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date: 21 November 2019

General Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

The General Introduction to the Handbook makes the case for postcolonialism as a committed mode of revisionist knowledge, both rigorously aware and resolutely adversarial, that dedicates itself to the service of human freedom in the context of a world historically conditioned by colonial relations of power. Beginning with a brief discussion of the recent events of the Arab Spring, the Introduction argues that, far from turning its back on its own liberationist anti-colonial origins, postcolonialism enters into constructive dialogue with these. Similarly, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘reconciliatory’ postcolonialisms, sometimes seen as being mutually exclusive, enter into a negotiated relationship with critical revisionism that offers a new, triangulated way of looking at and creatively accounting for the constitutive contradictions in the postcolonial field. The Introduction concludes by re-asserting, as do the subsequent chapters in the volume, postcolonialism’s continuing obligation to complexity, and by reconfirming its urgent relevance to a world that is persistently marked and marred by colonialism—by multiple colonialisms—even as postcolonial critics work towards their utopian goal of making colonialism and the ideologies that drive it a thing of the past.

Keywords: Postcolonialism, revisionism, revolution, reconciliation, freedom

Postcolonialism and Revolution

Postcolonial criticism usually ends up running behind the history it sometimes attempts to anticipate. In 2011, as this volume was finally beginning to pick up pace, it was overtaken by the cascading series of events now popularly known as the ‘Arab Spring’ as these rushed in to claim global media attention. Although some journalists wasted no time in categorizing the successive uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere as ‘spontaneous [outbreaks], contagious and unforeseen … apparently impossible beforehand [but] inevitable afterwards’ (Black 2012: vii), less excitable accounts emphasized that there had been numerous antecedents and that the uprisings might best be seen within a larger historical pattern of national and transnational social movements registering the unfinished struggle against ‘liberalized autocracy’ in the Arab world (for a journalistic selection, see Manhire 2012; for historical context, also Brumberg 2002; El-Mahdi 2009; McAdam et al. 2001). Unsurprisingly, the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ were soon picked up by postcolonial critics, most of whom continued—problematically perhaps—to see their field as being closely attuned to worldwide liberation movements (see for example Al-Rahim 2011; Bamyeh 2011; Rooney 2011; for an earlier critique of the relationship between postcolonial and liberation theory, see also Parry 2004). As one of the most prominent among them, the UK-based literary/cultural critic Caroline Rooney remarked of unfolding events in Egypt, a ‘postcolonial approach [generally] attempts to engage with questions of national self-determination through attending to the cultural forms in which a nation expresses itself, reflects on itself and critiques itself’ (2011: 373)—questions raised by the coming to consciousness, not so much of the people as of Arab and western leaders, who were ‘abruptly awakened themselves by those who [had been] awake all along, maintaining a vigilance for the right moment to seize’ (373). National consciousness aside, Rooney’s approach is best characterized as Saidean rather than Fanonian. Hence her view that the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ have powerfully combined to challenge the ‘civilizationist’ narrative of Islamic threat and the lazy association of a still-Orientalized Middle East with fundamentalism and the religiously grounded rejection of modernity; and hence her insistence that what is really at stake is ‘the ongoing progressive struggle [to make] Egyptian modernity possible’ and for Egyptians to be able to negotiate that modernity in their own terms (372; see also the essays by Hazbun and Mignolo in Parts II and I of this volume).

(p. 2) At the same time, the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ invited a re-reckoning of the view, still common among Marxist exponents in the field, that postcolonial criticism had long since turned its back on its liberationist origins, a state of affairs generally attributed to the poststructuralist ‘turn’ in the 1980s with which postcolonial studies was—depending on perspective—either summarily or presumptuously identified (for critical accounts of the ‘turn’ and its effect on postcolonial studies, see Brennan 2007; Lazarus 2011; Parry 2004; see also Part II of this volume). This view, however intemperately expressed, needs to be taken seriously. In a recent, characteristically passionate iteration in his book The Postcolonial Unconscious (2011), Neil Lazarus decries the ‘anti-anti-liberationist’ tendencies of postcolonial criticism, which may have succeeded in positioning itself against ingrained US anti-liberationism, but is still given to disavow liberationist discourse itself as historically anachronistic (10; see also Scott 2004 below). As Lazarus suggests, the empowering revolutionary vocabulary that once animated a generation of anti-colonial activists—Cabral, Césaire, Fanon—has fallen into disuse, and a diluted revisionist vocabulary has taken its place that responds to prevailing political sentiments. These sentiments, which Lazarus jointly links to the disappointments of the Bandung era, the collapse of Soviet communism, and the ascendancy of global neoliberalism, have had the effect of putting revolutionary anti-imperialism in the shade despite its obvious and enduring relevance to ‘the intensification of imperialist social relations in the times and spaces of the [contemporary] postcolonial world’ (17; see also Lazarus in this volume).

Although Lazarus does not mention him, the anthropologist David Scott provides a particularly good example of this revisionist impulse. Scott’s coruscating account of the Haitian Revolution of 1797–1804, Conscripts of Modernity (2004), concerns itself with ‘our [uncertain] present after the [irreparable] collapse of the social and political hopes that went into the anticolonial imagining and postcolonial making of national sovereignties’ (1). The postcolonial present, says Scott, is a present ‘after Bandung’: it reflects the irreversible demise of the national-liberationist ideologies that flourished during the decolonization decades. Scott’s book draws primarily on C. L. R. James’s magisterial 1958 account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, which he legitimately sees as ‘one of the great inaugural texts of the discourse of anticolonialism’, just as the Revolution itself, encompassing ‘the [great] revolutionary story of the self-emancipation of New World slaves’, was one of the defining socio-political events in the making of the modern world (9; for further reflections on James, see also Featherstone in this volume). However, Scott then startlingly proceeds to turn the tables on conventional readings of James’s text as a ‘vindicationist narrative of revolutionary overcoming’; instead, seen from the vantage point of the present, The Black Jacobins, and in particular the story of its Romantic revolutionary hero Toussaint L’Ouverture, is dramatically reconfigured as a critical-revisionist account of our ‘tragic’ postcolonial times (14). For Scott, revolution, which once defined the ‘very horizon of radical oppositional politics and haunted the imagination of modern intellectuals’, has lost its force and has become ‘enfeebled [as a] salient category in our oppositional political vocabulary’ (65). What is left is revisionism, a more-or-less radical interpretative strategy that allows Scott to reread James’s work in light of the ‘tragedy of colonial enlightenment’ in whose wake we westerners currently (p. 3) live, and in whose shadow we plaintively acknowledge that ‘the critical languages in which we [previously] wagered our moral vision and political hope (including the languages of black emancipation and postcolonial critique) are no longer commensurate with the world they were meant to understand, engage, and overcome’ (210).

The relationship between revolution and revisionism in Scott’s text is made clear in an epilogue in which, in the last and perhaps most surprising of his moves, he compares James’s largely celebratory view of the Haitian Revolution with the more sceptical position taken towards revolutions in general by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Scott’s juxtaposition of James and Arendt is surprising in other ways: Arendt’s classic 1963 study On Revolution is, after all, hardly notable for the attention it gives to Haiti, focusing almost exclusively as it does on the French and American revolutions as paradigmatic if markedly different examples of revolution in the modern age (1990 [1963]: 18). Both revolutions, Arendt argues, were linked sets of social and political events in which the idea of freedom was brought together with the idea of novelty. Modern revolution, in this sense, is not just about the pursuit of human freedom—the basis of all revolutions—but about the replacement of an old order by a new one: it describes the inexorably unfolding historical process by which ‘members of the vast majority of mankind, the low and the poor, all those who had always lived in darkness and subjection to whatever powers there were, should rise and become the supreme sovereigns of the land’ (40). Arendt points out, however, that most modern revolutions have conspicuously failed to provide a lasting basis for the political exercise of freedom: in sacrificing the political to the social, they have fought shy of producing the political foundations that might turn epic revolutionary struggle into the sustainable production of civil rights and liberties. Most modern revolutions—to put this another way—have been inspired by freedom but have missed the opportunity to found it; and it is this operative distinction, potentially tragic in its consequences, that Arendt sees as marking the political spirit of our times.

Scott’s approach to revolution seems uncannily similar to Arendt’s, even if he understandably stops short of endorsing her Eurocentrism. More to the point, he sees James’s work as being similarly informed both by a ‘tragic vision of freedom’ and by the compensatory recognition that the great revolutionary traditions can still be remembered and retold (2004: 214). This compensatory recognition seems unlikely to impress those—Lazarus among them—who hold to James’s revolutionary Marxism; nor, I should probably add, would it have been much likely to have impressed James himself. However, I do not think it should be mistaken for defeatism. Rather, it invites revisionism: a self-conscious revisiting of the past—including the colonial past—with a primary view to seeking inspiration from its revolutionary struggles, tempered by the secondary and sober realization that these struggles have most often failed to sustain the new social and political conditions they produced. Scott implicitly allies himself here with the political theorist Bernard Yack, whose revisionist views on revolution are part-inspired, as are his own, by the late twentieth-century collapse of Soviet communism. Yack associates a longer history of modern revolutionary thought with the teleological view that posits ‘total revolution’ as a powerful antidote to the ‘dehumanizing ethos that shapes modern society’, but ultimately finds the idea of ‘total revolution’ both illusory and nostalgic, (p. 4) born out of an agonized reflection on the failure of the French Revolution to achieve its social and political goals (1992: xii, 20). What Scott objects to, as does Yack, is not the idea of revolution itself but the uncritical narrative of overcoming that accompanies it: hence their joint emphasis on revisionism as a way of returning to the inspirational beginnings of revolution without necessarily endorsing its determinate ends.

Let me be clear here: I am not trying to claim the ‘victory’ of postcolonial revisionism, tragic or otherwise, over revolutionary Marxism; nor do I agree with Scott’s dismal view that we currently live in a ‘time of postcolonial crisis in which old horizons have collapsed or evaporated and new ones have not yet taken shape’ (168). However, I also happen to disagree with the view taken by Lazarus and others that contemporary postcolonial criticism has cleared a space for itself by parting the ways with the revolutionary spirit that once drove it; and I disagree even more strongly with the view, expressed most forcefully by Benita Parry, that postcolonial criticism today is largely defined by the ‘post-turn’ tendency to ‘disown liberation discourses and practices, and indeed anti-colonialist rhetoric and organization [of all kinds]’ (2004: 75). Instead, it seems to me that the postcolonial field is torn, and has been for some time now, between competing revolutionary and revisionist impulses, and that much of the intellectual momentum it continues to generate is borne—explicitly or implicitly—out of the dialectical interaction between these. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that the very vocabulary that Lazarus, Parry, and others want to reinstate—‘liberation’, ‘revolution’, ‘decolonization’, etc.—never disappeared from the postcolonial lexicon in the first place; on the contrary, its meanings are continually renegotiated in a complex revisionist process that allows the relationship between past and present, or what Scott elegantly calls ‘the paradoxical inscription of pasts within the present’, to be productively reassessed (2004: 169).

‘Memory’ has probably become the key term through which this process is instantiated (see Rothberg in Part III of this volume). But memory discourses, important though these are, are only part of postcolonialism’s vast, internally diversified revisionist enterprise. For if postcolonial criticism returns restlessly to the colonial past, gauging it in and for itself as well as for its multiple secretions in the present, it also critiques the teleologies that continue to inform past–present relations (Enlightenment narratives of ‘progress’, ‘end-of-ideology’ arguments about globalization, etc.: for a thoroughgoing critique of these teleologies, see the chapters by Abeysekara and Hindess in Part IV of this volume; see also some of the essays in Part V). Similarly, postcolonial criticism reinvigorates the spirit of anti-colonial resistance—the revolutionary spirit, if you will—while simultaneously recognizing the need to modify the vocabularies that surround it. This does not mean that postcolonial criticism simply moves on, adapting itself to the trends and needs of the moment. There is a crucial difference between claiming that postcolonial studies has the capacity to generate ‘new discourses of resistance’ (Williams 2010: 88)—which seems fair enough—and blithely suggesting that the postcolonial field is now in the process of being ‘rerouted’, breaking new conceptual ground and adjusting its sights towards ‘neocolonial imbalances’ in the contemporary globalized world (Wilson et al. 2010: 1). Opportunistic presentism, to my mind, is as much a danger to the field as unreflective historicism; and it is for this reason among several others that (p. 5) postcolonial studies should be dutifully suspicious towards market-driven demands that it reinvent itself—not least because the incessant proclamation of the ‘new’, a sure sign of the intellectual branding prevalent under late capitalism, is part of a commodifying process it explicitly contests (Huggan 2001; also Brouillette 2007 and section 3 of this chapter). Rather, postcolonial criticism might do better to re-engage in the lively battle over its own intellectual and institutional origins without becoming a prisoner to self-reflexivity—a familiar if overdiagnosed problem—and without reacting, with an anger that is predictable as it is complicit, to the latest expedient announcement of its demise (Dirlik 2003; Loomba et al. 2005; Yaeger 2007). It should probably be clear by now that I think the best way for postcolonial critics to do this is to stay true to their own revisionist instincts: the crucial question remains, though, revisionism of what kind?

Postcolonialism as Critical Revisionism

I have been suggesting so far that while postcolonialism’s revolutionary impetus holds open a theoretical debate about beginnings—a debate Arendt sees as being synonymous with revolution—its revisionist dimensions invite the practical reconsideration of endings (e.g. the question of liberation ‘after independence’, the question of affiliation and alignment ‘after Bandung’). I want to examine this dialectical relationship further; but before I do so, a few preliminary observations on revisionism seem in order. While revisionism in its dictionary definition refers primarily to the theory or practice of revising one’s view of a previously accepted political doctrine, the term is probably most relevant to postcolonial studies in its broader historical sense.1 Historical (p. 6) revisionism has had a bad press, and it is not hard to see the reasons. Revisionist histo-ry—it has been said often enough—is less likely to be progressive than reactionary; it is frequently accused of being biased or reductive; while, at another level, it is sometimes dismissed as tautological, i.e. all historicizing is revisionist in one way or another in so far as it takes ‘a second look at what has already been otherwise’, just as history attempts the impossible recuperation of that which is already lost (Radhakrishnan 2008: 69; see also Howe 2000).2 At the same time, revisionist history is by definition quarrelsome, confrontational—qualities always likely to endear it to postcolonial scholars, whose interventionist stance on colonial history-making naturally inclines them to rub history against the grain (see Stoler and some of the other essays in Part I of this volume). Not that postcolonial revisionism is concerned with setting the record straight: it does not seek a corrective to the past so much as to trouble accepted versions of it; and it is adamant that the past, impinging as it does on the present, needs to be returned to again and again. But as the theorist R. Radhakrishnan (on whose work I am drawing here) suggests, there is a ‘double-tongued truth [in] any revisionist vision’ (2008: 75), one necessarily tied to the plurality of perspectives:

The semantics of revisionism is necessarily double, and not just in the context of the antagonistic contact zone between subjugated and dominant knowledges, but in a broader theoretical sense as well. For example, how are the specific politics of feminist revisionism or postcolonial revisionism related to the general nature of revisionism as such? What are the differences between patriarchal dominant historiography as the object of a reading or brushing against the grain and the historiography of colonialism or that of normative heterosexuality or that of racism subjected to a similar antagonistic reading? What are the specific assumptions about nature, human nature, gender, race and ethnicity, and sexuality that drive the semantics of each revisionist project under the broad syntactic umbrella called revisionism as such? (76)

These are not rhetorical questions, but they point to the potential dilemma of an infinite regress of revisionism in which the plurality of possible perspectives stretches out ad infinitum to leave what Radhakrishnan calls, loosely following Foucault, a ‘revisionist (p. 7) politics of ongoing questions’ with no discernible end in sight (76; see also Foucault 1970). Such ‘open revisionism’ is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is always the risk that it turn into the equivalent of a postmodern hall of mirrors in which historical truths, while rarely secure or guarantee-able, are held in permanent abeyance. As Radhakrishnan, otherwise sympathetic to this kind of poststructuralist approach, puts it in pithier language, ‘is the look back towards the past necessary for the look forward into the future? [And if it is], which look towards the past is legitimate and historical, and which apocryphal and self-deluded?’ (76).

Radhakrishnan turns, appropriately enough, to Fanon for support: Fanon the revolutionary, wedded to the cause of decolonization as a revolutionary practice—‘a program of disorder … which sets out to change the order of the world’, he dramatically calls it (Fanon 1965 [1963]: 36)—but also Fanon the revisionist, ‘both solicitous and suspicious of history’, committed to mobilizing historical categories yet aware at the same time of the simultaneous elusiveness and ideological malleability of the historical past (Radhakrishnan 2008: 76). Perhaps the best way of understanding Fanon’s revisionist programme, Radhakrishnan suggests, is to see it as an attempt to ‘rediscover the native as the postcolonial African national’ (77). Yet the ‘native’, as Fanon himself seems to admit, is neither the most solid nor the most reliable of categories; and the history he seeks to remake occupies equally insecure and violently contested ground (for a discussion of Fanon’s ‘native’, see Farrier and Tuitt in this volume). Fanon’s revisionism is revolutionary, we might say, in so far as it programmes an attempt to reverse the historically sanctioned structures of power on which colonialism founds itself: decolonization is not just liberation but revolution, pitting two implacable opponents against each other in a bloody struggle at the end of which—Fanon puts it in the strongest possible terms—‘the last shall be first’ (1965 [1963]: 37). But Fanon’s revolution (which he makes clear is as much internal as external, as much psychically grounded as physically fought) is conducted at the same time in the watchful spirit of a revisionism that recognizes that there are not just contending perspectives on history but contending histories, each of which lays claim to the present; thus, while ‘the native intellectual [can] repudiate the authority of colonial history, [he cannot abolish] its “given-ness”’, and the project of postcolonial revisionism becomes a confrontational ‘encounter with that history which is not one’s own’ (Radhakrishnan 2008: 78).

It is instructive here to compare Radhakrishnan’s brief discussion with the more detailed analysis of Fanon to be found in Lazarus’s previously mentioned book The Postcolonial Unconscious. This latter analysis takes up its place alongside what Lazarus calls a series of ‘revisionary’ readings of theorists central to postcolonial studies, with an unsurprising but understandable emphasis on Said and Fanon, the two most frequently cited ‘founding figures’ of the field (for different views on this, see the essays by Abeysekara and Brennan in this volume). ‘Re-revisionary’ is more appropriate in so far as Lazarus is eager to rebut poststructuralist readings of both figures in the name of a postmodernism-inspired ‘postcolonialism’ he relentlessly opposes. The ferocity of Lazarus’s attack is understandable; for at stake in his view is nothing less than a ‘dispute or battle over postcolonial meaning’ in which ‘Said’ and ‘Fanon’ feature as catalytic agents for the transformative understanding of the postcolonial field (2011: 184).

(p. 8) As should already be apparent, Lazarus is less interested than Radhakrishnan in uncovering the revisionist tendencies embedded within Fanon’s revolutionary thinking, and more concerned with mapping what looks suspiciously like a corrective, Marxist-liberationist reading onto previous critical accounts of Fanon’s work. This path is opened up via a patient reading of David Macey’s 2000 biography, Fanon: A Life, itself a revisionist text that, in Lazarus’s words, ‘breaks open the field into which it intervenes, enforcing in the process a reconfiguration not only of its boundaries but also of its internal arrangements and relations’ (2011: 162). As Lazarus explains, the biography is divided into ‘two conflicting and incompatible schemas’ (163). The first of these is a liberationist Third-Worldism linked to ‘the upsurge of revolutionary anticolonial nationalism in the post-1945 period’; the second ensues from what Lazarus calls ‘the containment and rolling back of insurgent anticolonial nationalism by the imperialist powers [especially the United States] since 1975 or so … and the [corresponding] obsolescence of the earlier liberationist Third-Worldist ideologeme’ (163; see also Lazarus in this volume). The first schema recuperates a ‘revolutionary’ Fanon, (although, as Macey shows, this celebratory vision needs to be complicated), while the second presents its revisionist, ‘postcolonial’ reverse image. In Macey’s words,

[If] ‘Third Worldist’ readings [have] largely ignored the Fanon of Peau noire, masques blancs [Black Skin, White Masks], post-colonial readings [have concentrated] almost exclusively on that text and studiously avoided the question of violence. The Third Worldist Fanon was an apocalyptic creature; the post-colonial Fanon worries about identity politics, and often about his own sexual identity, but he is no longer angry. (2000: 28, also quoted in Lazarus 2011: 165)

As the sardonic tone of this passage makes clear, Macey has little truck with the ‘postcolonial’ Fanon, a confusing, self-contradictory image he sees as being almost wilfully decontextualized—caricatured even—in the blind service of poststructuralist critique (2000: 27). Lazarus latches gleefully onto Macey’s peremptory dismissal of postcolonialism’s revisionist assessment of Fanon as a ‘deconstructive critic of (western) humanism’ (Lazarus 2011: 162), reserving particular scorn for his own bête noire, Homi Bhabha, whose polymorphous Fanon, like Henry Louis Gates’s before it, seems impossible to square ‘either with Fanon’s actual writings or with the trajectory of Fanon’s own career’ (Lazarus 2011: 166; see also Bhabha 2005; Gates 1991).

Like Macey, Lazarus sides unequivocally with the ‘revolutionary’ Fanon, summarizing some of the main themes of his work as follows: ‘revolutionary nationalist anticolonialism, violence and counter-violence, popular political mobilisation, the relation between party and people and between proletarian and peasant classes, the role of culture and ideology in the furtherance of the struggle, and the Algerian conflict and its relevance for and relation to “African” and “Third World” liberation struggles’ (Lazarus 2011: 174). Unlike Macey, however, Lazarus energetically defends the contemporary relevance of these struggles. To some extent echoing Scott, Macey suggests that Fanon, for all the inspirational quality of his rage, ‘does not speak for the tragic Algeria of today’ (2000: 503). ‘The themes of Third World solidarity and unity,’ he continues, ‘of a vision (p. 9) of pan-Africanism and of the liberating power of violence have not worn well. For a generation, Fanon was a prophet. He has become a witness to the process of decolonization but, whilst his discussion of racism remains valid, he has little to say about the outcome of that process’ (503). Lazarus disagrees with this. As he points out, Fanon’s influence—particularly his writings on nationalism and decolonization—continues to be apparent in a number of contemporary liberation struggles; and, to revisit my remarks about the ‘Arab Spring’ at the beginning, if postcolonial intellectuals across the Arab world and in support of recent events there have certainly read their Said, it also seems highly likely that they have read, and have reflected deeply on, their Fanon. More to the point, the general struggle against imperialism continues. As Lazarus concludes, the supposed ‘new world order’ of today has turned out not to be so different from the ‘old’ one it is often prematurely seen as supplanting (see Parts II and V of this volume); and contra Macey, he considers Fanon’s committed struggle against this order to be as urgent for our times as it was for his (2011: 180–1).

It should be clear, I hope, that I am sympathetic to this; yet there are problems. For one, as Lazarus admits, the ‘revolutionary’ Fanon is no more transparent than the ‘postcolonial’ one; and for another, postcolonial criticism—despite Macey’s and Lazarus’s damaging portrayals of it—has been attuned to, if not necessarily persuaded by, the ‘revolutionary’ Fanon from the start. To return to Radhakrishnan, there is a sense in which Fanon remains theoretically suspicious of the very binary categories (colonizer/colonized, master/slave, etc.) that are most practically useful to him; this is not necessarily to turn Fanon into a deconstructive critic, but rather to acknowledge that there is a crucial link between the practical (revolutionary) project of smashing ‘the unequal historical conditions brought into existence by binarity’ and the theoretical (revisionist) enterprise of ‘dismantling the very structure of binarity itself’ (Radhakrishnan 2008: 77; see also Part III of this volume). The main problem with Macey’s approach to Fanon is that it reinstalls binarity even as it seeks to question it—a problem shared by Lazarus across the seemingly unbridgeable divide in their political viewpoints. The battle over Fanon, in both cases, turns out to be one over the legitimacy of revisionism. Revisionism, in this last sense, should not be confused with either renewal or return, though it should be understood as shuttling unceasingly between these. Rather, it is about the enunciative possibility of reclamation as a political speech act.3 Lazarus’s (p. 10) revisionary reading reclaims Fanon with a practical view towards reusing him; Macey’s memorializes Fanon in Arendt’s tragic sense of imaginatively reclaiming the revolutionary spirit that he once embodied and is now at significant risk of being lost.

These alternative speech acts are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it is the dialectical interaction between them that guarantees postcolonialism’s dynamic status as a self-perpetuating form of critical revisionism. Postcolonialism, we might then say, is a performative mode of critical revisionism, consistently directed at the colonial past and assessing its legacies for the present, but also intermittently focusing on those forms of colonialism that have surfaced more recently in the context of an increasingly globalized but incompletely decolonized world. This might add a certain methodological clarity to earlier, equally wholesale definitions of postcolonialism as ‘a studied engagement with the experience of colonialism and its past and present effects, both at the level of ex-colonial societies as well as at the level of more general global developments thought to be the after-effects of empire’ (Quayson 2000: 25). But it continues to leave us with a series of crucially unanswered questions: which kinds of revisionism are to be performed within the field, and how is their legitimacy to be measured? And if postcolonialism is best seen, as Radhakrishnan and others imply, in terms of a combination of revisionisms, which combination works best or will this necessarily depend on what particular object or process is being studied, what particular contingencies attach to it, and what broader institutional benefits derive from a particular intellectual task? There seems little point, in this last context, in arguing that postcolonial studies lacks institutional support when there has been plenty of evidence for some time now to suggest precisely the opposite; a better question to ask is whether it retains its critical edge under institutional conditions where it has so obviously been transformed into an intellectual orthodoxy or, as Homi Bhabha has said more generally of critical theory, in circumstances marked by the constitutive tension between ‘institutional containment’ and ‘revisionary force’ (1994: 32; for more critical views of this, see Dirlik 1994 and Huggan 2001). To ask this question another way: at what point does postcolonial revisionism merely recite as it reclaims; when do its histories from below and counter-canonical readings become all too easily predictable? And can it move beyond what Lazarus calls its ‘fetishization’ of representation: its theoretically inflected obsession with western systems of knowledge and belief and the translation of those systems into self-consuming artefacts; its dogged insistence on tracing the lines of control and power that underlie the production of colonial and postcolonial cultural texts? (Lazarus 2011: 114)

One perfectly serviceable answer to this is that it does not need to. What registers as obsession to some will doubtless look more like engagement, even commitment, to others, and it seems legitimate to argue that the postcolonial field, while long since relinquishing its earlier, text-based claims to be ‘transgressive’, has retained its oppositional capacity to harness a theoretically and historically informed analysis of the shifting politics of textual representation to the situational demands of contemporary cultural critique. ‘Critical consciousness’, Edward Said’s capacious term, still seems the best one to encapsulate this, and Said’s—to my mind—remains the most convincing attempt to (p. 11) account for postcolonialism as a committed mode of revisionist knowledge, both rigorously self-aware and resolutely adversarial, that dedicates itself to the service of human freedom in the context of a world historically conditioned by colonial relations of power. Whether it is possible to square this kind of commitment with revolutionary solidarity is another matter. Indeed, as Said would repeatedly insist throughout his work, especially in his reflections on the oppositional role of the intellectual, critical consciousness should not be confused with solidarity. Thus, despite his lifelong commitment to the Palestinian cause, he always argued that, as an independent intellectual, it was his duty to forswear the kind of blind loyalty to liberationist causes that might short-circuit critical thinking. Intellectual support for liberation struggles was, he repeatedly affirmed, vitally necessary. But the following passage (from Representations of the Intellectual) is typical for the caveat it adds to this:

Loyalty to [an oppressed] group’s fight for survival cannot draw in the intellectual so far as to narcotize the critical sense, or reduce its imperatives, which are always to go beyond survival to questions of political liberation, to critiques of the leadership, to presenting alternatives that are too often marginalized or pushed aside as irrelevant to the main battle at hand. (1994: 41)

Clearer still is this passage, from an essay originally published in The London Review of Books and later included in the 1999 collection Letters in Transit:

For myself, I have been unable to live an uncommitted or suspended life: I have not hesitated to declare my affiliation with an extremely unpopular cause. On the other hand, I have always reserved the right to be critical, even when criticism conflicted with solidarity or with what others expected in the name of national loyalty. There is a definite, almost palpable discomfort to such a position, especially given the irreconcilability of the two constituencies, and the two lives they have required. (1999b: 108–9).

‘Solidarity’ is a troublesome term in Said’s indissolubly mixed critical vocabulary. Thus, while at times he seems almost to turn his back on it—‘never solidarity before criticism’ is a well-known Said credo (1994: 32)—at others it becomes one of the foundational principles in the broad, uncompromisingly confrontational but also unfailingly generous humanist vision he offers to a violently divided world (for different perspectives on this, see Lazarus 2011 and Robbins 2004). So much is clear from the praise he showers on Fanon and James, the former for the visionary power with which he was able to trace an ‘immense cultural shift from the terrain of nationalist independence to the theoretical domain of liberation’ (1993: 324), and the latter for his inspirational capacity in reaffirming the ‘value of the epic struggle for human emancipation and enlightenment’ (1989: 126). In either case, Said stops short of endorsing revolutionary violence without necessarily letting go of the idea of revolutionary consciousness, a term that also comes into play in the 1995 re-edition of Orientalism, where he speaks, in proudly acknowledging the original’s widespread influence, of a recent ‘revolution of consciousness of (p. 12) women, minorities and marginals so powerful as to affect mainstream thinking worldwide’ (1995a: 350).

This ‘revolution of consciousness’ is a long way, of course, from the violent independence wars that inspired James and Fanon, and just as far from the class-based analyses that have underpinned Marxist revolutionary struggle. Rather, it corresponds to a humanistic enlargement of vision that Said relates, here as elsewhere in his work, to postcolonialism, the ‘historical and political imperatives’ of which are connected to ‘emancipation [and] revisionist attitudes towards history and culture’, indicating that the postcolonial field as a whole, for all its postmodernist prevarications, is marked by ‘a general approach to universal concerns’ (1995a: 351–2). This recuperative reading of postcolonialism is out of step with Said’s earlier, stinging critiques of it (see for example Said 1986b, 1995b; also Williams 2001). What interests me here, though, is not the much commented-on inconsistency of Said’s views but his direct association of postcolonialism with revisionism—a revisionism he clearly links to general liberationist principles if not to any particular revolutionary cause.

Revisionism, for Said, is not just a question of politically motivated rereading; it is a committed if non-partisan act in which cultural critique is brought into line with political engagement. This is not to be confused, though, with political activism. Said, in this sense, would most likely have disagreed with Robert Young’s succinct working definition of postcolonialism as ‘nam[ing] a politics and philosophy of activism that contests [contemporary conditions of cultural and economic] disparity, and so continues in a new way the anti-colonial struggles of the past’ (Young 2003: 7). Said’s stance comes closer, though, to Young’s immediate qualification of this definition. For postcolonialism’s activist potential, Young goes on to explain, does not usually consist—although it certainly can consist—of an incitement to direct material struggle; rather it registers an attempt to ‘intervene, to force its alternative knowledges into the power structures of the west as well as the non-west’ (2003: 7). Dubious binaries notwithstanding, Young’s valid point is that the grounds for continuing anti-colonial struggle are as much epistemological as they are physical and material; relational too in so far as postcolonial theory is ‘about relations between ideas and practices: relations of harmony, relations of conflict, generative relations between different peoples and their cultures [that underlie] a world that has been changed by struggle and which [the field’s] practitioners intend to change further’ if they can (Young 2003: 7; see also Part III of this volume).

The key word to my mind here is ‘intervention’. As its intermediary status implies, intervention operates in the interstices between cultural critique and political advocacy: its primary goal is to raise general consciousness of injustice rather than to provide a specific rationale for struggle, armed or otherwise; and its baseline recognition is that while theory is no direct substitute for politics, theory and politics are inextricably entwined (see Boehmer in Part III of this volume). For Said, as for Young, postcolonialism is best understood as a sustained form of intellectual interventionism, at once individually committed to the parallel pursuits of freedom and justice and collectively driven by the will to change a flagrantly unequal, unevenly developed world. This oppositional tradition is linked, for both, to the inheritance of anti-colonial thought: to ‘the radical (p. 13) legacy of its political determinations, its refusal to accept the status quo, its transformation of epistemologies, [and] its establishment of new forms of discursive and political power’ (Young 2001: 428). Where the two most obviously part company is in their understanding of the foundational role of revolutionary violence in achieving social change, with Said tending to distance himself from the Fanonian views that Young explicitly embraces: that anti-colonial struggle is essentially a form of revolutionary war; that violence is intrinsic to it; and that the ongoing battle against colonialism is one against violence ‘in its natural state’ (Fanon 1965 [1963]: 48; see also Young 2001: 294–5).

As Young makes clear, however, this is by no means the only way of theorizing anti-colonial struggle—non-violent options are also possible.4 ‘Violence versus non-violence’, he epigrammatically says, ‘that [is] the anti-colonial question’; but as he then readily concedes, the reality of most twentieth- and twenty-first-century anti-colonial resistance movements, whether incorporated or not into national liberation struggles, is that violent and non-violent tactics have been strategically combined (2001: 296). This revised view again approaches that of Said, who, for all that his temperament is significantly more inclined to combative debate than bloody conflict, to the open-ended spirit of intellectual dissidence than goal-oriented programmes of revolutionary militancy, never goes quite so far as to dismiss the moral legitimacy of force (Said 1988, 1993; see also Brennan 2007; Parry 2001). That said, Said also repeatedly insists throughout his work that liberation struggles of both the present and the past, however heroically framed, are by no means immune from criticism, and that the ideologies of intractable difference that drive them consciously or unconsciously suppress the cross-cutting alliances and overlapping activities that are the marks of even the most irreconcilably polarized of human conflicts. ‘Ideologies of difference’, he typically complains in a blistering 1986 review essay on the Jewish American cultural critic Michael Walzer, ‘are a great deal less satisfactory than impure genres, people, activities; separation and discrimination are often not as estimable as connecting and crossing over; moral and military victories are not always such wonderful things’ (1986b: 106).

(p. 14) Here, as so often in his work, Said’s chosen emphasis is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he interprets in terms of morally competing, but also historically intersecting, national narratives. To offer wholehearted support for one, as Said unabashedly does, does not necessarily involve wholesale rejection of the other; indeed, as he goes on to suggest in a later essay, ‘Israelis and Palestinians are now so intertwined through history, geography and political actuality that it seems to me absolute folly to try and plan the future of one without that of the other’ (1999b: 19; see also Robbins 2004). Measured statements such as this have been eagerly latched upon as evidence of Said’s broad humanistic support for intercultural reconciliation (see for example Bové 1993). Yet ‘reconciliation’ is not a term that features widely in Said’s expansive cultural-political vocabulary; and most common when it does are pained assertions of its opposite (‘The Zionist-Israeli narrative and the Palestinian one are irreconcilable … and this irreconcilability was already quite obvious to several generations of early Zionist leaders and thinkers, as of course it was to all the Palestinians’, 1999c: n.p.), or steely refusals to entertain the very possibility of reconciliation in circumstances where it smacks of moral compromise or political accommodationism (‘I [have] learned from Adorno that reconciliation under duress is both cowardly and inauthentic: better a lost cause than a triumphant one, more satisfying a sense of the provisional and contingent than the proprietary solidity of permanent ownership … I have [long since] accepted the irreconcilability of the various conflicting, or at least incompletely harmonized, aspects of what, cumulatively, I appear to have stood for’, 1999a: 112–13).

One might argue here that ‘reconciliation’ (like ‘solidarity’) can mean very different things at different times in Said’s work, and that its meanings can alter within the space of a few sentences. One might also reasonably expect from a critic one of whose most important books (Culture and Imperialism) ends with a chapter entitled ‘Freedom from Domination in the Future’, that the prospect of framing creative alternatives to intractable histories of separatist identity and conflict is an attractive one (Said 1993; see also Bové 1993; McGonegal 2009). ‘Reconciliation’, in this last sense, may yet be seen to emerge in Said’s work as the utopian horizon of a sustained imaginative effort—a self-consciously revisionist attempt to narrativize shared histories and experiences which, moving beyond naturalized histories of conflict and antagonism, position themselves strategically against the automatic and repeating gestures of a ‘politics of blame’ (Said 1993: 19). As Paul Bové, whose ideas I have been parsing here, explains more fully,

Said’s understanding of shared experience calls forth narratives of common history that are … the best hope for overcoming the stories of conflict, separation, and radical purity or identity that horrify the world and form the morbid and deadly cultures of radical nationalism. At the same time, this is no groundless hope. Said has understood two all-important things. [T]he first [of these] is historical: … reconciliation is needed and possible [at a time when] division is doing its worst [sic] … [while the] second is cultural: narratives have formed nations but now other narratives form relations across nations, against divisive commitments to identity and purity. Always Said’s thinking moves in two directions because the realities he is trying to understand develop complexly, but not necessarily as contradictions. (p. 15) Nationalisms form communities against imperial occupation; yet nationalisms threaten division and separation. So there is [in Said’s words] ‘a noticeable pull away from separatist nationalism toward a more integrative view of human community and human liberation’. (Bové 1993: 267–8)

If Bové’s preliminary account of the reconciliatory aspects of Said’s ‘contrapuntal’ thought is convincing, his subsequent, almost hysterical dismissal of its postcolonial dimensions is not. From Bové’s scandalized liberal-humanist perspective, Said needs rescuing from the legion of leftist ‘ideologues’ and postcolonial ‘opportunists’ who see the promise of reconciliation as no more than a ‘collaborationist sell-out’, and whose collectively attributed aim is to ‘weaken the vision of [his] work, to undermine the truths of complex historical experience and identities, [to] promote conflict (which, outside academia, is often truly murderous), and [to] impoverish human culture and so threaten the human species itself’ (1993: 269). It seems worth pointing out that Said’s friends, diverse though these are, have not generally tended to double as postcolonialism’s enemies; and that the continuing battle over Said and other postcolonial critics has often been engaged most vigorously by those who seem to have had the least acquaintance with their work (for different if largely compatible versions of this argument, see Brennan 2007 and Huggan 2005). My larger point though has to do with reconciliation itself, which has recently become a lively debating point in postcolonial studies. What are we to make of this ‘reconciliatory’ strand in contemporary postcolonial theory and criticism, which seems initially at least to be so profoundly at odds with the field’s revolutionary credentials? Are ‘revolutionary’ and ‘reconciliatory’ postcolonialisms mutually exclusive or does their negotiated relationship with critical revisionism offer a new, triangulated way of looking at and creatively accounting for the constitutive contradictions in the postcolonial field?

Postcolonialism and Reconciliation

I have argued thus far that postcolonial theory and criticism might best be seen in terms of a linked set of not necessarily compatible revisionisms, which are as much creative engagements with the present as they are critical interrogations of the past. These revisionisms enter into a complex relationship with the history of revolutionary and liberationist thought, the dialectical aspects of which have neither been accepted nor appreciated; this relationship significantly complicates the manufactured binaries (poststructuralism versus Marxism, culturalism versus materialism, etc.) which—ironically to a greater degree than one might have thought would be the field’s formative binary, the colonizer versus the colonized—have tended to dominate ‘in-house’ discussions of the nature and function of postcolonial studies to date. The introduction of a third term, ‘reconciliation’, risks muddying the waters further still, not least because it appears so out of step with postcolonialism’s putatively radical credentials (for a lively (p. 16) exchange on the would-be radicalism of postcolonial thought, see the essays in Part III of this volume). Predictably, it is the field’s Marxists who have been particularly scathing, seeing reconciliation as little more than an ideological smokescreen for dominant cultural and economic interests, an irresponsible escape from continuing historical obligations, and a politically expedient initiative to champion the supposedly reparative effects of negotiation, collaboration, and reciprocity in what remains a fundamentally divided and consequently unreconciled world. For materialist critics like Benita Parry, for instance, the consensus politics of reconciliation represents more of an obstacle to than a catalyst for social transformation: the symbolic possibilities of reconciliation should not be dismissed, but nor should they be prematurely celebrated, and ‘our best hope for universal emancipation lies in remaining [discontented with the present] and unreconciled to the past’ (2005: 25).

Non-Marxists too have shown considerable scepticism towards the usefulness of reconciliation as a sustainable idiom for postcolonial studies. The Australian-based cultural critic Simon During, for example, has provocatively opposed ‘reconciliatory’ to ‘critical’ postcolonialisms, seeing the postmodernist vocabulary (ambivalence, hybridity, mimicry, etc.) of the former as having long since passed its sell-by date, and suggesting that the necessary critique of ‘reconciliatory’ postcolonialism has led, not to a reconstituted postcolonial studies, but to a discernible and irreversible shift from postcolonial to global studies as more appropriate to the cross-disciplinary study of contemporary society and culture in today’s intricately interconnected world (1998: 31–2). Needless to say, I disagree with During, if not necessarily with Parry, but the most interesting question in both cases is what ‘reconciliation’ actually stands for: what sense, if any, can be made out of such an apparently misleading and politically malleable term? A second question comes to the fore here: why has the term become so prominent and why is it now so often written about; why has there been what Jill Scott calls a veritable ‘explosion of [academic publishing] in the areas of reconciliation, transitional justice, and conflict resolution’ in areas such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, political science, literature, and law? (2010: n.p.). And a third: how can reconciliation be recuperated for postcolonial studies, and in what kind of relationship to revolutionary anti-colonial thought and postcolonial critical revisionism, which I am arguing here—against the grain perhaps—are the two dialectically interrelated paradigms that structure the postcolonial field?

Let me take these questions in turn, though for obvious reasons I will focus on the third one. As decent a working definition of reconciliation as any is that provided by the political theorists Brandon Hamber and Gráinne Kelly (2009), who see it as ‘developing a mutual conciliatory accommodation between antagonistic or formerly antagonistic persons or groups’, at the heart of which is ‘the preparedness of people to anticipate a shared future’ (287). This definition, while perhaps too general to be truly useful, has the advantage of separating reconciliation from forgiveness, which is usually understood as having a religious source; of seeing it as a pragmatic—and often difficult—process rather than as an ideal product; and of envisaging that process in dialogical, continually renegotiated and renegotiable terms. As Hamber and Kelly propose, reconciliation is—or at least should be—an engine of social, political, and economic change; (p. 17) both material and symbolic, at once individual and collective, it aims to acknowledge without simultaneously drawing a line under the past (2009: 299; see also McGonegal 2009; Quinn 2009; J. Scott 2010).

It is not difficult to see why reconciliation processes, framed in these generous terms, should be attractive at a time when the language of apology, compensation, and redress has entered mainstream political vocabularies all over the world, and when the social and economic realities of globalization have arguably brought with them a heightened awareness of structural inequalities, systemic interdependencies, and the collective need for both theoretical and practical considerations of what it means to share space, but not necessarily values, in a technologically connected but politically and economically separated world (for a discussion of the links between ‘globalism’ and ‘global consciousness’, see Part V of this volume). Nor is it difficult to see why these processes—many of which have colonial roots—should be of keen interest to postcolonial scholarship, operating as it currently is in the wake of an ‘ethical turn’ evidenced in the revived (rather than strictly new) attention to trauma theory, memory studies, critical cosmopolitanism, and the discourse of human rights. Reconciliation also forms part of a revived interest in utopian thinking in postcolonial theory and criticism that takes in work as diverse as Derrida’s treatises on the ‘promises’ of democracy and friendship; growing realizations of the conceptual limits of critique (see Abeysekara in this volume); a rethinking of commitment and community in future-oriented contexts; a shift from individual guilt to collective responsibility; and a reassessment of the productive role of the creative imagination in thinking what Julie McGonegal optimistically calls ‘the possibility of a radically different future, a world beyond the politics of pain and despair enacted by colonialism and its various aftermaths’ (2009: 14). Finally, however, it is not difficult to see why these processes should elicit considerable suspicion and why reconciliation’s practical problems might be seen as outweighing its idealistic promises: the legal problems of who adjudicates and who ‘forgives’; the political problems of agency and authority; the historical problems of closure and teleology; and the overriding structural problem of how to bring about ‘a radical revision to existing relations of inequality’ (McGonegal 2009: 33) without previously securing the transformed material conditions that would seem necessary to bring such revised relations about (see Parry above).

An illustrative case study might be useful here. Like Parry, the Australian-based geographer Jane Jacobs sees reconciliation as an impediment to change rather than a facilitator of it, concentrating her attack on the pre-Apology reconciliation debates in Australia (for a post-Apology update, though written in much the same vein, see Johnson 2011; see also Hindess in Part IV and, in a related if non-identical New Zealand context, Smith and Turner in Part IV of this volume). For Jacobs, the collective pursuit of reconciliation in postcolonial Australia is part of a state-sanctioned national narrative: it corresponds, that is, to an official revisionist strategy of ‘correcting the national sense of self’ (2007: 208). Jacobs sees this strategy in terms of (1) a ‘re-indigenization’ of national belonging and (2) an assimilative management of anti-colonial resistance, with both of these being similarly rephrased in postcolonial revisionist terms. Reconciliation, she suggests, ‘may not stop certain uncomfortable “truths” [e.g. about Australia’s colonial (p. 18) past] being told’, but is designed to prevent these from getting too close and affecting ‘the existing order of things’ (217). Reconciliation, in other words, offers a revisionist but strictly non-revolutionary story of indigenous resistance, then reclaims that story—and by corollary its players—in the national interest: ‘Reconciled (non-Aboriginal) Australia wants the grand moments of colonial triumph to be chastened by historically contained memories of Aboriginal opposition’, but it also prefers its resistance in the past, as ‘something that happened then but is remembered now’ (216; her italics).5

Writing more than a decade later in the wake of Kevin Rudd’s much-applauded official apology to indigenous Australians, Miranda Johnson recodes, but also reconfirms, this postcolonial revisionist narrative. What is being valued in post-Apology Australian reconciliation debates, Johnson suggests, is indigenous peoples’ ‘primordial attachment to place and community’ in the face of historical injustice; what is not being valued is the political autonomy of indigenous peoples themselves (2011: 188). Reconciliation, seen this way, reinforces the political authority of the postcolonial settler state even as it claims to apologize to its victims; it performs what Lazarus might call the ‘anti-an-ti-liberationist’ gesture of appealing to an oppositional (anti-colonial) narrative of indigenous presence which is then repackaged in inclusive national (postcolonial) terms (2011: 199; see also Smith and Turner in Part II of this volume for a New Zealand variation on this assimilative method).

This smacks of ‘bad’ revisionism, as Howe might call it (see note 2), but that is not all it is. For, as Jacobs suggests, reconciliation processes in Australia and elsewhere have notably failed to corral indigenous resistance into the closely guarded national spaces of ‘calm co-habitation’ (208) their respective governments claim officially to be fashioning; instead, these failures have opened up alternative spaces of resistance, organized around plural identities and incommensurable differences, which can also be considered in (‘good’) revisionist terms. As Jacobs expresses it, ‘Rather than reconciliation restructuring the parameters of national knowing into a new space of calm co-habitation, its actually producing a most contested politics of knowing and rights. Reconciliation may have as its goal a transcending of a more familiar oppositional politics, but it is at the same time generating new political articulations characterised by a range of significant reversals and inversions’ (208). This fundamentally conflicted understanding of reconciliation is, (p. 19) it seems to me, much closer to the oppositional spirit of Said’s work than Bové’s accommodating liberal-humanist rendition of it; it also gives the lie to McGonegal’s similarly consensus-based account of reconciliation as ‘an entire project … of transforming the brutal conditions’ that are the unbroken historical legacy of colonial relations of power (2009: 33).

McGonegal, at least, recognizes that this project is by definition ‘ongoing and perpetually unfinished’ (33), and that reconciliation, rather than presenting a morally superior alternative to violence, operates in constant tension with other, more directly confrontational resistance practices; in fact, there is a sense in which reconciliation can itself be seen (as Jacobs and Johnson appear to see it) as a form of violence in so far as it is ‘forced or imposed by those occupying positions of [authority and] power’ (33). Perhaps McGonegal’s account of postcolonial reconciliation might itself be seen as performing a ‘reconciliatory’ move that mediates between apparently incompatible approaches to the subject: an idealist view in which reconciliation ‘advocates situating truth relative to testimony, narrative, and memory in the interests of promoting justice’ (181); a postmodernist view in which the value of truth itself is questioned; and a materialist view which acknowledges that the granting of ‘forgiveness’ and the possibility of rapprochement depend on the restoration of specific, historically and geographically situated forms of political autonomy without abandoning the general idea/ideal that reconciliation can provide a ‘means of agency for the oppressed’ (52, 55).

This composite revisionist view, I would argue, combines several of the contradictory narratives embedded within postcolonialism itself: the universal narrative of enlightenment and emancipation; the deconstructionist critique of it; and the ‘new humanist’ insistence that a shared planetary future can only be created by addressing and overturning the systemic inequalities that work together to impede human freedom in the modern world.6 That modernity itself has helped create these inequalities is one of post-colonialism’s givens; so too modernity’s multilayered connections to the histories of capitalism and colonialism, which postcolonial critics, despite often significant ideological and methodological differences, all see as being symbiotically entwined (see Hindess and Mignolo in this volume). But if one of the few generally agreed-upon tasks of postcolonial (p. 20) studies has been to show that alternative understandings of modernity—alternative modernities—are possible, it seems there are many, not necessarily compatible ways of achieving this, just as there are many, not necessarily compatible postcolonialisms, each seeking energetically to intervene in the unfinished history of the modern world. Postcolonialisms, like the colonialisms they seek to contest, are volatile and fractured, dynamically but also uncontrollably plural (see Seed in Part I of this volume). At once belated and anticipatory, they offer often radically different ways of understanding the past as well as a myriad of alternative possible avenues to a necessarily uncertain future. Reconciliation-oriented postcolonialism stresses a negotiated path; its revolutionary counterPart Insists on an embattled one. However, as I hope to have shown here, these are not mutually exclusive options, while both are refracted through the prism of critical revisionism. If revisionism, as I am riskily suggesting, is the default mode of postcolonial theory and criticism, then attempts to forge a ‘new’ postcolonial studies will by definition be stymied. But so too will attempts to move ‘beyond’ postcolonial studies, for even if particular kinds of revisionism will fall in and out of fashion, the general practice of revisionism, in restlessly shuttling between necessary return and desired renewal, offers a welcome critical bulwark against postcolonialism’s negative trajectory from premature celebration (Shohat 1992) to premature demise (Yaeger 2007).

A revisionist approach to postcolonial studies will always run the risk of being seen as quaintly nostalgic, reprehensibly regressive even. (Before being accused of this myself, I should reiterate that I am using revisionism here to recuperate revolutionary ideas without necessarily rejecting their reconciliatory alternatives, and to show that both reconciliation and revolution are central to current understandings of the postcolonial field.) Notwithstanding, revisionism has the advantage of complicating the opposite (i.e. self-confidently progressivist) view, most likely to be endorsed by materialist critics, that the postcolonial field has made the transition from an earlier, text-based approach that dominated the first wave of postcolonial literary/cultural criticism in the 1980s and 1990s to the cross-disciplinary, interventionist model of the present day (see Mukherjee 2006; also Young 2003). Admittedly, this threefold model—multisited, multilingual, multidisciplinary—has a lot to be said for it (for further reflections on this model, see Huggan 2008). Indeed, some of the more discomforting questions it raises are explicitly addressed in this volume: what power, explanatory or otherwise, does postcolonialism’s ‘culturalist’ vocabulary, indebted as it still is to one version or other of secular idealism, have in today’s increasingly postsecular climate? Is the current, cross-disciplinary approach to postcolonial studies necessarily an improvement on the earlier, text-based model, or does it risk exacerbating postcolonialism’s overgeneralizing tendencies, producing new conceptual and methodological confusions of its own? What kinds of regional comparisons are needed at a time when the earlier, largely nation-based approach of comparative postcolonial criticism no longer seems appropriate; whither postcolonialism in an increasingly fragmented, and transnationally configured, globalized world? Is there a danger, in focusing on contemporary experiences of colonialism and imperialism, of losing touch with their historical antecedents, or an equal-and-opposite temptation to merge the ‘colonial present’ (Gregory 2004) (p. 21) indiscriminately with the imperial past? Can the ‘new’ postcolonial studies liberate itself from ‘older’ tendencies to view empire as an all-encompassing concept-metaphor, or will it end up reproducing the figural understandings of, e.g., the ‘exile’ and the ‘migrant’ that were not particularly helpful in explaining historical processes of colonial dislocation and resettlement, and are no more useful in assessing the condition of their globalist, ‘new imperialist’ counterparts now? (Hardt and Negri 2000; Harvey 2003; see also Part II of this volume.) Can the ‘new’ postcolonial studies, in propagating a form of ‘transnational literacy’ (Spivak 1999), work towards opening up the linguistic range of its highly disparate subject matter, or will its latest encounters with globalization merely reinforce the hegemony of the one particular world language, English, in which the vast majority of its work continues to be conducted, even though it is precisely such linguistic/cultural hegemonies that the field makes it its business to contest?

These questions are no doubt useful, and several of the essays in this volume choose, directly or indirectly, to engage with them. However, two overriding questions still need to be asked: just how ‘new’ is the ‘new’ postcolonial studies? And is ‘newness’ such a vital category? To put my own view one last time: if postcolonial studies is to remain relevant to today’s world—and I certainly believe it will—it will need to pay greater attention than ever to the various conflicted histories that inform it; while if its radical credentials are to be taken seriously—and I firmly believe they should—they will need to be more strongly connected than ever to the anti-colonial struggles of the past. Postcolonial studies, in this last sense, may be seen as defiantly unfashionable, even if, for perhaps understandable professional reasons, many of the field’s current practitioners have strategically adjusted their sights to the realities of the contemporary globalized world. It also remains obstinately dedicated to what Timothy Brennan somewhat backhandedly calls a ‘welcome intellectual generalism’ (2008: 49; see also Brennan in Part I of this volume). The postcolonial, as Peter Hallward exasperatedly remarked more than a decade ago, may well ‘present itself as a sort of general theory on the non-generalisable as such’ (2001: ix), but surely this is the point of postcolonial studies, and while it is certainly true that postcolonial theory/criticism makes large, at times tendentious generalizations, this is the occupational hazard of any ambitiously comparative field. Nor is the postcolonial field, as Hallward implies, necessarily committed to seeking refuge in the specific or to reaching out, in spite of itself, to an extreme form of singularity through which specific cultural differences are somehow collapsed into an originary Difference that effectively transcends them all (Bhabha 1994; Hallward 2001). Rather, as Hallward grudgingly acknowledges, the postcolonial field wavers—unconvincingly at times—between the singular and the specific: between the wary but necessary acceptance of universal values and the close attention to those cultural particularities, and their abiding capacity for political manipulation, that universals (the ‘human condition’, the ‘struggle for justice’, etc.) are sometimes given to disguise. Postcolonialism, understood this way, registers a continuing obligation to complexity: it fervently supports the idea of a just world, but it is also aware of the ways in which this idea can be made and remade to serve particular sets of political and historical interests, not all of them egalitarian or beneficial; and in which the imperialisms of the present, to twist Aijaz Ahmad, may be (p. 22) ironically founded on the anti-colonialisms of the past (Ahmad 1992; see also Parts II and III of this volume).

This much is clear: ‘postcolonial’ is a troubled term in an embattled set of social and historical circumstances. There can be no doubting its slipperiness, its conceptual inadequacy in face of the immensity of its subject; but there can be no doubting either the compelling nature of its material and the social immediacy of its contemporary intellectual interests and continuing historical effects. To some extent, postcolonial studies amounts to the sum of its own internal differences. This is not a field one is likely to look to for methodological coherence or consensual politics, nor is it a field (despite the noticeable development of critical and theoretical orthodoxies, many of them situated at the cusp of Marxism and poststructuralism) that is likely to exhaust its own capacity for provocative debate. Postcolonialism, as a loose set of revisionist techniques, is both irrepressibly and incorrigibly combative, quarrelling with the world it wishes to transform but also, and no less obviously, bickering with itself. This is no less, of course, than one might expect of a field whose existence has been persistently fraught since its first institutional appearance in the 1980s, and the increasingly frequent allegation of whose replacement by emergent disciplines such as transnational cultural studies or globalization studies is so far from being the truth that it seems almost pointless to reject. What is closer to the truth, perhaps, is that terms such as ‘postcolonial’, ‘transnational’, and ‘global’ work better together than apart, and help collectively to explain the times we live in. This volume also suggests they help collectively to make predictions for the future and to assess the continuing significance of the past. Such predictions and assessments, like much else in the field, will likely remain speculative or hypothetical. One thing is for sure though: that postcolonial studies will continue to be relevant as long as colonialism—multiple colonialisms—exist in the current world order, even if the field’s remit is, paradoxically, to play its utopian Part In making colonialism and the imperialist ideologies that drive it a thing of the past.

Recent evidence suggests that there are grounds for hope—or hope at least that the struggle for emancipation will continue. At the time of writing, as the ‘Arab Spring’ continues to unfold, it seems tempting to reflect on the continuing viability of revolution. ‘Tahrir Square’, in the unabashedly romantic view of Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, ‘became [for a time in 2011] like the Paris Commune. The authority of the regime collapsed as the authority of the people took its place’ (2011: ix). But it is equally tempting to reflect on revolution’s shortcomings or, perhaps better, on the perils of assuming revolutionary change before it has actually happened; and as the political commentator Olivier Roy has more cautiously suggested, ongoing events in Egypt are perhaps best understood in Arendtian terms as the ‘politics of protest’ rather than as ‘the dawn of a new [political] regime’ (2011: n.p.; also Arendt 1990 [1963] and the opening section of this essay above). Meanwhile, one could be forgiven for thinking that much of the world is at war: a highly selective list here might include civil wars in Afghanistan and Somalia; insurgencies in Sudan and Iraq; drug wars in Mexico and Colombia; and armed conflict—some but by no means all of it revolutionary—in Syria, Yemen, Chechyna, Nigeria, Kashmir, and West Papua. We might recall that Arendt’s opening argument in (p. 23) On Revolution (1963) was that the rest of the twentieth century would eventually see the eclipse of war by revolution, though she was canny enough to recognize that the one could easily blend into the other, and that violence was the most likely common denominator for both (1990 [1963]: 18). She was right, up to a point: a variety of revolutionary freedom struggles, most of them violent in the extreme, would go on to characterize much of the latter half of the twentieth century, and revolution has already made a defining mark on the new millennium. So too has war. The question of war, and the sometimes illusory freedoms it claims to protect, should trouble postcolonial studies far more than it has done, certainly far more than its own sometimes tedious internecine conflicts; but that should not stop the age-old pursuit of human freedom from being its primary and urgently necessary goal.

Graham Huggan, April 2012


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(1) . Historical revisionism is, it seems to me, more intrinsic to the postcolonial field than its literary counterpart, critical rereading, which—partly as an effect of the alliance between postcolonialism and postmodernism—flourished during the 1980s and 1990s, the most obvious example being Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin’s The Empire Writes Back (1989). For a while, it seemed as if postcolonial revisionism effectively meant literary revisionism: see Lee’s confident assertion that ‘most postcolonial projects have a common denominator: the critical rereading of texts in the Western canon that have been thought of as embodying universal and transhistorical values’ (1997: 89). There are several by now familiar problems with this view: the assumption of a more or less transparent correlation between colonialism as a ‘politico-economic reality’ and colonialism as a ‘system of cultural representation’ (Lee 1997: 89); the use of literature as historical evidence; the tendency to reinscribe binary systems (e.g. through the now virtually defunct ‘writing back’ model); and the consolidation of postcolonialism as a predominantly ‘reactive idiom’ (Suleri 1992: 21; see also Lee 1997: 109). There are reactive tendencies as well, of course, in historical revisionism: the easy view, for example, that there are ‘hegemonic’ and ‘counter-hegemonic’ forms of historical writing or—an argument sometimes used by so-called ‘anti-revisionist’ historians—that solid bodies of historical evidence can be called upon that that resist or surpass ideology-driven attempts to recast them from a particular perspective. Postcolonial revisionism has not always avoided these traps, but it generally proceeds from the not unreasonable view that history is open to contending interpretations, and that such interpretations are ‘inextricably associated with political agendas and social identities’ from the start (Howe 2000: 232).

(2) . As Stephen Howe apologetically remarks near the beginning of an essay that paradoxically seeks to recuperate revisionism in the context of ultra-nationalist accounts of Irish and Israeli-Palestinian history: ‘“Revisionism” is an awful label, politically as well as historiographically. In different contexts … it has meant everything from people who think the English Civil War had short-term political causes rather than long-term social ones, to people who deny that Nazis murdered any Jews. It has meant maximalist or physical-force Zionists (Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideological forebears) and Dublin journalists who disliked Charles Haughey. Meanwhile all historians are in some narrower sense revisionists, challenging previous accounts and interpretations with newer ones. Whether in academic contexts or political ones, the term might well be thought meaningless’ (2000: 230). As Howe later makes clear, however, revisionism is not meaningless at all and can usefully counteract the very bias of which it is often accused; there are thus ‘good’ and ‘bad’ revisionisms, the latter of which require further revisionism—a point frequently made by postcolonial critics, two recent contexts being ‘civilizationist’ cultural analysis (Huntington) and ‘revisionist’ imperial history (Ferguson). I will come back to this point later in my discussion of the paradigmatically revisionist work of Edward Said.

(3) . Probably the best example of this form of critical revisionism is the dispersed (in both a geographical and methodological sense) ‘rescue work’ of the India-based Subaltern Studies Collective, one of whose primary aims has been to revalidate histories of peasant struggle that are often conspicuously missing from official historical accounts. One of the problems of the SSC—although, to be fair, it is a problem that is explicitly recognized by many of its members—has been the tendency to work within European historical categories. For a useful recent critique of this tendency, see Gajarawala, who sees the SSC’s ‘project of recovery [as helping] to build a revolutionary historical consciousness’ (2011: 586), but also points out the inappropriateness of such explicitly or implicitly linear historical categories for subaltern social groups, e.g. Dalits, whose collective sense of self and of historical emplacement seems to require a different understanding of historical knowledge than that provided in the SSC’s revolutionary-cum-revisionist historical accounts.

(4) . Gandhi—who remains something of a forgotten figure in postcolonial criticism—is central to Young’s argument here. Young counterpoints Gandhi and Fanon as complementary if profoundly different anti-colonial hero figures by showing that, while the latter moved ‘from analysis of the disabling violence of colonialism to advocating military violence against the colonial regime’, the former ‘combined strategies of non-violent non-cooperation with a more widespread psychological resistance, arguing that they were both more ethical and more effective than any kind of violence’ (2001: 323). While Young is careful not to dismiss either option, he implicitly suggests that non-violence needs to be de-idealized, and that it effectively worked in a ‘negative dialectic with the perpetual possibility and reality of violence’ in the India of Gandhi’s time (324; see also McGonegal 2009). For a recent essay that reidealizes non-violence, associating it with Gandhi as a ‘revolutionary’ anti-colonial figure, see Trivedi (2011). While Trivedi not unreasonably argues that there continues to be a ‘monumental mismatch’ (547) between Gandhian legacies of non-violence and orthodox (Fanonian) postcolonial accounts of the role of violence in anti-colonial struggle, he somewhat spoils the point by assimilating the latter uncritically to ‘Marxist discourse’, thereby missing the revisionism that is integral to both.

(5) . This is largely in keeping with Fanon’s view that reconciliation is, by definition, incompatible with revolution: ‘no conciliation is possible’, he insists, in postcolonial societies where liberation and the revolutionary consciousness it succours can only be brought about after a violent struggle between two implacably opposed sides (1965 [1963]: 39). However, it might also help explain why most postcolonial approaches to reconciliation to date (the notable exception is South Africa) have focused on the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in settler states (e.g. Australia, Canada, New Zealand) that have not recently experienced revolutionary violence or rupture. Reconciliation, in this sense, may be seen as part of state-sponsored national projects to hold revolution at bay or even to block the social processes that might make it possible. Such projects posit reconciliation as a revisionist process whereby the state accepts wrongdoing in the past while acknowledging the need to take reparative measures in the present. However, it is the state itself that organizes the conditions under which such measures are to be taken; state authority is implicitly reinforced by privileging the pursuit of justice over and against the pursuit of freedom that is intrinsic to revolutionary change.

(6) . The role of humanism in postcolonial thought has been persistently contested. For poststructuralists, by and large, humanism is no longer a serviceable category, whilst for Marxists it needs to be critiqued for its arrogant assimilation to western imperial interests but reinstated in universal liberationist terms. For many of the latter, it also needs rescuing from the blandishments of ‘posthumanism’, which can alternately be seen as a sustainability-oriented recognition of the need to see the world in terms other than those that reinforce human domination and as a radical questioning, as much philosophical as biological, of the category of the ‘human’ itself (for different perspectives on this, see Brennan and Mount and O’Brien in Parts I and IV of this volume). Both the deconstructive and recuperative dimensions of postcolonialism have affiliations, though in markedly different ways, with the philosophical legacies of humanism, as do most of the field’s significant figures: the ongoing battle over Fanon and Said mentioned above, for instance, is at least in part a battle over contending critical-theoretical interpretations of humanism’s potential to provide the philosophical basis for a decolonized world.