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postcolonial cultures Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2006



Postcolonial Contradictions, Ambiguities and Interventions

Simon Featherstone, Postcolonial Cultures (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005).

Vijay Devadas
University of Otago


1. There is quite a larger corpus of introductory texts to the field of postcolonial studies. It is to this specific body of work that Simon Featherstone's Postcolonial Cultures makes a significant contribution. More generally, this book also makes a valuable contribution to the field of postcolonial studies.

2. The title of the book Postcolonial Cultures, with the emphasis on cultures (in the plural), is telling, in that brings to bear a necessary condition of heterogeneity and ambiguity into any discussion or exploration of 'the postcolonial'. This is a key point that deserves attention so that the postcolonial condition, which differs in relation to specific geo-political regions (for instance, consider the differences between postcolonial Malaysia's version of multiculturalism to Australia's) is given due attention. The pluralisation of 'culture' into 'cultures', thus, is significant in that it calls attention to different, contradictory and sometimes-competing postcolonial conditions. This pluralisation also demands that we think through of the field of postcolonial studies as intractably heterogeneous and filled with contradictions and ambiguities that need to be negotiated and addressed.

3. It is such a demand that forms the basis for chapter one, aptly entitled 'The Nervous Conditions of Postcolonial Studies', which introduces readers to the tensions, ambiguities, contradictions and collaborations that constitute postcolonial studies. This nervousness, however, is not conceptualised as a critique of the field, but is employed to demonstrate the contradictions and challenges that confronts the discipline. It is in this spirit that the chapter engages with three key debates. The first deals with how to define the postcolonial; the second engages with the constitution of postcolonial studies, or more precisely with "the content of postcolonial studies courses and academic approaches to that material" (2); and the third examines "the purpose and the audience of the discipline" (2). These three central issues are then examined closely through three case studies: the first explores the relationship between postcolonial studies and the academy by returning to Arif Dirlik's "The Postcolonial Aura". Dirlik argued that to articulate postcolonial studies need to take on-board a degree of self-reflexivity or internal critique so that the task of "doing postcolonial studies [compels one] to look to the condition and practice of that doing, to consider the relationship of the intellectual activity of an institution to the lives and conditions it seeks to understand, and to deliberate upon the means by which that understanding can best be communicated" (14). The second debate, captured under the subtitle 'Ethnography, History and the Return of the Real' continues Dirlik's call for self-critique through an exploration of the history, development and shifts that took place within the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography.

4. The rationale for selecting these disciplines for examination is quite clear: on the one hand, both anthropology and ethnography have played a central role in the colonial project of constituting the other, of 'knowing' the other and of producing knowledges of the other. On the other hand, both "anthropological and ethnographic methods has both drawn upon and, in its turn, influenced the practices of postcolonialism" (16-17). It is the latter that interests Featherstone, who after going through some of the methodological concerns with anthropology and ethnography, champions them precisely because they prove to be "particularly useful in a study of postcolonial popular culture in which performance, body cultures and the relationship between scholarship and orality are significant" (17). This is the second aspect of the nervous condition of postcolonial studies: the recasting of anthropology and ethnography by postcolonial studies for an exploration of postcolonial body cultures and performances must negotiate these disciplines' methodological pitfalls. The third nervous condition is articulated through an exploration of the work of C. L. R. James. James' intellectual practice, particularly his emphasis on "the performative as central to the postcolonial endeavour" (24), allows an alternative to mainstay approaches to postcolonial studies, one that takes up "the capacity of popular cultural forms both to achieve and express awareness of the social formations and historical processes that produced them, and through that awareness to participate in challenge and change" (27). Put another way, James opens up postcolonial studies to a critique and to an affirmation of performance: the performance of the body vis-à-vis sport, for example, or theatre as political gestures that seek to challenge the political and social conditions under which the black body performs. Affirming James' contribution in these terms, Featherstone is quick to acknowledge that postcolonial studies' engagement with these modalities of performances "also requires a clear and sensitive analysis of that complicity and commitment" (29). In other words, the affirmation of what we may call a critical postcolonial performativity, via James, requires attention to the possibility that potentially radical and subversive performances can also become complicit with the very operations they seek to challenge. This is another kind of nervousness that inhabits postcolonial studies. While the first chapter does go over some familiar ground, it does so with a particular purpose and without simply rehashing familiar arguments. Rather, it does so with a view to explore the nervous condition of postcolonial studies. As an introduction to the field of postcolonial studies, the first chapter does a fine job. Emphasis on the field's critical trajectories is particularly useful to unsettle and challenge normative conceptions of race, ethnicity, gender and other social and cultural categories. At the same time, this chapter confirms that the field itself remains unsettled, and that it is open to scrutiny, critique, and transformation.

5. The thrust of the argument set forth in the opening chapter is then carried over the remaining chapters. The next three chapters, devoted to an examination of music, body cultures and film, explore specific sites of cultural production and performances. Together, the three chapters call for a recognition of popular cultural forms as productive sites for exploring questions about identity-politics as these "have tended to be underrepresented in the main anthologies and readers" (29) in postcolonial studies. And together, they suggest that it is in the performance of popular cultural forms in postcolonial nations that the very postcolonial contradictions, ambiguities and interventions emerge most clearly. In chapter three Featherstone discusses the ways in which the performativity of the body is played out in cricket, dance and football. On the one hand, the performativity of the body in these sites demonstrates the various ways in which body cultures politicise and unsettle established relations of power and dominance--Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine's participation in domestic English cricket from 1928, for instance, "challenged the structures and assumptions of the dominant class-defined values of first-class cricket" (80). On the other, Constantine's participation, as Featherstone points out, is simultaneously locked into a colonial ordered ocularcentrism which frames him within a racist stereotype.

6. This point exemplifies Featherstone's commitment to a reading practice of postcolonial popular cultural forms that is contradictory and ambivalent. His commitment, thus, is to a pluralised reading that brings to bear, simultaneously, the interventions these cultural performances make, the conservatism that haunts these performances (see for instance Featherstone's acute reading of the films Piano and Once Were Warriors (120-30)), and the complicity of these performances with the flow of transnational global capital (see for instance his discussion of Shane Warne in chapter 2 specifically, and chapter 3, more generally, in his discussion of the relationship between national and postcolonial cinemas and globalisation processes). In terms of thematic links, these three chapters on postcolonial cultural performances make a significant contribution to the discipline of postcolonial studies as they confirm the everyday as a legitimate, crucial and productive site for postcolonial studies.

7. The next three chapters move on to a discussion of rationality, memory, and land--key issues within postcolonial studies--in relation to the debates posed in chapter one with the aim of addressing "the relationship of cultural expression to material dispossession, questions of representation and critical discourse, and the writing and speaking of histories" (30). These concerns are explored within specific sites such as the 'Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity' exhibition held at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa, the use of information technology to record cultural memories as commissioned by UNESCO, the beach, specifically, "as both a material and metaphorical site of power and exchange" (21) in the colonial and postcolonial context, and, more generally, when different conceptions of land in indigenous and colonial cultures are explored in the Australian and Caribbean cases. These examples, as Featherstone acknowledges, "are deliberately eclectic ... to suggest the diversity of forms in which these questions are shaped" (30). While "limited to the postcolonialism of the former British empire" (31), this choice, nevertheless draws attention to geo-political specificities and differences. Even through Featherstone's examples come from colonies that shared invasion and domination by the British Empire, they nevertheless call attention to geo-political specificities and differences that mark out differentiated forms of cultural politics, political interventions and identity struggle. Such attention is required so that the politics of dispossession (of land, particularly) that was a crucial part of the colonial project that took place in the various colonies (and which is part of the postcolonial condition of reclaiming land and reconstituting indigenous rights) is seen both as a shared experience and as a specific and differentiated experience. Attention to the latter ensures that the politics of dispossession of land that took place in Australia, for example, does not get easily conflated with the New Zealand experience, where "... cursory and devious ... settlements were entered into with the Maori of New Zealand" (205).

8. In addition to calling attention to geo-political, social, and cultural specificities, in these chapters Featherstone continues to emphasise the contradictions and ambiguities that confront postcolonial studies. In Chapter 6, on memory, for instance, Featherstone, while affirming the postcolonial project of recasting colonial and national narration of histories through the subaltern studies project, nevertheless questions the relationship between postcolonial historiography and the flow of economic globalisation. Featherstone reiterates Dipesh Chakrabarty's position and suggests that "whilst it [postcolonial historiography] may contest the [colonialist tradition's] material and interpretations, and seek to represent the experiences of subaltern groups, at a profound level it inevitably accepts their most powerful predicates--such concepts as nation, politics, progress" (168). In other words, while the postcolonial project is committed to rewriting received historiography (and hence rethinking the relationships of power that are manifested through such practices of writing), it does not reconfigure or challenge the received concepts (such as nation) around which the apparatuses of power and privilege are constructed. This position, stating the limits of postcolonial historiography, is not necessarily abandoning the project of postcolonial historiography. Rather, it points to some of the limits it must confront and simultaneously calls for the development of alternative concepts around which the idea of a postcolonial collective can be imagined. After all, the category of the nation (and the formation of the nation-state as a legitimate expression of power) as it is imagined in postcolonial Australia, for instance, is far removed from the ways in which indigenous communities imagined the space called 'Australia'. And after all, it is in the name of the nation that postcolonial India, for instance, continues to mobilise its march of progress and capital accumulation without seriously addressing the concerns of indigenous land theft, and continued rise in poverty.

9. This is precisely why an alternative to, or a reconfiguring of the terms of the nation (and the nation-state) needs to be sought. In relation to postcolonialism and globalisation, again, Featherstone responds ambiguously: while continuing to affirm postcolonial historiography, he argues, through Andreas Huyssen's work, that the act of rewriting history, of recuperating subaltern or marginalised memories, does not challenge the logic and flow of global capitalism precisely because "global capitalism can afford for local contestations of the past to take place because they provide no significant political challenge to its activities and powers. In fact [he goes on to suggest], in many ways, such pluralism provides welcome distractions from the development of any such challenge" (170). The case of post-apartheid South Africa, with the coming of the African National Congress into power and the formation of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) as a means of rewriting history, and the type of economic growth the country has witnessed (which has privileged an elite few) and the continued rate of poverty, lack of access to education, health and water for the larger, mainly, black communities, testify to Featherstone's point. The change in government and the institutionalisation of a postcolonial historiography has not in any way challenged the flow of global capital. This is not to say that postcolonial historiography is complicit with the operations of global capitalism; rather, it is to take up an ambiguous position that recognises that "the TRC can be interpreted as a radical challenge to embedded and inappropriate notions of historical truth, and a distraction from the necessity of profound political and economic change" (200, my emphasis). Another instance highlighting the contradictions confronting postcolonial studies appears in a chapter entitled 'The Irrational and the Postcolonial', where Featherstone challenges postcolonial studies as an academic discipline committed (Western) rational intellectual endeavour to recognise other rationalities, the idea of spirits as "the untranslated and untranslatable local experience of postcolonial extremity" (160), for example. "[T]he postcolonial critic", Featherstone argues, "must keep his or her interpretive options open" (161).

10. The arguments presented over the course of the book, with an emphasis on postcolonial popular cultural performances and on key issues within postcolonial studies (land, memory, rationality) are underscored by a commitment to challenge existing disciplinary borders and boundaries, affirm alternative world-views, and encourage interpretations of postcolonial cultures that are aware of the contradictions, ambiguities and interventions that constitute these performances, cultures, and communities. This commitment must be shared with students who are being introduced to postcolonial studies: the intended audience for this text. It is also a text that should be read by those who have been involved in postcolonial studies for some time. This is a very useful contribution; it is lucidly written and is easily accessible, and it lives up to its call for a closer conversation between the academic discipline of postcolonial studies and the everyday performances that constitute postcolonial cultures.


Vijay Devadas teaches in the Department of Media, Film and Communication Studies at the University of Otago, Aotearoa. His research focuses on the areas of film and media studies, postcolonial theory, and critical and cultural studies. He has published in journals such as Critical Horizon, Critical Arts, and Senses of Cinema, and has recently become an editor of Borderlands.

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