New Literary History Conference Looks at the State of Postcolonial Studies

December 01, 2010

December 1, 2010 — "The State of Postcolonial Studies" will be discussed at a conference to be held Dec. 3, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., in the auditorium of the University of Virginia's Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture and Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

The event brings to the Grounds two leading figures in postcolonial studies, Dipesh Chakrabarty, a history professor at the University of Chicago, and Robert Young, a professor of English and comparative literature at New York University.

Sponsored by New Literary History, a journal based in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the conference is free and open to the community.

Jahan Ramazani, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English  at U.Va. and author of "A Transnational Poetics," said the interdisciplinary field of postcolonial studies "examines the diverse societies and cultures of Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the aftermath of their colonization by European empires. It is attentive to issues of living in between Western colonialism and non-European cultures, as non-Western societies both resist and absorb the West's ongoing influence."

Edward Said is credited with introducing postcolonial studies in his critique of Western ideas of the East in "Orientalism," published in 1978. The field was "academically institutionalized by the 1989 publication of 'The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures,' from editors Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin," Ramazani says in his article in the forthcoming "Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics," for which he was associate editor.

The goal of the conference is to address the central intellectual and institutional issues confronting postcolonial studies, one of the most important fields in the humanities and social sciences within an explicitly interdisciplinary framework, said Rita Felski, U.Va. English professor and editor of New Literary History.

After the two lectures, a panel discussion with three U.Va. scholars – Ramazani; Krishan Kumar, professor of sociology; and Yarimar Bonilla, assistant professor of anthropology – and another visiting speaker, Mrinalini Sinha, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, will further explore the current state of postcolonial studies, its achievements as a field, the problems it faces and its future directions.

Chakrabarty will speak on "Postcolonial Thinking and the Turn Towards the Human" at 10 a.m. His research interests are in modern South Asian history, in postcolonial theory and its impact on history-writing, and in comparative studies of questions and politics of modernity. In his 2000 book, "Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference," he considered whether European political thought is cultural and localized rather than universal, as it has been treated by earlier scholars. Either way, he says that although these Western ideas are indispensable, they are ultimately inadequate for writing Third World histories.
Robert Young, a professor of English and comparative literature at New York University, will give a talk about "Postcolonial Remains" at 11:30 a.m. His work has been primarily concerned with people who exist or have existed on the margins and peripheries of society, whether nationally or globally. Among Young's books are: "The Idea of English Ethnicity"; "Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction"; "Torn Halves: Political Conflict in Literary and Cultural Theory"; and "White Mythologies: Writing History and the West."

After the conference, Michigan's Sinha will give a separate talk at 5 p.m., sponsored by the Studies in Women and Gender program in the same library auditorium.

In addition, the University Library will give a tour at 4 p.m. of its global collections, starting in the main gallery of the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library.

The conference is co-sponsored by the Harrison Institute and the Page-Barbour Lectures Endowment at U.Va.

The award-winning journal New Literary History was founded in 1969 by retired English professor Ralph Cohen, who served as its editor for 40 years. Published quarterly by Johns Hopkins University Press, the journal serves as an international forum for scholarly exchange, publishing work from around the globe and often featuring important new work translated into English. A translation program that will make essays from the journal available in a number of different languages is also in progress.

For information, email

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications