Graham Huggan's The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins

By Pramod K. Nayar

The Postcolonial Exotic
By Graham Huggan
Routledge, 328 pp., $17.99

Graham Huggan’s The Postcolonial Exotic is that rare text: a cultural critique of postcolonial studies--as discipline, as practice, as profession, as theory--that pays attention to the institutional, market and pedagogic practices that construct an area of study.

Huggan begins with an elaboration of the basic terms of discourse: postcolonialism, poststructuralism, globalisation, and others. The introductory chapter sets out the terms of the debate too: the commodification of cultural difference and postcolonial studies, the new exoticisms that are generated and built around the postcolonial ‘other’. Huggan’s central emphasis in the book is summarized in his set of questions:

Are postcolonial writers persuaded to represent their respective cultures, and to translate those cultures for an unfamiliar metropolitan readership? To what extent does the value ascribed to them and attributed to their writing depend on their capacity to operate, not just as representers of culture but as bona fide cultural representatives? And is this representativeness a function of their inscription in the margins, of the mainstream demand for an “authentic”, but readily translatable, marginal voice?’ (27, emphasis in original)

These questions range in their theoretical implications from the pedagogic to the political. The postcolonial exotic is situated at the crucial juncture of these questions: it marks the intersection between contending regimes of value … postcolonialism … that posits itself as anti-colonial … and postcoloniality … that is more closely tied to the global market’ (28). The rest of the book explores the mechanisms and technologies of what I would call – in a phrase invited by Huggan’s astute analysis – the exoticisation of the postcolonial and the postcolonialisation of the exotic. That is, the postcolonial suddenly acquires an inflated valency for its exoticism, and the exotic itself becomes coded as ‘postcolonial’ for pedagogic, market and theoretical purposes.

Reading African literature and the circulation of an ‘anthropological exotic’ (37) in Western discourse, Huggan argues that the ‘postcoloniality’ of African literature is an attempt to aesthetise the violence of its cultural collisions. African literature, with its ironic (and, though Huggan does not cal it that, iconic) representations of itself, destabilizes the interpretive strategies of seeing Africa as an object of cultural knowledge.

Huggan’s chapter on ‘consuming India’ analyses the construction of India as a ‘commercial cultural marker’ (67) with the worldwide marketing of Indian cuisine and the concomitant literary talents of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Huggan notes that the works of authors such as Rushdie and Roy are made to stand in metonymically for India itself. Huggan argues that at least a part of the exoticist fascination for and with India--especially in Britain--has to do with a Raj nostalgia.

Drawing on Dean MacCannell’s work on ‘staged marginalities’, Huggan analyses the phenomena of Naipaul and Rushdie. The very obvious theatricality in the fiction of these two--indisputably, the most famous of the postcolonial writers--underscores the ‘process by which marginalized individuals or social groups are moved to dramatise their “subordinate” status for the benefit of a majority or mainstream audience’ (87). Though Huggan is certain that neither Naipaul nor Rushdie are able to able to liberate themselves from British imperial history (what Huggan calls ‘their potentially paralyzing subject’, 90) they also ‘play back’ that history, using the instability of the present in order to mock the permanence of the British imperial past. Hanif Kureishi extends the theatrical paradigm of postcolonial writing by adding sexuality and sexual identities to that ‘postcolonial’ or ‘anti-colonial’.

However, the hybrid selves that Kureishi and Rushdie celebrate with their emphasis on ‘performing’ identities, argues Huggan, ultimately becomes a performance of ‘relative powerlessness’ (104) in the world of realpolitik. In an extended chapter (and I am breaking the chronological sequence of the book here) Huggan looks at the linkage of ethnicity-authenticity-exoticism within debates around multiculturalism. Huggan argues that both ‘minority’ writing and multiculturalism frequently merge with and adopt the exotic mode of representation. Reading texts from Canada and Australia, Huggan sees multiculturalism as riven between ‘a corrective liberal-pluralist programme of minority recogntion/social integration’ and ‘a closet-conservative ideology of separate development that patronises even as it promotes respect, ghettoises even as it fosters inclusion’ (153). In a related chapter on the authenticity-imperative of aboriginal writing, Huggan points to the paradox at the heart of all such work: authenticity is valued for its attachment to the material contexts of lived experience, even as it decontextualises itself to facilitate its marketability (158). Huggan approvingly quotes Sonia Kurtzer, who declares that an aboriginal writer ‘is constrained to speak in terms that the audience recognizes as “authentic” and must also construct a story that will not threaten’ (Huggan 163). Such texts have to cater to both an international audience/market as well as readers who can recognize and identify with its nuances.

The chapter on ‘Asia in Canadian and Australian fiction’ explores the link between tourism--that great technology of the exotcising gaze--and literary representation. Authors such as Inez Baranay, for Huggan, embody the ironic anti-oturist gaze, debunking the myth of authenticity only to substitute it with a counter-myth of cool detachment.

In what is surely the heart of Huggan’s book, we have two chapters, on the Booker prize and Margaret Atwood that deal with the ways in which prizes, international recognition, institutionalization have been carefully constructed, marketed, and disseminated in order to make an alternative canon of postcolonial authors. In these two chapters Huggan is in his element. Particularly alert to the publicity-bound, market-generated and media-disseminated ‘images’ of ‘Prize Winners’ or (Canadian) ‘national culture’ spokesperson/critic (a status and role that Atwood beautifully essays, pun intended!) Huggan terms events and structures such as the Booker, ‘prizing otherness’. The chapters utilize media coverage, the authors’ works, the institutions of academia and corporate bodies in order to demonstrate how local and ‘native’ authors become globalized. The concluding chapter is an excavation of the debates, disputes and diatribes that constitute the ‘field’ of postcolonial studies today. The politics of Theory, the capitalization of Marx--via Gayatri Spivak, for instance--and the academic careerism that informs emancipatory discourses (writing from India, I can vouch for this: several academics of the Left persuasion have made successful--and financially prosperous--careers by pleading for subaltern groups such as the Dalits (once called ‘lower castes’, or ‘untouchables’), come in for analysis here.

The Postcolonial Exotic is attractive because it does not seek to detract from or knock the achievements of postcolonial writers (or even theorists!). What it does is to locate these achievements in emergent market conditions, the commodification of culture and the professionalization of discourses for academic careers (Huggan accepts that there are profits to be made in/with postcolonialism). It foregrounds the cultural politics of book writing/reviewing and staging marginalities while locating--in a metacritical move--such a politics in the overall fluid, transnational movement of capital, status and careers. It rarely lets go of the theme of the exotic (so much so that Huggan on one occasion even points to Arundhati Roy’s ‘unusually attractive looks’ and her ‘marketably exotic looks’, 76, 77), and this firm grasp of the central critical mode enables Huggan to draw together writers and ideologies as diverse as Rushdie and Atwood, the Carribean and the Australian. The Postcolonial Exotic is a welcome cultural study of the global phenomenon of postcolonialism.

Sobriquet Magazine Vol 11, No. 7

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad (India). He is the author of Literary Theory Today (2002), Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology (2004) besides essays on English travel writing and India. Forthcoming books include The 1857 Reader, a book on cultural studies, a history of English literature, among others. He is Series Editor, Contemporary Indian Writers in English.