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

Postmodernism or Postcolonialism Tomorrow: the relevance of a dialogical framework for postcolonial criticism

Cameron Richards

A basic problem for anyone practising postcolonial studies is how to respond to the kind of claim that such an activity is contradicted or appropriated by the postmodernist preoccupations of contemporary theory (the various post-structuralisms, so-called Cultural Studies, etc.); that is, a view that local traditions or contexts of cultural representation are open to be appropriated in terms of either an aesthetic, populist or political rhetoric of the image. This is possibly evidenced by the inability or failure of local postcolonial and/or literary critics to respond to what Fry and Willis have identified as a now dominant postmodernist orthodoxy ruling debates in Australian cultural criticism.1 It has become a hardly questioned axiom that local forms of cultural representation including the concept of a literary heritage are merely inventions reducible to a false or stereotypical imagery as that projected by advertising in electronic visual media.2 Within the field of postcolonial criticism there still seems to remain a naive hope, voiced by Stephen Slemon, that "postmodernism may yet find a way to join with, not assimilate, postcolonial discourse,"3 rather than any considered attempt to assert the reverse.

In this paper I propose to consider the relevance of a dialogical framework as a basis for recognizing that "postcolonialist" discourse and criticism presupposes a context of interpretation and strategy of representation which is not reducible to the various kinds of postmodernism (e.g. as a populist condition, an aesthetics of mere style, and politics of difference). Moreover, it will be suggested, such a framework has particular application for considering postcolonial literary fictions as an exemplary rather than privileged or irrelevant medium for cultural criticism.

Postcolonialism as a dialogical metaphor

As an influential model of postcolonial literary criticism, The Empire Writes Back,4 for instance, represents a developed version of the kind of appropriation of poststructuralist theories that have invited the response of people such as Simon During and Linda Hutcheon that this is negated by the terms of postmodernity (either as a popular "condition" or a critical discursive strategy); for example, During's claim that postmodernism represents the divide which separates postcolonized and postcolonizer, and Hutcheon's that much postcolonial criticism is "neo-imperialist." The title The Empire Writes Back ostensibly suggests a dialogue between the postcolonized and postcolonizer cultures. However, as well as being a reference in particular to the privileged, canonized notion of English studies, it is also developed as a poststructuralist spatial metaphor of a centre-margins reversal which, it may be suggested, is as "monological" a model as that which it contests. Although it qualifies Hutcheon's complaint by identifying the eurocentrism of contemporary theory used to receive the works of postcolonial writers, The Empire Writes Back nevertheless tends to construct this as a fixed oppositional relation within a relativist framework.

What is usefully analysed as a dialogical process in The Empire Writes Back, if only in passing, are the transformations of the English language considered as a process of "hybridity and syncretism" presumably the contribution of Ashcroft, who elsewhere has developed the dialectical concept of "constitutive graphonomy."5 The mediating function of language provides an important basis for considering how a dialogical framework contrasts with the postmodernist and/or poststructuralist reliance upon a rhetoric of the image, a binary logic of sameness and difference (or self and other), and a relativist conception of cultural representation in general. Whilst Bahktin's model of dialogism is a useful example of such a framework, so too is Gadamer's reconstruction of the hermeneutic circle in terms how practices of cultural representation and critical interpretation are not simply intersubjective exchanges but mediated across time, space and different cultural (or representational) contexts by the metaphoric and conventional nature of language use. Gadamer's framework informs the work of the two "dialogical" theorists which I have found particularly helpful for attempting to construct a locally relevant method for interpreting Australian "postcolonial fictions"6: Ricoeur's theories of metaphor, narrative, and interpretation,7 and Jauss's version of reception theory and thus his attempt to recover the literary history as a device of cultural criticism.8 According to Jauss, "the dialogical concept . . . dismantles the one-sided priority of pedagogical authority, gives equal rights to the opposite voice and through a casuistry of question and answer intensifies the newly regained openness of conversation."9 In short, dialogism is not simply a method or model described by various theorists but a convergent and practical framework of dialectical and rhetorical criticism referenced not by some transcendental principle but by specific, mediated human interactions or performances conceived progressively as discourses, texts and localized traditions.

The relevance of dialogism for the problematic of colonialism is that however explicitly monological a discourse or interaction may seem to be in terms of contents and forms - imposed either by physical force or as, say, cultural assimilation - it remains dialogical in the implicit sense that it is appropriated and transformed by "the other"; as Memmi recognised, the colonizer and colonized are implicitly bound together in an "implacable dependence.10 This is a point recognized by recent and influential theorists of ethnographic practice who refer to the dialogical models cited above or deploy their own (e.g. Geetz, Clifford, Rosaldo, Maranhao et al 11). However, its "postcolonial" application may be considered with reference to Terdiman's concept of a "counter-discourse" promoted in postcolonial studies by Helen Tiffin in particular to describe a strategy of decolonization.12 Although The Empire Writes Back's definition of postcolonialism does apply the modifier "post" as a chronological function of colonial history, it is also used in the sense of critical and/or political appropriation applied by theories of postmodernism and post-structuralism. For instance, Hodge and Mishra13 distinguish between "complicit and oppositional postcolonialism" in relation to the claims of aboriginalism, whilst Gunew approaches postcolonialism as merely a discursive strategy similar to those of feminism and multiculturalism insofar it too has served to rescue "aspects of postmodernism from being anti-political or apolitical" by functioning as a "counter" discourse.14

The strategy of postcolonialism to "unmask European authority," as Tiffin puts it,15 is not in itself sufficient to be able to distinguish between critical practices or tactics which facilitate a transformative appropriation and those which are self-contradictory in the sense that they implicitly reinforce what they explicitly contest. A dialogical framework provides a basis for making such a distinction by emphasizing the provisionality of a critical strategy of unmasking, distancing or self-alienation, as of the "naive" rhetorical function of identification. Whereas objectivist or formalist models of criticism tend to confuse functions of content, form and performance (also representations of the body, society and spatio-temporal location), and relativist models such as the various poststructuralisms tend to arbitrarily and contingently delineate them, dialogical models (like those of Ricoeur and Jauss) describe a progressive, transformative strategy of rhetorical appropriation involving naive, critical and dialogical modes of both representation and interpretation. As Ricoeur has described, a discursive model of language use provides a useful model of how either an aesthetic or political rhetoric of the image, of cultural stereotyping, and of a postmodernist simulacra is dialogically as well as critically appropriated.16

A postmodernist locus for postcolonial criticism?

Put another way, postcolonialism like postmodernism (and modernism) functions in often contradictory ways as a metaphoric locus of cultural criticism which incorporates, rather than being merely equivalent to terms of sexual, racial, class, economic and even stylistic differences, or reducible to the spatial metaphor of a centre-margins opposition. An important reference for both loci, whatever their specific application, is the European Enlightenment in its narrative models of progress, of imperialism, and of how historical imperatives may retrospectively be seen to arbitrarily appropriate local determinations. However, if a rhetorical locus may be defined for present purposes as an intersection of spatial and temporal trajectories both imaginary and real, then an important distinction between the "post" modifications of modernism and colonialism can be made a distinction that provides a basis for challenging the assumption voiced by During that "postmodernity wipes out the possibility of postcolonial identity" (and thus for distinguishing between regressive postmodernist national identities and a social imperative of local autonomy17).

Whereas postmodernism tends to be located as a spatial, ahistorical trajectory of global cultural autonomy and displacement (an inversion of modernist oppositions), postcolonialism presupposes a geographical trajectory (whether imaginary or real) which grounds the trajectory of history in local, specific contexts of cultural transformation in the conventional or exemplary rather than privileged sense. Postcolonialism as a dialogical metaphor assumes that the corresponding trajectories of colonizer and colonized are not symmetrical (their reversal involves a reciprocal transformation) and thus not delineated by a postmodernist divide as During also insists it is. This especially applies to the opposition of post-enlightement versus traditional loci. Although the trajectory of cultural identity initially followed differs from other postcolonial societies, European settler societies converge with the latter in terms of geographical determinations transforming historical imperatives (at least, as a cultural imaginary). That is, as a form of neo-imperialism, postcolonialism is a condition or rhetorical inversion shared by both colonized and colonizer societies (such as Australia) which become dependent and "self-colonized" cultures despite the achievement of national sovereignty. In this sense, During is wrong to state that Australian society has "almost no possibility of entry into the post-colonised condition."18 As an oppositional practice, however, there is a significant divergence, since postcolonial writers and other cultural producers in settler societies must also refer to a local social context which has been displaced both geographically and historically.

Postcolonialism considered as a dialogical metaphor requires that a distinction be made concerning which trajectory, which sense of the modifier "post," ultimately informs "postcolonial" writers and also critics: whether their works are primarily referenced by western individualism/modern society or local/traditional community; whether their predicament of "alienation or exile" is represented as a provisional or permanent state; and whether they remain privileged writers who merely translate their own personal dilemmas (whether as complicit or oppositional postcolonialism), or exemplary writers who attempt to transform their social contexts, even if their main audience is one of western critics applying eurocentric contemporary theory. For example, is Rushdie basically a postmodern writer who has reappropriated his postcolonial predicament? Postcolonialists who are "oppositional" in the sense of asserting the need for local cultural autonomy rather than in a poststructuralist or postmodernist sense, are open to the charge of retrogressively asserting (as During puts it) "a nostalgia for mythic origins."19

Whilst the same argument is also made to postcolonial writers in settler societies it presumes a distinction between postcolonial identity as a past reality and as a pure invention or fiction. This is reflected by the poststructuralist critical dilemma of non-western writers "writing back" to a neo-imperialist framework of contemporary theory. It is for this and related reasons, I would suggest, that a settler society like Australia provides an exemplary case study not only of postcolonialism as a dialogical metaphor, but of the dialogical framework itself as a basis for appropriating contemporary theory. And if, as Said and other post-structuralist critics of colonialism have recognised, literary works in certain contexts continue to provide a significant medium of cultural representation and focus of criticism, then a dialogical framework may serve to make a similar argument in relation to Australian cultural criticism which has seen a rhetoric of the image displace not just literary criticism but literary works and histories as mediums of cultural criticism.

Some applications of a dialogical framework for interpreting "postcolonial fictions"

If narrative models or myths of homeland, self-determination and organic community, etc., remain potent in postcolonial societies, then - as Slemon has pointed out - "one of the most pervasive of narrative structures in postcolonial literatures is that of the allegorical journey or 'progress' " towards such real or imaginary states.20 Slemon's application of allegorical analysis as a device of postcolonial criticism provides a useful (albeit, contradictory) focus for considering some of the applications of a dialogical framework for interpreting "postcolonial fictions." Just as Ricoeur's dialogical model recognizes the allegorical function of fiction as a narrative transformation or exemplification of history (fiction as a kind of extended metaphor), Slemon initially describes a similar justification for analysing postcolonial literatures.21 However, whereas Ricoeur discusses this in relation to interdependent, progressive functions of representation and interpretation (how all stories are predicated on the recovery of a sense of unity and locally transformed as such in performance), Slemon ends up conceiving this function as an imaginative displacement of history (165), as a kind of oppositional postmodernism governed by a monological motive of desire as During insists it is.

Slemon's model presupposes, then, a binary opposition between popular, nationalist myths of transformation and literary works which represent the postcolonial quest as ending in "ambiguity or failure." It does so on the representational basis of "race, gender, culture, class" differences referenced by the "ideological" function of a male "generative hero" (the allegorical model of an "imperial self") traversing spatial and temporal landscapes delineated by a threshold of "otherness." Slemon, like Bhabha, Said and others, ultimately reduces postcolonial fictions to a rhetoric of stereotypical images (motivated by a monological desire), literary history to a spatial metaphor of a canonical centre versus its margins, and generally is unable to distinguish between provisional and permanent, personal and "social" strategies of allegorical or mimetic transformation.

Paul Ricoeur conceives the process of allegorisis as discursive figuration and narrative emplotment informing non-fictional as well as fictional texts. The pertinence of this lies in how Ricoeur develops his model to challenge the arbitrary semiotic binaries of metaphor and metonymy in discourse, corresponding to (naive) romance and (ironic) realism as modes of fictional mimesis, which inform much postcolonial as well as poststructuralist critique and, moreover, narratological theory; such critics as Ashcroft, Bhabha, Slemon, and others hold that postcolonialism is a metonymic discourse informed by a post-enlightenment irony which extends to modernist realism and postmodernist fantasy. Further, postcolonial models of reading strategy (e.g. Hodge and Mishra) tend to follow the poststructualist model of monologically focusing upon works as autonomous structures of representation and sites of excluded difference. In contrast, just as Ricoeur's dialogical model describes how such representational binaries are appropriated within the interpretative act of refiguration, Jauss's dialogism is conceived as a model of textual reception mediated as "interaction patterns" transformed in the act of reading or performance.

Jauss's concept of interaction patterns embraces public or historical "horizons of expectation" as well as those of a particular reader or audience; in so doing, according to Jauss, they mediate both social and aesthetic norms open to conventional transformation as a dialectic of naive identification and critical or oppositional negation. Thus, dialogical models generally locate the interactive mediation of discourses, texts, and traditions in terms of conventional language use rather than discrete imagery. As Ricoeur has further described, a distinction needs to be made between regressive and socially constitutive applications of the related rhetorical functions of "ideology and utopia" (including the postcolonial motive of nostalgia): the framework of application determines whether postcolonial myths of unity are merely contingent fictions, ideological constructions, or escapist projections of some other time, place or society. Jauss's model describes the process by which story-telling functions of resolution and a central hero are transferred to a reader or audience even in narratives (especially those of the modern novel) which explicitly deny or contradict these. In relation to Slemon's conception of the postcolonial quest, it is a framework for recognising narrative representations of "failure" as always provisional, "ambiguity" as a tactical opportunity for personal or social transformation, and how the oppositional strategies of postcolonial writers (and critics) do not necessarily contradict popular myths or narrative models of postcolonial identity.

Possibly the most useful dialogical tactic for the study of "postcolonial fictions" is Jauss's recovery of the concept of literary histories in terms of reception theory as a device of cultural criticism. Again, Jauss conceives literary histories as interaction patterns mediating social as well as aesthetic norms, as heuristic models undergoing constant transformation rather than as fixed canonical centres. Pertinent applications of this for postcolonial studies may be briefly indicated. Postcolonial writers do not "write back" or invert the canonical centre, say, of English studies and eurocentric cultural authority as if in a social vacuum. Colonial literary traditions have often been represented as nationalist models of organic, monolithic development in settler societies (if ambivalently in other postcolonial societies). Opposed to this have been views, depending on the kind of post-enlightenment loci used (romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, etc.), that such traditions remain "colonial mimicry" of either borrowed, imposed, or invented forms of cultural representation. A dialogical framework not only recognizes how, as arbitrary or monological models, such opposing views presuppose an "other" (since an organic metaphor of self-contained development presupposes a void or mechanist metaphor), but also implicitly recognizes processes of rhetorical and cultural transformation. Conceived dialogically, as narrative models rather than as privileged texts, literary histories provide local critical frameworks and case studies for recognizing cultural histories of rhetorical lacunae, the transformative tensions of competing and often contradictory discourses, and intrinsic social diversity.


Postcolonial critics seem to have found it difficult to respond to the argument represented for instance by Simon During that whilst a naive kind of postcolonialism is neo-imperialist/colonial, the oppositional or counter-discursive model correspondingly involves the inherent contradiction that it is inevitably framed as a postmodernist strategy. I have briefly considered the relevance of a dialogical framework for reconstructing postcolonialism as a locus of cultural criticism, and suggested some of its applications for the study of postcolonial fictions, for such a framework provides a basis for distinguishing in particular between binary, self-contradictory and provisional, transformative tactics of postcolonial counter-discourse on the one hand, and constructions of postcolonial identity or assertions of local autonomy on the other. That is, it reconsiders postcolonialism not as a historicist chronological determination, nor merely as a contingent inversion of the centre-margins spatial metaphor (borrowed from the poststructuralist version of postmodernism), but as a progressive, rhetorical and narrative transformation of colonizer-colonized relations which is historically and/or geographically localized. In short, it has been suggested that rather than being inevitably subsumed by the various terms of postmodernism, postcolonialism is a rhetorical locus which may be an exemplary instance of the reverse.

Griffith University

1 T. Fry and A.Willis "Criticism Against The Current," Meanjin, 2 (1989).

2 A notable example of this is the Open University series Images of Australia.

3 S. Slemon, Past the Last Post: Theorising Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 9.

4 W.D. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths and H. Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989).

5 W.D. Ashcroft, "Constitutive Graphonomy: A Post-Colonial Theory of Literary Writing," in After Europe, S. Slemon & H. Tiffin, eds. (Sydney: Dangeroo Press, 1989).

6 I have applied this framework in a doctoral thesis, which is currently in the process of its final draft, titled The Use and Abuse of The Bush Metaphor: Interpreting Australian Narrative Models.

7 P.Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1978), The Rule of Metaphor (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), Time and Narrative Vols. 1-3 (Chicago: University Press, 1984-6)

8 H. Jauss, Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1982a), Toward an Aesthetic of Reception Minneapolis, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1982b)

9 H. Jauss, The Dialectical and Dialogical "Neveu De Rameau" (Berkeley: California University Press, 1983) 1.

10 A. Memmi The Coloniser and The Colonised (London: Souvenir Press, 1965), p.ix. As Memmi also writes, "If colonisation destroys the colonised, it also rots the coloniser" (xvii).

11 On "dialogical anthropology" see T. Maranhao (ed.), The Interpretation of Dialogue (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991).

12 H. Tiffin, "Comparative Literature and Post-colonial Counter-discourse," Kunapipi 9.3 (1987).

13 B. Hodge and V. Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991).

14 S. Gunew, "Postmodern Tensions," Meanjin 1 (1990): 25.

15 H. Tiffin, "Post-colonialism, Postmodernism and the Rehabilitaton of Post-colonial History," Journal of Commonwealth Literatures 23.1 (1989): 171.

16 P. Ricoeur, "The Function of Fiction in Shaping Reality," Man and World 12.2 (1979).

17 D. Ley, "Modernism, Post-Modernism and the Struggle For Place," in The Power of Place.

18 S. During, "Postmodernism or Post-Colonialism Today," in A. Milner, P. Thompson, and C. Worth, eds., Postmodern Conditions (Melbourne: Centre for General and Comparative Literature, 1988) 126.

19 During, 122.

20 S. Slemon, "Within The Domain" (unpublished).

21 S. Slemon, "Postcolonial Allegory and the Transformation of History," Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23.1 (1988).

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