The Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and The Persistence of Colonialisms

© 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 Four 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 NUS site on which the original paper for the First Conference on Postcolonial Theory appears. [External Link]  = linked materials not in the original print version.GPL]

With a Bakhtinian sense of the validity of the pétit histoire, sitting in a cafe in Bloomington, Indiana, where, almost ten years to the day previously Michael Holquist had presented me with a copy of his translation of The Dialogic Imagination, that I answered my progressive friend as succinctly as I could: "When we stop putting ropes around the necks of our writers so that their oil pipelines are kept clear." This was shortly after the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was put to death for having led the protests of the Ogoni people against the exploitation of their lands by Western petroleum companies. The means by which colonialism turned "us" against others of us was to make us unsure of who we were, to mess up our pronouns, to fragment our subjectivity in such a way as to divide us from our pre-colonial past and our post-colonial future with demarcations as fictive and as persistent as the maps of Africa and the Middle East. The horror of it, and I refer here to the "horror" of Coppola rather than of Conrad, is that generations after colonists have departed from our shores we are still disputing the imaginary lines they drew on our landscapes, and that we yet remain the grunts who do the dirty work of the oil companies.

The idea that colonialism has ended, which is one aspect of the big postcolonial party we have celebrated in recent seasons -- quite unjustifiably according to Shohat and Robert Stam -- is to ignore the politics and the economics of surrogacy, and to fail to grasp that the condition of our postcoloniality seems so often to differ little from that of the chess computer which is doomed forever to repeat the mistakes programmed into it. How abysmally little things have changed since the time when, for the promise of a tithe of a tithe of petroleum profits and a spot of military "aid" from a number of Western powers, the once and future Nigerian government blasted and starved the rebellious [External Link]  Biafran people into surrender. In the months during which Saro-Wiwa waited to die ordinary people all around the world (though frighteningly few from Asia or Latin America) carried placards and marched in demonstrations to secure his release, but I saw no tidal wave of grief or outrage in academia, only the fashionably muted eddies of discontent among the new elites of postcolonial theory.

The fate of Ken Saro-Wiwa, I argue, demonstrates that our postcoloniality, which is not a thing to celebrate but to mourn can, appears in the fundamental asymmetry placed on the value of human life, an asymmetry recapitulated daily on television news and in the media. Would the Shell Oil Company or British Petroleum have dreamed of contributing to the armed suppression of Scottish protests about North Sea oil? Would Her Majesty the Queen have ordered the execution of her Poet Laureate if he had objected to the toxic destruction of some native habitat? (Or rather, why is it that Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote good poetry and had strong political feelings, was hanged, when John Betjeman, who wrote bad poetry and had no political views to speak of, was let off scott free?).

We may not be as wretched as we once were, but we are still, to use Fanon's piercing phrase from The Wretched of the Earth, "hemmed in" (29) by a History which is, in Michel de Certeau's memorable description of it, "homogenous to the documents of Western activity." (see The Writing of History 210). The answer I needed to give to my friend is also the reason I take pains to contrast the Bakhtin of postcolonialism with the Bakhtin of postcoloniality, for progress is, amongst other things, an ideology and very often an ideology of dependence, and those of us who, progressively, rush to adopt the innovations of "the West" face the same dangers as "Third World" infants fed on Nestlé's milk powders, becoming dependent to the point of addiction on a mode of institutional practice which may not be particularly healthy for us. Which is not to say that any innovation or technological advancement-such as the internet-need be rejected out of hand because it is still in the hands of the privileged. So were paper and the Latin script once upon a time, according to the great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who is less concerned about the importation of American popular culture and methods of communication into Indonesia through television than about the medium's insidious implantation of consumerist desire (Personal communication by Sebastian Tong). On the contrary, the internet, like the codex and typeface, may one day be turned into a counter-hegemonic instrument, providing the virtual space without boundaries where a community whose existence is now no more than a figment of critical idealism can overcome the divisions and the divisiveness that elsewhere keeps us apart.

In our apprehension of the unfamiliar we need not guard against the vessels crossing the sea, only the red tide of prefabricated ideas which for all their beauty may poison. But to set sail with the postcolonialists is also to subscribe to a deep dependence on tenure battles and academic self-promotion, to forget as we have been taught to forget, that the Titanic contained passengers from all walks of life, and that when it collided with the iceberg the passengers given the lifeboats were the privileged ones from the upper decks. Even at the risk of a proliferation of mixed metaphors I must argue that there is no compelling reason why those of us who were once colonized should feel especially flattered by the interest taken in us and our problems; like any marketplace in which innovation, even meaningless innovation, is an end in itself, the fashion houses of academic haute couteur have allowed postcolonialism, just as they have allowed deconstruction or New Historicism, a few gaudy seasons of ascendancy in which to strut its stuff on the critical catwalks, and postcolonialism is a fashion that is decidedly on the way out. If we continue to depend on hand-me-downs, and the laws of supply and demand or the bilge rats mitigate against them arriving whole, then once metropolitan scholarship has rediscovered its leotards the rest of us will be left grasping for fig-leaves. The metropolitan abolition of postcolonialism does not relieve us of our postcoloniality; they may be free, but we would still be hemmed in.

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