Postcolonial Critique: Latin American and Eastern European Perspectivations – Interview with Clara Frysztacka, Jennifer Ramme and Pablo Valdivia
This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the Explorative Workshop “Postcolonial Critique: Latin American and Eastern European Perspectivations (American South – European East)”, which will take place on 23-24 September at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. We have been talking to the conveners: Clara Frysztacka is Assistant Professor for Contemporary European History, Jennifer Ramme Assistant Professor for Polish-German Literary and Cultural Relations and Gender Studies and Pablo Valdivia Assistant Professor for West European Literature(s); all three researchers work at the European University Viadrina.
How did you come up with the idea for the workshop?
The idea of the workshop emerged from our activities at the Viadrina Institute for European Studies (IFES). The IFES carries out interdisciplinary research on social, political and cultural figurations in Europe in its global entanglements and aims at establishing a critical perspective within the field of European Studies. Since its foundation in 2017 it offers a platform for researchers at the Faculty for Cultural Studies to develop research projects together. In this context, Jennifer and Clara came into dialogue about our common interest in exploring the potential and limits of a postcolonial perspective on Eastern Europe. On this basis, we organized a workshop at the European University Viadrina with the title “Postcolonial Studies, Osteuropa und Europakritik” in 2018. The workshop at the Forum is the natural continuation of these exploration efforts. Together with Pablo, whom we also met at IFES and who focuses his research on Latin America, we realized how Eastern Europe and Latin America present fascinating parallels from a postcolonial perspective. Moreover, both regions occupy a decentralized position in the mainstream postcolonial discourse, which allows us to discuss in a critical fashion the mechanisms of the production of postcolonial knowledge. Given its emphasis on transregional dialogue and its openness for experimental work, we thought the Forum Transregionale Studien was as an ideal venue to explore our stance.
Why do you think that Latin American and Eastern European perspectives are underrepresented in postcolonial studies?
Latin America is not necessarily underrepresented, in a strictly quantitative sense. It is more about the question of theoretical traditions and foundations. It begins with the language (the reception of the established postcolonial studies in Spanish or Portuguese that treat questions of coloniality is very recent and still very selective) and ends with the question of what the project is behind this theoretical approach. Is it political, and in which sense? What are the consequences of postcolonial critique and decolonization? These questions are surely relevant for all postcolonial approaches. Nonetheless, we would state that in the case of the Latin American intellectual tradition the colonial has been not just a tool for theoretical or methodological revision, but is always present in every process of intellectual expression, and already so in the attempt to understand who one thinks they are. That is why it is an ongoing struggle to rethink not only the people, spaces and languages in which knowledge is produced, but the thinking itself. The prominent role of the essay form in Latin America might be a first indicator of this ongoing struggle, as is the fact that especially Latin American Spanish, being the first language of a modern colonial empire, became a language that is at least partly detached from the ancient colonial center.
In the case of so-called Eastern Europe there are several reasons. First of all, to describe Eastern Europe in terms of postcoloniality is very ambivalent and still disputed among scholars. Although some of the categories and instruments developed in postcolonial theory have been deployed in the analysis of East/West relationships, the use of the phrase postcolonial for describing a positionality of East-Central Europe or the post-soviet space is something quite recent. Postcolonial theory provides a framework to think about the dynamics of the East-West relationship in ‘Europe’, the epistemic dominance of the so called ‘West’, and the orientalization of the ‘East’. Activists and scholars that started to frame post-socialist Europe through concepts developed in postcolonial theory have expressed the critique that the division of a Global North and Global South does not reflect the experiences of the so called ‘Second World’, neither does it grasp the complexity of postcolonial or post-dependence histories and relationships (e.g. within Europe/Asia). Therefore, some demand to examine power relations within East-West positionalities, to complicate this dichotomy by including a Second World, or by looking at East-East entanglements. Paradoxically, postcolonial theory itself reproduces some of the logic it aims to deconstruct and work against. This relates to the way the scientific community, but we should say academic market as well, works and how knowledge is being recognized and valuated. It still matters where knowledge is being produced and by whom and what conditions need to be met in order for it to count as being of ‘universal’ value or interest and not just a specific contribution. It appears that even in postcolonial discourse the transfer of knowledge follows a colonial order, as the dominating theories of the colonial refer to those spaces (of experience) that are linked to English and French empires.
Why was it important for you to bring together precisely these two regions: Latin America and Eastern Europe?
The experience of global modernity in both cultural regions allows us to discuss the different effects of the colonial dispositif. Combining those perspectives undermines the binary logic, whereby an implicit way is expressed by the confrontation of The West and the rest. The ‘rest’ within this binary, however, is no unified block that is only constituted by a contrasting relationship with the ‘West’. Both the paradigms of South-South and East-East relationships have recently been analyzed within their complex entanglements that go beyond western-centrism. This way, the agency of the South as well its diversity becomes recognized. With our workshop we aim to further diversify the colonial and its archetypal scenes. To bring postcolonial critique and knowledge production of the American South and European East into a transregional dialog is a way to break with the monolithic character of the archetypal colonial Center – the hyper-real Europe (and America) of Chakrabarty – in order to further critically discuss the discursive regimes of knowledge and the variability of the colonial. That this particular constellation of the (American) South – (European) East seems suitable for this aim has structural reasons as well: When looking from a critical global perspective (e.g. as represented within the world system analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein), both regions play a semi-peripheral role within North American and Western European capitalist and colonial dispositifs of modernity. While Wallerstein defines semi-peripherality in economic categories, scholars like Maria Todorova and Manuela Boǎtca discuss the common epistemic positions of both regions as an ‘in-betweens’ of modern regimes that produce knowledge, truth and horizons of expectations. Particular to this position is its double function, as it both stabilizes and challenges the hegemonical systems of knowledge.
How do you understand postcolonial critique?
As a working definition for this workshop we understand postcolonial critique as a progressive process of discursive and also (cultural) political decolonization of the history and discourses of globalized modernity. One of the most important consequences of a postcolonial turn seems to us to be that each macro-perspective on the history and culture of a modernity dominated by the West cannot be detached from the multitude of its sites, relations and transregional migration processes. Under the auspices of postcolonial critique, macro-perspectives and analytical differentiation need not be mutually exclusive.
A further reason to insist on critique and not just on theory is that this process is something that also has to be self-reflexive and self-critical. This is especially the case in light of the increasing canonization of postcolonial studies where we see the risk that postcolonial critique is neutralized in the sense of a general methodology of well-established humanities. But it also refers to the form and expressions of critique. Postcolonial critique, as we understand it, is not limited to academia and is not only formulated in an academic language.
How does the workshop relate to your own research?
Jennifer Ramme: In my research on Central- and Eastern European, particularly ‘Polish’, feminist NGO networks, social movements and conflicting gender and sexual regimes, the problems of regional belonging, representation and definitions of ‘Europe’ and European (sexual) modernity regularly pop up. This is because constructions of sexual and gender regimes also have territorial (geopolitical) dimensions that again imply a certain telos (for example, of “Becoming Europe”). The construction of those regimes and the meanings of ‘Europe’ are highly contested. The imaginary of ‘Europe’ itself functions as a tool that helps to legitimate claims. ‘Coloniality’, as a description of a situation of dependency or even a ‘lack of sovereignty’, is in turn politically operationalized by the far right in Poland and elsewhere to suppress emancipatory movements. So, among others in my research, on one side I’m looking at the actual structures of (epistemic) dominance, and on the other side on allegations of dominance that serve to legitimate social exclusion and violence by claims of nativity. In regard to the workshop, I am interested in exploring the limits and benefits of postcolonial critique and theory from a transregional perspective.
Clara Frysztacka: In my PhD thesis I focused on the complex (post-)colonial constellations of the Polish partitions at the end of the 19th century. From a postcolonial perspective the three Polish partitions are a fascinating research topic: The Polish speaking societies of the time oscillated between a self-understanding as colonized by European Empires on the one hand and imperial phantasies toward the own former East on the other. The fact that these societies were also extremely multiethnic and had different positionalities within their empires makes this (post-)colonial configuration even more complex and ambivalent. The semi-peripheral forms of self-location in European modernity and in modern Europe, which I analyzed in my research, represent an interesting starting point for me to look towards Latin America.
Pablo Valdivia: I would identify at least two aspects that could be described as a postcolonial approach. First, as I attempted in my PhD on the Latin American novel and its theory, my aim is to formulate new theoretical and analytical approaches in my research field (literary studies). In the case of the Latin American novel we can rely on an impressive production and tradition that allows us to formulate not necessarily a local theory of the novel, but a theory of the novel as such. In other words: My aim is to amplify the space of theory and consider it as a space where the “general” is a category that implies and allows necessary “distortions”.
Secondly, as I try to illustrate in my second book on Petrarch’s Secretum, postcolonial critique is a critical work that also implies a specific revision of the Western canon that it is not identical to the Western self-critique. The idea here is not so much to denunciate the colonial or proto-colonial patterns in Petrach’s aesthetic (there are a lot, just think of his representations of non-Romans), but to understand how certain relations do work and could be naturalized (as, for example, the close relationship of literary understanding and imperial power) in the field of aesthetics without making this links explicit. To put it in another way: To analyze the politics of aesthetics is in my understanding necessarily also a postcolonial critique since this is one of the fields where Western traditions still considers itself a self-sufficient one, which is able to understand its objects and traditions by considering and being just itself and the process of this self.
Citation: Postcolonial Critique: Latin American and Eastern European Perspectivations – Interview with Clara Frysztacka, Jennifer Ramme and Pablo Valdivia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.09.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19700.