Bakhtin and Postcolonial Theory

© 1997 Anthony R. Guneratne, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

To Robert Stam, Ella Shohat, Hamid Naficy and Trinh Minh-ha, . . . and to Ken Saro-Wiwa who can no longer walk with us.

[The following essay, which is Part Two of "Anthony R. Guneratne's Virtual Spaces of Postcoloniality: Rushdie, Ondaatje, Naipaul, Bakhtin and the Others," has been adapted, with kind permission of the author, from the no-longer extant NUS site on which the original paper for the First Conference on Postcolonial Theory appeared. [External Link]  = linked materials not in the original print version.GPL]

Whereas Rushdie resorts in this instance to a commonality based on powerlessness and penury (effects, surely, rather than causes), Bakhtin believed that novelistic discourse thrived in the periphery of Hellenic culture and continued to thrive in the marginal reaches of societies because it is at those margins that different cultures interact and breed new forms. According to Bakhtin the reason that a writer such as Mario Vargas Llosa would be as receptive to Tagore as Rushdie claims, is that Vargas Llosa's "literary consciousness," like Tagore's and like Rushdie's, "was bilingual," and that the literature of magic realism was born in the "interanimation" of different tongues, which whether native or not, were all experienced as indigenous (Dialogic Imagination 61-63)

Of course, as with most of the fashionable theorists of recent times, Bakhtin has already been appropriated by postcolonial criticism, and the nomenclature Bakhtin found necessary to invent-diologism, heteroglossia, and even a term we have come to associate with [External Link] Homi Bhabha, hybridity-has filtered into a general critical consciouness from "Discourse in the Novel," his most (and, one sometimes gets the impression, only) studied essay. Perhaps the most interesting recent acknowledgement of Bakhtin's influence can be found in Robert Young's Colonial Desire (22-23). But Bakhtin's migration into the center of postcolonial discourse was ensured by Timothy Brennan's contribution to Bhabha's Nation and Narration (50-55, 60) and by Bhabha's own writings both in this work and in the similarly influential The Location of Culture (142-144 and 188-192).

Yet the manner in which Bakhtin's terminology has been applied demands precisely the kind of particularization Shohat appears to insist on when she distinguishes between post-colonial, post-coloniality and post-colonialism. Shohat, in fact, points very succinctly to the disciplinary problems that the ambiguity and even willfully ungrammatical use of such terms must entail (100-101), although my own use of the terms here differs considerably from hers. Bakhtin, the authority cited to lend prestige and weight to a theoretical claim, belongs to the sphere of postcolonialism, a critical practice whose foundations were laid by scholar-immigrants to the West ([External Link] Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha), but which has since become the province of metropolitan scholars and intended primarily for metropolitan consumption. The Bakhtin who continues to be part of a struggle against authoritarian discourse, the Bakhtin who defended the novel in its darkest hour in Stalin's Soviet union, and who like Franz Fanon was scarred by exile and maimed by his history, is-like Fanon-a prophet of postcoloniality, which is that mongrel, polyglot and fantastically polyvalent inheritance felt so acutely by Rushdie, the no-placeness which circumstance has decreed a home to so many of us. And so it is no coincidence that what Bakhtin valued in the novel is what has animated the artistic efflorescence of this century and of many other times, its resistance to the tides of History in giving voice to the fringe-dwellers of societies and civilizations, to the individuals who resist hegemony.

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