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Bahri, Deepika. “Marginally Off-Center: Postcolonialism in the Teaching Machine.” College English 59 3 (1997): 277-98. Print.

  • The central thesis of Bahri’s article is this: “This article locates postcolonial pedagogy within the context of institutional circuits of production and consumption.  Enabled by perceived conditions of lack (of power, authority, voice), the designated marginal academic and her stock in trade (the postcolonial text), I argue, are given the voice and authority to create a manageable, systematized, and consumable discourse of difference that, precisely through its production rather than despite it, leaves the normative intact.  The result is that instead of confronting the mechanisms of exploitation that produce a growing number of disenfranchised here and abroad, we find an acceptable substitute and are content with the appearance of making a difference.  Instead of expanding the limits of students’ experience with difference and diversity, our efforts merely contain them through a managed encounter with otherness.  Issuing from what is more or less an environment of institutional sanction for our counter-narratives, postcolonialism in the teaching machine is thus only marginally off-center; notwithstanding its potential for challenging the system, it ultimately participates in a system of selections and elisions that replicates the technologies of power it is charged with exposing” (278).  In considering this question in more detail, Bahri asks a rather straight-forward question, “how are the teacher and the text embroiled I the politics of postcolonialism?”  To answer this, she will consider the politics of difference as a means to understand the successes and failures of postcolonial work.
  • Bahri points out a central concern in postcolonial teaching that is shared with composition: how does one work through alternative/new forms of knowledge and perception in the academy in a critical way – a way that criticizes the system – when the very same system grants the opportunity to work through said forms of knowledge and perception? (279)  This is a problem she calls the “institutionalization of difference” (ibid.).  Further, for the postcolonial scholar, how does this teaching about “difference” and “other” not also produce “difference” and “other”?  In other words, the postcolonial pedagogue is constantly engaged in the production of difference for consumption by students.
  • Bahri is arguing for a materialist-historical approach to texts, not a metaphysical one.  This ensures that texts are approached in context – not for a putative objective aesthetic.
  • A central problem for academics – and composition scholarship in the English language – is that the university as an institution tends to offer a “piece of the pie” rather than initiate any substantive change in the power relations at work.  This creates “accommodation rather than transformation” (Mohanty, “On Race and Voice” 156) and further reinscribes the position of the postcolonial academic (or non-native English speaking/writing academic) into the university system.
  • The system that characterizes this movement (in the point above) operates on a circuit of desire (by the center/academy for difference), production (of difference by the postcolonial scholar), consumption (by the center student/institution), and exchange (the merit/pay/recognition of the 3rd-1st world scholar in the hegemonic institutional context).
  • B. identifies a great tension/question/conflict for postcoloniality that is also pertinent for critical pedagogy in composition:  “How critical and how subversive can it be if the postcolonial text continues to be allowed entry into Western academic space chiefly on the strength of its ability to acculturate students of Imerpium into global systems (how to expose students to non-canonical literatures, enhance their ability to be sensitive to ‘other’ cultures in order to prepare them for the global marketplace, and introduce students to major and minor lessons in world history)? (286)  In conducting this sort of pedagogy, B. claims it is important to use very relevant, relatable, NOW examples so as to not render the “Other” spatio-temporally absent; hence, vilifying the “present” other.
  • To remedy the problem of commodified postcolonial texts/pedagogy, B. recommends a critical engagement with the institutional and discursive context of its production and consumption.

Definitions/Quotes:

1.     Postcolonial – a discursive formation that operates in the Western academy – the general period following the second world war in which various “nations” gained their freedom, as the compendium of settler and non-settler countries that were at one time colonized by any of various European powers, or as a general condition of the world in its late imperial and capitalist phase – the condition of the margin (280).

2.     An interruptive postcolonial pedagogy can hardly be formulated without a proper understanding of the directional flow of power relations and it’s positioning within them.  In current configurations of postcolonialism within the Western academy, the commodification of marginality for consumption within the modes of Western liberal multiculturalism serves to maintain the directional flow toward the same pole that has always dominated.  The fantasy so produced is assured a place within the academy because it reflects the strategies of containment, management, and deferral of difference. (293)

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