English 377a
Raji Mohan
TTH 2:30-4

Problems in Postcolonial Literature: Violence, Terror, and Identity

“The colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence”—Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth

The decisive role that Fanon attributes to violence in the colonial context has had an inexorable afterlife in the postcolonial world. Fanon argues that violence functions like a language in the colonial system, such that the militant who seeks to overthrow the colonizer is only writing back in the colonizer’s own language. The texts we will be reading for the course explore this dialectic of violation and violence but, contrary to Fanon, they present it as a mutating, complex phenomenon that draws its energies from multiple histories and traditions that are not always centered on the colonial experience. Among other matters, these texts expose: The brutalities of despotic states and rulers; the entanglement of family dynamics in resistance to an oppressive state; the effects of the unthinking intrusion of metropolitan values into poverty-stricken societies on the brink of chaos; the dangers and beauty of bearing witness to violation; the collision of sexual excitement, feminine rebellion, political repression, and armed resistance; and the tensions and conflicts existing between different communities that co-exist precariously in the world. However, though these texts have in common a concern with political violence they locate it in relation to culturally specific values such as shame, honor, purity, and sacrifice. In addition, they draw their peculiar charge from the ways the corporeality or the embodied politics of the militant or the victim is made to stand in for the body politic. In representing the material violence of political repression and insurgency these texts lead us to ask with Jacques Derrida whether representation itself is originally violent, and whether violence is “congenital to phenomenality,” that is to say whether it is the enabling condition and essential feature of speech and visibility.

The specific aesthetic challenges and narrative pressures generated by these explosive topics will be the continuing focus of our analyses. We will explore the strategies of historical referencing these texts adopt, and ask whether their sometimes overwrought symbolism undercuts their political urgency. We will consider how the extremity of the subject matter of these texts demands their reaching beyond the conventions of realism into the realms of the magical, the surreal, and the grotesque. Of related interest will be the ways these texts experiment with temporal sequence and continuity, and often stage apocalyptic climaxes that collapse past, present, and future. To explore the role of the public spectacle in amplifying the power and scope of political violence, we will discuss films such as Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.

Required Texts:
Assia Djebbar, Fantasia: an Algerian Cavalcade
J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron
Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth
Alex La Guma, A Walk in the Night
Nadine Gordimer, My Son’s Father
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not Child and Petals of Blood
Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost
Hanan al-Shaykh, Beirut Blues
Salman Rushdie, Shame

Critical writing by Giorgio Agamben , Hannah Arendt, Pierrre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Elaine Scarry, Susan Sontag, Gayatri Spivak, and Michael Taussig.

Course requirements:
Written work: Two short papers (about 5 pages long); a research paper (about10 pages); class presentation; regular participation in class discussions.

Two 200-level courses or consent of instructor.

*Enrollment is limited to 15 students.