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|An Inventory of Traces: Post-colonial Criticism and Self-Fashioning |
In the last pages of Orientalism, under the subheading of “The Personal Dimension,” Edward Said borrows Antonio Gramsci’s words about the imperative to compile an inventory of the historical processes that have deposited in someone an infinity of traces as a starting point for a critical elaboration. Orientalism, Said, then notes, is an attempt to “inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.” This paper takes its starting point from Edward Said’s observation to investigate the relationship of postcolonial criticism to the archive. The archive has been examined as a site of knowledge retrieval but also as one of knowledge production. In this paper, I tie these two understandings of the archive together by examining how the practice of post-colonial criticism which looked into Metropolitan archives, such as Orientalist discourses, to uncover how the capillary nodes of power-knowledge produced “the Oriental subject” was simultaneously a practice of knowledge retrieval that produced the critic himself. The critical examination of the colonial archive is therefore intimately related to a practice of de-colonial self-fashioning mediated through the compilation of inventory of traces deposited on, and constituting the critic’s self. In doing so, I aim at moving beyond looking at the purchase and validity of particular critical moves, say the critique the epistemological assumptions undergirding certain works to tease out the personal, political and affective attachments of critics to particular theoretical moves. In doing so, I aim to answer wider questions about the different performative labors of theory; namely theory as a weapon and theory as therapy. I will flesh out my argument with a close reading of scholarly and biographical texts by Edward Said, Leila Ahmad, and Saba Mahmood, who belong to three different disciplinary traditions, two different generations (Said and Ahmad; Mahmood) but who share a critical practice that homes in on the discursive infrastructure of thought to reveal its entanglement with imperial power.