Ramachandra begins by making a case for decentred world history.* To characterise globalisation (good or bad) as a recent product of Western capitalism is to engage in top-down, eurocentric mythmaking.
He argues instead that the world has always been more porous and interconnected, and that various societies have contributed to modernity (good or bad) as a ‘multicentred enterprise’ (loc 3941).
The eurocentric story not only forces the world into a West-Rest dichotomy, but massively overstates the influence of Europe. Industrial Britain was not the initiator and superior on the world stage, but was riding a much earlier, ‘Eastern’ wave. And European empires, despite their rhetoric, have never been the benign patrons of democracy.
This argument for multicentred world history serves as the basis for the rest of his discussion, both appropriation and criticism of postcolonialism. Ramachandra is drawing our attention to specific histories and contexts, to particularity and local agency. Polarising categories like East/West, national/foreign and modern/traditional don’t reflect reality — a reality of multiplicity, multiple factors, ‘convoluted and multiple trajectories’ (loc 4282).
Ramachandra highlights three features of postcolonial criticism.
- The ongoing subjective experience of being colonised. European colonists might have ‘gone home’, but lives and communities could never continue unchanged. This has often been taken to mean that postcolonialism is has more to do with present-day resistance than with ‘history’.
- The reading of colonialism as a literary text. Postcolonial criticism started in university English literature departments, and it has sought to uncover colonialism within Europeans’ written representations of the people they colonised.
- The recovery of the ‘other’ that was suppressed by colonialist discourse. When Europeans wrote about their colonial subjects and engaged in massive projects of knowledge production, this was an instrument of colonisation, serving to ‘classify’, confine and diminish non-European cultures.
Ramachandra goes on to delve into a complicated series of ‘ironies and paradoxes’ in (South Asian) postcolonial discussion, tensions and potentially overlooked angles. What about non-Western forces of colonisation, for example? I think there are excellent questions of nuance here, but at the same time I’m not sure postcolonialism (as a criticism) must be so comprehensive. I’m happy to take it primarily as a challenge to eurocentric narratives, in much the same way as feminism is primarily a challenge to patriarchal contructs. Of course, if postcolonialism is to offer a genuine challenge to global nationalisms and totalising discourses, then Ramachandra’s questions are serious ones.
* Here he draws on the work of historians such as Christopher Bayly, Linda Colley, John Hobson, Robert Holton and Peter van der Veer. For more on modernity and agency in Africa, see Tamie’s posts on Olufemi Taiwo.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.