On Linda Hutcheon’s “Circling the Downspout of Empire”

In her essay, Linda Hutcheon maintained that though postcolonialism and postmodernism differ significantly in that postcolonialism has distinct political agendas and a theory of agency for social and political action while postmodernism is politically ambivalent, the two are still strongly linked and have overlapping formal, thematic, and strategic concerns.

Many other critics, like Aijaz Ahmad and KumKum Sangari, have objected to the centrality of postmodernism in critical theory, and specifically, to the use of post-structuralism in postcolonial criticism. One of the major objections leveled against post-structuralism as used in postcolonial discourse is that it is politically ambivalent, that it depoliticizes non-mimetic forms, disregarding the historical and cultural events that gave rise to them. Though it contests grand narratives, it is itself said to be the totalizing, dominant Eurocentric discourse. It imposes Eurocentric assumptions and perspectives on the text, and ignores the fact that deconstructing the subject is not everyone’s main concern. Furthermore, postmodernism, according to Simon During, recognizes that “the Other can never speak for itself as the Other”. But for postcolonialism, which is a discourse of resistance, the Other must be able to speak. Another objection to post-structuralism is that it is complicitous; though it critiques the system, it still works within it, using its terms.

I think that most of these objections have been satisfactorily dealt with by Hutcheon in her essay. Just as postmodern thought “refuses to turn the Other into the Same” (During), Hutcheon maintains that the point is not to simply make the postmodern postcolonial or the postcolonial postmodern. The point is that these two discourses share concerns, and can thus adopt strategies from each other. Hutcheon acknowledges that with the difference in their political nature and ends, post-structuralist challenges to the coherent, autonomous subject must be put on hold in postcolonial discourse, given the problematic subjectivities in the latter. She also says that instead of depoliticizing non-mimetic modes, postmodernism’s privileging of the local and particular and its dialogue with history connects them. Again, the point is not to merely use post-structuralism to interpret postcolonial texts, but to appropriate post-structuralist techniques to interpret postcolonial texts in accordance with political, postcolonial ends, so that criticism will not be Eurocentric. We must recognize that what for the First World is postmodern may be in the Third World postcolonial and that both discourses are complicitous and thus can both benefit from strategies that subvert from within, like irony.

A concern, though, was disregarded in the essay, and that is the emphasis put on cultural means of resistance and not on the material ones.


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