Narrating the Self, Making a World: C. L. R. James, Edward Said, and the Errancy of Postcolonial Life-writing

Published: Δεκ 20, 2022
synthesis comparative literary studies postcolonial life-writing autobiography self-narrative coloniality postcoloniality Edward Said C.L.R. James errancy errant cognitive mapping
Adam Spanos

Critics of postcolonial life-writing and autobiography typically assess these works according to their capacity to give recognizable and consistent narrative form to the histories and lifetimes that they recount. The normative foundations of these judgments are the assumptions that postcoloniality supersedes coloniality as a distinct historical phase, and that the individual writer’s conscious transcendence of the trappings of colonial alienation marks a similarly redemptive break. The narrative philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, depends on the assumption that a postcolonial writer like C. L. R. James discovers the integrity of his life, and recapitulates it in narrative form, through the identification of his relation to the various traditions—Trinidadian, philosophical, and athletic—of which he forms an organic part. Against MacIntyre’s theory of self-representation and his interpretation of James’s eclectic and hybrid memoir Beyond a Boundary, this essay argues that postcolonial life-writing is most successful when it reflects the incompleteness of postcolonial history and the overdetermination of postcolonial sociality at the level of narrative construction. Taking James’s memoir and Edward Said and Jean Mohr’s intimate photo-essay After the Last Sky as its orienting coordinates, the essay offers a theory of postcolonial life-writing as errant cognitive mapping: attempts to situate the self in relation to broader dynamics of collective becoming that acquire their epistemological purchase, political utility, and moral heft from their refusal to embrace determinate narrative shapes.

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Author Biography
Adam Spanos, University of Southern California

Adam Spanos is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. His research is focused on cultural politics in the Arab eastern Mediterranean, comparative settler colonialisms, and contemporary postcolonial criticism. His essays have appeared in journals such as Alif: A Journal of Comparative PoeticsComparative Literature, and The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, as well as in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature and The Postcolonial Contemporary, edited by Jini Kim Watson and Gary Wilder (Fordham UP, 2018).

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