Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool) recently reviewed Rethinking Postcolonialism in the journal French Studies (published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies).

“Much recent scholarship has challenged the assumption that postcolonialism is predominantly presentist, with an interest only in modern and contemporary literature and cultural artefacts. While some of the most innovative recent postcolonial criticism has been concerned with earlier periods, Amar Acheraïou’s aim is to rethink postcolonial studies in the light of the legacies of classical literature. Though offering cautious historical contextualization, the study’s initial premise is that ‘[c]olonialism is an immemorial phenomenon’ (p. 3) and that scrutiny of the connections between ancient and new imperialisms will permit greater understanding of the ways in which classical thought has had a tangible impact on modern colonial cultures. Rethinking Postcolonialism is divided into two principal sections. The first offers a reflection on the lingering presence of Greek and Latin thought in the colonialist discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second develops this analysis to assess the workings of fictional texts associated with colonial modernism. Acheraïou’s principal point of reference is the work of Edward Said, but he has an additional interest in colonialism as a ‘long story of borrowing and appropriation’ (p. 5). It is in exploring this notion that his book is most original. Classical culture, and in particular Greek and Roman representations of foreign peoples, is presented as a substratum by which the thought of modern colonizers has been shaped. Acheraïou describes a process of ‘colonialism-as-grafting’ according to which key terms associated with nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperial expansionism — such as barbarism, hegemony, and infantilism — are fashioned in a context of assumptions based on classical learning. By foregrounding the place of binary discourse in colonial taxonomies, the book contributes to a materialist critique of the ‘middle ground theory’ of critics such as Homi Bhabha. Acheraïou draws on a rich corpus of modernist French and English literature, focusing most notably on Albert Camus and André Gide, but also considering the impact of the legacy of imperial Rome on French colonial authors such as Louis Bertrand and Robert Randau. The second section of Rethinking Postcolonialism is devoted to case studies drawn from four authors (Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, in addition to Camus and Gide), all of which suggest the ‘symbiotic, ambiguous relationships’ (p. 115) between modernism and empire, underlining the ways in which texts that challenge imperial expansion often also remain in tacit collusion with the ideologies on which such a process depends. Acheraïou’s conclusion is that there is a need to tease out the classical assumptions and associations embedded in the ‘cultural and ideological totalities that condition their outlook’ (p. 213). Engagement with classical thought and its legacies permits an understanding of colonialism as ‘an overreaching system of domination in which narratives of enlightenment and barbarism join forces to sub-humanise the natives and drain the colonies of their resources’ (p. 219). His conclusion is pertinent for all those engaged in colonial and postcolonial studies: ‘Continuing to romanticise the colonial encounters, as many scholars tend to do, may not be the best way to envision a truly post-imperial culture and build a genuine “planetary” consciousness’ (p. 219).”

Author: Charles Forsdick, French Studies (2011) 65 (4): 559-560.