Postcolonial Fictions | Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC
SPAN
Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)

Postcolonial Fictions

Edited by Michèle Drouart

The Import of Theory: a question neither here nor there

Richard Smith

I want to locate this paper, provisionally, like all localising acts, in a dubious place. In the place of a homage played out within the institution of continental critical philosophy, in the place of Jacques Derrida's homage to the work of Emmanuel Levinas. The title of this homage is significant: "At This Very Moment In This Work Here I Am."1 Derrida's literal inscription of himself into Levinas's critique of the phenomenological subject dislocates the sign from the referent as it relocates it: Emmanuel Levinas is the misnomer given to the critical work which challenges the phenomenological notion of intentionality. Derrida's homage, as it endorses and extends Levinas's work, is obliged to transgress and abuse it. Neither Levinas's nor Derrida's work, however, can move absolutely outside the phenomenological subject. For the obligation to rewrite the margins of the phenomenological subject necessarily locates critique within its project. But this double bind of critical intentionality is the condition of the possibility of escape inscribed in Levinas's work and taken up by Derrida in the form of a homage. Derrida's homage transgresses the work of Levinas because the latter's critique of intentionality obliges one to acknowledge a moment of rupture, a moment always already written into Derrida's own work. Derrida's use of Levinas's phrase, at this very moment here I am, writes the two together so that the I of the homage, and the obligation which secures it, is the property of neither Derrida nor Levinas. The obligated homage may be seen as a form of dictation, Levinas writing his own homage and giving it to Derrida who writes his name into it, who signs it. But it is also clear that the only form this homage can take is an abuse; if one is truly to pay homage to work which destabilises the intentional subject, then one must recommit the act of critique, the questioning of that which one endorses.

"At this very moment in this work here I am." By citing Derrida's verbose title we diminish its literalness, we issue quotation marks, which, as markers of the moment of enunciation, locate and dislocate speaker and subject. Immediately the margins of Derrida's title begin to question where "here" is troubling and disrupting a seemingly literal unproblematic signifying moment. Rather than move toward the firm location of the speaking subject in a discourse of intentionality, Derrida's title works as a tangle of presences which disappear into each other. The self is decentred as one cannot establish firm ground or even recognize the location. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine whether "here" is here or elsewhere. Whether the here which determines the "here" in quotation marks is itself absolutely outside the sign. Whether here is ineluctably in quotation marks, both here and elsewhere, the space which renders the local indeterminate, belonging nowhere, neither here nor there.

Similarly, the voice of the self, its location in the identifying utterance is multiplied. At this very moment in this work here I am. Where? In the work of European philosophy (which traditionally has also been the work of imperialism) or in the ambivalence marked by another title, also of this moment, of a conference, "Postcolonial Fictions." More quotation marks dislocating sign and referent: here I am in the uneasy space of neither phenomenology nor postcolonial identitarianism. But clearly the two cross each other if only in the brief gesture of a dubious abusive homage. But is this the case? That the only connection between here and the dubious "here" of critical phenomenology is the intent to begin somewhere. Was that beginning somehow prepared in advance by the intersection of both discourses, if only at the level of a shared refusal of imperialist agendas and the collective critique of established taxonomies? Do not the two share the uneasy space of critique, of a constantly shifting here and I. By placing the postcolonial subject inside quotation marks, the conference title, "Postcolonial Fictions" like Derrida's homage, questions the location of the inscribed self. It is the ceaseless questioning of critique, locating and dislocating the discursive field of the conference as it takes place, which gestures toward the problem of the problematic of the local ("here" or here) as the requirement of an absolute answer, of an obligation to move outside the quotation marks into the field of whether or not here is here or there. The answer may be that it is neither here nor there, or both here and there. Such an obligation to move outside the quotation marks is exactly the problem of the local figured in Derrida's deceptively literal title: "at this very moment in this work here I am" performs the local as a displaced presence. I am here but in representing myself I am also not here; I locate myself in the European philosophical tradition as I locate myself at a conference on postcolonial fictions. I move outside the quotation marks as I move inside others.

Throughout this uneasy beginning I have been, all the while, locating myself in another place, just off stage, in the margins. This other place is also dislocated and multiple, it is the other place of a debate concerning the shift within postcolonial studies and the academic's role in political movements. The unease with which I began is not ameliorated by entering a more overtly postcolonial space, however, partly because the imperial text is never out of sight even when the marginal is brought into the light. The debate I am referring to is between Gayatri Spivak and Benita Parry.

The marginal ground of the debate is not disputed. Rather it is the constitution of this ground in relation to imperial power which separates the two positions. To put it another way, neither Parry nor Spivak would argue that the object of postcolonial study is the marginal and that this entails the constitution of different taxonomies of value to those utilised by imperial discourse. The difference which arises, though, is fundamental. Despite their open agreement and allegiance, not only do they disagree on the constitution of these new taxonomies but also on the attribution of value, its function and relation to imperialist value. For instance, Spivak argues in several places that the task of the radical teacher is to recode imperialist taxonomies, whereas Parry argues, in "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse,"2 that the task is one of decolonisation as articulated by Frantz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks. Fanon's project, according to Parry, is the armed overthrow of the colonial rulers.

What is immediately apparent is that rather than being theories that are substantively and strategically opposed to each other in terms of the marginal subject their disputation rests with the nature and scope of colonial power. It is this difference which informs the theoretical agenda of each. Parry's is a theory of decolonisation, while Spiva's is a theory of postcoloniality. The difference is subtle but crucial. It is clearly not a question of who is correct but of specificity. The difficulty with Parry's thesis is that it writes out any alternative to armed struggle. Parry's Fanon is a guerrilla fighter, but on the margins of her own account of Black Skin White Masks is Fanon the Christian, Fanon the psychoanalyst, and Fanon the masculist. It is these marginal figures which, in Spivak's terms, will be the "curious judges" of his work. The difficulty with Spivak's thesis or theses, is their acquiescence to the global relevance of the North American academic context and its disciplinary agenda. Spivak's term, postcoloniality, is used provisionally to nominate the current historical moment as dispersed and includes a notion of internal colonization. But while the U.S.A is undeniably one of the major forces of colonization at present, this does not mean other agendas are superseded. For instance, the dismissal of identitarian politics writes out its liberative power as either a function of utopian or oppressive taxonomies. After all, identitarian politics served the imperialist agenda to devastating ends. The strategic use of identity may be erased if all ethnocultural agendas are construed as aligned with imperialist notions of the law, the nation and the self. The marginal in the U.S.A. is not identical to the marginal in Australia, or elsewhere for that matter. And although this problem of identification is precisely what Spivak refers to when she warns against the monumentalization of the marginal, it cannot be taken for granted that the problems of pluralism and essentialism which trouble activist academics in the States are as prominent or take the same form elsewhere. This is why one cannot analyse Spivak and Parry as if they were contesting the same ground, even though they each write themselves into the other's work. More sharply than Derrida himself, the here and now of Spivak and Parry's debate constitutes a dislocated field of intersecting knowledges, which may, with cautionary quotation marks around it, be named "postcolonial."

The admonitory function of these quotation marks cannot be underestimated because the object of dispute between Spivak and Parry is always the marginal subject by way of an analysis of its relation to the imperial subject. It is clear that neither can theorize the marginal subject in an hermeneutical space. Each necessarily refers back to imperial taxonomies and their effect on the marginal subject. The quotation marks that this necessity to engage with imperial discourse places around the marginal subject is what is attacked by Parry and taken as given by Spivak. Put differently, Parry's objective is to erase, or go beyond the quotation marks, to cure the "native" of Manicheism delirium, to transform discourse into insurrection, whereas Spivak's is to recode the marginality that quotation marks signal, to operate in the liminal space between sign and referent, to reconstitute a disciplinary object. The return to the imperial text which Derrida's now relocated title marks is, in Parry's terms, an indication that the process of decolonization is incomplete. But in Spivak's terms it is precisely the space of postcoloniality. For one the imperial presence is to be eradicated, for the other it is to be ceaselessly reinscribed. Decolonization is the constitution of a new politico-discursive space, postcoloniality is the recodification of the marginal, the constitution of a new object of study. The difference may appear subtle but it rests on vastly differing notions of power and action.

In Parry's terms, imperial power operates as a repressive force against the "native." Its function is to subjugate and dominate the local inhabitants by the imposition of disorienting and alienating taxonomies of value. This repressive force is what determines the form of colonial opposition. Parry uses Black Skin White Masks, as exemplary of a directly correlative relation between discourse and political action. She argues that Fanon's work is a call to arms. The necessity for armed struggle is determined by the deliberative form of colonial domination. Colonial discourse, Parry argues "fixes the opposition of white as sovereign law and black as its transgression in discourse."3 The colonial relationship is one of direct conflict because the "native" subject never gains access to a position of power in imperialist taxonomies. For Parry, imperialist power does not produce colonial subjects but merely enforces and imposes a disorienting and disabling (cataleptic) consciousness. This is what she emphasises when she uses Fanon's notion of Manicheism delirium, a state of alienation from those relations which allow the subject to develop.

The problem here is the implication of an authentic power relation. The false consciousness of imperial domination carries with it the assumption of an authentic self, which is constituted by the value free "dialogical interaction of the self with other selves." This neutral process of subject formation rests on the assumption that precolonial modes of power are natural. In opposition to imperial domination, certain social orders are implicitly endorsed as correct and unproblematic even if, like Fanon, one does not seek a return to the past, and does not invoke a lost paradise. The dialogical modes of subject formation attributed to precolonial subjectivity are effectively erased as power structures which produce subjects in the adversarial colonial relation; subjectivity becomes monolithic and stable, the liberative opposite of the oppressiveness of imperial law. It is precisely this stability that Spivak challenges on the grounds that an authentic native consciousness perpetuates the structures of alienation imposed by imperialist modes of subjection, but also it plays into the hands of those who seek to maintain an illusory pure Western culture. For what Parry's formulation implies is that it is possible to identify the authentic native as it is possible to identify an imperial essence. What this ignores is the category of internal colonization which subjugates and marginalises subjects within a colonial nation. The point here is that colonization is restricted to neither one historical moment nor is it a sign of a particular ethos or culture. Colonialism, in Spivak's terms is a set of subjugating and subjecting strategies; it is the property of no one; nor is it a monolithic stable system of power. It is a tactics of power, an assemblage of techniques and strategies that are exercised.

What is also contradictory about Parry's formulation of power is that while it recognizes the colonial relation as one of epistemological decomposition, the terms of its challenge do not remain conditional on the struggle for decolonization, that is, the strategic necessity to oppose imperialist taxonomies does not produce a strategic notion of liberation which when achieved is prepared to critique its own terms. Struggle becomes instituted as the sign of a stable consciousness that exists outside the historical necessity for resistance. Such monumentalization of the marginal subject is precisely the identitarian politics Spivak critiques in "Theory in the Margins"4 where she develops two senses of the marginal - the general and the narrow. The general sense refers to a method of recoding imperialist taxonomies whereas the narrow refers to all the victims of imperialism.

This uneasy relation, comparable to the relation of theory and practice, produces the space of disciplinary intervention. For Spivak, postcoloniality is marked by the overdetermination of language. It is a space of nominal dislocation, where sign and referent never coincide where the subject is a marginal figure. Thus the dismissal of identitarian politics. Her term for postcoloniality is catachresis. It is a term which positions her within the disciplinary politics of academia as a poststructuralist theorist. This is an intentionally catachrestic correlation of postcolonial theory and poststructuralism - themselves catachrestic - but it does gesture towards the notions of power which mobilise Spivak's work. Derrida's title once again moves into sight because it is the marginalization of the self through discourse, the noncoincidence of sign and referent which, for Spivak, opens up the critical space of postcoloniality. Catachresis, as the necessary failure of nominalism, allows the critical reinscription of the general sense of the marginal by the narrow. This uneasy relationship allows a politics of specificity to inhabit a global condition. By that I mean, catachresis designates a historical moment which is dispersed, internally fractured, not a moment at all. At this very moment in this work here I am, the work of affirmative and productive deconstruction, the work of postcolonial critique of imperial discourse. Spivak's inscription of herself into the work of deconstruction reads as follows: "The field of practice is a broken and uneven place. The convenient highway of a single issue is merely the shortest distance between two sign posted exits."5

Again "here" is in quotation marks. Identity recites the margins as it forms the place of a critical politics of recodification. Spivak's deconstructive practice uses the ineluctability of the marginal self to continually question the stability of the centre. But it is the ineluctability of marginality, and the necessity to critique imperial discourse which Parry refutes in her espousal of revolutionary politics. Her article, "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," questions the political efficacy of textual politics, of locating the project of decolonization within the academic institution. She levels her own critique at the "here" of Spivak and Bhabha's work.

In effect, Parry argues against the constitutive function of discourse in favour of a more deliberative notion of discourse; one which lines up with Fanon's phenomenological subject and is critiqued by Levinas, Derrida and Spivak. One could ask, then, where the "here" of Parry's work is. For like the phenomenological subject, she locates the power of imperial discourse in the political intentions of the imperial subject, in the agenda of expansion. At this very moment in this work here I am brings together the voices of intentionality, both the imperial and its adversary. In fact adversarial politics, the politics of the colonial relation as Parry formulates it, is a struggle for possession of power, for the mechanisms which express the subject's political intentions. It is this totalistic notion of power that Spivak and Bhabha reject. Their shift toward textual politics aligns them with Derrida and Levinas' challenge to phenomenological notions of power. But this alignment is also a mutation, for Spivak in her recent work has attempted to read Derrida and Foucault together, not in order to fuse the two, but to theorize the catachresis of the disciplinary constitution of the marginal subject. In a recently published essay entitled "More on Power Knowledge"6 she brings deconstruction and the Foucaultian power/knowledge assemblage together under the rubric of critical philosophy and stresses that postcoloniality cannot be explained in liberal humanist terms. By bringing Foucault into the critical space of postcoloniality, Spivak is able to make connections between disciplinarity, and imperial power. Like the disciplines, imperialism is a tactics of power, it utilises strategies which ensure its continued dominance. This notion of power as a field of practice is how Spivak justifies the shift which Parry perceives as politically ineffective. The study of disciplinary mechanisms exists in a catachrestic relation to imperial power.

Spivak's notion of imperial power, while assenting to the repressive force of colonial invasion, denotes a field of practice which is also constitutive of marginality. The colonial consciousness is not so much pathological as it is ineluctable (inexorable). Imperial power is not natural but it is not false in the sense that a correct form of power exists. Partly because the repressive aspect of power is never absent, even in so called "natural" systems of power. Spivak insists that the repressive aspect of power is inescapable and is what determines relations of power as asymmetrical; this is as much the case with precolonial modes of power as for imperial power. By that I mean, colonial subjects are constituted as marginal by the founding moment of epistemic violence. Spivak's notion of epistemic violence and the practice of power differs from Parry's not in its conception of the imperialist moment of invasion, but in the effects and structure of imperial power. Spivak argues that there is no outside of colonial power structures; one must critique that which one inhabits, and because this imperative is inexorable, the radical teacher must continually operate within the critical space opened up by the recoding of imperialist taxonomies. In other words, the postcolonial theorist must reiterate, keeping in mind the political implications of such a reiteration, at this very moment in this work here I am.

West End, Queensland


1 Jaques Derrida, "At This Very Moment In This Work Here I Am," trans. R. Berezdivin, in Re-Reading Levinas, ed. Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

2 Benita Parry, "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," Oxford Literary Review, 9 (1-2), 27-58.

3 Parry, 28.

4 Gayatri Spivak, "Theory in the Margins: Coetzee’s Foe Reading Defoe’s Crusoe/Roxana," in The Consequences of Theory Selected Papers from the English Institute 1987-88, ed. J. Arac and B. Johnson (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991).

5 Spivak (1991) 177.

6 Gayatri Spivak, "More on Power/Knowledge," in Rethinking Power, ed. T. E. Wartenberg (New York: SUNY, 1992).


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