What is the role and significance of postcolonial literary studies today? Does it retain any vestige of the radical critical energy that arguably characterized its inceptive moment, more than three decades ago? Or, has it become fossilized, “morphed into a toothless ‘world literature’” (as a recent ‘call for papers’ put it), turned into yet another time-bound rarity in a cabinet of scholarly curiosities? These questions will structure our inquiry into this once predominant discipline.
More than a decade ago, Arlif Dirlik (2007) and Robert Young (2001) traced the roots of postcolonial theory to the anti-colonial tricontinentalism of the 1960s, the call for a global alliance of the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America against imperialism. Postcolonial critique entails, in this sense, a reappraisal of the legacies of violent histories of slavery, colonization, land appropriation, institutionalized racism, and the enforced migration and diaspora of millions of people from the perspective of those who endured and have continued to suffer its consequences. Has postcolonial literary theory exhausted this radical critical potential, or does it remain relevant in our present moment? Can we reimagine it by positing it as a starting point for the elaboration of new approaches and methodologies to African literary studies?
We begin our exploration of these questions by revisiting together both the essays that played a key role in constructing the discipline of postcolonial studies and developing the methodologies of postcolonial theory as well as the contemporaneous and subsequent critiques of the discipline. In the second half of the seminar, we will turn our critical eye to recent scholarly critiques of European dominion over the rest of the world that posit the age of decolonization as anticipating “contemporary questions about international political and economic justice” (Getachew) and regard the anti-colonialist project for socioeconomic justice and planetary democracy as “resurfacing in contemporary horizontalist approaches to cultural criticism” (Mbembe).