In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transnationalism in Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies

  • Introduction

Literary and Critical Theory Transnationalism in Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies
Edward Piñuelas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0047


It is widely argued that the emergence of contemporary literary criticism came in 1946, with the publication of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach’s task was both direct and complex: to construct a mode of reading how Western literature has written the world into being and how writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf figured the world as a literary object. The story of the book’s writing and publication has itself added to its project’s significance: Auerbach wrote it while in exile from Nazi Germany, from his temporary home in Istanbul. That is, the text that initiated the literary historicist framework from which modern literary criticism was born was itself born of crisis—a crisis that would forever fracture and pull apart the very world that was the study’s object. One may reasonably argue that much of the scholarship surrounding literary theory since Auerbach’s monumental work has been a response to this fracture and dispersal, a way of tracing and complicating mimesis from the folds of a world that was never quite as situated as any text might promise. Of the many forces—historical, political, aesthetic, or otherwise—that have motivated this movement, that have forced literary critics to account for the spaces beyond or buried within the European figurative landscape that was both the object and the horizon of Auerbach’s work, this article traces but three. The first is that of colonialism and decolonization, viewed through the lens of postcolonial studies and subaltern studies—disciplines that have pulled Western modes of knowing and studying the world into an inherently transnational framework. While the list’s literary works represent how writers within former colonies wrestle with the shifting social and political landscape that emerged in the wake of colonialism, its scholarly material demonstrates how historians and critical theorists reframe modes of viewing this landscape. Similarly, the second list focuses on the transnational and transgenerational movements brought about by the African diaspora. While postcolonial studies has engendered an unearthing of the myriad histories and traditions of Europe’s “others,” African diaspora studies has forced scholars to consider how transnational exchange creates epistemologies and ontologies of persistent movement—a phenomenon that places contemporary manifestations of globalization in a historical perspective. The final list, which focuses on Neo-Marxian philosophy and historiography, is somewhat of a bridge between the first and second, as it follows how Marx’s work on political economy have evolved into mediums of understanding relations collective and individual, psychic and material.

Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies

Perhaps the most significant contribution of postcolonial studies, in general, and subaltern studies, in particular, has been the de-temporalization of European history. By exposing the myriad layers, folds, and cracks in the grand narratives of development posed by the Western canon, postcolonial and subaltern theorists have converted the temporality of historicity into a spatialized model, one that places historiography into a transnational framework. Such a framework allows Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (see Chakrabarty 2008, cited under History) to speak of multiple histories occurring at once; Argentine theorist Walter Mignolo (see Mignolo 2000, cited under Critical Theory) to imagine a “border thinking” that serves as “a machine of appropriation of the colonial differe/a/nces” (p. 45). This spatio-historical framework also allows creative writers such as Édouard Glissant (see Glissant 2001, cited under Literature) to write of history as a landscape “stretching to infinity, already lost in memory perhaps,” and of the present as a landscape “drawn up into tiny loops and bends” (p. 67). While this epistemological rupture is not exclusive to postcolonial and subaltern studies, these areas of thought are largely constructed around complicating and deconstructing provincial models of historicity, and thus they force us to account for the myriad transnational flows folded into Western and non-Western worldviews. This list represents a survey of this historico-spatial framework, covering scholarly and creative work from the postcolonial world from the 1950s to the present.

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