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John Cullen Gruesser. Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies and the Black Atlantic. Atlanta: U of Georgia P, 2005. xi, 177 pp. $37.95 cloth.
Edward Marx. The Idea of a Colony: Cross-Culturalism in Modern Poetry. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. viii, 213 pp. $50.00 cloth.
Charles W. Pollard. New World Modernism: T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2004. x, 231 pp. $55.00 cloth; $19.50 paper.
Considered collectively, the volumes reviewed here represent a spectrum of literary criticism we might call modernist postcolonial studies. In The Idea of a Colony, a cross-cultural study of Anglo-American, African American, and Indian modern poetries, Edward Marx deploys a critical approach to colonial alterity that actually reproduces, rather than sufficiently problematizes, the primitivist and exoticist othering of Eastern and Southern cultures by high modernism. In Confluences, John Cullen Gruesser globalizes African American studies by bringing that field into dialogue with postcolonial theory and literatures, as well as theorizations of the Black Atlantic. Charles W. Pollard's New World Modernisms successfully produces a postcolonial reading, and essentially a new understanding, of Anglo-American high modernism through his consideration of how the work by Afro-Caribbean poets Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott demonstrates their critical and poetical responses to Eliotic tropes.
Even though only Marx and Pollard are concerned with the literary period we call "modernism," the neologistic rubric of "modernist postcolonial studies" suggested above can aid us in understanding how all three authors situate themselves at the interstices of several critical fields. They bring strands of English Studies into conversation in order to arrive at an implied new theoretic whole; yet, for the most part, those conversations also allow for the continuing integrity of each field's project. In their discussions, new dialogues arise among modernist and contemporary period literary studies, African-American studies, postcolonial studies, all the "New" -isms (New Modernism, New Americanism, and New World Studies/Literatures of the Americas), comparative literature, and critical theory. More compelling than how it signals the authors' recombinative critical methodologies, though, the rubric of "modernist postcolonial studies" directs us toward a framework for assessing how these works either fall in line with or fall short of engaging some of the most pressing ethico-political concerns in postcolonial theory today. In order to situate our relations to these texts, then, I wish to provide a brief narrative about humanism, difference, and postcolonialism. None of these studies offers such a narrative, but it will prove crucial for locating our selves as general readers, as potential consumers of these volumes, and as scholars invested in making our critical engagements with literature conversant with those publics supposedly "outside" academia.
The Idea of a Colony, Confluences, and New World Modernisms all implicitly continue a line of inquiry articulated over a decade ago by the poet-critic Nathaniel Mackey, in his seminal essay collection Discrepant Engagements (1993). (It is worth nothing that, despite their affinities to his work, none of these authors mentions this earlier book.) There, Mackey introduces a distinctive form of a cross-cultural literary study, bearing much potential for postcolonial theory, premised on his "interest of opening presumably closed orders of identity and signification, accent fissure, fracture, incongruity, the rickety, imperfect fit between word and world" (19). Juxtaposing his readings of the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris (from whom Mackey took his book's title) with readings of African American poets Amiri Baraka and Clarence Major, as well as the Caucasian Black Mountain poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, he explores literary filiations crossing racial, generic, and national boundaries, all without obviating those differences. Indeed, as he describes his critical methodology, "[s]uch practices highlight--indeed, inhabit--discrepancy, engage rather than ignore it" (19). His primary interest in discrepant engagement is to foreground the creative and critical agency of othering, "that other is something people do, more importantly a verb than an adjective or noun" (265). Othering is not merely the domination and marginalization of minoritized peoples. It is also an aesthetic and critical practice that "has to do with innovation, invention, and change, upon which cultural health and diversity depend and thrive" (265). Regardless of whether an author is or is not self-identified or socially recognizable as a minority, othering is the authorial praxis of minoritizing and deterritorializing language and prevailing senses of community, of approaching new articulations of commonality grounded in difference and dissonance, rather than self-same identity and consensual harmony.
Several postcolonial theorists have exhibited similar interests in forms of cultural poiesis and of commonality-in-difference like those theorized by Mackey. Rather than insisting upon incommensurable difference, postcolonial Caribbean theorists and writers such as Edouard Glissant and Antonio Benitez-Rojo have thought of relationality as a means of othering, continuing the production of discrepancies and moving us toward new imaginings of commonalities. Even more recently, some of the most prominent voices in postcolonial theory--Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Paul Gilroy, and Edward Said--have insisted that we complement our rhetorics of difference with a humanistic faith in our ability to produce a future commonality, which can preserve yet speak across singular and cultural differences. Such a notion is not an avocation of an ontological a priori or an implicitly human condition of existence that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy alternately calls being singular plural, being-with, being-in-common, and being-together. Instead, it is a process of producing coalitions and contingent filiations, of discovering similarities. Such a process begins in knowing one's self as a singular being and experiencing one's culture as a local site of difference, yet also knowing the modern world as a site where globalization and globalism--and their attendant distributive inequities of power and resources and recognition--have necessitated a hope for, and a reimagining of, what it means to share a life in the world. Postcolonial theory's new humanism is a cosmopolitan worldview predicated upon the work that literature and other cultural products can do to promote the discovery of those similarities, a possibility that …