a self-reflexive account of his aims, sources and even guides to action for anyone desiring to help save the planet. Surely there can be few commercial fictions simultaneously promoting Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the pro-space lobbying group, The National Space Society (750-751). But then affinity politics can be like that.

So, in the end Earth the novel, like earth the planet, is shot through with contradictions and the competition versus cooperation debate rages on extra-textually. In this paper, while accepting (cooperation) that my chosen text and huge sections of the globe would benefit from critical postcolonial analyses (particularly in relation to U.S. cultural imperialism), I side (competition) with postmodernism as better configuring the world, and naturally select a postmodern text as better engaging with affinity politics and planetary postcolonialism in the latest capitalist environment.


1 Alomes, Stephen, A Nation at Last? The Changing Character of Australian Nationalism 1880-1988 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1988).

2 Anne Cranny-Francis, "Feminist Futures: A Generic Study" in Annette Kuhn (ed.), Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema (London: Verso, 1990) 227.

3 Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) 155.

4 Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill and London: The University of Carolina Press, 1984).

5 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991) 419.

6 Terry Dowling, Rynosseros (Adelaide: Aphelion, 1990).

Terry Dowling, Wormwood (Adelaide: Aphelion, 1991).

Terry Dowling, Blue Tyson (Adelaide: Aphelion, 1992).

7 Lucy Sussex, My Lady Tongue & Other Tales (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1990).

8 Van Ikin (ed.) Glass Reptile Breakout and Other Australian Speculative Stories (Perth, WA: The Centre for Australian Studies, University of Western Australia).

9 Haraway (1991) 154.

10 George Turner, "Shut the Door When You Go Out" in Van Ikin (1990) 141-142.

11 David Brin, Earth (London, Orbit, 1990) 1-2. Page references are to this edition.

12 Gail Jones, Review of "Anthony J. Hassell (ed.), Randolph Stow" in SPAN, 33, May 1992, 173-174.

13 Jennifer Daryl Slack and Laurie Anne Whitt, "Ethics and Cultural Studies" in Lawrence Grossberg et al (eds.) Cultural Studies (New York and London: Routledge, 1992) 589.

14 For those interested in pursuing this further see Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature (Glasgow: Flamingo, 1984) and David McKie and Michael Bennett 'Influencing Butterflies: Chaos, Cosmology and Cultural Studies' in Meanjin 51:4, Summer 1992 (forthcoming).

15 David Brin, Startide Rising (New York: Bantam, 1983).

16 See especially 19-20, 41 and 151.

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