Slashing Postcolonial Studies, or: Why this Debate still Bothers Me
A Response to Clemens Ruthner’s “K.u.K. ‘Kolonialismus’ als Befund, Befindlichkeit und Metapher”

Markus Reisenleitner

The discussion about the usefulness of postcolonial theory for questions of culture and power in Central Europe has now been going on for quite a while, particularly in the primarily German-language internet platform, and has produced many important and interesting contributions in the context of Central Europe. And it still bothers me. I am still not convinced. I still think that it simplifies many issues while blowing others all out of proportion. The following is meant to provide a probe into the nature of the discussion from an outside point of view.

I am teaching cultural studies in Hong Kong, and part of my almost daily pedagogical tasks is to explain to my mostly Hong Kong Chinese students that the concept of Orientalism, a key concept of postcolonial theory, is not easily and seamlessly applicable to the Hong Kong context, that Europeans and North Americans do not think that Hong Kong and Japan are backward places, nor do they consider Cantonese an inferior language. The notion of Orientalism has made a deep impact here on how people think the rest of the world sees them and thereby essentializes geographical space, and on how globalization is seen as promoting these spatial essentialisms. If this is true for Hong Kong, it seems to me that even greater caution must be exercised in attempts to use postcolonial terminology in Central European contexts.

The point is that these situations are highly specific. Hong Kong’s situation arises out of a history of double colonization and the unique position of a quasi-independent, technologically and infrastructurally highly developed city-state that has to face its colonial past as well as a rapidly changing China at the same time as maintaining its “global city” status against increasingly fierce competition. The concept of Orientalism, complex and productive as it was when introduced by Said, in this context runs the danger of becoming an analytical shortcut which obscures more than it reveals, that is to say, of being appropriated as a pop metaphor for cultural and racial hierarchies, which seems to fuel both unwarranted cultural insecurities and the kind of politically correct smugness that I find not only highly objectionable but also strategically counterproductive.

Nobody would seriously deny that the work of postcolonial theorists like Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha and Edward Said is intellectually challenging, politically engaged and impressively informed by a background of a diverse cultural knowledge and competence. Frankly, I often find it very difficult to read and comprehend, let alone to productively transform. In the current (admittedly restricted) debate of its “applicability” to the Central European context, however, I constantly come across a – for me very disturbing – undercurrent of complacent condescension to theory, a tendency to mix haughty gestures of having already known it anyway with throwaway remarks that are meant to convey that one is on top of these highly sophisticated and complex debates and can easily not merely discuss but also judge, appropriate or dismiss them. I think this is what bothers me most. Maybe I expect a certain degree of self-reflexivity and willingness to learn from academics, but often find arrogance and aloofness instead. Which brings me to Clemens Ruthner’s latest ruminations in

Ruthner sets out to regale us with yet another “preliminary” clarification, and this time the term that captivates his attention is “colonialism,” a “paradigm” he reads as “Befund, Befindlichkeit und Metapher” (findings, mindset and metaphor). Nothing wrong with that, to be sure. However, my feeling of unease predictably grows when Ruthner starts connecting sociological and cultural discourses on colonialism with postcolonial studies, and it remains unclear to me why or what for. Even more problematic, however, is how he does it. I will single out two passages (in which he explicitly refers to postcolonial theory) in order to explain my unease here and to probe more deeply into Ruthner’s rhetorical strategies of self-aggrandizement and dismissal.

First, let us consider a seemingly innocuous reference to Said’s Culture and Imperialism: “Ein komparatistisches Herangehen an den Untersuchungsgegenstand in Form von (kontrastiven) Lektüren kultureller Texte ‘gegen den Strich’ – Edward Said’s ‘contrapuntual reading’ – versteht sich von selbst” (“The necessity of using a comparative approach to objects of investigation in the form of (contrastive) readings of cultural texts ‘against the grain’ – Edward Said’s ‘contrapuntal reading’ – goes without saying”), writes Ruthner in response to an earlier accusation made by Stefan Simonek that the Southern Slav literatures are being silenced in such an approach.

“It goes without saying” – or does it? And if so, what does exactly? Ruthner glibly glosses over the depth of Said’s argument here by conflating two very different things – comparative and contrapuntual reading. Simonek demands that the voices of the marginalized Slavic literatures be heard, and Ruthner seems to imply that Said’s method would do this justice, but a closer look reveals that this is not Said’s argument here at all. Said writes:

We must therefore read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, and give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present... in such works. [...] The point is that contrapuntual reading must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded. (Said 66, italics added)

That contrapuntual reading has nothing whatsoever to do with a comparative analysis in Simonek’s sense also “versteht sich von selbst” (goes without saying) from this passage; au contraire: Said very deliberately reads the (colonial) canon. On the other hand, it has everything to do with what I have been so sorely missing in the whole debate: deconstruction. The formative role of deconstruction for postcolonial theory is spelled out explicitly by Gayatri Spivak:

To render thought or the thinking subject transparent or invisible seems, by contrast, to hide the relentless recognition of the Other by assimilation. It is in the interest of such cautions that Derrida does not invoke ‘letting the other(s) speak for himself’ but rather invokes an ‘appeal’ to ‘call’ to the ‘quite-other’ (tout-autre as opposed to a self-consolidating other), of ‘rendering delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us.’ (Spivak 89)

For postcolonial theory, deconstruction is “right there at the beginning” (Spivak, Landry and MacLean 28) – in a very deliberate move not to trivialize readings to detect the operations of power and hegemony. You can’t leave your traditional disciplines without it if you want to engage with postcolonial theory, which is decidedly not yet another way of demonstrating that there were prejudices against other cultures or that cultural hierarchies accompanied political domination. What postcolonial theory is about is how to retrieve the suppressed, marginalized or silenced voices of the oppressed in precisely the culture that oppresses them. To claim that such a reading “goes without saying,” and then to introduce it as comparative, means either to bypass a whole body of debate about precisely those reading methods, or betrays a noteworthy lack of knowledge about these debates. While postcolonial theory cautiously appeals to the tout-autre, Ruthner’s appropriations are determined to boldly invoke the self-consolidating other in Spivak’s sense, which begs the question of whether such a method is indeed necessary in the case of a tradition where the other speaks back, frequently and with a vengeance, as Simonek has pointed out forcefully.

Let me turn to my second example, another of those indicative throwaway remarks. While I was very heartened to learn that Clemens Ruthner found some usefulness in my earlier contribution to the debate, I was rather troubled that he could so “easily” dismiss my remark about the importance of considering American academic hegemony (cf. Reisenleitner):

Dieser Transfer-Problematik ist leicht intern zu entgegnen, dass gerade das displacement [sic] jener theoretischen Ansätze – die selbstverständlich in sich selbst als divergent anzusehen sind – die beste Gewähr bietet, diese ganz im Sinne postkolonialer Theoriebildung aus ihrer Befangenheit bzw. ihrer konkreten und nicht immer klaren politischen und institutionsgeschichtlichen Verortung lösen...
(This problematic of transfer is easy to rebut internally because the very displacement of these theoretical approaches – which are obviously divergent in themselves – is the best guarantee, in the sense of postcolonial theory formation, of divorcing them from their (often fuzzy) political and institutional situatedness.)

writes Ruthner, footnoting the passage with Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture (without a page reference) and explaining that one (and I guess he means me) would be well advised to eschew such “angestaubt” (old-fashioned) considerations, “will man nicht stante pede die eigene Forschungsarbeit beenden müssen” (if one doesn’t want to be forced to terminate one’s own research at once).

At first I was alarmed at the prospect of having to give up academic work immediately. Then I realized that I did not really understand Ruthner’s argument, in spite of its “easy” nature. Here is why.

To my knowledge, Bhabha uses the term displacement in The Location of Culture only once, in a very specific context, so I am guessing this must be Ruthner’s reference. The context is Bhabha’s reading of Jameson’s concluding essay in Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (297-418) against (or with) Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This reading is intended to explore the “will to knowledge of postcolonial discourse.” Bhabha describes the basic operation of colonial discourse very succinctly:

[Conrad’s] Marlowe does not merely repress the ‘truth’ – however multivocal and multivalent it may be – as much as he enacts a poetics of translation that (be)sets the boundary between the colony and the metropolis. [...] Between the silent truth of Africa and the salient lie to the metropolitan woman, Marlow returns to his initiating insight: the experience of colonialism is the problem of living in the ‘midst of the incomprehensible.’ (Bhabha 212-13)

From this, Bhabha draws a connection to the problematic I was trying to address in my remarks about the hegemony of the American academy: “And the long shadow cast by Heart of Darkness on the world of postcolonial studies is itself a double symptom of pedagogical anxiety: a necessary caution against generalizing the contingencies and contours of local circumstance, at the very moment at which a transnational, ‘migrant’ knowledge of the world is most urgently needed” (Bhabha 214).

This form of migrant knowledge Bhabha refers to does (obviously, I am inclined to say) not mean that you are supposed to get academics from Hungary and Austria to work together and use diluted Anglo-French theory to talk about Central Europe – if my suspicions are correct and this is what Ruthner wants to tell us here. Pace Bhabha’s reading of Jameson, it is a method of “transforming the ‘schizophrenic disjunction’ of cultural style, into a politically effective discursive space” (Bhabha 215) via a psychoanalytic temporality, which invests utterances of the present with political and cultural value because it displaces time (extracts it from both the present – experience – and the past – tradition). In other words, it is the mise-en-abyme of representation which opens up a politically liberating space for Bhabha in transcultural narratives, “a multidimensional set of radical discontinuous realities” (Jameson quoted in Bhabha 216). This is the context of Bhabha’s use of displacement: it is a potentially liberating psychic space that is opened up by the limits of representation modern subjectivity encounters when confronted with the temporal fragmentation of its global other. Here is the full passage:

What must be mapped as a new international space of discontinuous historical realities is, in fact, the problem of signifying the interstitial passages and processes of cultural difference that are inscribed in the ‘in-between,’ in the temporal break-up that weaves the global text. It is, ironically, the disintegrative moment, even movement, of enunciation – that sudden disjunction from the present – that makes possible the rendering of culture’s global reach. And, paradoxically, it is only through a structure of splitting and displacement – ‘the fragmented and schizophrenic decentering of the self’ – that the new historical subject emerges at the limits of representation itself. (Bhabha 217)

Maybe I am missing something in Ruthner’s oblique reference to Bhabha, but one thing is certain: there is nothing easy about Bhabha’s highly sophisticated use of the term “displacement.” It is potentially a very powerful theoretical concept of a politically emancipatory reading practice, and not a call for juxtaposing mix-and-match approaches to academic work.

Neither is it an uncontested proposition, as furious attacks on “high” theory by postcolonial critics attest to. “For all its potentially useful insights, post-structuralist philosophy remains the handmaiden of repression, and if I may mix metaphors, serves as District Commissioner of the 1980s, his book title now changed from The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger to Enjoying the Other: or Difference Domesticated,” writes Helen Tiffin (429-30), in a vein somewhat similar to Simonek’s attack on Ruthner, and Ahmad Aijaz spells out the direct impact on academic positions: “The East, reborn and greatly expanded now as a ‘Third World,’ seems to have become, yet again, a career – even for the ‘Oriental’ this time, and within the ‘Occident’ too” (Aijaz 94). And maybe also for German studies scholars in the center of Europe.

Such interventions cannot – and must not, I contend – be brushed off with blasé been-there-done-that gestures; those are real tactical as well as theoretical issues. In a time when academic careers are precarious, RAEs count numbers and rankings of publications in refereed (and, for the most part, English or American) journals, and an underclass of casualized labor works under highly problematic conditions to support the increasingly corporatized global academy, it seems a little facetious (or uninformed) to “easily dismiss” the locatedness of knowledge production.

So let me ask again: how exactly can the centralization of knowledge production be avoided when a German- (or Hungarian-, or Ukrainian-) speaking academic discourse adopts postcolonial issues and concepts? The problematic of voice is crucial for approaches to marginalized, oppressed and silenced groups, and postcolonial theory provides a sophisticated engagement with this question. Clemens Ruthner does not.

The Debate

Reisenleitner, Markus. Central European Culture in Search of a Theory, or: the Lure of “Post/colonial Studies”. 2.2. (

Ruthner, Clemens. “K.u.K. ‘Kolonialismus’ als Befund, Befindlichkeit und Metapher” (

Simonek, Stefan. “Mit Clemens Ruthner unterwegs im Wilden Osten, eine Replik. newsletter MODERNE. Zeitschrift des Spezialforschungsbereichs Moderne – Wien und Zentraleuropaum 1900, 4. Jg. H. 2, September 2001, 30-1. Republished

Works Cited

Aijaz, Ahmad. In Theory : Classes, Nations, Literatures. Paperback ed. London ; New York: Verso, 1994.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London; New York: Verso, 1991.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory : A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, Donna Landry, and Gerald M. MacLean. The Spivak Reader : Selected Works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Tiffin, Helen. "Transformative Imaginaries." From Commonwealth to Post-Colonial : Critical Essays. Ed. Anna Rutherford. Sydney, N.S.W.: Kangaroo Press, 1992.