Grant Hamilton interviews cultural and literary critic Bill Ashcroft about his new book on utopia and postcolonial writing. They discuss the concept of utopia and why it finds its way so forcefully into the literature of previously colonized nations.
Bill Ashcroft, Utopianism in Postcolonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 2016) 238pp.
Bill Ashcroft is an Australian Professorial Fellow in the University of New South Wales, Australia. He is author and co-author of sixteen books, including the seminal text The Empire Writes Back (1989), and is one of the leading figures in Postcolonial Studies. Here we were able to ask him some brief questions about his latest book as part of the HKRB Interviews series with writers of new books in critical theory.
Grant Hamilton: For those of us who have been reading your work for a number of years now, it is clear that you have had a very considerable interest in the notion of transformation. How does this feed into your newest work, Utopianism in Postcolonial Literatures?
Bill Ashcroft: My interest in transformation stems from a long-standing uneasiness with the habit of postcolonial theory to see the relationship between the colonizer and colonized as purely hierarchical, the only response of postcolonial societies being one of opposition. This tended to frame postcolonial subjects as cyphers identifiable only by their subjection to imperial domination, without agency and without any recourse to a self-articulated future. In fact, the response of postcolonial societies has been much more subtle and the critical demonstration of this is the appropriation and abrogation of the English language. Postcolonial writers appropriated the language of the colonizer while abrogating its dominance and centrality. This led to a transformation of English, which has underpinned the radical innovation of postcolonial literatures. The transformation of language and literature into a locally relevant discourse is just one example of the transformative cultural power of postcolonial societies. In all kinds of cultural spheres these societies found that the most effective form of resistance to the tide of imperial control lay not in trying to dam it up but to redirect it into discourses over which those societies could maintain control, particularly the control over self-representation. Utopianism is crucial here because transformation can only be driven by the possibility, indeed the certainty, of change. Utopia is an unachievable place but it lies there shimmering in the imagination as a way of driving the utopian belief that things can be better and that freedom is possible. The idea of perfection has given the term ‘utopia’ the character of a dream or an illusion, but the utopian spirit persists in postcolonial societies as the very definition of the possibility of a better world. As Ernst Bloch puts it: utopia may be a fantasy but without hope we cannot live. So postcolonial utopianism arises from the fact that successful resistance is transformative, and transformation rests on the belief in an achievable future.
Bill Ashcroft, for the HKRB by Roy Christopher
GH: In the introduction to your book, you reference Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim’s extraordinarily insightful observation that “utopias are ideas” that are “incongruous with the state of reality within which [they] occur.” To me this simply means that utopias are always untimely – that they are expressions of ideas that are not of their time. If this is so, doesn’t the explosion of utopian writing and thinking in the twentieth century tell us all we need to know about the condition of the contemporary world?
BA: Mannheim made this point about both ideologies and utopias. His most important insight was that ideologies work to sustain the present state of things, while utopias serve to bring about change. It is no accident that from Bloch to Jameson it has been Marxists who have driven the fascination with utopianism in the 20th century because we have entered the period of neo-liberal capitalism in which no option to the dominance of markets nor to the radical inequality in the world is deemed possible. The ideology of capitalism works to sustain the status quo and it is a crucial and strategic utopianism that serves to bring about change. I think that postcolonial utopianism is critical here, not only because of the imperialistic nature of global capital, but also because it demonstrates the power of transformation. As Jameson says, it’s easier to think of the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism.
GH: One of the most fascinating aspects of utopia that you discuss here is its wonderfully intricate temporality. If nothing else, as you say, the delicate relationship between the past, present, and future in utopian thinking foregrounds the significance of the postcolonial urge to contest (Eurocentric) history. But, given that our late capitalist world makes meta-narratives like history untenable, to what extent is the explosion of utopianism that you trace through postcolonial literatures something of an inevitability rather than a considered critical response to material reality?
BA: Despite the end of history thesis I don’t think that History has lost its power, principally because there is a deep collusion between the modernizing narratives of citizenship, the ‘public sphere’ and the nation-state. Despite the apparent subservience of the nation-state to global capitalism and the success with which capital evades state taxes, global capital relies on the support of the nation-state and the state rests upon the history without which it struggles for identity. Furthermore, as Ashish Nandy says “Historical consciousness now owns the globe […] Though millions of people continue to stay outside history, millions have, since the days of Marx, dutifully migrated to the empire of history to become its loyal subjects.” This is where the circularity of postcolonial time becomes so important. The universality of Eurocentric history (and remember what Chakrabarty says, that all history is ultimately the history of Europe) cannot be prevented, but it can be circumvented. Circular time, developed from oral forms of story telling lies at the base of this. Among other things the postcolonial habit of seeing the future in the past identifies revolution as a revolving through time rather than a revolt against history. The concept of a spiral into the future that we find in so much postcolonial narrative perfectly captures the utopian hope without which resistance could not take place. Importantly, it demonstrates the way the future emerges from the past in postcolonial literatures. The future, or the “In-Front-Of-Us,” as Ernst Bloch puts it, is always a possibility emerging from the past, not as nostalgia but as renewal. It is amazing to discover how widespread this is in postcolonial societies, the circularity of time present in the various languages themselves as well as cultural narratives, which draw their hope for the future from the power of the past.
GH: I was struck when reading the opening of chapter one by the observation you make about America as something of an absent presence in English literature until the eighteenth century. Why do you think America was so roundly ignored by English writers following its discovery?
BA: One can only speculate about this, but it is obviously tied up with the progress of English expansion, which didn’t really come until the early seventeenth century. Even then it didn’t appear in the literature until the eighteenth. The cause must first lie in England’s overriding obsession with Europe and its various alliances and enmities. But another reason for the absence of America is that Utopia began a fascination with islands, which were particularly interesting to a maritime power because islands raised the issue of the ‘law of the seas’ and the question of the oceans as a ‘free domain’. If it is not claiming too much for More’s Utopia, the book asserted the dominance of islands in the English imagination at the emergence of what Lefebvre calls ‘historical space’. Thus the absence of America is countered by the reality of Britain as an island and its future invested in the oceans. All the utopias that followed More’s were set either on islands or in a particular circumscribed space. It is arguable that even though Robinson Crusoe is set on an island it really cemented the concept of colonization as ‘improvement’, even though long before the actual settlement of colonies.
GH: Later in your book, you say that the Caribbean archipelago has been “the most fertile and resourceful generator of postcolonial future thinking.” What is it about the islands and its people that accounts for this seemingly insatiable appetite for the future promised by utopianism?
BA: The initial reason for this lies in the strategies of control by which the colonizing powers instituted slavery in the islands. Work gangs were composed of people from various African language groups to prevent the possibility of insurrection. However, what occurred was the development of hybrid creoles of various kinds in what has been called the ‘creole continuum’. This provided the basis for a transformation of the dominant language, as poets and novelists began to produce their work, which is unmatched in any other colonial region. But there is another more subtle reason that is tied up with the nature of archipelagic space. Obviously islands are open in ways that a mainland cannot be, but the Caribbean – which has a regional imaginaire (often referred to as the West Indies) – generates remarkable forms of fluidity and openness in everything from language and literature to history and myth, including effects such as carnival, politics, religion, folklore and food. We can see this in the literature, particularly in the work of the major poets such as Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, where the concept of flow and archipelagic interaction affect both their poetry and their talk about poetry. The theoretical dimension of this can be seen in Brathwaite’s concept of ‘tidalectics’, which talks in terms of ebb and flow rather than the European notion of dialectics
GH: By way of bringing this conversation to a close, I’d be delighted to know which writers you think best capture the force of utopianism in their writing – and which new writers those of us interested in postcolonial writing and utopian literatures should keep an eye out for in the future.
BA: Once you recognize the importance of hope, of the significance of a belief in the possibility of change, utopianism can be found everywhere, in all colonized, subaltern literatures. Perhaps the most overtly and consistently utopian writer is the Angolan poet Agostinho Neto, particularly his volume Sacred Hope. But the best place to keep and eye out for the spirit of utopianism is in those literatures that seem to be the cry of the most oppressed. In this I would include most African writing, Palestinian literature, Chicano writing and perhaps most interestingly, Aboriginal literature. That literature most often classed as the literature of resistance and rebellion, of passionate cultural critique, is always buoyed up by the power of hope for the future. It is extraordinary that this utopian hope is so often drowned out in commentary by the drama of insurgency. But without hope, transformative resistance could not occur.
Grant Hamilton is Associate Professor of English literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He teaches and writes in the areas of contemporary world literatures and literary theory. His latest books include The World of Failing Machines (Zero Books, 2016) and A Companion to Mia Couto (James Currey, 2016), co-edited with David Huddart.
Roy Christopher is the featured illustrator on this post. Roy marshals the middle between Mathers and McLuhan. He was assistant editor of Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky’s Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Culture and Music (MIT Press, 2008), and his first book is Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes (Well-Red Bear, 2007). He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Communication Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests lie mainly in figurative language use and media theory. He is currently working on books about both. As a child, he solved the Rubik’s Cube competitively. He writes regularly at http://roychristopher.com
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