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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Elleke Boehmer. Postcolonial Poetics. 21st-century Critical Readings. Cham: Springer / Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Pp. 220. ISBN: 9783319903408. (Theo D’haen)

Elleke Boehmer. Postcolonial Poetics. 21st-century Critical Readings. Cham: Springer / Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Pp. 220. ISBN: 9783319903408.

Theo D’haen

KU Leuven / University of Leuven

Postcolonialism has been one of the most successful approaches to literature over the past four decades or so, but now it is in trouble, and Elleke Boehmer’s Postcolonial Poetics. 21st-Century Critical Readings is a clear manifestation of the field’s fear of slowly running out of steam. Boehmer, who is also a successful novelist and short story writer, made her mark in the field of postcolonial studies with her monographs Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (1995, 2nd ed. 2005), Empire, the National and the Postcolonial, 1890–1920: Resistance in Interaction (2002), Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation (2005), and Indian Arrivals, 1870–1915: Networks of British Empire (2015), and with her edited anthology Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870–1918 (1998) and her annotated edition of Baden Powell’s Scouting for Boys (2004, 2nd ed. 2018). Boehmer was born to Dutch parents in South Africa, where she was also raised, and where she earned her first academic degree. Her continued relationship to her country of birth shines forth in Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction (2008) and in a volume she co-edited with Robert Eaglestone and Katy Iddiols, J.M. Coetzee in Theory and Context (2009). With Stephen Morton she edited Terror and the Postcolonial (2010), and with Sarah De Mul The Postcolonial Low Countries: Literature, Colonialism, and Multiculturalism (2012).

With Dominic Davies Boehmer edited Planned Violence: Post / Colonial Urban Infrastructure, Literature and Culture (2018). This volume dates ←313 | 314→from the same year as the volume here under review and I think represents a similar turning away from, in the sense also of a broadening out, into other areas than those traditionally associated with postcolonial literary studies. Planned Violence is the result of an international collaborative network of scholars working on colonial and postcolonial urban spaces, and while still to large extent focusing on works of literature, it does so from the perspective that, as Boehmer and Davies put it, “[t]he literary is here invested with a capacity to respond to and potentially rewrite urban infrastructures and the planned violence inscribed within their contours, generating alternative ways of viewing, understanding and inhabiting those cityscapes” (Boehmer and Davies 398–99). The latter article was published in 2015 and already signals, I think, Boehmer’s slowly distancing herself from the more traditional approach to postcolonialism she had until then been known for.

By the mid-2010s such distancing was going on in various quarters, in most instances inspired by the felt need to counter what was by then perceived as the rise of a new literary studies paradigm threatening to supplant postcolonial studies: world literature. Not infrequently this takes the form of advocating some kind of hostile take-over of the notion of world literature, as for instance in Pheng Cheah’s 2016 tellingly titled What is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature? Cheah ascribes to postcolonial literature as world literature the “power or efficacy to change the world according to a normative ethicopolitical horizon” (Cheah 6). How such a horizon should emerge from postcolonial literature as world literature I summarized in a survey article published in a previous issue of this journal:

Using Michelle Cliff’s Clare Savage novels, set in Jamaica, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, set in Bangladesh, and Nuruddin Farah’s Gifts, set in Somalia, as examples, Cheah argues that postcolonial literature resists the West’s worlding of the rest of the world by refusing to go along with the uni-temporality of globalization as Western imposition. Specifically, Cheah argues, “these novels are examples of literature that seeks to have a worldly causality in contemporary globalization … the source of literature’s worldly force is the heterotemporality of precolonial oral traditions that have survived the violence of slavery, folk practices, subaltern rituals and practices of survival, religious ethics, and even the geological time of the landscape” ([Cheah]13). The postcolonial novels he discusses, Cheah maintains, “employ formal means to revive non-Western temporalities in the present that can aid in worlding the world otherwise.” Put differently, “they generate alternative cartographies that enable a postcolonial people or a collective group to foster ←314 | 315→relations of solidarity and build a shared world in which self-determination is achieved” (17). (D’haen 14–15)

Cheah is using the term “world literature” somewhat differently from that associated with the work of Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and David Damrosch, the three scholars credited with having revived, after Sarah Lawall in the 1990s, interest in the study of world literature. He is rather using it in the sense Edward Said uses it in The World, The Text, and the Critic (1983), after Martin Heidegger in “On the Origin of the Work of Art” ([1935] 2008), that is to say that of “worlding,” of how a “world” arises from each actualization of a text in the act of reading it. For Said it is the critic that in his interpretation of a text guides the reader to “world” the text in a particular way, and thus to see the world also in a particular way.

In Postcolonial Poetics Boehmer discusses Cheah’s book, and at various instances she refers to almost all paragons of postcolonial studies: next to the inevitable Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Barbara Harlow, Benita Parry, Neil Lazarus, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, Robert Young, James Graham, Michael Niblett and Sharae Deckard, and many others. However, the most ubiquitous presence throughout her volume is David Damrosch with his What is World Literature? (2003). In fact, Postcolonial Poetics reads very much as one more defense of postcolonial studies in the face of world literature’s onslaught in Anglo-American academe, shifting the center of critical-theoretical activity from Departments of English, where postcolonial studies are typically located, to Departments of Comparative Literature. To achieve her goal she opts for a risky gambit. On the very first page of her book she claims that: “until quite recently, postcolonial literary studies has tended to overlook or side-step questions of poetics as the ‘real world’ issues it has sought to confront have appeared by contrast so urgent.” Postcolonial Poetics, she then posits, “seeks to address this oversight and to suggest that considerations of the creative shape, formal structures and patterns of postcolonial writing might in fact sharpen rather than obscure our attention to those pressing themes” (1–2). This approach, she argues, “asks how writing as writing, and as received by readers, gives insight into aspects of our postcolonial world,” and this “is something of a radical departure for a field in which the literary has often been read in terms of other orders of reality: social, political, or ethical. However,” she maintains, “for Postcolonial Poetics, centrally, postcolonial writing is as concerned as other kinds of literary writing with questions of aesthetics – that is, with ←315 | 316→questions of form, structure, perception, and reception – and can offer insights of its own into how these elements work and come together” (2). Thus, “Postcolonial Poetics sets out to reflect on what it is that postcolonial writing can do, rather than consider only what it shows” (3). At the end of her introductory chapter “Postcolonial Poetics – A Score for Reading” she summarizes her book as follows:

Overall, the eight chapters that make up Postcolonial Poetics direct our attention to the communicative and interpretative “how” rather than the themed “what” of postcolonial writing, to the process of readerly engagement rather than the political objects or content represented in the text. Turning from the conventional postcolonial preoccupations with representation, the discussion rather considers how the reader might interact with those representations, how they feel drawn in or not by how the language and other structures of the text work, including its invitation to re-reading. It explores what might be postcolonial about this process of moving together with a text to understand something of other worlds, elsewhere, yet from within. Postcolonial writing, the book submits, always insists on its own modes of attention from readers as literature, yet at the same time always refers to the world beyond the word. (10–11)

The process just sketched much resembles that which Damrosch in What is World Literature? outlines as constitutive of his world literature approach. The question for Boehmer then becomes what, in terms of poetics, sets postcolonial literature apart from world literature tout court, or, to put it differently, what makes for the specificity, again in terms of poetics, of postcolonial literature within word literature. As Boehmer herself puts it: “are there certain purposive, symbolic, and communicative features of postcolonial writing that we might call definitively postcolonial?” (11). In pinpointing these features Boehmer turns to some of the same elements also singled out by Cheah, but also draws extensively on her own close reading of novels, stories and poems by a multitude of writers habitually categorized as postcolonial: Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Fred D’Aguiar, NourbeSe Philip, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nadifa Mohamed, and a selection of South African authors. The features she distinguishes as contributing to a postcolonial poetics are “juxtaposition as a way of shaping new creative and cognitive possibilities in both texts and readers” (11), writing that can, “almost impossibly and yet powerfully, evoke both [terror’s] moments of violent rupture and also the experience of endurance and recovery that can, for those who survive, lie beyond” (12), a “reiterative poetics of trauma” (12), and a “genealogical ←316 | 317→poetics” concentrating on “how Chinua Achebe’s writing, in particular Things Fall Apart, staked out a new field of creative and literary possibility for a younger generation of African and especially Nigerian writers” (13). In chapter 7, “Concepts of Exchange – Poetics in Postcolonial, World, and World-System Literatures,” Boehmer addresses the question of the relation between postcolonial literary studies and world literary studies head-on. Specifically, she asks “whether and how the rise of comparative and world literature study, and, as a further development, the emergence of world-systems or world-literature studies, might have challenged or alternatively developed and honed postcolonial tools of reception and critique” (13). Perhaps rather predictably given Boehmer’s own scholarly antecedents, she suggests that “no approach has been as effective as a heterogeneously constituted postcolonial criticism in resonating with the local yet global perspectives of postcolonial texts” (13–14). This, it seems to me, is a rather self-evident case of falling into the well-known trap of the hermeneutic circle. In her last chapter, “The Transformative Force of the Postcolonial Line,” she explicitly rounds on world literature as propounded by Damrosch when she says that “postcolonial writing can have the effect of encouraging readers to engage with different postcolonial situations from within, as they follow the inferential patterns that the writing lays down,” and that “against world literature’s assumptions of a general interchangeability across cultural divides, this approach rather suggests that a transformative postcolonial reading practice may lie in soliciting the reader’s attention in specific ways, and in their consequent internationalization of the text’s communicative shapes and structures” (14). This polemical stance reminds me of the early 1990s when postcolonial literary studies profiled itself over against the then still – though barely – hanging-on postmodern studies approach with Stephen Slemon remarking that Linda Hutcheon’s poststructuralist and loosely Lyotardian analysis of intertextual parody as a constitutive principle of postmodernism, in her 1988 A Poetics of Postmodernism, resembles the postcolonial practice of “rewriting the canonical ‘master texts’ of Europe,” but with the difference that “whereas a post-modernist criticism would want to argue that literary practices such as these expose the constructedness of all textuality, […] an interested postcolonial critical practice would want to allow for the positive production of oppositional truth-claims in these texts” (Slemon 5). Boehmer also explicitly opposes an interested postcolonial reading to a supposedly disinterested world literature reading, and a committed reader transformed by his postcolonial ←317 | 318→reading practice to a non-committal world literature reader. In this context it is also completely understandable that she concludes her introductory chapter with “the book fiercely holds that questions of aesthetics have for too long been considered supernumerary to the field’s interests, and that, as an approach to reading, the field has thus insidiously allowed itself to be marginalized in critical terms” and “that this would account for the subsequent rise of world literature as a systematic project to retrieve some of the formal determination of this writing” (14). Postcolonial Poetics, in other words, is an attempt to wrest the initiative from world literary studies in submitting that “we as readers discover ways of activating the political energies of postcolonial texts to resist, concatenate, and reshape worlds, and, where necessary, begin anew” (15).

Earlier I drew attention to Boehmer having co-edited, in the same year as Postcolonial Poetics, Planned Violence, and I intimated that this might signal her moving away from traditional postcolonial literary concerns such as she herself criticizes in Postcolonial Poetics. My feeling in this respect is also generated by the fact that all the chapters in Postcolonial Poetics are revised versions of journal articles and book chapters published earlier, the earliest going back to 2005, and the most recent being the text co-written with Davies I had occasion to cite. In a sense this book, while certainly interesting especially in its close readings, reads like a final rounding off if not a last stand on behalf of a field and an approach that may have run its course.

Works Cited

Boehmer, Elleke and Dominic Davies. “Literature, Planning and Infrastructure: Investigating the Southern City through Postcolonial Texts.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 51.4 (2015): 395–409.

Cheah, Pheng. What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003.

D’haen, Theo. “Worlding World Literature.” Recherche littéraire / Literary Research 32 (Summer 2016): 7–23.

Heidegger, Martin. “On the Origin of the Work of Art.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: HarperCollins, 2008 [1935]. 143–212.

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Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

Said, Edward. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1983.

Slemon, Stephen. “Modernism’s Last Post.” Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism. Eds. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin. London: Harvester / Wheatsheaf, 1991. 1–11.

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