The Empire Writes Back, with a Vengeance

Philosophy and Literature 19 (1995): 198-203.

Denis Dutton

One of the more uplifting aspects of the turn toward theory in recent years has been the growth of postcolonial cultural studies. Postcolonial studies are in actuality constituted by counterdiscoursive, decolonizing practices which acknowledge the recognition of minority discourses, deconstructing hegemonic texts and imperialist metanarratives, opposing unduly overprivileging Western canonical paradigms of “literature,” and — well, you know what I mean. As Benita Parry so lucidly explains, “The labor of producing a counter-discourse displacing imperialism’s dominative system of knowledge rests with those engaged in developing a critique from outside its cultural hegemony.” And what an awesome labor it is. The noted postcolonial theorist Georg M. Gugelberger sums things up by saying (I’m not inventing this) “postcolonialism can be conceptualized as the last bulwark against an encroaching total capitalism.”

But what of the struggling masses of oppressed peoples whose interests and cultural sensitivities are so caringly looked after by practitioners of postcolonial studies? How do they feel about the fact that the only thing standing between them and “total capitalism” is resistance being mounted in a comparative literature department in Idaho, or someplace? This is a question seldom asked, let alone answered. Fortunately, new light has been thrown on the matter with the arrival of a booklet at this journal. Indian History from Above and Below, by Rukun Advani, is published by Ram Advani, probably a member of the family, in Lucknow. It is dedicated to “all Bengali intellectuals and those whose dollar salaries rise in proportion with obscurity and jargon.” Advani notes in his preface that although Bengali intellectuals talk torrents in their native tongue, when they disseminate their thoughts abroad, they translate into a “clogged, colonial, unfluid flow,” with footnotes such as: “Derrida; ibid.; see my recent essay on the modes and moods of Foucault in JPS, III.iii, 3-333; on Lacan, see Lacan, On Lacan; Barthes, how many times a day do you have one in summer; idem., do you really?; differentiated peasantry; undifferentiated peasantry; for a feminist, though partially anthropologized, hermeneutic-critical discourse on the post-colonial subversive dimensions of the undifferentiated middle peasant in Midnapore district in June 1959, see the provocative controversy between Ranajit da and Amiya da in Gayatri di, ed., Gendered, Gendered, O Most Gendered: Epistemology and the Male Menopause in Bengal between June 1959 and July 1959 (Oxford University Press, forty years later).”

Rukun Advani

The first of the booklet’s two essays, “Indian History from Below: a Swiftian Consideration,” discusses a neglected but “important arena of subaltern existence, namely the history of belching, wind-breaking and defecation.” Just to name these three functions posits “a bourgeois hierarchy of disgust with what Marx, in one of his most decisively Derridesque reflections, termed ‘The Asiatic Commode of Production.’ “ Beginning with the Foucauldian notion of “the peasant’s overdetermined relative autonomy from the olfactory,” Advani describes “the Barthesian notion of the impossibility of critical transcendence by the historian into either the symbiotic acculturation of the pastness, and indeed the presentness, of the present-subject, or indeed the even greater epistemological and hermeneutic problems posed by attempting a recreation of the ontological presuppositions of the peasant.” Much of this is elaborated in the classic essay by Professor Lavatri Lavatory Spewhack, “The Post-Colonial Lavatory and Its Radical Implications for Nomenclaturing Among Gendered and Subalternized Third World Expatriate-Marxist-Feminists in the First and Second Worlds: A Derivative Discourse Decoded.”

The debt that Rukun Advani owes to Professor Spewhack is clear from the sheer number of his references to books and articles by her. These include, on the subject of toileting, Master Disgusted, Native Disgusting: a Perspective on Peasants from 250,000 Dollars per Annum, “On the Symbolic Hegemony of Subsection Numbers in a Gendered and Subalternized Post-Colonial Context: A Derivative Discourse Decoded” (in The Phenomenology of Praxis and the Praxis of Phenomenology in a Postmodern Residential Colony), “The Violence of Steam and the Episteme of Violence: Foucault’s Views on Hot Air Balloons” (in Obscurata), and even parts of her autobiography: The Larger than Life of Lavatri Lavatory Spewhack (chapter titled “My Collected Phonecalls and Faxes”). While some sections of Advani’s essay are perhaps too scatological — or coprophilic — for a family journal such as this, we must also acknowledge his illuminating discussion of the Other, which is inexplicably and eternally absent from the Indian context, while its Lacanian displacement, the Udder (of the holy cow), is ubiquitous, clogging every street.

In his second essay, “Bankim’s Bunkum: Indian History from (Over) the Top,” Advani incisively describes “the first seditious native who articulated a socially constructed and gendered critique of hegemonizing colonialism from within its bureaucratic portals, thereby creating the semantic possibilities of slippages and displacements in the very structural locus of . . . colonialism.” Providing a counter-discourse to the “conceptual prioritizations and orientations [of] vicious Orientalism,” he explicates the works of Bonk ’im Babu (or Bankim or Bunkum), who “may be seen as a semiotic signifier of the Oppressed Native in general.”

It is in this second essay that Advani shows his abiding political commitment. Postcolonial historical studies as they are now constituted enunciate a simple principle: All historiography of the period after the Battle of Plassey must consist in showing how the colonials screwed the natives and how the heroic natives resisted the colonials. “Every modern history monograph is then a variation on this basic theme, or, more appropriately, a signifier which has its locus within this hegemonic grammatical field,” except that for “colonial” we must speak of “the colonial state,” while “natives” must be replaced by “subalterns.” As for “resisted,” it can mean “plain sullenness or rebellion, which in turn can be active or passive, everyday or apocalyptic, conscious or subconscious, economic or cultural, gendered or castrated” — why, it might even occur after death, giving new meaning to “the notion of spirited resistance.”

Rukun Advani is a significant new voice for colonized peoples, and his essays are timely interventions in an emerging field of discourse. In academic departments where postcolonial studies have become a central praxis, Indian History From Above and Below is certain to be as welcome as a fart in the graduate seminar. The booklet is very nicely printed and is available $1.50 or £1 from Ram Advani, Bookseller, GPO Box 154, Lucknow 226 001, India. Do include an extra pound or couple of dollars for postage.

Copyright © 1995 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.