Book Review: Postcolonial Intellectuals in Europe edited by Ponzanesi & Habed

Postcolonial Intellectuals in Europe: Critics, Artists, Movements, and their Publics is edited by Sandra Ponzanesi and Adriano José Habed, and published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2018.

Sandra Ponzanesi is Professor of Media, Gender and Postcolonial Studies, Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She has published widely in the field of postcolonial feminist theory, cinema studies, digital media and migration. She is currently project leader of the ERC project “Digital Crossings in Europe: Gender, Diaspora and Belonging” CONNECTINGEUROPE. She tweets @SPonzanesi and @ErcEurope

Adriano José Habed is a PhD student in Political Philosophy and Gender Studies at the Department of Human Sciences, University of Verona, and the Department of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University.

Review by Rahul Rao

In their introduction to Postcolonial Intellectuals in Europe, Sandra Ponzanesi and Adriano José Habed suggest that ‘the combination of the terms postcolonial, intellectual, and Europe … marks the site of a problem’ (p. xxxvi). Indeed several problems are implicated in the intersection of these terms. Who can claim to be an intellectual, let alone a public intellectual? What does it mean to be a postcolonial intellectual? And what role remains for such a figure in, and in relation to, Europe?

Many of the chapters in this volume take as their starting point the much-missed figure of Edward Said. This is unsurprising given his unwittingly foundational role in the birth of what would be called postcolonial studies, but also his attention to the function of the intellectual in his 1993 Reith lectures. There, Said offers a vision of the intellectual as exile—never fully at home in society, an unsettled and unsettling presence in it—but also as amateur—moved by sheer love of learning and willing to range across the narrow bounds of specialisation erected by the professionalised academy. One of the great attractions of this volume is the manner in which its contributors pluralise this vision of public intellectuality which, offered as it was from within the confines of the US Ivy League, may have presupposed conditions of secure tenure and political freedom unavailable to the vast majority who make intellectual interventions today.

In a moving portrait of Stuart Hall, Yasmin Gunaratnam decentres the figure of the heroic lone academic producer to highlight the dialogical exchanges and ‘durational, behind-the-scenes care practices’ to which Hall was an exemplary contributor (p. 65). Several of the chapters reflect on the relationships between intellectuals and social movements. Writing about Dutch queer of colour theorists Gloria Wekker and Andre Reed, Gianmaria Colpani and Wigbertson Julian Isenia insist on a recognition of the intellectual labour performed by both these exceptional individuals and the collectives of which they were part (Sister Outsider and Strange Fruit respectively), suggesting that we see the relationship between individuals and movements as dialectical (p. 214). This dialectic is clearly visible in Leila Whitley’s chapter on what she calls ‘Killjoy Movements’, a term that draws on Sara Ahmed’s notion of the feminist killjoy as the figure who exposes ‘the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy’ (p. 257). Ahmed has developed these ideas in solidarity with student movements in the United Kingdom agitating for the decolonisation of the curriculum and against sexual harassment, famously resigning her position at Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest against that institution’s failure to adequately deal with these problems.

Such exceptional moments of agitation and intervention also invite us to consider the dynamics of visibility, even celebrity, that attend the figure of the public intellectual.  In an insightful afterword, Bruce Robbins suggests that if the ‘public’ is understood in the singular, the notion of a public intellectual may turn out to be something of an oxymoron: ‘intellectuals become public intellectuals only by surrendering to the Powers That Be, abandoning the radicalness of vision that made them intellectuals in the first place’ (p. 289). On the other hand, he argues, if we were to think of publics as plural and dissonant, being a public intellectual or what Gramsci called an organic intellectual might entail articulating the critiques and aspirations of counterpublics that are subordinate to, and in tension with, the dominant public sphere. Here, one public’s celebrity is another’s bête noire.

Yet the porosity of the boundaries between these different publics makes the location of intellectuals in relation to ‘their’ publics far from straightforward. Two insufficiently critical chapters on the figures of Salman Rushdie and Hannah Arendt, both of whom might be seen as occupying deeply ambivalent positions with respect to postcoloniality, read to me like missed opportunities for a consideration of these problems. In both cases, gratitude for the protection and recognition of a dominant public seems to skew the intellectual’s pronouncements in conservative directions. Thus, the quintessentially postcolonial concerns of an early Rushdie animated by a concern with the racism and xenophobia of Thatcherite Britain are conspicuous by their absence in his public commentary following Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the writer on account of his allegedly blasphemous Satanic Verses; from here on, gratitude for the protection of a liberal establishment would be sublimated into an apology for the imperialism of that establishment especially in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11. Likewise, Arendt’s gratitude to the United States for safe haven from Nazi persecution seems to blunt her postcolonial instincts—so clearly expressed in relation to European imperialism, totalitarianism and Zionism—notoriously preventing her from understanding, much less sympathising with, black civil rights movements in the 1960s and after.

By contrast, Tindra Thor’s excellent chapter on Banksy astutely draws out the manner in which the graffiti artist’s celebrity, even among the dominant public whose racism and anti-migratism he is so critical of, both propels his critique into spaces in which it might not be welcome and undermines its subversive potential through processes of commodification and gentrification. Banksy’s anonymity and the feverish speculation about his identity that this elicits paradoxically accord him a certain hypervisibility. The dialectic between anonymity and visibility is a central theme of Sudeep Dasgupta’s chapter on the European activist network Movement X. Anonymity operates here on several registers: in the very name of the movement, which offers a platform for the interruption of dominant ideologies and narratives of European culture without fully specifying the range of positions from which such interruptions might be staged; and in the style of interruption, which tends not to centre the identities of marginalised individuals but instead calls into question the state’s construal of these identities as a legitimate basis for their exclusion.

Indeed the notion of interruption—or what Koen Leurs, drawing on the metaphor of hacking, calls ‘hacktivism’—may offer a useful way of describing the work of postcolonial critique in contemporary Europe. As virtually all the chapters demonstrate, such critique seeks to interrupt the spatially and temporally self-sufficient narratives that constitute contemporary European identity by demonstrating its co-constitution with its peripheries and by making visible the spectres of its colonial pasts that haunt its putatively decolonised present. It does not strike me as coincidental that fully half the chapters in this volume focus on intellectuals and movements struggling against the legacies of British colonialism in Britain and elsewhere. Read in the wake of the tsunami of racism and nostalgia for imperialism that brought Brexit to fruition, the book seems to suggest that it is here more than anywhere else that postcolonial intellectuals have their work cut out for them.

Rahul Rao is Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS University of London. He is the author of Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (2020) and Third World Protest: Between Home and the World (2010), both published by Oxford University Press. He is a member of the Radical Philosophy collective and blogs at The Disorder of Things. He tweets @thariel

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