The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 16, 2002

Revolution and resistance
Rumina Sethi

Post-Colonial Transformation
by Bill Ashcroft. Routledge, London and New York. Pages 249. £ 15.99

POST-COLONIAL Transformation is an attempt to speak of the response of formerly colonised societies to the political and cultural authority of Europe. The oft-repeated charge that colonised societies have suffered enormously and have been utterly ruined by the Europeans is here sidelined to the other, more primary, experience of the "destroyed" indigenous societies, that of recovery and resilience. Bill Ashcroft argues that in the process of regeneration, dominated regimes have even changed the nature of imperial culture. What immediately comes to mind is the vulnerable character of the imperialists who were never certain of native insurrection: Homi Bhabha’s model of the self/other dichotomy where it is hard to ascertain whether the native voice is ‘menacing’ or ‘mocking’ is a handy reference to demonstrate the intricacy of this antagonism.

Ashcroft relies on Stuart Hall’s celebrated essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ to enumerate two kinds of identity: ‘The first position defines "cultural identity" in terms of one shared culture’ while the other explores ‘points of deep and significant difference.’ The former is culturally unique, relying mainly on common cultural codes such as folk traditions, religion, rural dialects, even the ‘sacred’ geography of the land in order to present a ‘true self’. This identity works on the premises of a shared history and shared ancestry. The other is a view in which cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as much as it is a matter of ‘being’. How can we speak of ‘what we used to be’ when history has intervened between then and now? The native identity we have spoken of is fraught with ruptures and fragmentation and cannot speak of ‘one experience’ or ‘one self’. For Ashcroft, this dichotomy is ‘possibly the most deep-seated divide in post-colonial thinking.’ Rather than assessing identity through oppositions, a hybrid model is more appropriate to witness the engagement of the local with the global.


The book also dwells on the viability of the term ‘post-colonial’, the title itself using the hyphenated form. One of the most debated terms in theory since the 1980s (when it was used in The Empire Writes Back), Ashcroft traces the trajectory of the various meanings attributed to ‘postcolonialism’. For Stephen Slemon, it denotes a critique of western theorising, especially when it gets aligned to postmodernism and poststructuralism. It also indicates the longing for a national narrative among native cultures that were formerly colonised; it may also be a comprehensive term for an interrogative and revisionary methodology, an energy that had begun to spur what was called ‘Commonwealth Literature’. In Arif Dirlik’s analysis of the term, it would connote first, the conditions prevailing in previously colonised societies, the global perspective by which conditions of former colonies may be looked at (roughly compatible with the term ‘third world’), and the discourse produced by both the above-named conditions.

The hyphen stands for the specifically colonial societies (formerly), their strategies, practices and methodologies that are the result of the ‘fact’ of colonialism. The absence of the hyphen makes the term abstract and ‘indiscriminate,’ yet extremely political. In this form, postcolonialism would mean ‘cultural difference and marginality of all kinds’ regardless of a colonial background. In other words, it is the hyphen which saves postcolonialism from the charge of addressing the politics of location.

The nine chapters in the book trace the theme of resistance but not as a binary opposition to the imperial episteme. It is envisaged more as a transformation – the second part of the title – what Ashcroft clarifies as ‘resistance to absorption’. The author terms such acts of resistance ‘interpolations’ whereupon the colonial subject interrupts or intervenes into the dominant discourse. The native acts as the ‘agency’ and transforms the hegemonic structure based on unequal relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. One of the ways in which the power of discourse may be challenged is through inverting the existing tropes of history: ‘History, its associated teleology has been the means by which European concepts of time have been naturalized and universalized. How history might be "re-written", how it might be interpolated, is a crucial question for the self-representation of colonized peoples.’

An interesting example is the celebrated text, I, Rogoberta Menchu, in which the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 1992 uses her testimony to recount the plight of the Guatemala Indians under the Spanish. But in 1999, David Stoll created a sensation in academic circles by declaring that Menchu had fabricated her stories of suffering, in particular the horrific death of her brother who, Menchu had stated, had been burnt alive. Stoll claims that none of the villagers who belonged to the area where this ‘crime’ took place could recall the incident. This raises questions about the kind of resistance, the mode of representation, the difference between representation and truth, and the relationship between history and literature. Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel could be taken as another instance of intervention or ‘interpolation’ since the allegorical and timeless Indian myth is kept intact, yet meddled with. The Draupadi of the Mahabharata may be allegorically interpreted as India who is to be shared by five brothers. In other words, she is wed to democracy.

Other chapters focus on the concepts of language, place, habitation, horizon and globalisation. All of these have to do with Eurocentric occupation and control. The west has invaded post-colonial societies largely in the cultural sphere where resistance is vulnerable owing to cultural colonisation. But imperialism, or for that matter, neo-colonialism, is not entirely a top-down hegemonising pressure politics. In fact, globalisation is a very complex and hybrid process: on the one hand, Indians can exhibit their national energy in an outpouring of support for their cricketing icon, Tendulkar, but on the other unflinchingly witness commercial breaks in which their hero profits on the American Pepsi. Thus post-colonial transformation ‘operates powerfully in the volatile interactions of mass, folk and popular culture’ and gives evidence of the nature of the agency involved in the appropriation of images and ideas which represent both national and global authority. As Salman Rushdie provocatively asks: ‘If the young people of Iran now insist on rock concerts, who are we to criticize their cultural contamination?’

Ashcroft’s latest book certainly does not offer any revolutionary or innovative new theory but, owing to a wide range of examples from different sources, provides interesting reading on hybridity and cross-cultural diffusion.