Bill Ashcroft: In Coversation with Sayan Dey
Prof Bill Ashcroft. Image courtesy: http://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/
Post-coloniality or De-coloniality? Confusions and Conflicts
Bill Ashcroft is an Australian Professorial Fellow in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts. A founding exponent of post-colonial theory, co-author of The Empire Writes Back, his text is the first attempt to examine systematically the field of post-colonial studies. He is author and co-author of sixteen books, variously translated into five languages including Post-Colonial Transformation (Routledge 2001), Post-Colonial Futures (Continuum 2001); Caliban's Voice (Routledge 2008) and Intimate Horizons (ATF 2009). He is the author of over 150 chapters and papers, and he is on the editorial boards of ten international journals. Here Sayan Dey’s brief conversation with Bill Ashcroft invades the debatable domain of post-coloniality and de-coloniality.
Sayan Dey: Sir, thank you very much for sparing your precious time for this interview. Well, talking about post-coloniality, it has been usually observed that, the inception of the ‘Third World’ saw further complications of the already obliterated individual, socio-political boundaries. The indigenous political figures (usually the colonial puppets) started re-configurating their respective societies within the grammar of coloniality. This resulted in utter intellectual confusions pushing post-coloniality and de-coloniality in a conflicting state. With the urge of global recognition, post-coloniality often played into the hands of West-centric universalism. On the other hand the over-emphasis on ‘cultural nativism’ narrowly bounded de-coloniality within their respective territorial borders. So what do you think, can there be any alternative possibilities beyond these two ideological extremes?
Bill Ashcroft: Your question is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the postcolonial. The idea of a chronological stage ‘after colonialism’ was the way the term was used in the 1960s, after the surge of independence. But from the publication of The Empire Writes Back the situation changed radically. ‘Postcolonial’ refers to neither a chronology nor ontology but a way of reading. It is a way of reading the cultural resistances and transformations of colonised and formerly colonised cultural producers. Sometimes this was anti-colonial but more often it was transformative as transformation proved to be the most powerful and productive form of resistance (Ashcroft, Post-Colonial Transformation 2001). Sadly, almost thirty years later this mistake is still being made. I am not familiar with the recent rise of de-coloniality as a term but I suspect it is one more aspect of anti-colonialism, one possibly haunted by the impossibility of returning to a pre-colonial cultural utopia. The problem after the ‘recession of the colonisers’ was that indigenous elites simply took over the colonial structures of power, just as they were confined to the colonial state boundaries. The independent formerly colonised states were thus trapped in the architecture of power bequeathed to them by imperialism. This developed in the twentieth century as the devil’s pact between capital and imperialism developed and neocolonialism gained almost unfettered domination. Indigenous elites found themselves trapped by the corporate imperialism of the US. De-coloniality was coined, I presume, as a response to Latin America’s close and devastating relationship with the rapacity of US imperialism, which advanced unchecked through the region from the Munroe Doctrine onwards. Any idea of the conflict between various forms of colonial resistance is based upon the misunderstanding of the term postcolonial that I mentioned. Postcolonial studies have always intersected the study of race, gender, class, but these intersections have generated an ever-increasing range of specific interests, overlapping and cohabiting within the field. This phenomenon of ‘cohabitation’ I would now describe, after Gilroy, as a “convivial critical democracy.”
SD: In continuation with my last question, I would like to share an experience I had at a conference at Germany. After the conference got over, the officials treated us with a postcolonial city tour. Along with me there was a Negro lady who boarded the tram. As she sat beside a young girl, infuriated, the latter shouted (which obviously appeared very abusive) and left. In India, it happens within the matrix of castes, communities and religions. So what are the options of tracing the genealogy of colonial thinking and disentangling them from the shadows of coloniality?
BA: The incident you mention is an example of racism, which exists everywhere. Although racism was a powerful tool of historical colonialism it was not invented by the colonisers. Germany’s compassion and acceptance of refugees has been an example to the world but Germany’s history of racial purity with its nadir in the Nazi philosophy of Blut und Boden, the ideology of a deep ancestral tie between land and people became the founding, and disastrous foundation of a national race. Despite Angela Merkel’s leadership this has naturally filtered into the consciousness of ordinary Germans.
SD: Within the framework of de-coloniality or post-coloniality, misinterpretations and misrepresentations form the epicentre of contemporary ideological confusions. Riding on these propagations, we find how the language of violence has been globally authenticated. This is why mass extermination by ISIS and Boko Haram forces, United States’ intervention in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan or religious violation in the west (eg Burkini fiasco in France) seems to happen in a very ethical, normative manner. Are there any viability of overcoming these consistent misinterpretations, misrepresentations and confusions?
BA: I am not sure that the petty restrictions of the Burkini fiasco are equivalent to genocide conducted by ISIS. However ISIS is a product of the rolling catastrophe set in motion by the US invasion of Iraq. It became an opportunity for seething resentments to break out in the guise of Fatwah. So ISIS is a reaction to the Iraq invasion and western nations are in turn reacting to what is in Europe a very real threat. However the clothing restrictions introduced by the French are exactly the wrong way to go about things. The situation won’t change until anti-ISIS forces stop reacting and see that the Muslim populations of their countries are the very best defense against terrorism. The way to defeat ISIS is to mainstream Muslim populations, but while the only response is reaction, this won’t happen. It should be remembered that there is a war going on but the complications of that war and the various directions of the hostilities appear irresolvable.
To the broader question of misrepresentation the example of postcolonial literatures offers an interesting model. By appropriating the colonising language and making it work in the service of self-representation, these literatures both chose a world audience and took control of the way colonised people were represented. In the present situation the kinds of transformations to which literature provides can only work in the long term. If we move away from the extreme example of ISIS, who is only interested in using visual media to invoke terror, we can take the more salient example of the Palestinian people for if anybody has been denied the opportunity for self-representation it is them.
Arabs and Palestinians were not only prevented from representing themselves, but deemed incapable of representing themselves, confirming Marx’s adage, ‘they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented’, which Said cites in an epigraph to Orientalism. A key victory for Israel was the success with which it has been able to represent and explain Oriental Arabs to the West through the Western media. They have ‘emancipated themselves from the worst Eastern excesses, to explain the Oriental Arabs to the West, to assume responsibility for expressing what the Arabs were really like and about, never to let the Arabs appear equally with them as existing in Palestine’ (Said. The Question of Palestine: 26). In an uncanny reprise of Orientalist attitudes, the assumption was that ‘Arabs are Oriental, therefore less human and valuable than Europeans and Zionists; they are treacherous, unregenerate, etc.’ (Said The Question of Palestine: 28). Such a distinction emerged out of the idea of the historic conflict between the West and Islam.
Palestine may be the site of struggle but it is not the site of victory. Just as the state of Israel took shape in the capitals of Europe, just as the representation of Palestinians takes place in the Western media, so the site of transformation is the imperial centre - in this case the US. And it is not the US government but American public opinion. This is the lesson taught by post-colonial writers, that the secret of self-representation is the capture of the audience: the appropriation of English, the interpolation of the dominant discourse and the transformation of that discourse and the site of power itself. If liberation lies in self-representation then the battlefield is nowhere near Israel – its forward lines are on American television. Just as the most powerful perpetuation of Orientalism has been in the 'coverage' of Islam in the western media, so the most strategic site for transforming the representation of the middle east in general and the Palestinians in particular is that same media, that same audience.
What is true of the tragedy of Palestine is true for Muslims everywhere. The battle against mis-representation is a struggle to take hold of the means of self-representation. Ultimately this struggle for Muslims is a struggle against the representation of terror that is ISIS’ stock in trade.
SD: Coming to my final question, I am very curious to know that if you were to write a sequel to your masterpiece The Empire Writes Back,or if you are required to re-visit and re-write your book what are the crucial, thematic or factual changes you wish to make with respect to 21st century?
BA: The Empire Writes Back was a book for its time. The world was hungry for a language that could address the historical consequences of Imperialism. The language of postcolonialism drove the cultural turn in globalisation studies in the 1990s for three reasons. First, the systematisation of postcolonial theory occurred at about the same time as the rise to prominence of globalisation studies in the late 1980s. Second, it was around this time that literary and cultural theorists realised that debates on globalisation had become bogged down in the classical narrative of modernity. Third, it became clear, particularly after Appadurai, that there were many globalisations, and that far from the homogenising downward pressure of economic globalisation and the Washington Consensus, a circulation of local alternatives could be seen to affect the nature of the global. It was through cultural practices that difference and hybridity, diffusion and the imaginary, concepts that undermined the Eurocentric narrative of modernity, were most evident.
When we brought out the second edition we included a chapter on postcolonial futures and that term ‘postcolonial futures’ exercises many people. The final chapter of the second edition was called “Re-thinking the Post-colonial: Post-colonialism in the Twenty First Century” One thing I have dropped is the hyphen to which I clung in hope that it would have demonstrated that the postcolonial was not a master discourse. But people mis-interpreted it as a chronological sign. The things that we saw coming was a greater alliance with cultural studies, a concern for the local and the specifics of the cultural experience of colonialism; the issue of the environment has become significant as have the concepts of globalisation, cosmopolitanism and Diaspora. These things are covered in Key Concepts. But of course one thing that we predicted was the greater emergence of the sacred and the turn to religion as an anti-colonial identifier.
Today the dominant factors are the dominance of the US Empire and the increasing relevance of Muslim countries to postcolonialism. Even though these countries might not have been colonised (such as Iran) the language of postcolonial analysis is as relevant as it has ever been. We return to my statement at the beginning: that the postcolonial is a way of reading a way of interpreting the various ways in which colonized peoples responded to imperial power.
SD: Thank you once again for reflecting upon the debatable axis of post-coloniality and de-coloniality in such a meticulous manner.
BA: Thank you.