Postcolonial Politics

Chris Bongie, Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 412 pages, ISBN: 978-1-84631-142-0.

• October 2010

Friends and Enemies is an ambitious book that seeks to bring to light the crucial questions that Chris Bongie argues postcolonial studies has too long repressed. Bongie identifies one major turn that postcolonial studies has taken since 2000—a growing suspicion of poststructuralist-influenced textualism and investment in “politics proper”—as well as another turn that he hopes the field will take—a more sustained engagement with cultural studies. Bongie’s methodology is eclectic, seeking to combine sociological insights with deconstructive techniques, and it provides a refreshing willingness to interrogate all of the field’s (as well as all of the critic’s own) basic assumptions. Binary terms such as high versus mass culture, artist versus scribe, “true” memory versus nostalgia, and of course, friends versus enemies, are shown to be everywhere essential to Caribbean, francophone and postcolonial studies and yet everywhere unsustainable as oppositions. For anyone who dismisses deconstruction as a reading strategy unengaged with the social, Friends and Enemies shows how the methodology lends itself to sustained political engagement, though what kind of politics it offers remains as uncertain as the uneasy alliances Bongie seeks to make between deconstruction and cultural studies.

Bongie’s methodological preferences lead him to employ a style filled with parentheses and dependent clauses which qualify and even place under erasure any claim that might be attributed to the author himself. Yet as self-reflective as Bongie usually is about interrogating and even undermining his own enunciative grounds, there are grounds in Friends and Enemies. First, Bongie insists that the idea of cultural politics is a “confused enterprise” (351) that conflates distinct activities to allow intellectuals to participate in politics metaphorically without the “adversarial ‘logic of the political’” (341). Bongie asks us to avoid this mistake by thinking of “proper politics” (22) and culture separately, as activities able to interact but only in complicated and heavily circumscribed ways. It is from the perspective of this insight that Bongie critiques the more recent writings of Edouard Glissant beginning with Poétique de la Relation and David Scott’s work on the ruud bwai in Refashioning Futures.

Bongie therefore locates Friends and Enemies within broader trends in postcolonial studies: “Friends and Enemies reflects upon, and is symptomatic of, a general shift in postcolonial studies away from the enthusiasm for hybridity that characterized so much of the work produced in the 1990s, my own included, toward a (re)engagement with what I will be calling, with the requisite amount of self-conscious irony, the ‘properly political’” (xiii). Friends and Enemies examines this shift within the field to argue that the political turn has led postcolonial studies towards a number of contradictions in trying to think through the demands of liberal inclusiveness, multicultural diversity, and a politics of universalism. In this strand of Friends and Enemies, Bongie places the Haitian revolution and its legacy front and center, asking postcolonial studies to come to terms with the ways that politics depends on exclusions (identifying not only friends but also enemies) and potentially violence (as when he suggests postcolonial critics ask themselves “what exactly is my relation, if any, to postcolonialism as a political project” whose genealogy includes Robespierre’s terror and Mao’s cultural revolution (102)).

The key word for Bongie is humanity. Bongie repeatedly and insightfully points to the slippages between how that word is used to both include and divide, from Frenchman Louis Dubroca who moves between including (in 1802) to excluding (by 1804) former black slaves as part of humanity, to Glissant’s recent preference for pluralizing the term “humanities” except when he is signing onto a universal declaration of slavery as a crime against humanity. Glissant’s need to ground himself in the universal is for Bongie emblematic of what he would call the (im)possibility of a politics that doesn’t make some appeal to commonly held values.

Bongie’s second grounding is a sociological methodology that treats literary studies in general and postcolonial studies specifically as a “field.” In thinking about postcolonial studies as a “force-field” in which “one can map out a variety of identifiably different position-takings, ranging from the radically normative to the radically non-normative” (221), Bongie argues that all of these positions derive their meaning from a set of “institutional contexts…which places effective limits on the positions that can be assumed in any given cultural field, as well as on our own investment in those positions” (221). In other words, what appear to be arguments—say, between “on the one hand (the ‘high seriousness’ hand),…‘master thinkers’ like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, and on the other hand (the ‘resistance’ hand),…‘engaged intellectuals’ like Aijaz Ahmad and Benita Parry” (290)—in fact rest on a fundamental agreement: in this case critics from Bhabha to Ahmad all agree on the exclusion of the “inauthentic-popular” as hopelessly contaminated by market popularity. Bongie suggests that a more systematic engagement in postcolonial studies with the lessons of cultural studies would force a questioning of basic assumptions about the field’s values. His uncovering of postcolonial literary studies’ investment in an ideology of aestheticism and the great writer leads to insightful analyses of Derek Walcott’s self-fashioning as poet and artist rather than bureaucrat or scribe, or the academic unease in dealing with Maryse Condé’s market successes.

In choosing to ground his approach in an engagement with cultural studies, Bongie seeks to adapt Pierre Bourdieu to a postcolonial context, a move Bongie insists has little precedent but that to some readers may raise the question of Bongie’s own definition of what represents “postcolonial studies.” When Bongie names Graham Huggan’s The Postcolonial Exotic (2001) as “the first substantial redressal of” postcolonial studies’ “neglect” of “the material conditions of cultural production and consumption,” it is only possible to agree with this statement if one takes a very narrow view of what constitutes the field (309). Certainly, Bongie’s criticisms of what he describes as the modernist strains in Bhabha’s or Spivak’s nostalgic adherence to aestheticism and high culture seem uncontroversial. But postcolonial literary studies has been infiltrated by sociology and cultural studies in significant ways that predate Huggan. Anglophone Caribbeanists like Gordon Rohlehr and Carolyn Cooper have very explicitly sought to put popular cultural producers alongside poets since at least the early 1990s (and in Rohlehr’s case, since the 1970s); in Latin American studies, a number of critics interested in postcolonialism like Juan Flores, Lisa Sánchez González, and Juan Otero Garabís have been significantly influenced by Néstor García Canclini’s work on consumption and marketing, while Julio Ramos’s Desencuentros de la modernidad (1989) brought Bourdieu’s approach to bear on writers like José Martí as early as the 1980s; and the archival turn in postcolonial studies (to which Bongie has been an important contributor) has led to works like Priya Joshi’s In Another Country (2002), which uses a wealth of data about the importation and marketing of English-language novels in nineteenth-century India to assemble precisely the kind of thick description of the publishing industry Bongie says postcolonial studies lacks. The work of these scholars gives an indisputable model for informing Caribbean and postcolonial literary studies with the insights of cultural studies, even if none (aside from Ramos) directly engages with as consecrated a cultural theorist as Bourdieu. It could be argued that all of these critics exist at a skew to postcolonial studies, with a number working in the Global South or otherwise teaching at non-elite institutions (again with the notable exception of Ramos). But it might equally be argued that Huggan and other Bourdieu-influenced postcolonial critics like Sarah Brouillette or Richard Watts are becoming more central to the field today than Bhabha and Spivak. Focusing his critique on what he calls “mainstream postcolonial studies” (322-323) leads Bongie to potentially reify exactly the kind of hierarchies he ostensibly seeks to displace, reinforcing a canon of postcolonial theory from “its period of formation and consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s” (309) without fully acknowledging how the field has already moved in the direction Bongie advocates.

While Friends and Enemies may sometimes overstate the homogeneity of postcolonial studies, Bongie’s attention to how the field itself is structured by relations of power and contests for symbolic capital allows him to make forceful and intriguing observations. Friends and Enemies balances sustained reflection on the sociology of the field with virtuosic close readings of writers ranging from Baron de Vastey to Régis Debray to Tony Delsham to Edwidge Danticat. In simultaneously putting into question the ideology of the literary while participating in it so successfully, Friends and Enemies forces postcolonial studies to come to terms with its own strategic repressions in an original and engaging manner that makes the text a valuable intervention in the field.

 

Raphael Dalleo is Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University. He is coauthor of The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), a study of the relationship of politics and the market to contemporary literature from the Hispanic Caribbean diaspora. His essays on Caribbean literature have been published in Journal of West Indian Literature, Anthurium, South Asian Review, and Diaspora. He is completing a manuscript titled Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From Anticolonial to Postcolonial.

 

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