De-canonizing English in Outside the Circle-Societies: Postcolonial Perspectives

Gajendra Kumar

About the Author(s): Dr. Gajendra Kumar is Professor in the Department of English, School of Social Sciences and Languages, VIT University, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. E-mail: [email protected]


he need to de-canonize English in ‘out of the circle societies’ in our postcolonial spaces and times can be considered in certain historical contexts affixed to the processes of colonization, and [political]decolonization. This is

important as the legacies of a colonial past are now seminally important constituents of various contemporary intellectual domains including literary, linguistic, and cultural studies. In the context we remember, as has rightly been pointed out by John McLeod, that one important antecedent for postcolonialism was the growth of the study of the Commonwealth Literature. ‘Commonwealth Literatrure’ was the term literary critics had begun to use from 1950s to describe literatures in English emerging from a selected group of countries with a history of colonialism. However, today this kind of critical approach that makes secondary the historical contexts that inform a work of literature is often described as ‘liberal humanist’[McLeod,2000,p.10]. According to this approach, a text can always transcend its regional and local contexts of production, and deal with human emotions on a universal level. Unlike later postcolonial critics, this liberal humanist approach did not consider that the local texts in outside the circle societies might pose challenges to their reading practices, and interrogate the ideas of absolutism, universality and timelessness that gave a sanction to formation of a canon of good writing. Commonwealth Literature, by its critics, therefore, was considered to be an inferior appendage to canonical British English Literature. Around mid 1970s and 1980s many critics

Global Journal of English Language and Literature January 2015. Volume 3. Issue 1. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/globaljournalofell/

ISSN 2320-4397


decided to do away with liberal humanist approach that had been taken up by critics having faith in the idea of Commonwealth Literature. They were now to read literature of the outside the circle, postcolonial societies in newer ways suggested by a new mode of critical activity: postcolonialism. But, as we discuss possible ways to decanonize English studies in our societies in postcolonial context, let us ponder over second significant antecedent to postcolonialism: theories of colonial discourses. Critics of colonialism, including Frantz Fanon, Edward Said,

Gayatri Chakravorty

Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and Ashish Nandy have successfully brought to our notice how colonialism constructs certain modes of seeing/perception, and making sense of the world that help in establishing assumed superiority of the civilized colonizers. These modes involve constructing processes of colonizing the mind. In their subtle ways, these modes work towards making the colonized accept dominance of the colonizer by internalizing its values and logic, and speak its language-a carrier of the culture of the colonizers. Let us remember in this context that language [English, in the context] is not just a mode of communication, but a mode that intervenes in the process of forming people’s sense of right and wrong, of superior and inferior human values. It is worthwhile to remember what Kenyan postcolonial critic and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o tells us in this context: ‘Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves, and our place in the world.[Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in James Curry,1986].Furthermore, let us consider, as Mc Leod also points out that the British Empire did not rule by military and physical force alone; it endured by getting both colonizing and colonized to see their world and themselves in a particular way, internalizing the language of the empire as representing the natural true order of life.[McLeod,2000,p.19].

Global Journal of English Language and Literature January 2015. Volume 3. Issue 1. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/globaljournalofell/

ISSN 2320-4397


Looking at the historical course of the development of the theories of colonial discourse analysis, one prominent voice that comes across as voice of one of the pioneers is of Frantz Fanon, a psychologist born in the French Antilles in 1925,whose experience of racial and colonial discrimination while receiving educational grooming by, and serving as an employee of the French, left deep marks of suffering on his psyche. He resigned from his job, and joined the Algerian revolutionaries who were fighting against the French colonisers in 1954.While examining psychological effects of colonialism, Fanon concentrated upon the cost an individual pays because of having the colour of his skin, as he is considered an object, ‘a dirty nigger’, whose blackness is marked as his otherness. In his own words, ‘What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spatteried my whole body, with black blood?’[Frantz Fanon, 1952, pp.112, 113]. What one notices here is that he is made to consider himself not as a human subject but an inferior, less than human object bound to accept his own definitions and representations offered by the colonizing elite. We are reminded that in language people have power of naming, and of description, and this interface between language and power is central to Fanon’s arguments within his analysis of colonial discourse. Colonialism constructs ways of representation undertaken in a language that is carrier of colonial values, and assumptions about ‘truth’ or ‘ reality’, or ‘meaning’-a right order of things according to the viewpoint and interests of the colonizer. Therefore, we must not anticipate that colonialism automatically stops when a nation achieves political freedom, as the long persisting colonial values just do not go away; they still circulate and have agency in the present. Therefore, the theoretical term ‘postclonialism’ does not simply mean ‘after colonialism’, as at the root of the theory lies the acknowledgement that the material legacies/realities and ways of colonial representations are still very much with us in outside the circle, postcolonial societies. They continue to reflect in the ways we still are engaged to a great extent, in making sense of the world based on old colonial reading

Global Journal of English Language and Literature January 2015. Volume 3. Issue 1. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/globaljournalofell/

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education/governance/cultural production etc. After Fanon, another significant critical contribution to colonial discourse analysis came from Edward W. Said. Though basic assumptions of Said and Fanon are the same, Said paid seminal attention to the ways of the colonizers, than to the colonized in his famous work Orientalism. Said examines how knowledge constructed by the Imperial powers about their colonies helped them immensely in justifying colonization. Rather than learning much about, or from the native citizens of colonies, colonizers constructed knowledge based upon the considerations that the Orient was a mythic place of exoticism, sexual degeneracy, and moral disorder etc. This knowledge functioned to justify the need and propriety of colonial dominance/rule.[Edward Said,1995]. Said showed in his work how the ways of representation common to colonialism have continued after political decolonization of former colonies, and are still part and parcel of contemporary knowledge production/consumption processes at work in outside the circle, postcolonial societies. Unlike Said who concentrated more upon materialist theoretical work, Homi K. Bhabha, yet another important voice within postcolonial theory, uses insights from psychoanalysis while making his critique of the processes of colonization. Like Said he also argued that colonialism is informed by a lot of assumptions which help it in legitimating its views and notions of the ‘other’. But he finds ambivalence in the colonial assumptions. According to Bhabha, though the colonies are considered the ‘other’ of the Westerner-outside of Western culture and civilization, yet paradoxically enough, colonial discourse tries to civilize and domesticate the colonized people, and makes efforts at abolishing their extreme ‘otherness’. The discourse of colonialism, therefore, is always simultaneously pulling towards two opposite directions.[Homi K. Bhabha,1994]. As Bhaha’s argument explains, the British in

Global Journal of English Language and Literature January 2015. Volume 3. Issue 1. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/globaljournalofell/

ISSN 2320-4397


their colony in India needed native people to work for them in their colonial administration, and had to teach them English language and literature in order to develop in them English opinions, morals, and intellect. But, later and now ‘hearing their language returning through the mouths of the colonized Indians, the colonizers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between the colonizer and the colonized’.[McLeod,2000,p.55]. According to postcolonial theoretical perspective their act of Speaking English has not made the colonized people surrender before the colonial dominance. To the contrary, they seem to challenge the representations which attempt at fixing and defining them in colonial terms. In the light of the above discussion, we find out our ways to de-canonize English in our out of the circle, postcolonial societies. As the ‘mimic men’, the native colonized people [according to Bhabha] do not actually succumb to the dominance of the colonized, rather challenge colonizers’ assumptions and values, in the same ways we will have to continue towards undertaking our processes of decolonizing English by deconstructing the colonial ideas of right/wrong, and of class/mass etc. If colonialism used strategy of colonizing the mind, then our postcolonial resistance requires, in the words of Ngugi, ‘decolonizing the mind’. People from both the colonizing and the colonized societies need to deconstruct the languages and texts of colonial power[manifest in canonical works- proposed and forced by the West as ‘class’ knowledge/literature in all realms of intellectual activity including study and teaching of English language and literary/cultural studies]. We need to appropriate in this context Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s observations made when she explored the issue of whether or not it is possible to recover and reclaim the voices of those who had been silenced in their colonialist representations. [Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,1990]. De-canonizing [and decolonizing English], therefore, involves constructing and disseminating knowledge/literature that is rooted and located within, in the ‘local’ and the

Global Journal of English Language and Literature January 2015. Volume 3. Issue 1. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/globaljournalofell/

ISSN 2320-4397


‘regional’ [open to be in healthy affiliation /communion with the ‘global’] that aspires more to be politically alive and radical rather than to be universally acceptable [in the West, to be precise]. We need to focus upon how our writers / thinkers have expressed their own true identities by reconstructing English language/literature in their effort to make it carry their own cultural connotations and experiences. Our clues towards deconstructing/de-canonizing English may come from the views proposed by such postcolonial critics as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, who claimed that writers in postcolonial societies were constructing new ‘englishes’ through employing various strategic modes like using untranslatable local cultural terms/words, doing away to a great extent with standard English Syntax, using local linguistic structures, and inserting different creolized variants of English language in their writings. They submitted that writing in postcolonial societies was undertaken out of the ‘abrogation’[discontinuing] of the received English which is the voice of the colonial centre. There is an unbridgeable gap between the language at the colonial centre and new englishes of postcolonial spaces, and this gap is not negative, but positive in its effect as it presents the difference through which an identity[created or recovered] can be expressed.[Ascroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin,1989,pp.39-62]. In the context we need to continue towards reclaiming/recovering and establishing new, local world views inherent and enshrined within local wisdom- traditions manifest in myths, oral/ literary conventions, and organized and alternative/complementary spiritualities/ethnic traditions. Reading and writing of these new literatures should involve using non Western/local critical and creative idioms/paradigms, and the critical approach should be to 'write back to the center' both in contradictory and complementary ways. This task involves undertaking more of inter / multi / trans disciplinary studies reflecting [easy and uneasy] affiliations between the local, regional, and the global.

Global Journal of English Language and Literature January 2015. Volume 3. Issue 1. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/globaljournalofell/

ISSN 2320-4397


References Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Giffin and Helen Tiffin, Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures, Routledge, 1989. Edward Said, Orientalism, Penguin, 1978, second edition1995. Frantz Fanon,Black Skin White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, Pluto, 1952, Reprint1967. Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, Penguin, 1961, Reprint1967. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogueas, ed. Sara Harasyam, Routledge, 1990. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, in Williams and Chrisman[eds.], Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, Harvesterwheatshef, 1993, pp. 66-111. Homi K.Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994. HomiK.Bhabha,[ed.], Nation and Narration,Routledge,1990. John McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism, Manchester University Press, 2000. Ngugi wa Tiong’o, in ‘Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, James Curry, 1986.

Global Journal of English Language and Literature January 2015. Volume 3. Issue 1. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/globaljournalofell/

ISSN 2320-4397

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