The Review

Where higher ed argues with itself. Len Gutkin's weekly tour of the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays.

February 16, 2021

From: Len Gutkin

Subject: The Review: Does Postcolonial Theory Cover Western Bias?

At nonsite, the art historian Blake Stimson throws some cold water on the currently fashionable injunctions to “decolonize your syllabus.” The problem, Stimson says, is that “decolonization” just doesn’t meaningfully apply to university curricula in former imperial centers. The idea that it does reflects a sort of “colonial narcissism.”

For Stimson, "decolonizing your syllabus” in fact involves not decolonization but “neocolonialism,” a term he takes from Sartre via Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana and the author of Neo-Colonialism (1965). For Nkrumah, neocolonialism named the strategies by which the U.S. would succeed Europe as Africa’s colonial master. As Stimson paraphrases it, “The Americans’ goal was simple, Nkrumah argued: to finally knock Europe out of the colonial business by backing anticolonialism so that it might move in on the former colonies with its own very different form of neocolonial exploitation.”

I thought of Stimson’s essay while reading Sumana Roy’s “The Problem With the Postcolonial Syllabus,” originally published in The Point. Roy, who teaches at Ashoka University, about two hours from New Delhi, calls herself “a postcolonial citizen reading the white world reading.” In classes on literature across the Indian university system, Roy says, “an American understanding of Indian writing has been imported without any skepticism or unease — this despite professors teaching courses on power and imperialism.” On this account, the "decolonized" syllabus turns out to be, ironically, precisely the neocolonial one.

The theorist Mahmood Mamdani refers cuttingly to the neocolonial impulse to “manage and reproduce difference.” Roy sees something analogous happening on postcolonial syllabi, where marginalized or underrepresented groups become fetish objects “in the manner of a Live Aid concert.” And speaking of the not often represented, it’s frankly all too rare for The Review to focus on intellectual life outside of the United States. I’m thrilled that Roy's essay challenges us to do so, and I hope, in the future, that we’ll more often take a global view.

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Len Gutkin

Len Gutkin is a senior editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press.